I was chatting with my friend recently, and she admitted she had over 10,000 pictures of her children. That is phenomenal, but I suspect not too uncommon today. I was also chatting on social media about a song by Darius Rucker, “It Won’t Be Like This For Long,” which always makes me sad and a little annoyed that it comments on the phases of childhood like tough times to get through, rather than stages of development and moments we’ll never have again. But in an age where every moment is documented, the passing of these phases seems gentler.
My parents grew up in different circumstances. My dad was a city kid, the only child of a professional—a bookkeeper (we’d call him an accountant today, I suppose.) My mom was raised in a series of small towns in Indiana and Ohio, one of seven children.
There are a good number of pictures of my dad, many professionally taken, as a baby, as a young boy, fewer as an adolescent, but then lots when he went off to college and had his own camera. Of my mom, there are fewer–very few formal ones. Lots of kids and few professional photographers make for scarce opportunities. This would have been the 1940s.
A generation before, there are even fewer photos, of course. A generation before that, nothing. My generation was the one with film. My dad took lots of pictures of us growing up, and we had slide shows like people watch movies now, as a family, laughing at the funny ones.
Today, though, kids’ lives are hyper-documented. At last count, I believe we had a bazillion and four pictures of our two kids. We got a digital camera in 2000, when our first child was a baby. That changed everything. My dad tried hard to take good shots because you had to pay to develop every single one. Today, we just shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot. I actually took 75 pictures of my son in his first Halloween costume. My husband took some more. (He was a pea pod, and every one of them was justified.)
But what is the effect of this proliferation of images? I think we look at childhood differently. It’s true, “it won’t be like this for long,” but we’ll remember it better than ever before. What must it have been like not to have any photographic evidence of the adorableness of your baby? On the one hand, it might make one want to slow it down and enjoy it. On the other hand, it might collapse early childhood in your head to that time when they were cute but not useful, versus the time when they were still young but could start helping out.
We know that the experience of childhood has changed over the centuries—maybe more in the 20th century than ever before. Childhood has been essentially invented in this period—protected with child labor laws, and imagined and cherished in children’s literature, until we have a pretty crystalline idea of a time that should be special and savored. I just wonder if having photographic evidence of those moments isn’t the biggest catalyst for this change.