Photos, Family, and The Facebook Effect

This morning I read an article posted in the New York Times online entitled Forty Portraits in Forty Years. It was comprised of four sisters who were photographed each year for forty years. Like an in-the-womb image captured of twins embracing each other, it was powerful and said to cause some to weep. But, using what I've dubbed The Facebook Affect as a model, just because somebody's crying, doesn't mean they're experiencing what one might think. And that's really the whole thing with family, isn't it? We're not all wired the same or having the same experience.

I concocted the term "The Facebook Affect" to define a quasi real life social network experience in which we all post our thoughts, photographs of events and experiences. Let's be clear, nobody's going to post a double chin photo (unless somebody's playing a prank.) In fact, one of my friends is the self-imposed Statue of Liberty (SOL) of ugly photographs: "Bring me your fat, your wrinkles, your uneven complexion photos," she says, "and I will turn you into a supermodel."

For me, that's just plain wrong. With the advent of the digital camera and the delete button, if I can't capture one decent photograph legitimately, then I'd rather not post any at all. I mean, there will come a day that I may see the people who have been saying, "My, you look good." Do I really want them to know the SOL's been doctoring my photos? "Vanity, vanity, it's all vanity," Mom would say.

The Facebook Affect causes people to imagine they're missing out on something, that other people have the perfect family, a better or more real life, happiness! The Affect shows up in posts like this one, which I shared in Facebook: Feeling Stuck to a Wall:

I wonder what my life could be like if I got proper sleep, and had zero stress. I’m pretty envious of people that can afford to do that and take selfies of their beautiful, rested, stress free faces all day… instead of barely sleeping and dealing with people who either hate you, or take advantage of you every day of your life --- : ( feeling broken

Like, that's a judgment. How does she know that everybody's not using doctored photographs?

A friend of mine uploaded a vacation video onto Facebook from the Glacier Bay expedition she and her husband had taken in Alaska. As I watched (envisioning myself with a cool drink on a boat headed to a tropical climate) a piece of a glacier slid off into the bay, causing large ripples that rocked their boat. It must have been exciting to see that up close. When the video ended, I thought about it, what was that pang I felt, jealousy? Can't be. Yes, it can. No, it's can't. Yes, it can.

Shut up, both of you!

I thought about this after I'd silenced the initial dispute. I had to be honest with myself.

The friend in the video, she's kind, I thought, intellectual. She taught her son all the right things from a young age, and... aaand what? What the heck am I doing, rationalizing all this? It's so wrong. Who am I, the troll on the freaking bridge? You shall pass! This was my friend, but whether she was or not, her vacation was none of my business, except to be inspired by them. With that thought, I was freed of The Facebook Affect.

Those forty years of sisterly photographs stuck with me. How had they pulled all four sisters together each year for forty years for a photo project? How special was that? It occurred to me that sometimes the closest that a person gets to an experience of a family is through a different relationship, somebody at church, even the kindness of a stranger or a coworker. The sisters showed up for the photographs year after year for four decades. Beautiful. I pondered my own family and our snapshot impressions.

In a writing class one year, the instructor asked each attendee to bring a childhood family photograph to class as part of a writing assignment. The next week, perfect portraits of sweet-faced families were circulated from person-to-person around the room. I wanted to climb inside one or two of them, to be part of that family for a day. In a way, we did just that, because the other part of the assignment was to write and then read the story behind the photo. Nothing in those perfect photographs prepared us for the reality of some. And it was clear then that nobody would be climbing into any photographs that day. Suddenly our own families were jubilant bosoms of validation, peace, and perfect harmony. (Duck! Here comes a shovel!)

A large family is just like a small one, only add every flavor of personality there is and cut down the living space. We were wonderful, yet flawed individuals with very black and white ideas about the way life was to go. When we weren't writing each other's script, time was spent in the jungle of survival, either laughing or building a booby trap. That's not to say there wasn't a lot of love mixed into each day.

My hairstylist and friend, also from a large family, said his brothers held him down on the floor and covered his face in a sports cup. They said it was J-oxygen (as in oxygen). He rolled his eyes, laughed and shrugged. "And now I'm gay," he says.

Another intrigue of a large family is that each member tries to convince him or herself that they're the exception, more grounded than the others, which is a denial of the very thing that makes a large family copacetic: total oblivion.

We didn't have a photo taken each year that hasn't been desecrated with fangs, horns or witch's hats, but here's one of seven of the nine of us (plus the neighbor in the red dress.) Our two brothers that weren't in this picture are the two tall guys in the photo just below. I can't identify everybody by name, because, photographs are one of those risky areas, but I can reveal that's Mom in the upper right-hand corner. (I attempted to lighten the snapshot, but her skin remains dark, so maybe she was suntanned.)

While I love the forty photographs of the sisters and the powerful messages their body language implied, I think ours has one too, don't you?

pat steve tom.jpg


In closing, I'd like to wish you a blessed "holiday." In our family, we celebrate Christmas, so when I say Merry Christmas, it's with great love.

Merry Christmas and blessings to you and yours in the New Year!