- Parents at ritzy summer camps like Tyler Hill and Camp Modin have been driving staff crazy over camp photos.
- This includes criticizing their child’s outfit choices and diagnosing medical conditions from afar.
- Camp directors have responded with stern letters asking parents to chill out.
Before he was a photographer at the Raquette Lake summer camp in the Adirondacks, Andrew Itkoff spent 30 years as a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist covering everything from Hurricane Andrew to the O.J. Simpson trial. But navigating the demands of high-maintenance summer-camp parents, he said, “is the hardest work I have ever done.”
Through the summer, Itkoff works from the crack of dawn till late in the evening. He takes and uploads hundreds of photos daily, with the goal of capturing at least one snap a day of every camper. Should he miss a kid — or catch someone looking sad, wearing the wrong outfit, or, God forbid, with a stain on their shirt — he knows it won’t be long before parents start calling.
“I’ve done four Super Bowls, the World Series, the Stanley Cup Finals, and the NBA Final,” Itkoff said. “The parents are getting a professional sports photographer for their kids at camp, and they’re focusing on the fact he’s not wearing the shoes that he’s supposed to be wearing.
“This year, it has gotten so out of control. If I photograph a kid and he has a bug bite, we’re getting phone calls saying ‘Shouldn’t he be in the infirmary?’”
With most sleepaway camps in the Northeast finally back in business after more than a year off, this summer has presented a much-needed reprieve for cooped-up kids. But in the shadow of the pandemic, separation anxiety among campers and parents appears to have reached record levels.
Especially when it comes to photos, which are posted online daily. Camp directors say that parents have been inundating staffers with an array of increasingly inane and hyperspecific demands every time a new batch goes out, including criticizing their child’s outfit choices and diagnosing medical conditions from afar, leading some camps to send reprimanding letters in response.
“My team goes to bed at 2:30 a.m. because these emails and calls are such a distraction,” said Howard Salzberg, a director of Camp Modin, in Maine, which costs $14,300 for a full seven-week session.
‘This past Friday she had a chocolate stain on her shirt’
In early July, an email from Wendy Siegel, a director at the chichi Tyler Hill — which once had A-Rod launch its Color War — was passed feverishly through the camp’s parent community like contraband candy. “We know it makes your day to see the smiles on your campers’ faces,” she wrote. “As you can imagine, however, photos are a double-edged sword for us.”
Writing from the camp grounds — a former luxe country club in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, replete with a professional nine-hole golf course — Siegel gently chastised parents for “continuing to parent your children as if they were living in your house all summer — not ours.” She said that with each picture she sent out, she seemed to get three or four questions back. “Can you please make sure she knows that the blue tank top with the stripes is to wear at night — not during the day?” “Please make sure she has a good smile for pictures on brother-sister night.” “This past Friday she had a chocolate stain on her shirt.” “Who is he standing next to? Where is that kid from?” “Is the boy with the blue shirt next to my son Jake, Zach, or Ryan? Do you know what town in New Jersey he is from? Did you push him in the picture just to make sure he was in one?”
Many camps already employ a full-time staff to cater to photos alone. But COVID anxiety increased the demand for pictures, and camps have turned to new technology to help streamline the process. Take the app Campanion, where parents upload a hi-res image of their child’s face at the start of summer. The app’s built-in facial-recognition software notifies parents every time a picture of their kid is uploaded. Even campers’ letters now get scanned using a QR code and emailed directly to parents’ in-boxes.
“We are so instantaneous in what we do to alleviate any pain in our children that we don’t give them any ability to persevere and be resilient,” said Salzberg, who recently sent out his own letter begging parents to chill out.
“If your child is all the way on the right side of a photo with five campers, it does not mean they are on the ‘outside’ of the social group,” he wrote in his missive. “If we post photos at mini golf and there are none of your children, it does not mean we have lost them! They may have been in the bathroom, or over somewhere else eating an ice-cream cone with friends.” He implored parents to stop bribing their kids to appear in photos as an “incentive for some sort of earnings or award program back home,” and to please avoid diagnosing medical conditions from photos in the gallery — as one dermatologist parent did of a child’s mole spot (it was chocolate).
