I love taking photos of my children. Not because I’m obsessed with sharing them on social media or anything like that (equally, I’m not one of those parents who considers doing this some sort of dreadful ethical violation). These are images to be scrolled through with their mother after we’ve spent another too-long day wearily struggling to look after them; to be shared, every now and again, on WhatsApp groups of family or friends.
This has especially been the case since last year, when I, normally a committed luddite, finally got a smartphone with a camera good enough to take something other than murky, pixelated blurs. Now I long to do justice to the look of wild triumph on my son’s face as he poses with the lollipop he has won for being the last reception kid standing at musical chairs; to catch my toddler daughter having inadvertently struck a pose straight out of a Mini Boden catalogue. I grab my phone, find the right angle, get a few shots – all before she spots me taking pictures and inevitably staggers over, gurning “cheeeeeessse”.
So perhaps Google had someone like me in mind when it came up with the features for its new Pixel 8 Pro. Its “magic editor” allows you to seamlessly retouch images using AI, while the “best take” feature can – as in one promotional video – swap the heads on your kids for ones from different photos of them, so that cheeky, unruly grimaces can be replaced with smiles of static passivity. A child alive with naughtiness is easily replaced with one whose behaviour looks deadeningly good.
It is perhaps becoming obvious that I am not, in fact, the intended audience here. Why? Because I actually kind of like the challenge of getting a nice shot. Crucially, I also like being surprised: the photos I take of my children help me see things about them that I might otherwise have missed.
This might mean capturing the beautifully settled calm on my daughter’s face as her big brother holds her hand and loudly looks to be explaining something to her; it might be the exact contours of her cheekiness as I snap her stealing an older child’s towel. Scrolling back through these images, I see things about who my children are – about the bond they share, about the joy they take in the world – that I would never have seen in the moment. They would not be improved if I swapped their heads for different ones.
In his Little History of Photography essay (1931), Walter Benjamin describes the mysterious “aura” that the earliest portrait photographs had to them. For instance, he discusses David Octavius Hill’s 1840s picture of a Newhaven fishwife, in whose downcast gaze there “remains something … that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name was, the woman who was alive there, who even now is still real”. In this, “the most precise technology” shows itself as being able to “give its products a magical value”. These are photos that catch us by surprise.
This, Benjamin thinks, is lacking in later photographs. The reason for this, he claims, is in part because the subjects of the earliest photographs sat “with their innocence intact”; as yet unaware of how they “ought” to present themselves in a photo. In later portrait photographs, Benjamin says, children were posed in elaborate costumes, or negatives were retouched by the photographer – to allow the sitter to present themselves however they might have wished to be seen.
We see something similar going on with how phone cameras are developing now. The smartphone allows me to capture infinitely more of my children’s lives than my parents were able to capture of mine – and this is, at least in part, a good thing. But technology is itself never able to rest content with allowing us to, say, capture fleeting moments in ways that allow us to reflect on the true nature of a loved one’s being.
It’s not that I object to such technology’s mere existence – although I do wonder why we feel compelled to develop AI, increasingly talked up as some sort of existential threat, when all it really seems to give us is these rather silly toys. It’s more that I think we ought to question what the point is.
Here we are, able to perform these tricks that, just a few short decades ago, would have struck any sane person as involving a sort of magic. And what do we use it for? To streamline the Photoshopping of family photographs; to make our representations of reality conform just a little better to how a machine tells us they ought to look. To make everything just a little less interesting; to transform the whole of creation into one great Instagram reel. I hope, with all my heart, that the spirits of the people I spend my idle moments attempting to distil will never be ones which feel at ease, which rest content, with that.