When my son was born, I heard a similar refrain from a lot of people. Something along the lines that I would surely make an endless stream of photographs of him - out of love, out of a desire to hold on to his rapidly changing developmental phases, out of, well, habit. I wasn't sure though. While I didn't doubt I would have the same motivations, of all of the reasons I was ecstatic to welcome him into the world, the idea of making pictures of him hardly registered.
I would hazard a guess that over a year into his life, I have photographed him less than an average parent - (especially an average stay-at-home parent) might. Perhaps considerably so. This isn't to say that I haven't photographed him for all of the above reasons - I have, but only occasionally, and with no prescribed framework. The reasons are multiple, but they can be distilled down to the fact that I believe that a camera, under many circumstances, is an impediment to direct experience - if only even for a few seconds at a time. I have tried to overcome this notion on several occasions, only to realize that I remember my pictures of a situation more than I remember being there, and sometimes with pangs of regret. I do believe that in certain exceptional instances the camera can actually be an aid to direct experience, but those instances are not what I am discussing.
Sustained direct experience might be the most precious commodity we have (even terming it as a commodity demonstrates perhaps one pathology of modernism). It is something I have had to try to intentionally cultivate through attempting consistent meditation, social media abstinence and prolonged periods of creative work even when I feel like I can't. I say attempting because my attention falls prey to all of the above more often than I'd like to admit. Outside actors in the world are constantly trying to eat away at our sustained direct experience (often, as I experience it with shallow but accessible content like advertisements or sensational or hyperpartisan journalism or commentary), and this awareness induces in me a drive to fight back where I can.
I thought about citing some research that elaborates on the decline of the human attention span as we have more and more content to parse through, but even an in-text link to a recent study (in the journal Nature Communications) would provide another distraction. Professor Sune Lehmann of Technical University of Denmark who worked on said study of collective attention said that “It seems that the allocated attention time in our collective minds has a certain size but the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed.” Or take Philipp Lorenz-Spreen of Max Planck Institute for Human Development when he says “Content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more regularly.” Or take Microsoft's recent findings that our attention span has dropped a collective 25% over the last 8 years, prompting headlines about how people are now losing to goldfish when it comes to the ability to focus.
So what then is the cost of making pictures now? When I first started photographing we were already in an image saturated world, and yet making a picture with a camera was still a relatively intentional and more expensive act. It isn’t a stretch to say that making a picture was a much more involved process, and that because of this it felt like it necessarily demanded an attention that pulling one’s phone out of their pocket simply almost never could, and this is by design of course. It is perhaps for this reason that while I view a phone as a perfectly capable photographic tool (and others have proven this point repeatedly), I still usually cannot summon the separation necessary to attempt a “real” or a “serious” picture with it myself. The phone is too sly, too informal, too slight - it forces distraction but because it is the object of almost all sources of current distraction, it registers as something of a light, fuzzy, hazy or minor distraction. I don’t think this to be so, but it is all too often a socially acceptable way to disengage - and in the spectrum of methods of disengagement offered by this technology, the act of photographing is perhaps preferable to most.
I have documented my family and loved ones on and off (more recently more off) for the last 12 years or so. This has generally been separate from my practice of more thematically and conceptually cohesive projects that look outwards towards the world, but no less important to me personally. Still, to take out a camera in the middle of a lived experience is to disrupt the experience of camaraderie and to introduce a new locus of attention into the situation - the well constructed photograph. The experience becomes the making of a picture. It is not only something that demands my attention but all too often will command the attention of others, as the awareness of being photographed tends to result in performative behavior, even from a toddler. I do not inherently view this as a negative, although admittedly I think it often is. However easy technology has made the act of photographing now, the practice still involves placing this physical impediment, a barrier (usually in the form of a smartphone), between yourself and the subject. While I'd often like to, I struggle to disregard this fact when I spend time with my son, or any of my loved ones for that matter for the simple reason that I would prefer to be with them rather than to chronicle them being in my presence.
Of course, when I receive that advice that I should take a lot of pictures, it usually comes from a loving parent remembering the phases of their children's growth, which is often marked explicitly by specific pictures they have made. I do not dismiss this impetus and I do make pictures. When I do this, that is exactly what I am doing - and I allow, even encourage myself to be fully present in the act of photographing. I am not so much spending time with my son as I am looking at him from a sense of remove, and I know that he feels this. Of course the act of the photography may look suspiciously like multitasking, and to some extent a degree of expertise and familiarity of process does indeed let people conscientiously acknowledge a greater degree of their surrounding, but still - the difference between my being on the floor with him versus watching him through my camera is visceral for him, and he tells me with his behavior.
It is this that I try to keep in mind every time something happens that begs for a photograph - can I live with not fully living this moment with him? This is a difficult thing to reconcile, since I still do believe that to photograph someone is an act of love, and and act of affirmation.