Saturday, 14 June 2014

Fatherhood in the Instagram Era

Morris Adam McCarthy, several hours after his birth in Fall of 2010

My son, Morris (pictured above), is three and-a-half years old. Back when I was his age, in the early 1980?s, I bet no one could have imagined a future where just about every aspect of parenting could be documented easily and instantaneously, and then shared — just as simply and quickly — with friends and family the world over. But that’s the reality my son and I are living in now.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember photography being a big part of my upbringing. I didn’t become interested in it until I was almost done with college. Long before that, I only have fuzzy memories of some cameras (usually the disposable kind) around at family functions — birthdays, holidays, etc. — but don’t ask me where any of those pictures are today. Couldn’t tell ya.

It’s hard for me to find any photos of my dad and I, especially at any key points in my early life. My parents split when I was about 10 years old, more or less, and I spent the remainder of my pre-teen and teenage years living with my mom and her family down in south Texas.

I do think my dad had some of these old pictures of us, and I sort of remember seeing them whenever I’d visit him up in El Paso over the summer. But, for reasons I’ll get into later, they’re not around any more.

When I started thinking about this blog post, I went through a bunch of old photos I have at our house — two small boxes of fading 4×6 prints in sleeves from long-defunct One-Hour Photo stores. Over the course of about 90 minutes, I bet I thumbed through 300 photos. Guess how many of dear old dad I found? Four.

Here’s the funny thing about the photo I’m holding: I think I took it with an old Minolta X-700 that was my dad’s at the time. This was probably the first time I’d ever used an SLR camera. I’m pretty sure it was during a trip to San Diego to visit my half brother and sister, when I think I was in eighth grade, so I was 13.

Several years later I would borrow that same camera from my dad to take an elective photography class while studying journalism at the University of Texas-Austin. That’s the class that got me hooked on the craft, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I took hardly any photos of my dad through those years and beyond, because as I grew older, we grew apart; out on my own I didn’t have time (honestly, make time) to visit him in El Paso. That changed in 2008, when I had to make an emergency trip out to El Paso to help my dad out of an incredibly serious jam. It was difficult … painful. I wasn’t in a good place at the time, and one of the things that ended up happening was my father essentially “walked away” from all of his stuff. And I mean all of it.

Decades of pictures of his childhood, my siblings’ and mine. Gone. Maybe they’re sitting in a landfill somewhere in El Paso County right now. The thing is I could have stopped him … I probably should have stopped him … but I didn’t want to. I just wanted it all to be over in that instant.

At that point in 2008, I didn’t have a cell phone that took pictures. On a whim I took a little film camera I had at the time — a Lomo LCA+ — with me to document what had happened to my dad. As it turns out, the camera had a terrible light leak, and most of the images I took were trashed.

The above photo is one of about three that survived. I took it the morning I thought I’d never see him again. We were standing in the parking lot of a diner we’d just eaten at. He smoked a cigarette and made small talk. Then we hugged, awkwardly, and he climbed in to his car and drove off — out of town and out of my life. It’s the last real memory I have of me and my dad spending time together. I wish it could have been better.

Two years later — on my birthday, of all days — photographers at the DMN were issued iPhones. At that point we were still a few years away from the complete ubiquity of iPhoneography, but I was pretty enamored of this new little camera that fit nicely in my pocket. Playing around in the App Store that October, I remember finding a brand new photo app called — you guessed it — Instagram. How innocently I stumbled into a cultural phenomenon.

When October 17 rolled around, I was pretty well versed in this iPhone photo business, and life was handing me maybe my favorite photo assignment of all time. The thing about being a parent of a little one is they’re basically always around. Even in the years since then, unless I’m and work or my son is at daycare, we’re pretty much in each others’ company most of the time. And, I pretty much always have my phone on me. It’s a simple recipe.

I guess it’s my background in documentary photojournalism, but I find that I like to photograph the good and the bad. When he was a brand new human (as in the above), the bad was the crying … the constant, constant crying.

As he’s gotten older, there’s still crying, which I guess now we call tantrums …

But there’s a lot more of stupid things I’ve done, too, like letting him play games I can tell aren’t going to end well, until he gets hurt because I’m not quick enough to respond … or maybe because I’m too busy making pictures …

Of course it’s not all bad. Being a dad is a blast. It’s pretty humbling to get to spend time with someone for whom everything is totally new and totally exciting …

Baby’s first drive through car wash.

Baby’s first shampoo Mohawk.

Baby’s first piano duet.


Baby’s first demo project.

My father and I have sort of mended fences and are in a much better place than we were back in late 2008. While I’ve still not seen him in person since then, we talk on the phone every now and then, and I’ve found peace with my relationship with him.

I think he owns a computer and I think it works, but I don’t think he’s on it much. He definitely doesn’t “do” Facebook or the like, so he doesn’t have the same opportunity my other far flung family members and friends have to watch my son grow up on the Internet. And that’s OK, I guess.

I don’t take these photos with the sole intention of showing off my kiddo to the online world. Fundamentally I am a private person, and there are lots of things I choose to not share on social media. Same goes for pictures and Instagram. Despite the fact I tend to snap a lot of iPhone photos of the boy, there are plenty of situations I choose to just watch instead. Ultimately those are the memories I think I’ll cherish the most.

I may not have a whole lot of photos of me and my father to peruse nostalgically, but there’s no shortage of memories of us — good, bad and everything in between. It’s nice to not have to rely on something as tangible and literal as a photograph to mentally access those sorts of things.

I wonder what the future holds for my boy. Just as I couldn’t have imagined anything like iPhones, Instagram, Facebook and the like back when I was his age, who knows what kinds of things will be available when he is in his mid-30?s one day, and maybe a father himself. Whatever it is, I hope it’s super cool, but I hope it doesn’t replace the simple joy of just being with another person — of sharing moments no photograph can truly capture.

I guess we’ll wait and see.

- gerry -


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Fatherhood in the Instagram Era

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