The photographic documentation of my life began a few weeks after I was born, and the photograph albums in my childhood home are evidence of my mother’s presence and obsession with recording our lives, by being stuffed with records of nearly every waking family moment.
It is strange to be the object of the parent’s gaze through a camera. It turns what should or could be bonding moments and memories into Harlow’s wire monkey substitutes for them, and for the child. Both parent and child bond with the camera as an interlocutory, which functions as the middle presence between people, the mediated unemotional, non-connecting, middle. With this, the objectification of family, rather than relational presence, becomes the norm and the certainty. My mother couldn’t sit still (for reasons that remain unknown) and so, perhaps to comfort herself and to remain part of the group while being restless and distant, she picked up a camera and photographed the family, mostly my sister, my father, and me. Sometimes she took pictures of her mother, who stayed with us for half of the year. When we got a dog, he became a subject as well. My mother also took ritual pictures of nearly every bloom in the garden over time, and nightly Southern California sunsets over the Pacific. There are thousands of photos with these repeating themes.
The photographs were taken during the time before digital cameras, Instagram, or Flickr. Back then, photographic film was expensive, but my mother wrangled the budget to accommodate it. There seemed to always be plenty of film and camera equipment, which my mother employed to recreate the family moments that she’d missed (because she was photographing them). We’d pose, with fixed smiles, “holding it” until the shutter clicked while opening birthday cards and gifts, blowing out candles, taking items out of our Christmas stockings, walking through the front door, eating dinner, and other family activities. No scene was too small, or unimportant, it all had to be ritually documented. If there was a frown, or a blink, or anything out of perfection assumed or witnessed, we’d relight the candles, re-wrap the gifts, and do it again.
My father had Crohn’s Disease. He was absent most of the time. Upstairs, resting, reading, not often part of the family unless it was a mealtime, or a holiday. During these photograph “shoots,” my father would leave the scene if he’d had enough. My sister and I couldn’t do that without fear of punishment. We weren’t directly punished. Rather my mother showed lingering disapproval and disappointment, which are hard things for a child to receive from a parent. It felt like we were “strongly coerced” into be constantly photographed.
My mother was rarely in the photos, for that would have meant she needed to be part of us, part of the group and the family. What seemed to be more interesting to her was the documentation of every moment, every memory, and every event. I speculate that photography was my mother’s tool with which to control the memory of what went on within the family.
One phrase in particular that my mother used to keep us in line and performing was, “You’ll want these photos when I’m dead. You’ll see.” As small children dependent upon her for our survival, that didn’t leave much from for any alternate response but complying with these requests. Thus, my sister and I smiled.
In the beginning, only single prints in black and white were available commercially, but gradually as technology improved, color film and prints arrived, and soon after, the age of the “double print” arrived. My mother would order those double prints, which she’d send to the relatives, her sisters who lived out of state where her mother went half of the year, or to her friends who she thought needed to see the flowers or the sunsets, or to the other people in the photos who had recently visited and been a part of the recent photoshoots during that time period.
Just as the Instagram accounts that set trends take fake “staged” photos, my mother pioneered and perfected the technique, making sure that when she sent a photo to a relative, we were smiling and “happy.” The idea was that the relatives could then treasure the still life freeze frames of moments, taken from us by our mother and her camera, rather than the reality of her (and our) lives; living with a chronically and critically ill husband. Perhaps to escape, my mother created an alternate fantasy, and we all were recruited as the props for it.
When the prints came back from the photo store, my mother would take out a photo album, and organize it by day, week, and month. This went on for decades. The walls of my parents’ house are lined in bookshelves, bursting with three-ring notebooks with black construction paper pages holding two to three photos, each carefully rubber cemented to its page, which was then covered with clear acetate. Thousands of pages containing thousands of frozen smiles, sunsets, flowers, the dog, the people who came and went, and rarely my mother. The record, for when she was gone, that the life we lived was well documented, with no real evidence of her life, so that she could maintain a narrative that it was perfect and happy.
In a binder? I’m in millions of them.
As an anthropologist and researcher, I am often expected to be on the outside looking into social scenes. Mostly, I am a social systems theorist, looking at the mechanisms and dynamics of people, the reasoning and logic of our patterns in time and space. However, when I do conduct fieldwork, observing human behavior, it is necessary for me to photograph scenes, and the people within them. My childhood has made me extremely sensitive to photography, and what it means to “take” a photo, to take someone’s likeness, and the responsibility that goes along with it. I’ve lived it. This was different than the photography ‘relationship’ between a celebrity and the paparazzi. The celebrity can go home and be with their family. For me, going home meant entering a never ending state of panopticon photography, a never ending performance, and a never ending photoshoot, with persistence, and emotionally painful consequences if I did not cooperate. When I take photos for my work, I ask specific permission, and ethics compliance rules for research with human subjects protects participants from having their photos shared or published without permission. I do not store these photos on a cloud based photo service, either, because I know what it is like to have photos inappropriately distributed and shared.
I worry about the constant photography with digital cameras and phones, and children’s experiences within their families. I know how it feels to be documented more than parented. I worry about video surveillance, the Ring doorbells taking our photos from the sidewalk, even if we aren’t approaching property. I worry about our images being collected without our consent and stored on cloud based photo server farms, in perpetuity. I worry about Facial Recognition and the processing of us, in each moment, as we move in the world, and what that means to those who are wielding the cameras, those who think they are on the outside. They are not, of course, on the outside, for they walk down the street and interact in the Commons just as we do. As we are photographed, they too, are being photographed, and tracked, and identified.
As those with the power to do so create these things, they don’t seem to be as concerned, for they justify that using one’s face or body to gain access to a door, or a product, or a service, is fair game—fun, even. But it cannot be when the power of the photographic data collection is imbalanced, and moves into hands that are not loving, careful, considerate, or kind, and that do not ask our permission.
When our data moves into the service that has a perpetual hunger to collect, to document, to track at the expense of what makes us human, we lose leverage. Even though we are adults and wish to leave the room like my father often did when he’d had enough, with the a broader AI surveillance apparatus we won’t be able to. That could leave us stuck, smiling, posing, and repeating these behaviors, because if we don’t, there may be consequences far worse than a mother’s disappointment and disapproval.
S. A. Applin, PhD, is an anthropologist whose research explores the domains of human agency, algorithms, AI, and automation in the context of social systems and sociability. You can find more at @anthropunk and PoSR.org.