Grain destined for export stacked on Madras beaches (February 1877) I've started writing a series of posts on photography on World...
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
How not to Photograph: Hasn't She Grown Part 1
picture: Colin Pantall - Isn't she Gorgeous #1 (from a very, very long and ongoing series of ooh, I've lost count)
Kids next! Because obviously there is only one thing worse than the Vacation Slide Show - and that is the kiddie slide show.
Those of us who are parents are fascinated by our children, by their language, their art, their actions, their vendettas, all those little politics of childhood that stir in us memories of how we used to be. We are so fascinated, we decide we will photograph our children for posterity, to strip back and reveal the psychology of growing up. Yes, we decide, ours will be the first real look into what it is to be a child because there is no on-the-nail documentary or photography of childhood, just the odd glimmer here or there.
The first obvious problem is who cares? If you don't have children or you have little memory of your own childhood, you almost certainly do not care. There are grown up things like drink and drugs and going out and having fun that are much more interesting than children. And if you don't have children you can do worthwhile things like travel to foreign lands, get out of Somerset or wherever it is you inhabit and live life to the full. That will expand your horizons much more than the navel gazing claustrophobic world of people who photograph children and don't get out enough.
Next up. The problem with people who photograph children is when you become a parent, and you spend a lot of time with your children, your inner lizard brain kicks in and you resort to type; mothers become cave-mothers, fathers become cave-fathers. We grunt alot, eat for two (women because they are feeding the baby or feeding themself, men because we don't like to miss out) and begin to mimic our child's behaviour. When children are young they are called babies. Babies are little ASBO people who shit and spit and vomit where they like. They wail and scream and are wake up at unreasonable hours of the night. They can't speak so scream when they want something. They can't see or use their hands. They can't even walk.
And this is what we copy. We move to their level in the dustballs (sorry, is that just me?), in our snot-stained top and vomit streaked jeans and begin to see the world from their perspective. To the new father or mother, this is a miracle of life and indeed it is. And because we have a camera handy we start to photograph this miracle of life from the little miracle's perspective; so down and dirty we get with the dustballs, the textures, the little things that exist at toddler-eye level.
Great, except there's just one problem. Dustballs and the texture of smear stains on the window (my own personal favourites!) are of no interest to anyone except babies and OCD clean-freaks. Babies grow out of this way of seeing and they do so for a reason - because as they grow older they find there are more interesting things to look at. There are more things to see than the dust beneath our feet. They know it, so why don't we?
The next level of tedium comes as the child grows up and starts to explore. This is where they become cute and lovely. They are Innocent Children ( little Noble Savages if you like), unspoilt and unsullied by civilisation, tabula rasa that need to be captured on film for all the world to see.
Except they are not innocent and they are not unsullied. Small children are feral creatures, wild and untamed and completely selfish. The first words they learn are "more" and "again" and they do things like have tantrums in supermarkets when they don't get what they want. If they were adults they'd be Father Jack (the priest from Father Ted whose discourse mostly consists of "Drink! Feck! Girls! Arse!").
But you have to be pretty hard-hearted to focus on that. Photography is so much about making things look good and that counts double when it's your own children. Who photographs their children crying or screaming or sick? The father in Peeping Tom, that's who, and see what a sicko his son turned out to be!
And if you take the naturist interpretation to the feral child and photograph your child in their natural state, then God help you because you will be damned by the Neo-Taliban that inhabit all shores and regard a child's bottom as something out of Sodom and Gomorrah - Cover Up, Cover Up, they scream. And well they might, because on the other side lies the attention of those disgusting people who find an uninteded love interest in our pictures. We can pretend it isn't so, but it is. There's no escaping it.
So we ignore that side of things and we focus on the Innocent Child - an 18th century vanity, Lord Preserve Us. Look at film or literature and there are plenty of children who live in savage worlds filled with vengeance, guilt and shame, worlds filled with evil, bile-spitting nazis-in-boy form (The White King, a wonderful novel by Gyorgy Dragoman is my favourite, current example of this) . But in photography, it's dignity, beauty and grace all the way.
And that's what we end up with - the beautiful child, the innocent child, the child untainted by adult life and the adult world, living in isolation from society and the outside world, deadpan fakery scrawled across their face, their daily lives a simulacrum of tasteful disorder.
The photographer of children produces a glorified baby slide show, genres mixed, shaken and stirred. The photographer of children can't be bargained with, can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel reason, or pity, or shame. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead from the boredom of seeing all his goddamn pictures of his little darling.
And the only way around the dilemma - see How not to Photograph: Hasn't She Grown Part 2. That's what I do. Easy!