When I was 13 years old I begged my parents to buy me a 35 mm SLR camera. Back then, the desire to take photographs was as intense, maybe even more intense, than my desire to become a writer. I remember how excited I was when, at the end of seventh grade, I signed up for Photography as an eighth grade elective, only to find out later that I was not only switching schools, but that summer my family was moving to a different country. Needless to say, I was bummed out.
After a year overseas, and a lot of consistent begging on my part, I got my wish. Dad gave me my first 35 mm SLR for my birthday in 1985. I was beyond elated! It was a Pentax P3 with a 50mm lens, and I dove right in to the manual and started shooting away.
The very first roll of film I shot was an intense 36-frame study of ants on a potted plant outside my front door. I, being an avid reader of National Geographic, felt compelled to visually document those ants and their industrious behavior. They were pretty big ants, and they were a deep, orangey red, which I noticed really stood out against the background of the green stems and leaves of that plant. At the ripe old age of 14, I just knew that this was the beginning of an amazing journey in uncharted photographic, and perhaps even scientific, territory.
My first lesson in photography was patience. It takes a lot of time to develop a full roll of 36 color prints, especially in a 3rd world country! My second lesson was financial: shooting rolls of 36 color photos of ants was pretty expensive, especially when most of the shots were out of focus and ill composed. My mother was NOT pleased about that. I learned a lot from that first roll of film. Undeterred, I read up on depth of field, refocused my efforts, and continued on- a little more selective in my choice of subjects perhaps, but the fire was still there.
I loved taking photos. I loved the smell of a freshly opened canister of film. I loved the heft of the camera in my hand, and the sound of the shutter opening and closing. I felt as if the only way my young teenage mind could even attempt to capture the beauty of what I saw around me, and how that beauty made me feel, was with a photograph.
The hardest part for me was hoping I got a good shot, and waiting, until finally my parents got around to getting my film developed. Although I rarely achieved a shot that evoked what I was trying to capture, especially when I took photos of the Ecuadorian countryside, I still yearned for more.
Taking photographs has been a major part of my life, so I wanted to pass that on to our children. My eldest daughter started asking for a camera when she was 8, and with digital photography making it so affordable to take photographs it seemed like a no brainer to me. It took a couple of throw away digital cameras for her to learn to take care of the real camera she has now. I’ve been happy to know that she has slowly gotten the idea of composition, and I can see sometimes when she is looking at things, that she’s looking for what’s beautiful to her, what’s beautiful enough to capture in a photo.
A while after she got her camera, with its built in digital video feature, my daughter came to me and asked me to clear off her memory card because it had gotten full. I set up a special folder for her on our hard drive and transferred everything over, clearing the card. Then, curious, I started looking through her photos and videos.
Just like I had done years before, there were all her experimental shots, the wanna-be nature photographer shots, the umpteen self portraits. There was however, something else. I got a glimpse at life from the persepctive of my daughter. I saw photos she had taken with her sisters when they were playing with each other. Silly, goofy photos, and serious portraits of her sisters in their fancy dresses (obviously taken when I was at work in my office). Videos of them singing together, candid and uninhibited. Many of her photos are amongst my very favorite pictures of my children.
I also found a couple of videos that my daughter had taken when we drove to Miami to meet my Dad when he went to the hospital a few weeks before he passed away. We had no idea that we were near the end, neither did he at that time, and we were all hanging out in his hospital room, laughing and catching him up on the adventures from our recent trip to Puerto Rico. It never occured to me at the time to get a video of my Dad, but Sunny did, and there they were on her camera, just waiting to be found.
Seeing what Sunny came up with got me to realize that our children are not just extras in this movie. They are actors, even though they may be passive a lot of the times, but even more importantly, they are co-witnesses to this life that we are leading together. Each one has a perspective and a voice that, although it may be undeveloped, has really interesting things to say. Photography for a child can be both a visual journal and a creative outlet. It is the one electronic gadget that, instead of immersing them in a world of their own like a video game, e-reader, or MP3 player, actually causes them to interact with the world around them.
My mother gave our other three daughters cameras this past week. Our 8 year-old, Faith, had been begging for a real camera for several months. It has been very interesting to see what has already come out of their initial picture taking sessions, and I am so excited to share this lifelong passion of mine, with them.