Most parents take documenting their children’s lives pretty seriously. Especially with the advent of camera phones, there’s no shortage of pictures. But there are two places where lots of people stumble. The first is obvious: our photos remain in digital exile and the knowledge that they’re there—and really should be organized and put elsewhere—haunts us. But here you are at Mixbook, so that’s clearly not you…at least it won’t be for long. The second is that when we do finally create albums, they fail to capture the kid perspective. Everything comes off as far too pristine, far too logical. We sometimes miss the magical realism that flourishes in the imagination of children because it’s damn messy, and it’s a shame because the way we organize photos only tells part of the story.
As adults, we tend to think about vacation in terms of a specific trip. And when we create a photo album it tends to chronicle the event with a linear perspective, from beginning to end, with photographs that are thoughtfully composed and free of visual clutter. Even though my wiring has been forever altered because I am an adult with responsibilities—and therefore a need for order—my mommy brain (finally, it’s good for something!) has access to the way my children experience summer. And it’s about exalted, if sloppy, brushstrokes and powerful, if imprecise, impressions that form through experiences.
To illustrate my point, here’s how I recount our summer: our family Tahoe trip followed by swim camp, then soccer camp, then Lego camp, then church camp, then our family trip to Pennsylvania, followed by a week on Cape Cod.
Here’s how my 6-year-old son recounts summer: playing backgammon with Boppa, rolling on a grassy field in a giant human gerbil ball, jumping waves with cousins, Wii with dad, catching a foul ball at a Pacifics game, picking blackberries, planting our garden, playing checkers and beating both mom and dad (fair and square), playing Go Fish with the whole family, reading chapter books to earn raffle tickets to win that giant alligator at the library, making pesto from scratch, rolling sushi, and, last but certainly not least: making farting sounds with his armpit.
And here’s how my 3-year-old recounts summer:
Ninjas, Ninjago games, Cali-the-Pitter our pet caterpillar who “poopated” (pupated) while we were in Cape Cod (not really, he actually died but our sweet neighbor took a photograph of a butterfly and told him it was Cali flying away), playing superheroes with his buddies at “Camp” (really just preschool in disguise), playing “Sneaky, Snacky Squirrels,” making a white Ninja outfit, “writing” a book about Ninja vehicles, turning every single stick between California and Massachusetts into a weapon, discovering saltwater taffy…and did I mention ninjas?
As parents, we also tend to impose our aesthetic on things. I’m a minimalist and I like a very clean, crisp presentation for everything from art and photo albums to home design and cuisine. But my kids are the exact opposite, and I suspect most are. They’re maximalists!
So I will make plenty of albums that chronicle trips in an artful, understated way. But those are my albums. The albums I make for the kids—the ones that are intended to capture the full-to-bursting capacity and rich texture of their imaginations will document more than just the picturesque moments. They’ll document the craziness of summer with kids in all its glory, sticky rice–covered hands, ad hoc weapons, taffy wrappers, Tinker-Toys and all. In fact, I’m changing my approach to photography. I vow to snap a photo of the chaos as often as I orchestrate a photographic moment. Perhaps these albums won’t serve to convince myself I have it all under control right now, but ten years down the road, I know I’ll be thrilled to see my son showing off his arsenal of stick weapons in his ice-cream covered ninja shirt.