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Pics or the birth didn't happen (Status Update, Ep. 2)

I've taken more than 2,000 images of my son since he was born last year. Is that a bad thing?

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
14 min read
Josh Miller/CNET

Photos are so engrained in our lives, it's almost impossible to imagine life without them. We look at how photography became one of the most widely used technologies in our lives, and how this wondrous invention has changed the way we as people interact with one another.


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We're going to start today's story on a website for the California Pacific Medical Center -- the hospital where my son, Theodore, was born.

A few weeks before he arrived, my wife and I downloaded a form and gathered around our computers.

Our mission: We had to write a birth plan.

Ok, so for those who haven't heard, a birth plan is the wish list of how things will go. Like, what type of drugs the mother would prefer to use, and does the father want to cut the umbilical cord?

Then we got to the atmosphere -- low lights, soothing smells and one very important rule.


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Laura Sherr

I didn't want any photos of labor or delivery. It's already such an intense experience, you don't need to feel self-conscious wondering if your hair looks crazy in a photo.


That's my lovely wife Laura. Now, she's not a technophobe -- she married me after all -- but she does like to set boundaries around how tech plays a role in our lives. We've both noticed that family outings over the last few years have been more about the Kodak moments than, y'know, what's what's actually happening.

If there's any time we wanted to be 100 percent present, it was for the birth of our child.


Parents have been taking photos in delivery rooms since, well before cell phones cameras, for sure. And I wanted to have some of that documented, absolutely. But I think there's a difference between taking one quick shot and essentially live-blogging the experience.

I think that was an important tone I wanted to set: that the experience of living life is more important than documenting it.


Ok, so now's the part where I let you in on a little secret.

While Laura was passed out in the middle of labor, I may have whipped out my phone and taken a few photos of the room, the heart rate monitor, some of the tools lined up for when our child arrives -- and the white board.

Oh and I might have taken a 360-degree photosphere of the room, but it was for posterity!

And in case you're grimacing right now, I didn't take any close-ups of Laura.

The whole thing got me wondering: Exactly how did we get to this super-photo-focused world anyway? And are we all ok with it?

This is Status Update, a show about how tech is changing the way we raise our kids. Ok, it's actually about how I'm raising my kid. I'm Ian Sherr, a longtime tech reporter, editor, husband, and now tech-obsessed dad.

This episode is about family photos, but it's about a lot more than that too. We're going to talk about how photos have changed, we're going to talk about how they impact us. We'll talk about why they matter to our families and why, in the case of my mother, for example, not having them matters too.

So, first off, I don't think we can talk about photos though without acknowledging how they've become one of the most important ways that we interact as a society.

You've got news photography that's changed the way we see everything from sports to war to space and beyond. You've got art that gives us a new way to look at the world. And I can't think of anyone who doesn't regularly take photos these days -- even Mark Zuckerberg, the kinda private CEO of Facebook, is posting photos of his child.

What's fascinating is how all encompassing this technology is.

Think of it this way: in the year 2000, Kodak said 80 billion photographs had been taken around the world. This year, we're expected to hit more than 1 trillion. With a T.

And the market research firm that came up with that figure, InfoTrends, says the number of photos we took tripled in just the last seven years (y'know, since the selfie camera was put into the iPhone).

Those numbers are just staggering. You've gotta wonder how we got like this, right?

Well, you're in luck. With the magic of podcasting, we can go back to the beginning. We're going to take the CNET time machine to photogtaphy's beginnings.

Back to a simpler era, before all the buzzing and liking and tagging was happening.

We're going back to the 19th century.

Ok, so if you think about what technology was back then, the first thing that comes to mind is probably of those massive steam engines that traveled across the country, right?

Or perhaps the player pianos just like the one you hear right now?

Well, this is also when cameras really started to spread around.

But they weren't like the point-and-shoots we have today. Back then, one version of the film -- if you could call it that -- was a piece of silver-plated copper, coated with chemicals that made it all sensitive to light. If the subject was in a bright sunny day, a photo could be taken in a couple minutes.

Think of how otherworldly this must have seemed. Before all this, all we had were painters. So, now there's a guy who sits me down, and fidgets with this weird box thing in front of him. After he's all done, I have a copy of what he was looking at. Literally, it's me.

So it's probably no surprise people treated photos like portraits for quite a while. If you stroll on down to the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., and take a look at the early photos on display, you'll notice a lot of people look posed and stuffy.

John Jacob

When photography was invented, for the first 50 years or so, it was done largely by people who had the money and time to make their own equipment. Because cameras were large and expensive and the materials were liquid and had to be done professionally by and large.


That's John Jacob, a curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Like many people I spoke to for this story, he comes from a family of photographers. But he didn't like it very much when he was growing up in the '60s and '70s because, to him, it felt really un-hip to get dressed up in suits and ties and pose for family photos.


I did my best to avoid it and frustrated our photographer grandparents in the process.


Ok, so back to the 19th century.

Back in those days, cameras were really expensive. So photographers were either super wealthy or they worked in a studio.

