Look in almost anyone’s shoebox of family photos and you’ll find mostly smiles. Some real, some given on command. Kids standing like sticks in front of the cabin or Epcot Center. Days at the pool, days at the beach, birthday parties and Halloweens.
In the mid 1980s Sally Mann set out to photograph her children growing up. But she did something unusual. She consciously decided to include the ugly and awkward parts that many people want to exclude from their image of childhood. Bleeding noses, wet beds, black eyes, bad moods. Hints of vulnerability and danger.
Her collection, called Immediate Family, didn’t obsess with the disturbing parts of childhood. There are shots of goofing off, dressing up, and playing board games. But it’s obvious she made a point of including shots that suggest that childhood isn’t squeaky clean, that it’s also riddled with moments of awkwardness, shame, fear and confusion.
I couldn’t figure exactly what it was about these images that I loved so much, until I read what filmmaker Steven Cantor had said about them:
“I was so moved by Sally’s expression of childhood the way I remembered it — as a complex and enigmatic time — and not the innocent and naive period adults often project it to be.”
Yes! Bingo. Childhood isn’t simple at all, except to adults. It’s confusing and awesome, sometimes traumatic, sometimes dark, sometimes absurd.
Those typical shoebox photos cherrypick the sanitary moments and ignore the rest, as if only the light and easy parts have value. They suggest that kids spend their days playing because they don’t have to take anything seriously yet. But in reality kids explore and play because they need to learn about the world, fast. They need those black eyes and awful moments, and they need to have curiosity and low inhibitions to get them.
So if we’re going to take the value of childhood seriously, we can’t pretend it consists only of birthdays and school plays and trips to Grandma’s. Sally Mann saw that childhood play isn’t actually frivolous, it’s a vital learning process, and the unsettling parts of it are absolutely necessary. And because they are so vital, they’re beautiful too.
Sally Mann just wanted to create a more honest and meaningful record of her children’s growing-up experience. “Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictitions and some are fantastic,” she said, “but most are of ordinary things that every mother has seen.”
I don’t know quite when this happens, but adults generally settle into the notion that children don’t really have anything to worry about yet, because they don’t have jobs or bills.
In reality, they have a much more difficult responsibility: taking in the world with few filters, and making sense of the unjust, the disturbing, the confusing and the violent. No matter what parents do to shelter their kids, all of these facts of life are inevitably first encountered in childhood. Interpreting the world is an extraordinarily difficult job, yet every kid must do it some way or another.
For better or worse, by adulthood we have a whole arsenal of presumptions in place to explain how and why things happen, and so we don’t have to wonder as much, don’t have to ponder as much. We feel like we no longer need to treat each moment as a special case.
But head-on raw experience is the only mode of seeing we have as kids. And so life comes at us like a firehose, before we succumb to the fate of all adults, which is to come to live almost entirely in our thoughts. Patterns and expectations take over. We feel as if we’ve seen it all before, we know our limitations, we know all the possibilties, and there’s no longer a need to watch what actually happens. Life becomes a collection of recurring symbols, which we learn to either covet, avoid, or ignore.
If your high school teachers ever made you read The Catcher in the Rye, that’s exactly the tragedy that made Holden Caulfield so goddam upset. It’s not innocence that kids lose as they get older — even two year olds can be seasoned liars — it’s their ability to interact with life itself rather than their thoughts about it.
Holden Caulfield was perpetually disturbed by this, but couldn’t quite articulate it. All he knew was that the only place in the world that felt right to him was to stand on the edge of an imaginary field of rye where children are playing, so he could catch them before they fall into the ravine.
No kid would ever agree that there’s nothing new under the sun. That’s crazy. The world is unfathomably huge, and that will always be true. But as we shrink into adulthood, the world appears smaller to us. Television speeds this up. By twenty we’ve surely at least seen pictures of every country, every landscape, every exotic animal. The world feels explored and explained.
We can even come to believe we’ve felt every emotion, and that the only thing to do is secure more of the ones we like and protect ourselves from the ones we don’t like.
It also feels like we really know ourselves. We become certain of what we can be and what we can never be. We perceive our limits as wherever we were the last time we failed.
This is all thinking, all nonsense, all symptoms of the affliction we call normal adulthood. It feels like there’s no dark area left to explore. We get to know the map real well, and lose the territory.
When I was a teenager I remember wondering how it was so damn easy to have fun as a young kid. We’d make up games on the spot, and have a blast until we were called in for dinner. There was no hesitation and there were way more possiblities.
As an adult I find almost everything I do has time looming over it somehow. If I do this now, will I have time for that later? Will I regret this?
This terrible seriousness catches up with everyone. I don’t think there’s any way around it.
At the end of the day, it’s just a habit of thinking though — we all know that the breadth of possiblity doesn’t really shrink as you get to adulthood. You have more options than children, more independence than children. You have money, skill and power. But you also accumulate so many hair-trigger critical thoughts, so many artificial walls, that you feel like your options have actually narrowed.
We do end up in the ravine.
As we exit childhood all of us eventually lose our lives for our thoughts. If you’re reading this you almost certainly have. You can stumble into the ravine, but you don’t stumble out. Falling is always an accident, and getting up never is. There’s no climbing up the other side until we recognize we have lost something. And it’s not simply a childish, pre-responsibility living situation that goes away, it’s a capacity for real, sustained moment-to-moment attention.
The filters we accumulate are preconceptions that we hang on to in order to protect ourselves — not to limit ourselves, but that’s the effect they have. If life bears down on a child like a firehose, there are bound to be difficult moments sooner or later, and that child will learn to narrow the opening so that less of life actually touches them.
When we advance deeper into adulthood and get wiser and better able to deal with the difficult bits, we forget that we’re still looking at the world through such a tight aperture, compared to how wide it once was.
It is possible to widen the opening again, if you begin to look at your thoughts as thoughts. Thoughts are almost always reflexes. They’re usually kind of dumb. So it’s absolutely necessary to scrutinize the ones that tell you what you can’t do, what you can’t be, and what you can’t do without.
Your mind is telling you this crap all the time, and it’s only ever conditioning. Very little of it is intelligent or conscious thought. When it comes to those inhibiting thoughts –the thoughts that tell you to steer clear of something — the mind is about as smart as a car alarm.
Put attention first, open up to the ugly bits too, and you can get back to a place, at least sometimes, where each moment is a special case.
Photos by Sally Mann
If you liked this article, get email updates for free.