“They’re only little once.” I heard that a lot when Fiver was small, sometimes applied like a balm to a hard day of parenthood, sometimes as a push for a fun family trip or splurge. It’s a hard statement to argue with.
Small is mostly what I get to know as a photographer: as the eldest turns 10, my relationship with a family begins to wane. As a result I might have assumed that babyhood and toddlerhood were the most worthy, photogenic years. Worse, I might have assumed that once “cute” was no longer a popular adjective for describing a child, maybe that made them less worthy of being professionally photographed.
Then my own son turned 10. Not long after, we took our yearly holiday trip to NYC and, as per usual, brought a camera. Upon reviewing the capture I was surprised by how his same face could change from sullen to silly child, one frame to the next with only split seconds between. The transition from unamused teen to child-like and back seemed fluid.
Maybe this is a very rich time, this betwixt and between. They want to be independent, they seek the autonomy and authority adults have. But they also want to play and daydream and run fast. They still want to snuggle, they just won’t be caught dead doing it.
We don’t love our kids any less at this age so why don’t we photograph older children until its time for prom and senior photos? What if family life is still family life because they’re still just kids? Yes, there are pimples and braces and athletic wear but isn’t this all part of childhood too?
My best friend has a black and white photo of herself from 7th grade hanging in her living room. She’s crouched down in a squat and wearing a reflective track suit, she has big hair and full head gear – you know, braces back when they were evil contraptions. She’s glaring into the lens, whoever is behind it is in some deep shit for taking this picture. The camera flash reflects back from her eyes, the fabric texture and all that heavy metal, adding a certain harshness to her stare. When I asked why she chose to hang it she said, “Its a weirdly beautiful version of me, I just really like it.” It is, and I do too.
So I was talking about all of this with my friend Jana. She has spent the past year in quarantine with two teens and has been wanting a visual a record of it. She doesn’t really like posed portraits, none of them do. Her kids are sporty, clever and cool. She asked if they would be willing to take pics. They were hesitant but they did say yes.
I suggested each person come up with a scenario, a scene they will remember quarantine by. For Jana, it was making waffles – which she doesn’t just restrict to breakfast! She loves when the kids come into the kitchen and everyone is gathered, eating, laughing, fighting over the Nutella. It’s the space where everyone is most relaxed. Instead of describing the rest of it… I’ll just let you see.
From all of our ideas came a patchwork of active and quiet family scenes and a warm, realistic document. Everyone isn’t always together all the time but that’s true. And maybe the big difference isn’t about cuteness, as there’s some very sweet things captured here, I think it has more to do with ownership and permission. We know they don’t belong to us at this stage, that they belong to themselves. The truth is that they never did but we’re confronted with this truth when they can say no. But when they say yes….
If you’re interested in doing something this with your teenage kids, let’s talk about it so you can talk with them. Even if you have never really done family pictures or documentaries, its never too late to make a document of what life looks like now and their input might just surprise you. As for me, I’ve been on and off the #365photochalllenge, which has only furthered my appreciation for this betwixt and between stage within my own family. I’ll post more of those another day, suffice it to say we’re not missing a moment around here for as long as he lets us click.