Short Essay on Family Photos: Newborns

When you are expecting, you start learning about all the things you’ll need to do, buy, or make in preparation for the arrival of your little one. There are even calculators you can find online, telling you how much the first year of life will cost you. (Are you supposed to be prepared for one year only? Surely, that’s not the most costly one either!) We looked at the resources and came up with a number. We did start to save, to get ahead in the money game. Much like being pregnant, this was a first for us.

To come up with that number, we had to make some decisions, which could  be revisited anytime, of course. All you need is a rough idea. To get us started, we had to answer some questions: did we want to have childcare? Starting when, and of what kind? Nannies cost more than daycare but it is better to keep the child close, in the beginning. Will we do cloth or disposables, for diapers? If disposables, will we buy the “ecological” kind? Will we try to nurse or go directly to formula? Etc.

On this list of questions, one item stood out quickly: will we have someone come do newborn photos? In the hospital, or at home, a few days after?

The practice of taking family photos, with a photographer, is not entirely foreign to me. My parents owned a reasonably good camera, but they were not photographers, per se. They didn’t have a dark room; they did not make their own photographs. The roll-film, once used, would be taken out of the camera and sent to a studio for processing. A few days later, the finished product would be ready to be picked up. From time to time, we would go to have our pictures taken by a professional, at a studio. We would put on our Sunday’s best and pose for the camera. This was the 20th century version of having your portrait done.

One would think that such practices were rendered obsolete with the advent of digital photography. Everyone possesses cameras; mostly because of smart phones. Some are better than others and, if you want to get fancy, you can buy a good DSRL camera for quite a reasonable price. Add a flash and a tripod and you can take very nice self-portraits with a modicum of training. Still, most people prefer to pay a photographer, someone with a registered photography business, to come take family portraits. The cost of such sessions varies, but it usually equates that of the camera, flash, and tripod one could buy for themselves.

We hired a photographer to document the main moments of our wedding: it was a good idea, too, given that as the bride and groom, it would have been difficult to shoot ourselves. The selfie was yet to be invented and it would have been difficult to take such selfies anyway: we were too busy dancing, cutting the cake, etc. The photographer we had was a friend, too, which made it easier for him to use his photo-journalistic skills. Few of the pics he took are staged: most of the ones with the extended family, but there are many in which we didn’t know we were being photographed. Those are the ones that I like best; those are the genuine ones. They show my happiness; they also show the massive migraine I was having. All in a day’s work.

I didn’t want to have anyone photograph/film Luca’s birth; not even my partner, who’s camera’s skills are very good. I wanted to be able to remember it without props. I wanted to remember it naturally, through the fog of pain, as in a dream. Images are stacked in my mind, covered in a cotton-wool feeling. Photos of the event would have been too bright, too raw: no one would have wanted to see them. I treasure the first moments with our daughter: to see them in photos might have altered my perception, and I didn’t want that. There is always a nugget of posing; alternating the photos in which I would have been conscious with those in which nature prevailed would have distorted my memory of the event. So, we didn’t take the selfie; we didn’t document “the first gaze” or “the first meal”. It’s all safely alive in me.

We also opted out of the newborn photoshoot. Life with a newborn is messy and chaotic. Staging photographs among the everyday seemed entirely out of character! Newborns don’t look very human in the beginning: their big eyes, cone-shaped heads, and flailing limbs work against them.

To make them more appealing to the eye, newborn photographers use a series of props: soft, woolen blankets; fleecy, warm outfits. You’d see newborns dressed to conjure the image of a snail, softly and peacefully sleeping in a basket. The photographer brings all of this stuff to the client’s home. They use the same softness for every child they photograph. Not only do they not look human; the expectation now is that they all look alike. It’s a good photoshoot if the newborn sleeps throughout.

This manicuring takes the life out of these photos. Unless one has a very good friend to do it, who has the patience to watch and observe the baby while awake, one will have pictures that look like nothing. There are no events in the life of a newborn. Or, to be precise, everything is an event: getting acclimated to the world, with its dubious smells and sounds, learning how to get rid of waste, trying really hard to cling on to familiar scents, crying almost non-stop. These are all things that happen all day long. There is a pattern to it all; it’s just that the patterns is unknown to the baby and parents alike. Having pictures that show only one of these activities — the peaceful sleep that lasts for 20 min at a time — is falsifying reality. I’m an empiricist: my experience is deeply rooted in reality. Such fake imagery has no room in my gallery!

It might just be me, but this obsession with making everything look perfect and especially perfectly still, reminds me of a weird Victorian practice: post-mortem photography of children. Eerily asleep: a dead child of the Victorian era and an alive newborn of the present. Both would be referred to as “angels”; both look peaceful in their propped, staged existence. Such photographs bring Luna‘s words to mind: “There. Now he could be sleeping.”

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