Thursday, October 18, 2012

The non-mom stays in the picture too

This post has its genesis in a recent essay on Huffington Post called "The Mom Stays in the Picture" by Allison Tate. At a party, Tate's young son asks her to come into a photo booth with him. Like so many women, Tate demurs:
When I see myself in pictures, it makes me wince. I know I am far from alone; I know that many of my friends also avoid the camera.   
It seems logical. We're sporting mama bodies and we're not as young as we used to be. We don't always have time to blow dry our hair, apply make-up, perhaps even bathe (ducking). The kids are so much cuter than we are; better to just take their pictures, we think.    
But we really need to make an effort to get in the picture. Our sons need to see how young and beautiful and human their mamas were. Our daughters need to see us vulnerable and open and just being ourselves -- women, mamas, people living lives. Avoiding the camera because we don't like to see our own pictures? How can that be okay?  
Too much of a mama's life goes undocumented and unseen....  
[Ed. note: Tate then goes on to detail all the many things that moms do that go unnoticed, undocumented and unappreciated.]      
I'm everywhere in their young lives, and yet I have very few pictures of me with them. Someday I won't be here -- and I don't know if that someday is tomorrow or thirty or forty or fifty years from now -- but I want them to have pictures of me. I want them to see the way I looked at them, see how much I loved them. I am not perfect to look at and I am not perfect to love, but I am perfectly their mother.
The essay got a huge response, summarized by Lisa Belkin, HuffPo parenting columnist ("Moms Explain Why They're Getting Back in the Picture").

And it got me thinking.

OK, I'll admit, Tate's litany of mommy stuff had the non-mom in me wincing. 

But -- I thought she had a good point, and one that, if you look closely enough, is relevant for all women and not just those who are mothers.

Even though I don't have (living) children of my own, I could relate to a lot in Tate's essay. As I've written before in this blog, my grandmother gave me my first camera for Christmas when I was 15 (a Kodak Instamatic X-15 with flipflash!) and I've always loved taking photos and looking through family photo albums. I'm acknowledged as "the family photographer" (for both my family & dh's). BIL & SIL freely admit that they wouldn't have any photos of their kids growing up if it weren't for me, and I've scrapbooked a couple of albums for our nephews.

As an occasional scrapbooker (VERY occasional lately...!), this is a subject that comes up every now & then on scrapbooking message boards, blogs and magazines. We take tons & tons of photos of our kids (or, if we don't have kids, someone else's kids -- nieces, nephews, children of friends) -- even more so today than we did even just 10 years ago, with digital photography. These days, just about every cellphone comes equipped with a camera, essentially putting a camera in just about every purse or pocket --  & the quality has been getting better & better. The camera included in the latest iPhones shoots something like 8 megapixels, which is exactly what my own four-year-old point-and-shoot digital camera takes.

So the number of photos we've been taking has increased exponentially.  But where are the photos of US?  Like many adult women, I prefer to lurk behind the camera, rather than in front of it.  I look at photos of myself with a highly critical eye, noticing how round and puffy my face is, groaning over my double chin & the sun damage on my cheeks, or shaking my head over what a gawdawful perm I had in 1992.

(My grandma -- the same one who gave me the camera -- had a solution for photos of herself that she didn't like -- long before Photoshop, she simply took a pair of scissors & cropped herself out of the picture. I still run across the occasional snapshot with a corner chopped out, & I know exactly who's missing and why...!)

Fortunately, I still have many wonderful photos of Grandma.  ; ) But I've read heartbreaking stories about someone suddenly taken from their family... and then the search begins through the photo albums for pictures to put on the bulletin board or slide show at the funeral home, or just to bring the loved one closer again. Too often, especially if it's a woman, there just aren't many to be found.

Throughout the ages, women's lives generally have been discounted and overlooked.  Too often, we are invisible in the history books (the old argument about "history" versus "herstory").  Thankfully, this is starting to change. The advent of computers, digital photography, and the Internet have made it so much easier for women to show and tell their the stories of their lives.

And if a woman's life is just a worthy of documentation as a man's, and if it's important for moms to document their lives with their children, then surely our lives and memories are worthy of preserving, too.  In fact, I would argue that it might be even MORE important for those of us who AREN'T moms to do so. 

The life of a mom has a fairly predictable pattern and rhythm... but anyone who is childless/free for whatever reason knows there are an awful lot of misconceptions out there about what our lives are like and how we spend our time. I know (from personal experience as well as anecdotes from others) that many of us who are childless/free and scrapbook (and we ARE out there) get asked, in genuine (if maddening) puzzlement, why and what we scrapbook, if we don't have kids (cue the grinding teeth). 

People need to know that we lead full, interesting and fulfilling lives -- lives that are worth documenting too -- and, as the old saying goes, a picture can be worth a thousand words.

So, since I became aware of this issue a couple of years ago, I've been making more of a conscious effort to hand the camera over to someone else once in awhile and have them take a photo of dh & me together... or me with our nephews... or me & SIL together (we have dozens of photos of the men in our family together -- and while it's nice to have some generational shots, I've started insisting that we get our fair share of camera bytes!)... or even (gulp) me by myself.  While I have yet to master the art of holding a camera at arm's length to take a decent self-portrait, I have read my camera's manual and learned how to use the self-timer, for those times when I'd like a photo of myself, or of dh & me together, and there's nobody else around.

