On Cameras and Holiday Shows

The father scuttled in as the first song of the holiday show ended. Once in position at the back of the room, he wrested from his camera bag a pristine Nikon D800 outfitted with 24–120mm zoom. He ditched the lens cap in his jacket pocket, fiddled with some dials on the top, looked at the back, then fiddled some more. Finally, he raised it so he could see the camera’s “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage.”

Slap-slap. Slap-slap. Slap-slap.

The mirror inside his DSLR made its distinctive sound. The father performed the conventional lower-the-camera-and-look-down-to-check-the-photo on the “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage” maneuver.[1] He then repositioned the camera between his face and kids, stared at the live display on the “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage,” and resumed taking photos.

Slap-slap. Slap-slap. Slap-slap.

What distinguished the father standing near me from the other 42 camera-wielding parents in the room was the price of his equipment.[2] Most were staring at the screen on the back of their iPhones or Androids as they took still photos or recorded videos—a three retro-parents squinted at the tiny articulated screens on their dedicated video cameras. Regardless of their camera, all these parents sought to capture the moment in pixels, perhaps to share with friends and family, perhaps to fulfill some obligation Kodak foisted on families more than a century ago. Suffering from the snapshot imperative that compels parents to take photos at any and every school function, I too had arrived at school with my own camera. I decided, however, to leave it in the car.

Slap-slap. Slap-slap. Slap-slap.

The class of first-graders filed into the room wearing a hodgepodge of “nice clothes.” The boys paired clean jeans with polo shirts and tennis shoes. Here and there a boy wore a button-down shirt and clip-on tie. The girls for the most part wore festive dresses, tights, and shiny little shoes—typically black or red. As they mounted the stage, each scanned the room for a parent. Faces lit up when they found their parents, their little hands waved. Other faces sagged when they didn’t. For the next 30 minutes I leaned against the back wall and watched #2 sing holiday songs. I noticed how her brow furrowed when she was uncertain of the next line, how her eyes focused somewhere in the middle of the room as she concentrated on the words. Tension drained from her face and her eyes widened with relief when the words came easily. During Jingle Bells, she concentrated on the music teacher’s cues to be sure she shook her bells at the right time and in the right way. Between songs, #2 shifted from foot to foot. She grinned at something a classmate said. She looked up at me, smiled, and waved furtively—each time I smiled and waved back. When the show concluded, the kids crowded off stage and out the door, a confusion of six-year-old energy. Just before #2 disappeared, she looked back and waved one last time.

After a final burst of slap-slap, slap-slap, slap-slap, the father next to me packed away his camera. He remarked how much he had enjoyed the show. I am sure he did enjoy the show, not because it was all that good—what first-grade holiday show is really all that good—but because he did what parents are supposed to do: he captured it for posterity (or for his Facebook page or his Picasa album or whatever). I, by contrast, had failed to take even one photo, a failure The Mother pointed out to me that evening when I had no photos to show her. I also failed when I tried to convince her that the important experience of the show could not be captured in a photo.

I will remember #2 smiling and waving at me between each song, joy in her face just seeing me there. And I hope she will have the memory of me, not obscured by a camera, smiling and waving back at her.

  1. Although the LCD displays all sorts of information, e.g., “view menu options, histograms, video settings and more,” Nikon points out that the LCD allows photographers to “Confirm image capture” and enables “on-the-spot focus confirmation.” It seems all this confirming might cause photographers to spend less time watching what they are photographing and more time looking at the “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage.”  ↩

  2. Certainly, a Nikon D800 produces vastly superior image quality compared to any smartphone or the occasional point-and-shoots.  ↩