Like any parent with a smartphone, I spend a lot of time documenting my child's existence. I've been both covertly and aggressively photographing him since the day he was born, and it’s made me appreciate technology more than I ever thought I would. I didn’t know how valuable a smartphone camera could be until I had a little human to use it on.
I never had second thoughts about my photography; it just felt like I was acting on a natural impulse. But my son’s relationship to the camera has changed as he’s gotten older, and so has mine.
My kid was aware of my photographic capabilities early on, and he didn’t seem to care much; if anything, the raised black rectangle became a cue for him to strike a pose or make a face. But somewhere around his fourth birthday, that suddenly changed. He seemed to become conscious of the fact that he was being photographed, and would sometimes get angry when he caught me filming him as he danced to Michael Jackson videos or played with his dinosaurs. Even during less choreographed moments — walks home from school or watching Ninja Turtles cartoons on the couch — he would get irritated with my persistent snaps.
I tried to be stealthier with my tactics, but as he got older, I grew less comfortable with my covert surveillance; it became harder to strike a balance between digitally immortalizing his youth and respecting his shyness around the camera. At the same time, I began questioning the value of the images I was taking. I had long viewed my photography as a sort of investment against future melancholy — a running time capsule that I would be able to look back on years from now, when he’s an angsty teen who hates me. But his growing aversion to being photographed made it harder to capture the quiet, candid moments that I treasured most dearly — gazes into space or silent walks through the park — and which I feared would be most likely to evaporate from memory.
Recently, I began experimenting with a different, and perhaps more honest form of capturing those moments. Rather than try to sneak creepshots or short video clips, I’ll open up the voice memos app on my iPhone, hit record, and let it just sit there. It doesn’t go entirely unnoticed; any notification or buzz will illuminate the homescreen to show white soundwaves under a red “recording” bar. But he’s aware of what the phone is doing, and he doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe that’s because it’s less aggressive than pointing a phone at him, or perhaps because it doesn’t pull me away from playtime in the way that taking photos does.
I’ve found it to be a strangely more intimate form of documentation, as well, in part because it’s totally divorced from any visual elements or technological distractions. Listening to certain clips recorded months ago jolts me back to a specific time and place; others are more obscure and demand reconstruction — relics from moments that I presumably considered noteworthy, yet have since slipped from my mind.
These latter recordings have been most difficult for me to listen to. They remind me of the frailty of my memory, and they immediately make me wonder about all the other moments that have faded, or will soon fade. But that’s also why they give me so much joy. At times I feel like an archaeologist digging through my own son’s history, unearthing moments that would otherwise seem banal — ambient breathing, or the sounds of action figures at battle — yet through their rediscovery, suddenly take on a new significance.
Recording my kid’s voice has been especially fascinating for me, because he has a phenomenally weird accent. His first language was Italian, thanks to his mother, and he learned French at school here in Paris. It wasn’t until around the age of four that he was able to carry on a conversation in English, and even now, as he nears his sixth birthday, his language is still a work-in-progress.
I’ve been jotting down his most adorable mispronunciations on various notes apps — “Ninja TUH-tuhlth,” (“Ninja Turtles”), “Th-tah Wah-th” (“Star Wars”) — and I’ve captured many more on audio. When extracted from imagery altogether, his weird cadence and patchwork of an accent linger even more prominently in my ears, as does the string of “mmmms” that he uses as a vocal placeholder while searching for words. It’s also made it easier for me to pick up on subtle changes in his accent and diction, and to track his ongoing efforts to sort out three languages in one mind.
Those linguistic kinks will eventually evaporate as he grows older, and probably faster than I realize. But until they do, I plan on using everything I can to soak up their last drops.