I Don’t Have a Headline for This One

I Don’t Have a Headline for This One

2000 1125 James Tocchio

Parts of this article will read as if I’ve lost my mind. If not my mind, something else. My confidence, maybe. Or my perspective. Or maybe I’m just feeling lost. Maybe you are too. Maybe we’re all a little lost right now. Maybe we can find each other here, or come up with a way to find ourselves. Maybe a camera can help.

I’ve not written an article for this site, my site, since November 4th, and even then I was using old photos and outlines from the summer of 2020. It’s impossible to overstate how unusual that is. I had to look back in the archive to confirm it. I didn’t realize it had been that long. It’s surprising and strange. More than that, it’s indicative.

Beginning in April of 2014 and continuing until September of 2020, there hadn’t been a period of more than two days wherein I hadn’t written something for this site. Even throughout precious family vacations I’ve continued to work (those readers who’ve pointed out that my Disney World photos aren’t useful as test shots will know). Daytrips to Martha’s Vineyard have served double duty as article fodder for years. But this year has been different.

It’s tiring to hear and to read, and these are things we’ve all read and heard ad nauseam. But it’s also the truth. The past twelve months have been exhausting, challenging, and for some of us disastrous, for others terrifying. There are psychological dynamics happening in us, in me, which I’m neither educated enough nor emotionally intelligent enough to fathom. But I feel it. And this writing is an attempt to plumb it. Call it a self-indulgent piece of writing (some readers will, and with fairness). But these words are as much personal introspection as they are a reaching hand to any potential readers who might recognize themselves somewhere in these paragraphs. I’m trying to help – myself, yeah, but others as well.

In September I had a panic attack, the first of my life. In a piece of writing in which I attempted to hint to my readers that I might need to take a break, I described the sensation as “drowning in open air… An animal feeling.” I feel that feeling now still, and have (to some degree) every day since that day in September.

Not long after that, my wife, who had been pregnant for four months, went to a routine ultrasound where alone she learned that the baby inside her was dead. He was a boy who we’d named Henry. I was home with my two daughters, loading dishes into the dishwasher when my wife walked through the door. There are things in life which one can never forget – one, for me now, is the persistent sound of rushing tap-water as I fearfully begged a relentlessly sobbing wife to tell me what was the matter.

The time between then and Christmas feels distant. I can’t cast my mind back, and I don’t know that I want to. There’s a few blank frames (there, I did a film reference for you). Months haunted by the specters of grief and pain. Sealing those ominous wraiths within coffins, to be exhumed in places of meticulously crafted privacy – after pandemic-induced home-schooling is done, after the house is clean, after the work is finished, when the kids are fed and happy and in bed and the house is quiet.

On Christmas morning I felt that I should shoot some photos. I found my Nikon SP in the office, the frame counter of which showed that eleven frames had already been shot. I remembered what this camera had begun recording, what I’d intended to record with it to completion. A lovely idea. A phenomenal photo project. A full-term, nine-month pregnancy shot on a single roll of film, the final frame the first minute of my son’s life.

What an article that would make. What a project. I recalled frame one – the positive pregnancy test. I recalled frame two – a candid mirror shot of my wife moments after learning that she was indeed pregnant. Frame five – an enlarging belly. Frame eight – the “It’s a Boy” sign which my daughters made in their boundless enthusiasm. Frame eleven – tiny socks fresh from the dryer.

The loss has changed things for me in ways which I’m only beginning to realize. Predominant is a persistent feeling that life is tragically fleeting. That we all have almost no time at all. That many of us have less time than most.

When I was six years old, I saw a local television news reporter reporting live from a public restroom in a mall in middle America. From his square of linoleum he proclaimed in a cadence of studied weightiness that the then widely misunderstood AIDS epidemic had reached our state, and that it would be possible for any good citizen to contract the fatal disease “even from surfaces in a public restroom.” I cried every night for a year because I’d been inside hundreds of public restrooms in my six years on Earth. Surely no kid could roll the dice that many times and not come up snake eyes. I researched the life expectancy of AIDS patients and planned to tell my family of my infection only after I’d reached age fourteen – no sense worrying them until the very end, I reasoned.

Of course, I didn’t have AIDS or die. But since then there have been countless periods of weeks or months during which I’ve convinced myself with perfect certainty that I had… something else. I was dying of cancer because I was tired. I had Leukemia because my legs ached for three days in a row. I had Eastern Equine Encephalitis because I was bitten by a mosquito and two days later felt a little bit hot.

Nevermind that I was probably tired because I’d not slept for more than five hours a night over the span of three years. And my legs couldn’t hurt just because I’d done squats at the gym for the first time in two months. And yeah, I was feeling unusually feverish – but not because it was summer, nor because I had a sunburn. It was that poisoned mosquito bite. Three real-world examples out of hundreds.

