“Nice and cute”

Right now, we’re really worried about pictures of children.  We’re worried about who’s taking them, where and why.  With digital technology, we worry that these images could wander from cell phone to computer to internet and back again.  We’re worried about keeping control, which is problematic because in anything to do with children (and possibly life in general) control is a demanding and limiting ambition.

One area of contention is over what we might call the right to photograph children in public space – even if the child is one’s own.  In this the photograph and the photographer are seen as dangerous, and fears about their intent limit children’s behaviours when in public, as parents ensure that they are covered up at all times and that strangers are kept at a distance.

Another battle is over what might be called the right to the appearance of the child, how they look, what they’re wearing and what all of these might suggest about the parents.  In spite of all the belts being tightened, there is a massive industry set up around making even the smallest of children look ‘cool’.  You might not be buying Stella McCartney clothes for yourself, but thanks to her partnership with the Gap you can buy them for your toddler.  I can’t tell you how many parents, and thus children, I’ve met on playgrounds who are terrified of clothes getting dirty, even though those clothes will be too small in a couple of months.

A friend just sent me this link, which demonstrates a particularly Brooklyn way of addressing the problem.  It shows how much cooler you can look with money to spend.  I do think that this service, which takes school photos of children with costumes and no formal posing, is a far more entertaining version of the stiff and vacant-eyed process I remember.  But at the same time, the fact that it exists shows how invested parents are in images of their children – even the same parents who may look at their own school photographs and laugh at those hideous haircuts.

A similar impulse can be seen in this row, in which a (different) photography company photoshopped the scar off of a three year-old girl without asking her parents first.  They replied:  “There are a lot of parents who are happy when marks which may have shown up from a scratch that morning are made to disappear, and the same goes for runny noses… We just want things to be nice and cute.”

This desire to show children as cool, or as physically ‘perfect’ is incredibly dangerous, because it perpetuates the idea that a child’s attractiveness is their most important attribute.  I used to think that skinned knees at the end of the day proved I’d been having fun, and that hot pink and bright red went together better than any other two colours in the world. 

When I see portraits that children have taken of one another they are almost always pulling faces, flipping off the camera and grinning.  Candid shots show them doing inexplicable things with paper or mud, digging holes and setting off on expeditions that are mostly conducted in their heads.  They show children with dirty faces, chewing sandwiches with their mouths wide open or demonstrating how they can roll their eyes into the back of their heads.  Compared to the posed, airbrushed images which are produced through official channels they are indeed ‘candid’ – characterized by openness and honesty of expression.  They contain a truth about individual children and childhood in general, it’s messiness and its glory.

Update: There’s an exhibition of photographs taken by children at the Kingsmead School in Hackney, on right now at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood.  The slideshow of images children have taken about their lives, is well worth a look, and below is a self-portrait taken by Sally Hammond.

Kingsmead School: Sally Hammond, 10

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2 thoughts on ““Nice and cute”

  1. I am very interested in the information on this site and very much look forward to exploring it but I’m confused as to the point of this blog post.

    I am a part of the Brooklyn photography company Stomping Ground you blogged about. Specifically I am confused about what you mean by a particularly Brooklyn way of addressing the problem. What problem?

    Also it says, it shows how much cooler you can look with money to spend. Well, yeah, ain’t that the truth. If I didn’t have two kids and a new business and had some money to spend I would look cooler. I look forward to the day when I once again have money to spend on some nice clothes! Anyway, I digress. What we are offering is beautiful portraiture of children. We have received amazing compliments from parents about how we managed to capture their child so well. The parents are going to pay for school portraits anyway – and, yes, ours cost more than the factory line franchise shots one typically gets but we are happy to erase a little bit of mediocrity from the world and replace it with something more true and more beautiful.

    Our goal is not to show children as “attractive” or “physically perfect” at all. In fact, we think it is most interesting that many schools – particularly preschools – talk about freedom, play, individuality, yet have these companies come in and take pictures that are based on equation and efficiency where they are told where to sit, where to look and to smile. We have never told a child to smile. We feel that embracing play and encouraging individuality is why our photos end up looking really great. In fact some of the traits you attribute to candids, we think we achieve with our portraiture – openness and honesty of expression. We also believe “they contain a truth about individual children and childhood in general, it’s messiness and its glory.”

    Obviously the photo company was wrong to remove the scar without being asked. We have been asked to remove scabs. And if someone wants that then we will do it but we will also give our opinion. We have taken amazing portraits of seriously banged up kids that we love (skateboarding accident or what not). It is our personal perspective that kids should not be retouched (although we do understand how a booger can be distracting….).

    Again, your site is wonderful and informative. I very much look forward to digging in and learning about your practice. As a mother, grad student in Ed. Theater and business owner I hope to gain some great insights from this site.

  2. Hi Kelsey

    When I say ‘problem’ I mean it in the wider social sense of how we, collectively and culturally, represent children in photographs. It’s a massive source of anxiety at the moment and I think that anxiety is expressed in lots of different ways.

    That said, I don’t want you to think that I don’t see the value of your business. The images on your site are individual as the kids themselves, they’re compelling and absolutely charming. What I’m more interested in is the context that makes your business work – why now, there’s a market for more interesting school photographs, when we’ve had boring dorky ones for so long and not thought of a change.

    When I said ‘particularly Brooklyn’ I was trying (a bit hamfistedly I’ll admit) to reference one aesthetic that I found in some parts of Brooklyn when I was living there. Many residents (mostly white and middle class like myself) seemed to be pushing new frontiers of coolness, to be very self-aware about their image. It makes sense that this priority, and the quirky, colourful and witty fashions that I saw there, are being carried through to the commissioning of photos of the next generation.

    Best of luck in your business!

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