summer camp photos

Essay: What Summer Camp Photos Don’t Show You

Sarah Cooper
Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper

Of course, I check them every day. Doesn’t everyone?

Each day, my 10-year-old’s summer camp website posts several hundred photos of activities. Pool play, maccabiah games, horseback riding. The images are glorious. They show 8-year-olds dressed in white, 11-year-olds covered in sand: childhood at its most beautiful.

My 7-year-old and I scroll through, looking for any photo, however cropped or distant, of his older brother. Is that him? His red hair? There are his cabin-mates playing ping-pong. Maybe he’ll be in the next set.

When we find one, we save and sometimes post it on social media, and our friends do the same thing.

After all, it is a treat to see your child as the star of a woodsy idyll, complete with gaga pit and ropes course. It makes me want to go to camp.

But another part of me wishes the photos weren’t there.

I don’t need them to know if my son is homesick. He’d be smiling for at least some photos regardless, so it’s impossible to tell. And if he is homesick, he’s not coming back until the end of the session anyway.

I don’t need photos to know if my son is sick. Last year he got a fever on the last night of camp, and the infirmary called me right away.

And I don’t need photos to know if he’s doing all right emotionally. If he were abnormally upset, the camp would let me know. They’ve seen thousands of kids just like him, most hanging in there until their parents swoop in for pickup.

The photos are not about him. The photos are about us.

They reassure us that we have made a good choice in sending our child away, that camp provides all the comforts of home and more.

They let us share our good choice with our friends.

They give us something to do when we miss our kids, filling a bit of the gap where their daily presence would be.

What they don’t give us is the part I loved most about camp: a healthy sense of mystery.

How many of our parents knew one-tenth of what went on at camp, the silly and the memorable?

The silly: The summer before ninth grade, at a three-week residential summer school, my friends and I were sick of the dining hall food and ordered Chinese delivery. After illegally meeting the car outside the gates of the campus, we spilled beef with broccoli over a square foot of grass, picked up the pieces with chopsticks, moved to a different part of the quad and ate the whole thing.

The memorable: One summer at campfire camp, after many crooked arms and belly flops, I learned to dive from the edge of the pool. Were there photos of my accomplishment? No, and the fact that I could choose to tell my parents about it made it all the more meaningful.

Those days of mystery are largely gone, along with the bowl haircuts and corduroy shorts of my childhood.

I realize that camp photos are not going away. They echo our culture of feel-good parenting, and they reassure us constantly about our kids.

When my son gets home this weekend, I’ll ask him about what I saw in the photos, particularly the one where he was petting an alpaca and another that showed him cannonballing into the pool. And I’ll ask him about what wasn’t in the pictures, too.

But I sure hope there are some things he’ll never tell me, things I’ll never know.

Sarah Cooper teaches eighth grade U.S. history and is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9. She lives with her husband and two sons just outside Los Angeles. This essay is reprinted from

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