Intellectually, it sounds foolish and laughable. It’s hard to laugh at it when you’re living it.

From the moment I learned the word, I’ve suspected that I’m a hypochondriac. I don’t say that in the same way that some people like to say they have attention deficit disorder (ADD) because they can’t focus entirely throughout a boring movie, or in the way that other people say they have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) because they like things to be orderly. Everyone gets bored and everyone prefers that things be neat. I don’t take this lightly.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic I’ve panicked myself over the idea that I have COVID-19 (the disease brought on by the novel coronavirus) at least once per week. This is no exaggeration. I have visualized with perfect clarity hundreds of times the moment in which I die and leave my kids behind, unable to say goodbye or see them. When I wake up in the morning I instantly think about dying. Every day that I feel fine, I remind myself that the symptoms can appear days or weeks after infection, and that I might already be infected. I might already be dead.

I try to recall how much I can remember of the years of my life before age six (my oldest daughter is six years old) in order to calculate how much of me they’ll remember when they’re adults in the event that I die sometime this year. Dozens of times a day, I imagine my wife and kids living their lives without me. At the worst moments I imagine the inverse nightmare – my family dying and leaving me alive. Countless scenarios of loss and absence. It’s hell, and I really don’t know what to do about it.

Remember when I said that some parts of this article will make me sound crazy?

When I woke up this morning I immediately felt my throat. It was sore. A few panicked moments later, after a glass of water had relieved my throat dried overnight by the winter air, I felt fine.

It had snowed overnight and the ground was covered. I could do all the usual descriptors – pillowy hills. Blankets of downy snow. Fluffy, white sheets… Why are they always bedding?

My kids are in that glorious phase of life in which everything is a novelty to be treasured and lived. I love that about them. They remind me to look up at the clouds and to wonder at how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. From the warmth of their beds, they ran to the window and begged me to play in the snow. So we did. And unusually (of late), I brought a camera out with me. Not a great camera. Not even, I thought, a very good camera.

I thought Let’s shoot the worst camera I have in the office right now. Something nobody wants. Something nobody would waste their time using, or writing about, or shooting a video about. It will probably be lifeless and I won’t have anything to say.

I chose the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX9, a point-and-shoot digital camera from (let me look it up) 2010.

Twelve megapixels. Touch screen. Bunch of shooting modes including background de-focus. Do we really need to do this? The best parts of it are the slick sliding lens cover (which slides vertically) and the optimistic warble that it sings whenever we turn it on.

If you like Walkmans or Sony Minidisc players or the PSP Go, or if you drive a 2001 BMW Z3 and want a period-looking camera to put in the car’s center console (and never use), you’ll love this camera. I do. But this really isn’t the point, is it? Not this time. (I’ll review this camera properly if just one person tells me to do so in the comments – please don’t.)

Out in the snow, we did all the snow things one does in the snow. Snow angels. Snow balls. Snow men (or women, what the hell, patriarchy?). My old dog did what he does – chew sticks, bite snow, roll around. The kids squealed with delight, swung on a swing set covered in snow, took photos with their own cameras, reveled in their tiny, happy lives.

As happened many years earlier when my wife and I struggled for over a year to have our first child, photography was an escape. The camera gave a point of focus, crowded out the anxiety and worry. Then again, the camera isn’t really doing anything. It’s just a camera, a pretty unspectacular camera, at that. But over the years I’ve found that even the worst cameras end up pointing at what’s important. And that sort of makes any camera “the best camera.”

I ended the morning feeling buoyed. My kids did that for me. Cameras let me record it. We’re all going to die. Photos leave something of us behind, the smallest of comforts.

The temptation for the blog writer is to write this experience into something greater than it is. To come up with a snappy headline – How the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX9 Saved My Life, or similar nonsense. It didn’t. It’s just a camera. But it gave me the extra nudge I needed to get out of my office, out of the house and into the snow. It got me moving, it helped me ease up for a while, and it helped me have a fun day with my kids.

I’m the editor of this site, which means that I choose what gets published and what doesn’t. I’ve vacillated on publishing this article dozens of times while writing it, and later as it sat in draft form. It’s a weird one. From a business perspective, from the perspective of building on the “brand’s” synergistic content profile, it’s not a good fit. But then again, exposing things to light usually leads to good things.

Perspective is everything, as photographers know better than most. Things for me are tough at the moment. But they could be worse. For many other people, things are worse. Maybe things are worse for you. Maybe you feel like shit, too. If so, this article should tell you that you’re not alone, and that a camera can help. Family and friends can help. And as long as we keep engaging with the parts of life which are meaningful and good, everything eventually will be fine.

But damn. Just stick me with the vaccine already. And I’ll take a therapist, too.


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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
42 comments
  • Very good article, James. Stay well!