“I had a parent this morning send an email saying, ‘Please have the photography staff go around and take more action photos of him playing sports,’” Salzberg said. “My response was, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have paid paparazzi that follow your child around like they’re a celebrity.’”
‘We’ll save and favorite a picture even if all you can see is their sock’
Heidi Green is a photographer whose kid attends Timber Lake camp, Tyler Hill’s sister camp, in the Catskills, which is decked out with in-bunk air-conditioning, a spin studio, and two movie theaters. For Green, even spotting a flash of her son’s shin guard at a soccer game makes her feel comforted, because “at least we can know where they were and that they were part of the activity,” she said. “If you see nothing, it’s this very strange, distant, anxious feeling.”
Every day, after a batch of photos are uploaded, Green pores over them like a CIA agent. “I stalk every single photo, because I have found my son from the back or from the side, where the facial recognition wouldn’t work,” Green said proudly. Recently, she started a parody account called @spotmykid, where she shares other camp parents’ vigilant attempts at locating their progeny in the background or edge of photos — an arm here, a shoe there.
“We’ll save and favorite a picture even if all you can see is their sock,” she added.
Another Timber Lake mom said she persuaded a fellow parent not to contact camp staff when she became upset after seeing photos of her son in mismatched outfits. “She told him that navy goes with whatever color, or black goes with whatever color,” she said. “There are parents that have labels for their kids’ clothes, like, ones go with ones and twos go with twos. At the end of the day, it’s hard for some parents to give up control.”
Timber Lake mom Sandy Burko told Insider that after eight years as a camp parent, she finds herself playing the role of therapist to hysterical newbies.
“I had a friend call me crying about it this year. She was very upset that her daughter was on the side of a photo, and not in the middle, like with all the girls,” Burko said. “I said to my friend: I bet she just came from somewhere or was running to the bathroom and he told her to sit down and just stop moving for the picture. So she phoned her daughter and was, like, ‘You were right.’”
Pizza bagels for breakfast incite ‘widespread panic’
Parental concerns about the camp experience are not wholly unfounded, especially this year. Along with the increase in homesickness and nervousness for both parents and kids, many camps are stretched thin because they lack international staff. There have also been issues with food-supply chains, as well as heightened vigilance to prevent COVID outbreaks. Yet camp staff say the panic is disproportionate to what’s actually going on.
A Camp Modin parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said she had been “totally blown away” by the “off the charts” level of stress in the chat group of the 20 other moms from her son’s cabin. After an article came out detailing some supply-chain issues with food delivery at summer camps in Maine, one of the kids told his mom that they had pizza bagels for breakfast that morning, which was enough to kick off a widespread panic in the chat about a summer famine. “There were probably 10 messages in the chat group about whether the kids were going to have enough food,” the parent said.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Is there avocado on the salad bar? Because my kid likes avocado,’” Salzberg said. “There’s supply-chain issues. It’s not that there’s not enough food.”
While many parents were amused at the letters from Siegel and Salzberg, which went viral, others were unhappy with the tone they struck. “One mom wrote to me and she said she thought the email was really rude,” a parent who has friends with kids at Tyler Hill said.
For now, camp directors like Salzberg just want parents to enjoy their summers while they can, and let their kids, and his staff, do the same, at least while everything is still relatively normal. They might not stay that way for long.
The few camps that were planning to hold visiting days this year, such as Timber Lake, announced recently that they were canceling theirs, and COVID scares at other camps have led some kids being sent home.
“I hear from parents that are, like, ‘Well, I’m hearing things from the other moms on the bunk chat group,’” Salzberg said. “I can just see everybody out in the Hamptons or Atlantic Beach or Jersey Shore comparing notes.
“What should I tell the moms who are anxious in the group chat? How about this: ‘Go enjoy the summer.’ Clearly my mom must not have loved me, because she was never doing any of this crap.”