A few years ago, I decided it was time to set aside the nephews' albums for awhile and do some scrapbooking for and about... me.  Or, perhaps more accurately, me and dh.  The plan was to complete an anniversary album, in time for our 25th wedding anniversary (in July 2010), including a layout of photo and journaling highlights for each year of our marriage, as well as a couple detailing our dating days and our wedding.  Like so many of my projects, I had great intentions, but it hasn't progressed much past the wedding pages....!  But at least I started making the effort. Someday, I hope to get back to it....

Sometimes I wonder whether this reluctance to appear in front of the camera might be a generational thing... I'm thinking about how today's kids have grown up with a camera in their face (and now, in their hands) all the time. Teenaged and 20-something girls take tons of photos of themselves and their friends and post them, seemingly (to me) with little or no hesitation, on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Will they still be as eager to pose for the camera as they start focusing their photographic efforts on their kids (assuming they have them), enter their 30s & 40s & beyond, and confront the inevitable process of aging (believe me girls, it happens to the best of us...!)?  Time will tell...

Of course, there are times these days, since the advent of easy digital photography and videography, when it seems like everyone is frantically trying to capture every single moment of the day.  Sometimes you have to just put down the camera, and LIVE.  : )

What do you think?  Do you hide when someone brings out a camera?  Is this a mom thing, or does it apply to other women too?

If you disappeared tomorrow, what sort of photographic record would remain of your life?


  1. Great post. I do think that there is a trend for all women in general to fade from view as they age. And I don't like it. Women are very often viewed for their attractiveness only, when in fact a photographic record of everyone at every age is so necessary. One of my favorite photos EVER is of my grandma when she was 60-ish. She's styled out in timeless fashion (pearls, gorgeous dress, lipstick and a pretty dress) and in my eyes, this is when she was the most beautiful in her whole life. She was on vacation and having a marvelous time and you can tell.

  2. This has many good points Loribeth. This is a good reminder for me to not duck out of pictures. I used to scrap book a lot. I quit scrapbooking when I realized there would be no children to pass my albums on to. This has made me think of those albums I still haven’t created. Maybe I can get back into it again.

  3. I don't hide from the camera, but I INSIST that all pictures be taken above the hips!!! :)

  4. I think it's more than a Mom thing. I realized last year that since our wedding in 2008 and our subsequent descent into infertility treatments, we had virtually no photos of ourselves. One of my New Year's resolutions for 2012 was to take at least one photo of Prof and myself together every month this year. I will admit that most months, it's an arm-length iPhone shot of us on the last day of the month in a generic sort of setting, but we're getting ourselves documented and making more of an effort to get a picture when we do have an "occasion".

  5. I bet your marriage album will be amazing. When you finish yours, I have a stack of pix of mine that you can get into books :-)

    Your post will prompt me -- the next time someone says "Cheese!" -- to squeeze in rather than duck out.

  6. Ditto what Slackie O. said. I used to be a huge ham, but in the past 2.5 years, since the whole TTC thing went south, I've had no interest in being photographed.

    I also think I have fallen pray to our cultur's beauty myths in a way I never thought I would. I certainly find myself more critical of photos of myself now I was ten years ago.

    Great post--thanks for the food for thought!

  7. I'm alternatve between being in front of and behind the camera -- working both angles. I'm not sure what will become of all the digital images, but I know that they will record a life well lived!

  8. I am definitely a behind the camera person, and so there are very few pictures of me. We just went on holiday. I took over 1500 pictures (I know, what the hell will I do with that many pictures?). I am in maybe 10? I am alone in one or two. I had to ask for the photo to be taken in order to have those one or two. No one thinks to take the camera away from me and take the shot.

    I do have to admit that I take A LOT of pictures that help me remember a place. Even more than people. I mean, I have a lot of people, but even more of my images are about space. Or remembering a moment in time; an event.

  9. I am the one who takes the pictures and I notice when I'm putting together photobooks that there are very few pictures of me, either with the kid or alone. Yesterday, when we were at the pumpkin patch, and I'm madly taking pictures of DH and the kid, I hand the camera to hubby and ask him to take my picture. He looks at me like I'm crazy. And of course, I insisted on a closeup. Better that than nothing.

  10. I have noticed that Ross and I do not nearly have enough pictures together. I think it is because it is just two of us, we typically take pictures of each other, but rarely together. This has been irritating me and is something I'd like to rectify.

    This is a great point though, not only do moms not get in the picture enough, neither do non-moms. We all age. We all have an insane number of beauty pressures places upon us. We all suffer from this.

  11. Ive just got back from my 50th birthday trip. Hardly any photos of me, but I took some great ones of my husband! And lots of very photogenic animals and flowers.

    I hate photographs of me - is it because women are so critical of our beauty (or lack of) and our bodies? I know that is an issue of mine.