My Kids’ Camp Photos Lied

When I was a camper a billion years ago, my parents had no idea what was going on at camp while I was there, beyond what I told them in my letters. There were no phone calls home. There was no camp social media director sending out parent bulletins via Facebook and Twitter. And most of all, there were no pictures — except for the ones I chose to take with my crappy little real-film camera, and even those, I had to develop weeks after my return home.

Camp_0195Today’s campers, in contrast, are generally subject to a continuous paparazzi photo shoot. Camp directors send professional photographers out into the camp to take pictures of kids having fun. These pictures are then uploaded to a camp’s website, or Facebook, or some combination thereof. And then, parents of campers can sit at their computers or iPhones, staring slack-jawed at the web browser, hitting ‘refresh’ over and over again so that they can catch a glimpse of their son or daughter.

I am sorry to say that photos indicate nothing whatsoever about the nature of a child’s camp experience, and that I know this from personal experience.

When I sent the boys to camp, I didn’t expect to miss them as much as I did. The idea of photos of their camp experience struck me as appealing as a window, however small, into what they were doing, I thought, and a letter conversation-starter. “Hey – I saw a picture of you holding someone by the legs – was that a color war event or random fun?” I didn’t expect to glean much information from the photos beyond whether it was hot or cold at camp on a given day (though my boys’ wardrobe does not necessarily line up with the weather).

One of my sons – whether because of his red hair or some other reason – turned up in almost 50% of the camp’s photos. Without exaggeration, over the photos taken through the entire summer, there was only one photo in which he was smiling. In the others, he looked exhausted, or spaced out, or preoccupied with whatever preoccupies 8-year-old boys (Minecraft? Lego?). This kid, however, wrote daily letters home that read like advertisements for camp. Laden with exclamation points, the kid’s letters were a five-star, rave review of camp. Even the food got accolades.

My other son appeared in few photos, but in each one was featured prominently sporting a wide smile, flashing peace signs and every sign that he was the proverbial happy camper. I can assure you, sadly, that he was not. Every letter I received from him dwelled unremittingly on his homesickness and how lonely he felt. In his letters, he pleaded for me to pick him up early from camp (which, due to a variety of circumstances I don’t feel comfortable writing about, did end up happening).

In short, pictures may say a thousand words – but those words are not necessarily the truth. Pictures can soothe you with the knowledge that your child is still physically at camp —  but they do not tell you the whole story of what is transpiring in your child’s head or heart.

Judaism has long been a religion skeptical of things as they appear on the surface. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once pointed out that the Hebrew word for garment comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for betrayal. Appearances, in one flash of light or a flashbulb, can deceive. Sometimes, they show you what you want to see. After all, what camp sends its photographers into bunks with night vision cameras to capture campers sniffling with homesickness into their pillows?

Perhaps we’d do best to shut the cameras off – or at least send the pictures out after the fact as opposed to during. Then we might be able to better focus not on how things appear, but on how they really are.

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