As taking photos of children becomes commonplace, are parents missing out on real experiences?
Moments captured or moments missed?
In the first five months of her life, Astrid has featured in more photographs than I did in my entire childhood. Bursts of flash from huge digital SLRs; scattergun clicks from tiny pocket cameras; furtive snapshots from mobile phones: treatment once reserved for royalty and film stars is the norm for today's children. Of course, this cacophony of clicks is part of a wider growth in photography since the development of cheap and effective digital cameras. According to a report in 2006 by a company called Understanding and Solutions, British people took six billion images. That figure can only have grown in the last few years. The analogue print era peaked in 1999 with 3.5 billion images. No doubt, photography in the digital era is booming.
For many children, portraits begin to stack up before they are born. The fuzzy black and white form of an ultrasound scan offers parents the first glimpse of their child and, for some, the first photograph for the family album. I remember a sign in a waiting room in Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary that effectively said only medical reasons would warrant another ultrasound scan. The notice's prominent placement and exasperated tone revealed medical staff fed up with having to refuse to repeat a scan simply because it did not look good or was blurred. Clearly some parents saw the scan in aesthetic rather than medical terms.
Birth itself can be akin to Oscar night. Clicks and flashes herald the newborn's arrival. Images are beamed around the world via e-mail or Facebook within minutes. Some fathers see almost the entire event through a lens. There is something wonderful about a baby in those first few hours of life, as Thierry Bouët, a French photographer, has shown in a recent project photographing 50 babies just after they were born. The results - including furrowed brows, puckered faces and red blotches - are often not conventionally beautiful, but many are filled with awe, wonder and even a kind of knowing.
I resisted taking a photograph of Astrid for many hours after she was born. She seemed too beautiful for an image to capture. She was almost too fragile for the lens's glare. Looking back, perhaps I wanted to keep those first few hours of her life to myself. I preferred to have the images imprinted in my memory rather than in pixels. Twelve hours later, I foraged around in my bag for my camera to take a picture to send to friends and relatives.
Much of the power of photography comes from selection. As a medium it has traditionally gathered strength by capturing a single moment deemed worthy of holding on to and allowing that chosen moment to resonate beyond itself. Photographs start to mean less as more moments are captured. Yet the pressure to snap away is strong. Just as tourists who visit the wonders of the world without a camera are often deemed less worthy of admiring the view than people with huge cameras on tripods, so parents who do not take hundreds of photographs of their children are considered in some way to care less. Far from it. Taking a photograph of your child at a particularly profound moment instead of just clicking indiscriminately can mean that you care more.
On a recent trip to England, we decided to take Astrid to the local swimming pool. It was a children's session in the afternoon. Lucy took Astrid to get ready and I went to get changed. The pool sounded busy. Yelps and shouts echoed down the corridor. As I stepped out of the changing room, silence fell. Men - particularly men without children - were an odd sight in this session. People eyed me suspiciously as I sat down on a bench to wait for Lucy and Astrid. After a few seconds the clamour rose again.
According to the thermometer, the water temperature was 29 degrees centigrade. But as I dipped a toe in, it felt icy. Lucy and Astrid arrived and we set about helping her adjust to this new, raucous and chilly environment. The look on her face as we lowered her in to the water is seared into my memory: shock, bewilderment and the evaporation of trust. It was a far cry from the balmy waters of Abu Dhabi. Fortunately, it did not last long and the sight of other children splashing around helped her to settle in.
Astrid has enjoyed subsequent trips to the swimming pool. I wonder, though: will the adjustment back to swimming in Abu Dhabi be quite as traumatic?