  • Beautiful

  • I think many will recognize themselves in this, good writing. stay safe.

  • Agreed – excellent words, well expressed.

  • There is much in this article. I used to be a bit of a hypochondriac myself and it did flare up when the first wave started last year. Every sneeze was the first symptom of COVID19. I did this so often that my wife started counting my disease until I was at COVID52 and we had a laugh. This moment kind of helped to gain perspective and dispel the irrational fears. Idk…maybe this little joke helps you a bit. If not I found therapists can be quite humorous too 🙂 I know.

  • James, my heart goes out to you. Take excellent care of yourself.

  • James-Many familiar thoughts and emotions here. I know it is a cliche, but your glass is half full, and enjoy it like 100%. That other half, I think, is just an illusion.

  • Looks like you are doing pretty good to me.

  • I feel this man. Great article.

  • Wonderful article. We are all a bit just like you. It’s called humanity.

  • Hello neighbor, damn you can take any camera and produce fantastic photos with it! I’ll never get tired of seeing your family shots, they are always beautiful. I won’t ask you to do a review of that camera but I really do love the photos you made with it. (But somehow I don’t think its the camera).

    I’m so sorry to hear about your loss, it’s hard to deal with (same thing happened to me many years ago). What helped me was concentrating on what I did have and try not to dwell on what I lost. Not easy to do.

    I think anxiety affects most people from time to time but when it consumes you theres no shame in seeking help.
    I hope 2021 is better for you, better for everyone. Take care.

  • Whoah, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX9 you say? Wow, it’s so compact, it’s about the size of my cell phone, but it takes pictures! And holy hell, a vertically-sliding lens cover?? I must know more about this amazing marvel of minimalistic technology!

  • James you said it all in the sentences ” I ended the morning feeling bouyed. My kids did that for me. Were all going to die. Photos leave something of us behind, the smallest of comforts”. As some one who was diagnosed with PTSD from the Fire Dept, I can safely say it is hard some days. Of the 5 grandkids we have, I can only see 2 thanks to covid. What I told my son was “when I’m gone I will have left you images of what I saw and enjoyed of you and the kids”. In Canada we hear the line “we are all in this together” it is bullshit, we all have our own mountains to climb, and not every one sees them. Hang in there. Come riding season it will be the motorcycle, my camera and venting my brain….

  • I cried when I read about Henry, and every time the story revisits me. You’ve done a good job hiding the torture of this and your hypochondria. I’m thankful your kids, the snow and the worst camera helped you overcome the inertia. For what it’s worth I loved the photos.

  • We all cope in our own way. For you, that is clearly loving your family and taking pictures. Know that your insights about photography – and life – are treasured by your readers.

  • You should make a contact sheet out of the unfinished roll in the SP, leaving the rest of it blank.
    It would be up there with “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”

  • Very well written and touching. Every photographer, amateur or pro will recognize themselves in your words. Looking at your kids photos I can tell you’re a great dad. Like mastering photography, mastering parenthood is both hard and wonderful. Keep up and stay safe.

  • Avatar
    Benjamin Scott-Killian February 12, 2021 at 2:01 pm

    Words, images, vulnerability… art is powerful medicine and this essay shows its incredible capacity for integrating the often crazy-feeling fragments of life. Thanks for sharing your art and humanity with your readers – it is so good for the heart and soul. Photography is spiritual when the process becomes part of the journey of each of us becoming more ourselves.

  • Acknowledging that we have problems is the hardest and easiest thing to do.
    It is also the healthiest thing to do.

    This is a beautifully written article James, and I am sorry. For you, for your family, for us all.

    Be well.
    Huss

  • I loved the images. It reminded me of what it was like when I lived in the Midwest and had weather. It is something I miss having lived in CA for most of my life. On the other hand, watching the news this past wqeek reminds me of what I don’t miss about living with weather. Brrr! In any case, the family picsd are charming and the landscape and nature shots are beautiful.

    Thanks.

  • Great one more time James, our sun and fresh wind 😉

  • This year was hard for everyone, for sure. But not everyone had to go through your and your partner’s loss. Take all the time you need, we’ll still be here if you write an article every 2 months instead of every 2 days. There is probably enough on that site for us to read the whole year!

    Ps: there is no such thing as self indulgence. There is such a thing as opening up to others so that we all feel less alone.

    Take good care.

  • Thanks for writing this James. I needed to hear it also.

  • Beautiful pictures. Beautiful family. Thanks for opening your heart and sharing your humanity. We have all felt a bit isolated and disconnected this year. Joy, love, grief can help us feel more human. Blessings on you and your family. A great reminder too, it’s the pictures that matter, not the gear.

  • Thank you for writing this article. It’s been a tough year for all of us, and my thoughts are with you and your family.

