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Jon & Kate: lessons in reality TV pressure

I've seen firsthand how a camera can alter family life.

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When news broke that reality TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin are separating, I thought about my own family's brief time as a media clan – and what it taught us about the stresses of living and loving in front of a camera.

I'm talking about a weekend last year, when a national magazine hired me to visit New Orleans with my family and file a first-person travel story about our experiences.

I was paid a handsome fee, and all of our expenses for a fun-filled weekend of dining and sightseeing were covered. There was just one catch: As part of the article, a professional photographer would tag along, getting candid shots of me, my wife, our 12-year-old daughter, and our 7-year-old son having a good time.

The photographer was easygoing, professional, and very sensitive to our family's privacy, but her presence necessarily altered the chemistry of the weekend.

Dancing the two-step with our daughter at a Cajun eatery, I caught myself smiling more broadly than usual, intent on italicizing the moment as a fun-filled snapshot. As we strode around the French Quarter, I noticed that all of us were walking more briskly, standing straighter, and eating more daintily as our personal paparazzo clicked the shutter.

Aware that each gesture could be captured on film, we reflexively struggled to create more cheerful and charming versions of ourselves, as if our lives had become a running job interview. With a camera among us, we also found ourselves biting our tongues, avoiding the petty squabbles that, while quite normal in a family of four, might look much worse if frozen in a photograph.

Although we knew that our photographer wouldn't publish anything unflattering, I instinctively relaxed as we parted company at the end of the trip. Our family was free once more to be the one we'd always known, rather than the idealized household we'd subconsciously crafted for media consumption.

If one weekend before the camera created this mild yet perceptible pressure on my family, then how much greater are the strains imposed on families such as the Gosselins, whose daily life has been filmed for years, attracting an audience of millions?

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