A couple of years ago, 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. And she had been, she admitted, afraid to post the question as a public comment, because she was 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 countless times over the last few years.
I have not come up with any easy answers, but neither have I stopped posting pictures – and video – of Emilia and, now, her brother. Because even though, at the end of the day, I haven’t got an answer that fully responds all of the questions related to the ethics of posting pictures of one’s children online, I have come to the conclusion that I am acting within reasonable bounds of care when I post images of my kids. Those questions, and how I try to answer them for myself, would probably take two or three posts that I’m not up for writing about right now. What I am interested in writing about right now, however, is this question: why do I post pictures of my kids?
In his Camera Lucida (Reflections on Photography), Roland Barthes distinguishes between the studium of a photograph – that is, those elements of a photograph that provoke an interpretive (cultural, social, political) response – and the punctum of a photograph – that is, the element of a photograph that punctures, or wounds. The punctum, in other words, provokes an emotional response in the viewer by establishing a direct relationship between the viewer and the subject of the photograph. The punctum is, I think, the best argument for posting pictures of our families: I seek out photographs of other people’s children for the punctum; I post pictures of my children for the punctum.
I post pictures of my children, 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 smile, suddenly, involuntarily, at the expression of quiet joy on Emilia’s face as she races she tilts her head to balance the silly blue wig perched there. I want that single, damp strawberry curl at the crown’s edge of Jasper’s forehead to grab at your heart and squeeze it, hard. I want the detail of the droplets of water in every bath photo and every swim photo to call to mind for you every bath and every swim that you have ever taken with your own child. I want these photographs to puncture the distance between us as parents, different people with different children, different lives. I want you to see my children through my eyes, to know my love for them, to recognize it as your own love for your own children. 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, such that 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!
My reader worried that I expose too much, that we expose too much. I continue to worry about this, too. But I also feel, deeply, that the exposure – the candor, intentional and accidental – is necessary to our connections, 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 we kept ourselves and our children (these unique beings who are also and always extensions of myself) behind our fences, safe as houses, concealed from view.
Do you post pictures of your kids, on a blog or on Facebook or through a social networking application like Instagram or through an open Flickr feed or, you know, in any manner? Do you worry about privacy issues? Or do you, like, shove these aside, sort of, the better to pursue the shared experience of storytelling that pictures offer?
(Also, also: this post reworks some ideas that I explored in a post a few years ago, on which my thinking has moved forward a bit, but also, in some ways, not moved forward at all. So if this chatter about Barthes sounds familiar, that’s why.)