  • I was very moved by your sharing of your difficult times and how you’ve found a way forward together with your family. You have given voice to emotions we are all feeling; even though the specifics of everyone’s experience differ, your struggle speaks to the challenges we all face, and gives us hope. Thank you.

  • Touching and sincere article. I know that there is a bravery involved to to so open to yourself and you readers. Stay safe be well! Bright future to you and your family.

  • Avatar
    Thomas J. Schitteck February 13, 2021 at 3:45 am

    Mr. James, I can feel your pain in your words. I wish you and your family all the best. Stay strong and happy, enjoy every sunbeam and don’t loose hope. If you want, the living God will leaf you into a new happieness. All the best for you!
    Best wishes from Germany – from my photofamily Contax, Kodak, Leica, Minolta, Nikon, P6 and Rollei. 🙂
    Thomas

  • I am so sorry you have had so much sadness recently and I send my sincerest wishes for you and your family’s well-being for now and the future. I am sure you will revel in the beauty and the joy of your girls caught so perfectly in these few frames. They will lift your spirits again in tough times, there is no doubt. Des

  • Amazing article. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Wishing you and your family well.
    As a psychotherapist, I’d recommend Irvin Yalom’s ‘Starring At The Sun’. Be well.

  • It was not a mistake to publish this.

  • Wishing you the best James. As always I appreciate your words.

  • James, Thank you for a personal and deeply moving article. I have spent my entire working life in the military with extended periods away from my own family, often ‘in harms way’, where a sense of one’s own mortality is readily apparent. Often photography became my safe space and a vehicle for me to de stress and find some calm, being creative was my pressure release valve. In this piece the fun and happiness of your children shines out from the photographs. Best wishes to you and your family, stay well and please keep writing.

  • Thank you for sharing your life with us. Your words in this article as well as every other are so chosen so well and beautiful even if the subject is deeper and more heart wrenching than most. Keep your head up.

    And also, I’ll take that Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX9 review now please. Thank you.

  • I should never read your articles when I am feeling weepy, you have a way of enhancing my emotions. Great article, great results from the little camera. You have a gorgeous family and lots to be proud of. I am glad you are writing again.

  • Hi James, this is a beautiful article that hits home for me. I have been struggling with telling my own story in a similar way. It takes a lot of courage. I lost a daughter to the swine flu in 2009. Perhaps when this mess is over, we can finally meet and share thoughts, memories, aches and pains. Louis.

  • I am so sorry for your loss and grief, James.

    Amongst the backdrop of C-19 are all the things that life has given or taken away, that may or may not have happened due to the pandemic. ‘Life goes on’ sounds trite, but it does.

    These things will define us, some day.

    You’ll finish that roll of film and the first eleven frames will be cherished and cried over.

  • My very deepest condolences, James, on your loss.

  • This is a great read, James. Misfortunes are part of life – most of them minor but some, like yours, heartbreaking. But equally there are minor pleasures and major joys, the things we live for. It’s simplistic to say that one side truly balances the other, but what you’ve described here is the benefit of knowing where our small pleasures come from, so that they’re there when we really need them, to reconnect us to the joys we can question or neglect when the big misfortune comes along.

    And you’ve shown that reconnection superbly here: “My kids did that for me. Cameras let me record it.” Helping yourself to feel better doesn’t diminish your lost son, or your feelings for him. But embracing the simple pleasures of the snow and the girls and the dog enjoying it is just as real, and the pictures will remind you of all the feelings, the bitter and the sweet, and of how you got through. Stay well!

  • Stunning writing. Beautiful photographs. As always.

    I remember these cameras with a fond jealousy. I worked at ritz / wolf camera in the early 2000’s and again from 2008-2011 and I remember this camera hitting our shelves and how badly I wanted it.

    Sleek. Refined. Futuristic. The Motorola Razr of cameras. All metal. Weather-proof. The perfect take-anywhere camera. Better than any smartphone camera at the time.

    But I was broke. Working for peanuts and getting a few rolls of film developed each week when I worked alone and could sneak it through the machine without paying for it or getting caught. So the Sony sat on the shelf. Mocking me with its vertical slide, cyber shot branding and clever touch controls. That $399 block of aluminum and silicon that I’d never own. At least not while I was making $7.75 an hour developing instant cameras brought in by girl-chasing navy recruits hoping I wouldn’t recognize the under-eighteens in the photographic proof of their exploits-on-leave.

    This post is maybe one of my favorites you’ve written. I’m sorry for your troubles but I’m thankful for your insight.

    Take care. Be well (or be a hypochondriac… hell, there are worse things you could be). I look forward to more introspective pieces from you in the future.

    Best,
    Matthew

  • great article!. youre not alone. i also live with panic attacks and amxiety, and photography has been my therapy. stay safe buddy.

  • taking photo from life through these point and shoot camera help me hold the ability to create memories.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio