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Why We Can’t Trust Our Childhood Pictures

For as long as I can remember, my dad has loved taking photos. No family gathering was complete without him proposing that we take a photo to commemorate the occasion. He's the opposite of a Native American who believes that photographs rob a little piece of the subject's eternal soul. On the contrary, my dad seems to believe that part of our collective soul will be lost unless he documents everything for posterity.

Looking back, I suspect my dad wanted to take pictures because each of those pictures told a story that he wanted to believe. It told a story of a family that was happy and that was together. It was not quite the truth, and at times feels unmistakably like fiction, well intentioned but untrue all the same. Because while I love my dad beyond words, we were seldom happy or together growing up.

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Yet the scattered pictures my dad managed to hold onto told a different story. The picture that accompanies this article is a good example of that. I could not, for the life of me, tell you where it was taken or when. I don't know if it's a picture of a two-year-old or four-year-old me. I couldn't tell you why I'm smiling except that when you're a kid we are commanded to feign happiness, to plaster on a look of smiling contentment no matter how we actually feel. We don't see our past as it was but rather refract it through a happiness filter that makes our memories seem safe and happy, rather than complicated and filled with darkness.

And while few precious photographs remain of me as a child due to constant moving and archaic technology, my 16-month-old has been relentlessly documented from the moment he was born, when he was yanked from the womb via a C-section and I immediately posted an image of my firstborn on Facebook. If I was a Yeti, he's a Kardashian.

Looking back, I realize that I adore these pictures for many of the same reason my dad clings to a handful of pictures of me from my own childhood. My pictures of Declan tell the story of a beautiful little boy who is happy and well-loved, filled with excitement about the world and surrounded by people who adore him.

In that sense, the pictures we take tend to be dishonest by nature. They're an idealized, happier us, not the often wounded and broken people we are.

I like to think that's a true summary of Declan's life so far, but I also know that his life will only get more complicated as he gets older—and that the pictures I'll take will both reflect the darkening and deepening of his life and tell a more flattering tale with me as the happy dad and him as the joyful son.

In that sense, the pictures we take tend to be dishonest by nature. They're an idealized, happier us, not the often wounded and broken people we are. We make up stories that we think or hope might be true based on increasingly fuzzy memories and the narrative we've constructed about our lives and the lives of our families and loved ones.

Our memories can't tell us the whole truth, about ourselves or about others. It can only provide pieces of a puzzle that we then need to put together ourselves.

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At the same time, I love taking pictures of my son. I love having an exhaustive document of his childhood at my fingertips whenever I feel nostalgic about a stage of my boy's development that has already passed . I don't just want to record my son's first few years on the planet; I want to celebrate them as well, to share them with the world to give a sense of the profound joy and pride I feel being his dad.

The images of my boy in a state of rapturous happiness don't tell the whole story. Like the pictures of me as a boy, they're less a representation of reality than a series of clues as to who he once was and how he saw the world. They tell a compelling tale but they're really only evidence in a story that is forever unfolding in real time. Thankfully, the paper trail for my son is a whole lot more voluminous than it was for my childhood self. There are far more clues about who he was and who he is in the process of becoming and, God-willing, this evidence so far all points to a much happier childhood for him.

Even when I'm smiling in pictures as a boy, as I am in the picture above, there seems to be a profound sadness behind my eyes. I just hope that my boy's radiant smile is never as fragile or fraught with melancholy as mine was. Or at least, as I remember it being.

Memories are tricky that way.

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Photograph by: Nathan Rabin

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