Cameras in hand, parents proudly document everything. Is that what’s best for our kids?

October 9, 2022 3:33 am
Eric Thomas photos of daughter

Columnist Eric Thomas has documented the life of his daughter, Ella, in a seamless series of visuals. (Eric Thomas for Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

Seventeen years ago, I pointed a gleaming silver camcorder at my newborn daughter as she alternated breathing and screaming during her first moments of life. She lay, eyes clenched in struggle, on a neonatal warming bed in an Overland Park hospital. When I glanced away from the LCD screen of the video camera, I could tell that her first gasps were healthy because the delivery nurse was smiling at Ella while checking her vitals.

My right finger looped around the top of the camera, toggling the lens of the camera to zoom in and capture a close-up. The image through the viewfinder blurred before the pixels snapped back into focus. Ella’s face filled the frame. I remember my wife’s voice — fatigued and faint — asking from across the hospital room if Ella was OK.

“She,” I said, my voice high-pitched and cracking with happiness. “She … is beautiful.” The last syllable trailed off on the video footage, my grip on the camera wavering with fatherly joy.

Since that moment, Ella’s life has been a seamless series of visuals. We are assembling the same visual timeline for her brother, born four years later.

The images follow, one after another. Yearbook portraits posed in school cafeterias converted for a day into photo studios. Videos from the sidelines. Selfies studded with the glint of middle-school braces. Snapchats sent from the backseat of a friend’s car on the way to the homecoming dance.

And always, photos by her mother and me.

We have been here, whether with a cellphone camera or a digital SLR, in response to nearly every modestly significant twitch in her life arc. We stand poised with our iPhones. I crouch low with my camera, my SD card reformatted, to ensure that not even one digital image gets mangled. We preserve every moment we can. 

The size of our image archive became clear this fall when a rite of high school senior year — the senior yearbook ad — forced me to narrow my catalog of nine bazillion images down to a handful. Which of the 3,587 photos of her with the dog should I choose? Which of the 7,962 photos of her at the barn should I choose? 

Curating those photos — the daily chronicling of my daughter’s life — made me realize how thoroughly documented her life is. Along with so many others in her generation who stare back at the lens’ gaze, my daughter will not wonder what her life looked like. Her clothes in 2010. Her hair in 2014. Her boyfriend in 2022. Her young life is one without gaps. We have it all archived.

My wife and I are a little jealous of that. Even though I loved photography at the time, some of my best friends from high school in the 1990s exist almost completely in my memory. I remember my buddy Aaron painting my chest blue before a football game. No photos exist.

If we were teens in 2022, my high school best friend Jeff and I would have made endless videos of our backyard fireworks stunts. The kinds of moments that Ella is photographing exhaustively these days are missing from my high school photo albums.

Omnipresent cameras create costs. With cameras so present at every occasion (and non-occasion), our sons and daughters preen and perform for the attention of the lens. Would the occasion be more joyful, we parents ask as we watch from the outskirts, if they simply celebrated for the fun of it, rather than for the camera?

– Eric Thomas

I still hold these happy pockets of memories, even without photos. But I can’t help but wonder how just a few images might teleport me back to those moments of school spirit and youthful pyromania.

With that said, omnipresent cameras create costs. With cameras so present at every occasion (and non-occasion), our sons and daughters preen and perform for the attention of the lens. Would the occasion be more joyful, we parents ask as we watch from the outskirts, if they simply celebrated for the fun of it, rather than for the camera?

Our daughters bear an outsized burden. Social media constantly deceives them about the allure of being impossibly thin, glossy and happy — giddy mannequins wrapped in luxury clothing.

When I told Ella about my column idea for today, she provided another anecdote to illustrate how much our relationship with cameras has changed. One of her favorite podcasts, a true-crime investigation of a murder in 1999, tracked the life of a teenage boy who was a suspect in the crime. When police asked him to provide an alibi, he wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly where he had been on the day of the murder.

Ella holds her alibi in her hand: her phone. The Snapchat messages from friends beg for an immediate response. Her camera roll is an hourly collection of silly dogs, friends in class and selfies at stoplights. The lens of her camera phone knows more than we do as parents.

When our children were younger, I worried about posting too many images of them on my social media. What if, I wondered, my son, then three years old, didn’t want his photo on Instagram with spaghetti and marinara cascading down his belly as he reclined in a high chair? Even if I asked my daughter, who was 8 at the time, if I could post her photo, did she really understand what “public” meant? Did she understand that the goofy image would be online essentially forever?

So, I retreated from posting online. Instead, I sent dispatches of images to grandma and grandpa.

The irony is that my kids could care less about me sharing those images now that they are older. They’re busy watching their friends casually post their most personal moments.

Their photographic lives seem obligatorily online, constantly shooting pixels up into the cloud. The photos are vital, so we must save them. And if we must save them, we must use archives hosted by Apple, Amazon and Google (who needs to be sued to stop surveilling us).

Perhaps that bond between our photos and how we so often share them with huge data corporations is even a bigger change for our children’s lives lived in front of the camera — more significant still than how often we photograph them. The fact that the images are online changes everything. (Yes, Mr. McLuhan, the medium is the message. I get it.)

That first video of my newborn daughter is not on YouTube or online. She was born at just the technological moment when sharing videos meant saving the movie files to DVDs. In our living room cabinet, there is a portfolio of disks with all of those movies, starting with the tearful moment where my voice cracks in the delivery room. While I worry that we might have gone a bit overboard — both as a culture and as a family — in recording every semi-significant moment, I know one thing.

I’m glad I have that moment. But I’m glad it’s an unshared moment. A moving image forever and only for our family.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.