In the Age of the Selfie, Do We Still Need Picture Day?

As Published in The Week on October 16, 2014

When I had my first son, someone gave me one of those School Days photo frames to house all the school pictures I would collect over the years. It has twelve openings for photos from K through 11, and then a big celebratory photo for a senior portrait. I tend to be fairly goal oriented, so I liked the idea of having a way to visually track my progress while my kids go through school.

In reality, that frame is the most depressing thing in the world. And I don’t just mean the dwindling empty spaces that show me how many years I have left, like an X’ed-off calendar on a prisoner’s wall. The depressing part is the photos themselves, my kids against an artificial background looking like they’re under duress. If I wanted a collection of thirteen awkward photos of my kids smiling nervously at a stranger, I’d just wait for the mug shots to roll in.

I imagine that school photos made sense many, many years ago. My grandparents and great grandparents were seldom photographed except at school or at their own weddings. They did not live in a culture where parents watched every school play through the back of their smart phones. And they certainly didn’t turn their cameras on themselves to commemorate every social gathering, every meal, every outfit change. In a pre-selfie world, I can see why school photos were necessary to commemorate the passage of a year. I’m not sure we need them now.

At last count, I have nearly a zillion photos of my kids. There are so many that I seldom go to the trouble of printing one out and putting it in a frame. My favorites feature my kids looking like kids: outside, laughing, and a little dirty. When Future Me gets around to printing out the best of these photos and putting them into carefully assembled photo albums, I’m pretty sure the annual school photo won’t even make the cut.

With your first child, you get sort of excited about their being professionally photographed. When the order form comes home, you pick the A package that costs $54, the one that includes the 8×10 and six 3x5s and enough wallet sized photos for all of your friends. Because, really, who doesn’t want to stuff her wallet full of photos of other people’s kids? You maybe spring for the retouching, the personalization on the back, and the refrigerator magnet so you are sure that the photo ends up in multiple rooms.

Smartly, the photo company asks you to commit to this purchase before you actually see the photo. Your kids are so cute, how could they take a bad photo? The picture day photos of my children are honestly the worst photos that they take all year. Sit on this stool, lean a little forward, tilt your head up toward the ceiling while keeping your eyes on me, the stranger who just combed your hair in a direction it’s never gone before…. Say cheese! They often end up with an expression that suggests they’ve recently been punched in the kidneys.

I wised up by the time my second son was in school. I ordered the Z package which is maybe $15 and comes with one individual photo for us to laugh about and also the class photo. (I have to admit I love the class photo. It feels like a historical document. I keep them in case one of my sons ends up marrying the girl in the third row or in case kid making the funny face ever runs for President.)

One year when my third son was in pre-school I brought him to class on picture day, and the teacher gasped when she saw him in his customary Yankee t-shirt and basketball shorts. “Oh no!” she cried. “I forgot to remind you it was picture day!” I knew darn well it was picture day, and I thought he looked pretty good. I wasn’t about to add a starchy collar and a necktie to the awkwardness of the event. I didn’t spring for the refrigerator magnet that year either.