Most people did not have a lot of photographs -- not necessarily because they didn't want them or couldn't. It just wasn't customary. During the studio era, you didn't necessarily go because you had a birthday. You might go because you had a child. You might go because your child died.


You heard right. People photographed corpses. Like, posed and everything.


The mortality rates were very different then. In the late 1800s, there was the expectation of death. They were very important, they were a portrait of a kind.


And by the way, before they were taking photographs, they used to do this thing called death masks. That's where they'd make a wax or plaster cast of a person's face when they died. You can go to Vienna and see Mozart, if you like. Or Florence and see poet Dante, you know, of the inferno.

And don't forget Madame Toussad.

Ok, so moving on.

As technology got better, and you could capture a photo with just the push of a button, cameras started proliferating around the world. That's when you have the invention of the snapshot.


The term originally comes from hunting. It's a shot you do quickly with your camera. As photography became less and less expensive, it's on one hand a thing you keep in your album, and on the other hand, film is cheap and you make a mistake, a snapshot is something you can throw away or put into a drawer.


This is where cameras really start to change our lives, and where my mother comes in.

A few years ago, my wife and I were going through some of my parent's stuff when we stumbled on a postage box filled with photos. They were all haphazard and barely had any writing on their backs. And they were photos I'd never seen.

Some of them are of a girl who must be seven or eight years old as she's posing in the snow. Turns out it was my mother.

Enlarge Image

My mother, posing for a photo in the snow.

The Sherr Family

In another, she's in a photo studio with her younger sister.

This was the United States after World War 2. The middle class was growing, and photography was becoming a language in our culture.

Remember Life Magazine? Its heyday was during this period. And to call it influential would be an understatement. President Harry Truman chose Life to handle all rights to his memories.

A lot of what drove Life and other magazines was this idea of using photography to see the world.

Using a photo to show you real ... life.

And that brings me to one of the interesting contradictions of photography. Yes, that's a photo of my mother. But that's not her just being her. Even if you fast forward a couple decades to her first photos with me -- like the obligatory bath time photo -- you can see it clearly on her face. She knows she's being photographed.

So, these photos aren't so much showing us a piece of real-life as much as they're giving us a slight window.

One of the first things you learn when you're becoming a professional photographer is that your presence changes the world around you. Sometimes, people act out for the camera. Sometimes they hide. Sometimes they clam up. And sometimes they...

Ken Light

I remember I walked into a classroom, it was an all-black high school in the 1970s, and the first thing the kids did was get up and do black-power fists.


I'm the Reva and David Logan Professor at the University of California Berkeley, and a documentary photographer.


He's been photographing people for four decades, showing stories of coal miners, protesters and prisoners on death row. He also taught me back when I was in school.

Ok, so back in that classroom, for one of his first assignments, Ken knew the black-power fist wasn't the image he wanted to snap.


But I knew that I had to make that picture or they would just keep doing it until they relaxed. So that's what I did -- I took a picture, it didn't mean anything, and they felt seen, and then they just kind of ignored me.


This gets at one of the hardest parts of photojournalism. The No. 1 rule is to depict the world around you as accurately as possible. That's really tough when your presence is a distraction.

So what does it take to get that real-real-real life photo?

One celebrated war photographer named Wayne Miller decided to do just that in the early 1950s, when he trained his lenses on his children for what would become a essay called The World is Young.

Over four years, he followed their lives as they grew up in the suburbs east of San Francisco. He starts with images of them doing stuff like struggling with homework, playing on the beach, sitting on a piano bench and smoking a cigarette. Then, over time, more faces show up as his children's lives expand to include school, choir and more friends. There are moments of frustration, smiles, crying and even a fight.

If you look through this essay -- you can find them on the Magnum Photos website today -- these aren't the smiling happy family photos most of us have. They're are an almost clinical examination of what it's like to be a child.

Miller died in 2013. But before he did, he described to a filmmaker named Theo Rigby how he thought about this project.

Wayne Miller

As a child grows up, so many things happen that haven't happened before in that child's life. If I could capture that sort of thing, one of continuous discovery and excitement.

In hindsight, it was the first time I'd ever experienced childhood. It's as if I had never been a child.

Living it through my kid's eyes, well, it was exciting to me, and very enriching.


We don't all have a Wayne Miller in our lives -- and perhaps we wouldn't want to. Imagine you're being beat up by a bully and all your father does is snap a photo.

But I'll tell you -- when I was looking at those pictures of my mother, I had pangs of excitement at finding a new dimension of her childhood, which I'd never heard much about. But I was also kind of sad.

Those images are some of the only mementos I have left after she died a few years ago of complications from Alzheimer's. Oddly enough, there aren't that many photos of her after that day in the snow. There are a couple from when she was a teenager, a few from family get-togethers when she was a young adult, and then zoom forward and I show up.

I've heard stories about my mother's childhood, sure, but there isn't documentation. I can't use photo albums to reconstruct her life. All I have are the stories and these few photos.

My son's kids won't have to worry about that. I've snapped roughly 2,000 images since he was born in May, and those are just the one's I've kept. I delete a bunch as I go.

I don't think we're that unusual either. Digital photography has effectively lifted the shackles from previous generations who had to worry about stuff like the cost of film and developing the photos. In fact, some apps like Snapchat are built on the idea that photos are disposable -- the photos you take literally disappear after they're viewed.

So it's no wonder we live in this hyper-photographed world now. And it leaves me with a lot of questions. Like: Is the act of taking photos actually affecting the way we as humans interact?

Judith Myers-Walls

When you're behind the camera, you don't necessarily respond in the same way. You're taking a picture.


That's Judith Myers-Walls.


You can call me Judy. I am a professor emerita at Perdue University in Human Development and Family Studies.


She's also married to a photographer. So this issue hits particularly close to home for her.

When I talked to her, I wanted to get down to brass tacks: Was me taking all these photos bad for Theodore?

The answer is ... it depends.

One trap I could fall into, for example, is that I could make Theodore think that the best way to get attention is to do something cute and photo-worthy. Do it enough times, and he could think that's the only way to truly get my attention.


People can become objects to be taken pictures of.

It also can communicate to children that being cute is most important.


Judy solved this in her own life by making sure her children felt part of the process. She gave them cameras to play with, and encouraged them to help come up with stories to help caption their photo albums.

She also had camera-free times, and specific camera times. So, you could be building Legos for example, and then take a photo of the finished product.

There's another reason to do this, she says. Recent studies have found that the act of taking a photo -- concentrating on the camera, framing the subject, all that jazz -- actually diminishes our ability to remember what happened.

Why should that matter? You've got the photo right?

Well, let's think back to 2013, when an image started circulating around the internet, depicting the first moments after Pope Francis was named the new leader of the Catholic Church.

When he stood before that crowd gathered in the Vatican City, there were hundreds, if not thousands of people holding up plastic and metal slabs above their heads. Yeah, they were snapping photos.

Now, compare that to other Popes' debuts and it's kinda stunning.

Other Popes have had a seas of people, sure. But with Francis, there was a clear sign of the modern times -- all those people holding little light-emitting rectangles in the air.

That's probably why when you look at the different photos side by side, it looks kinda weird.

It made me think: Have we really become a people who are more obsessed with documenting our lives instead of living them in the first place?


When your experience is just taking the pictures, what it does is you're looking through the lens -- one way or another -- and you're not as present to the moment.


So this started with how my wife and I agreed to keep the camera away from one of the most important moments in our lives. And guess what? Score one for us. Well, mostly.

So what's the big takeaway? Well, we can't get down on ourselves, that's first, but we can get smart about it. Maybe start thinking about how you can set boundaries around your camera. I, for example, choose specific times to take photos and then immediately get back to Theodore. I want him to be the center of my attention.

But we also have family around the country and it's so easy to want to snap a photo and send it by text message to Mum Mum and Pop Pop.

While Laura, my wife, was on maternity leave she found a good balance.


For a while, I think I took a photo every day. At least one. And then some days, I'd take maybe a dozen. It just depended on the day and how easy it was. Because some days were so challenging the last thing I was thinking about was taking photos -- we were just trying to get through the day.

But you know I really try to take a photo or video every day and send to mom and dad so they feel included and part of his life. Because they can't see him every day, and it's important and special for them. And it's part of the world now that people don't stay in the same town. It's not the 1800s. People move away.

You have to find creative ways to keep people a part of your family, and technology plays a big role in that.


Status Update is produced by me, Ian Sherr. Oh, by the way, there are nearly 3,000 photos in my archive of Theodore so far.

Editing by Connie Guglielmo. Silly photo faces by Laura Sherr. And baby squeaks by Theodore Sherr.

Before we get to the rest of the credits, I just want to say: This podcast isn't possible without you. Yeah, you with the headphones on. Or maybe you driving in your car. Whoever you are, I want to hear what you think. Well, maybe pull over first.

Tweet at me: @iansherr, or email me through CNET's website.

That fun xylophone theme song you heard at the beginning was by Lee Rosevere, and the piece you hear right now is by Jahzzar.

The other music in this episode came from the amazing artists who contribute to the Free Music Archive. I've put links to each of their pieces in this show's transcript, which you can find online at CNET.com along with some other helpful links about things we discussed in this episode.

You know, CNET makes a bunch of other podcasts too, including the 3:59, which gives you the day's tech news in under four minutes. CNET also has tons of tech news, reviews, insights and analysis -- and it's all there just waiting for you.

Thanks for listening. Until next time.

Music in this episode

"Exotica" by Juanitos

"And So Then" by Lee Rosevere

"Air Hockey Saloon" by Chris Zabriskie

" I am the Doctor" from Doctor Who: Series 5 soundtrack by Murray Gold

A Player Piano recording from The Internet Archive

"Divider" by Chris Zabriskie

"Siesta" by Jahzzar

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