• ‘Remember how you used to sleepwalk?’ my sister asked me. (E+)Source: E+
‘Aren’t you glad I did it now, though?’ Dad pointed out indignantly when I questioned his unorthodox approach to parenting.
By
Zoya Patel

9 Jun 2020 - 9:15 AM  UPDATED 9 Jun 2020 - 1:44 PM

At family dinner the other night, an activity we’ve only recently been able to resume thanks to lockdown measures, my siblings and I were reminiscing about our childhoods.

‘Remember how you used to sleepwalk?’ My sister asked me.

I sighed – of course I remembered those days. It was hard to forget, because whenever I climbed out of bed at age five, still completely asleep but agitated, and started spouting garbled nonsense about school or tried to take a shower (my most common activities while sleepwalking, who knows why), my father would whip out the video camera and capture the moment for our family memories.

Let’s just reflect on that for a moment. I’m five years old, fast asleep and yelling about getting simple maths wrong in class, while simultaneously taking my clothes off to hop under the icy faucet of the shower, and my father’s immediate reaction isn’t to gently wake me up or console me – it’s to video the moment. This was in the early 90’s. It wasn’t as simple as it is now to take a funny video of your child. He couldn’t whip out his smartphone and click onto camera.

Dad had to walk all the way to the lounge room, get out the VHS video recorder, put a fresh tape in, make sure the battery was charged and then come back to film me while I bumped into furniture and my siblings laughed at me.

Dad had to walk all the way to the lounge room, get out the VHS video recorder, put a fresh tape in, make sure the battery was charged and then come back to film me while I bumped into furniture and my siblings laughed at me.

‘Aren’t you glad I did it now, though?’ Dad pointed out indignantly when I questioned his unorthodox approach to parenting. He gestured to the TV, where my five-year-old self was now playing with her sisters and brother, captured on the same archaic video camera. ‘Look at all the memories we have!’

That night we trawled through our family video footage, recently digitised by one of my sisters. It turned out that a lot of what Dad captured was footage of us sleeping, because it was often the only time he could get us to stand still. We joked that this was creepy, but watching it now as an adult and hearing Dad’s narration over the top of our sleeping faces, telling some story from the day or describing our most recent tantrum or funny reaction, it occurred to me that his desire to preserve our childhood was not that different from our generation’s obsession with Instagram and social media – although it was far more wholesome. Rather than indulging in creating a fabricated record of his life for strangers to consume online, Dad was trying to capture reality for the sake of future generations.

It turned out that a lot of what Dad captured was footage of us sleeping, because it was often the only time he could get us to stand still.

Meanwhile his children are dropping the ball when it comes to savouring their own kids’ childhoods. While watching our home videos, I glanced around at my nieces, aged 10, six and four, who were busy playing around us and wondered why we don’t have anywhere near as many videos of their childhood.

Could it be that we take so many photos of inconsequential things all the time – what we eat for breakfast, the funky colour our toenail has turned, a passing cute dog – that even when we photograph something meaningful it no longer carries the same weight.

In contrast, when my father was chasing us around with the camera, it was a conscious decision that he made, with a clear objective, unlike our endless faffing about on our smartphones or incidental photography because we happen to have a camera on us 24/7.

Or perhaps kids of my nieces ages are used to seeing their parents and other adults pose for their own cameras and have to some degree internalised the fake smiles and camera-ready antics that we now employ automatically when a lens is turned on us. I can’t capture my nieces acting natural, because as soon as I whip out my phone to take a video their genuine smiles are replaced with glassy fake ones, and they immediately start behaving as if there’s a stranger in the room.

What he saw was what was captured on tape – us being our authentic selves, with no concept yet of an audience.

When we were kids, it took so long to actually get to see the outcome of the videos Dad took – he had to use up the whole tape and then process it before we could watch it - that we kind of forgot about the end result and acted like the camera wasn’t even there most of the time. What he saw was what was captured on tape – us being our authentic selves, with no concept yet of an audience.

Ultimately, I think the core reason we don’t have anywhere near as many childhood videos of the next generation being themselves is because our formative years were spent adjusting to a new reality where cameras were able to be carried around in our pockets, and we became obsessed with training the lens onto ourselves. You barely see my parents in our home videos because they’re always behind the camera. Yet, if I open my own camera roll, I’ll easily find thousands of selfies of my own face in close range.

I don’t think of the things I video or photograph as being for the good of our collective recollections, the way my father did when we were kids, I see them as my own curated library of content, and the majority of it features images I deem worthy of my Instagram account, not genuine memories I want to retain.

I’ll admit that after a few hours, watching Dad’s carefully filmed footage of my tiny sleeping form, or my sleep-walking form for that matter, becomes somewhat boring. But I love that he had the foresight to try and capture our childhood, as though he knew that ours would be the last to be lived without the burden of rapidly changing technology. 

Zoya Patel is the author of No Country Woman. You can follow Zoya on Twitter @zoyajpatel.

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