Yesterday, I received a very sweet e-mail from a self-professed ‘dedicated lurker’ who asked the following question: I wonder if you are ever concerned that your daughter’s (beautiful) image will remain in cyberspace, with no mechanism for you — or her — to reclaim it or her privacy?
She meant no disrespect by the question, she insisted; she just wanted to know. But she had been, she admitted, afraid to post the question as a public comment, afraid of being misunderstood as judgmental. I understood her concern. The question makes a clear point: shouldn’t I have second thoughts about posting my daughter’s image, about sharing that image with strangers? Should I not be more protective? I have asked myself these questions many times. I have asked myself these questions every time that I have posted a picture of my daughter
I have not come up with any easy answers. But nor have I resisted the temptation to post her image. I continue to post her image, with some abandon. The other day, I posted a picture of her in the bath. I had the thought, at the time: is this sharing too much, with too many? Perhaps.
There is much that I could say about the various arguments that I have had with myself about the ethics and the safety of posting her picture. I have thought about this long, and I have thought about this hard, and although at the end of the day I haven’t got an answer that addresses all potential questions and concerns, I have come to the conclusion that I am acting within reasonable bounds of care when I post her image. Those are arguments for another post, maybe, someday, or for discussion in comments. The question that most concerns me right now, however, is this: why do I post her picture?
In his Camera Lucida (Reflections on Photography), Roland Barthes distinguishes between the studium of a photograph, those elements of a photograph that provoke an interpretive (cultural, social, political) response, and the punctum of a photograph, the element of a photograph that punctures, or wounds – that which provokes an emotional response in the viewer by establishing a direct relationship between the viewer and the subject of the photograph. I seek out photographs of other people’s children for the punctum; I post pictures of my daughter for the punctum.
I post her picture, and I seek out pictures of other parents’ children, because these photographs establish a relationship. I seek out those relationships as photographer, and as mother: I seek the poignant moment of understanding, the punctum, in photographs of other mothers’ (and fathers’) children; I look at those pictures and imagine that I see what those other parents see. I admire the curve of a cheek, the ridiculous angle of a pigtail, and I imagine that that was the detail that moved the photographer, the parent, in the moment that they clicked the shutter. I imagine that I see, in your photographs, for an instant, your child, through your eyes, and I am punctured by that moment – that fleeting moment – of connection. In that moment, I feel that understand you, because I understand, viscerally, your love for your child. I recognize our shared experience of intense, inexpressible love. I want to share my own experience of that inexpressible love with you, with someone. So I post my own pictures.
I want you to see and feel the details that I cannot adequately put to words. I want you to gasp at the impossible, powerful fragility of her little arms, and to smile, suddenly, involuntarily, at the expression of intense joy on her face. I want that single, wet, strawberry curl at the crown’s edge of her forehead to grab at your heart and squeeze it, hard. I want the detail of the droplets of water to call to mind for you every bath that you have ever taken with your own child. I want the photograph to puncture the distance between us as parents, different people with different children, different lives. I want you to see her through my eyes, to know my love for her, to recognize it as your own. I want you to be punctured.
This is not what Barthes meant, exactly – for Barthes, the photographer is absent from consideration in the experience of punctum. The only relevant relationship is that between the subject of the photograph and the individual who beholds the photograph. But we parents-as-performance-artists cannot separate ourselves from those beings that form the very core of, the very reason for, our art: we hold them out to each other as mirrors-cum-camera lucidae – can you see yourself in my child? Can you see me in my child? See how my child looks at me, and how I look at my child! See what I see! See how I love! See how we love!
It was the punctum of a photograph that touched me, that disrupted me, in the recent flurry of news and discussion that surrounded the death of Anna Nicole Smith. It’s a recent picture, of the model, with her baby, you’ve probably seen it: Anna Nicole sits, excessively tanned and looking somewhat dazed; her husband/lawyer sits to her left, on the margins of the picture. On Anna Nicole’s lap sits the baby: she’s just slightly off-center, pulled close to her mother’s body; this detail touches. But what punctures is this: the frilly pink headband that adorns the baby’s head, the garish accessory that asserts the mother’s possessive devotion to her daughter’s femininity; the detail that says, loudly, childishly: this is my baby girl; I made her; she is mine. I, as a mother, have never been tempted to adorn my baby with frilly pink headbands, but this detail punctures me – because I recognize, in my heart and in my gut, that childish, girlish pride: I made her, she is my girl. And in that moment of recognition, I feel, in my heart and in my gut, an impossible connection with a woman whose distance from me – in space, in form, in character, in spirit – was so great as to be nearly infinite.
Anna Nicole did not take that photograph; it is entirely possible that she did not even dress her baby for that photograph, that she did not select the frilly confection that adorns her daughter’s head. Still, the moment of puncture remains: I feel that I have shared something, however miniscule, of the emotional experience of new motherhood with this other mother, this doomed mother, so unlike me, so very, very unlike me. And although I am discomfited by this, I am also glad for it. It humanizes what would otherwise be irretrievably dehumanized. It humanizes her. It humanizes me.
My lurker worries that I expose too much, that we expose too much. I worry about this, too. But I also feel, deeply, that the exposure – the candor, intentional and accidental – is necessary to connection, to the humanity of the communities that we build, across universes of difference. I feel, deeply, that I would lose something, that we would lose something, if I kept myself and my daughter (this unique being who is also and always an extension of myself) behind our fences, safe as houses, concealed from view.