Reflections on Taking School Pictures

This year I’ve taken a part-time seasonal position with a national firm taking pictures for student IDs and yearbooks in public and private schools here in central Ohio. Over the past three months I’ve photographed at least 8,000 kids ranging from pre-Kindergarteners to grade 12 seniors. As a photographer I can’t help but make some observations. Below I will share some of mine around the themes of Boxes, Smiles and Poses.

Etched into the viewfinder glass of the company-provided camera is a box. We are taught to place each subject’s chin along the bottom line, the top of their head should be just at the top of the box and their heads should be centered side-to-side. That way all the heads will appear about the same size and form nice neat rows in the yearbook and for any composite photographs – individual images laid out in a single picture grouped by class, grade or an entire school.

As a graphic artist I can appreciate the ‘neatness’ that gives to printed pieces, but as a proud queer artist the symbolism of forcing kids to fit inside a box does not sit well. I can but hope this generation’s growing acceptance of true individuality (unlike the pseudo-individualism of my and past generations’ mild rebelliousness) means that yearbooks and composites are now filled with a variety of colours and styles. School District restrictions on t-shirts with printed messages does limit some self-expression, but some parents are much less concerned about piercings and tattoos, at least for kids of High School age.

Although not mandatory, all picture-takers are strongly encouraged to get subjects to smile whenever possible. Children from pre-K through about fourth grade pretty much always smile on command. Many adopt a smile as soon as they sit down. Many of the older kids that don’t (or try not to) smile are ones who want to ‘look tough’ in their pictures. Many of them will crack a smile without too much effort on my part. I actually enjoy the challenge of getting those ones to smile.

There are a certain number who seem to really be shy, thoughtful or sad. This is something that resonates with me; in school I was shy, thoughtful and to a certain degree sad. Actually I am still all three as an adult. There have been different reasons over the years for the sadness, and it’s not that my life is devoid of happiness and times of outright mirth. But each time I see such a child I wonder if they are just shy or if their life is already filled with too much sadness. Part of me wishes I could ask and offer some bit of wisdom; but I also know that there is a limit to how much of the world’s melancholy I could safely absorb.

My memories of having my school picture taken are; sit down, look at the camera (perhaps needing direction to lift up my head) and a bit of a smile. Quick and relatively painless. Now most kids sit down, cross their legs, look to the side and tilt their head. Poses they see on the web, television or in magazines (surely some kids still read actual printed magazines). No doubt some have been coached that way by a parent or another photographer; amateur or professional.

But quite a number of subjects come across as very sexualized– starting at a very young age. My first thought was to write a surprisingly young age but I’m not really surprised. Partially because of the above-mentioned prevalence of such imagery on the web and other media. From pre-teen ‘beauty pageants’ to stories of homeless youth doing whatever it takes to survive life on the streets, we are inundated with images of children who are as sexualized as any adult.

I’m also not surprised by such sexualized posing because all of us are, at root, sexual beings. That fact terrifies most parents. The more fundamentalist their religious beliefs the more terrifying that truth is. This is not a call to change age of consent laws; our society’s puritanical hang-ups on sex and sexuality mean that few people (of any age) are really able to process their emotional responses to sexual intimacy. But it is a reminder that the only way to really prevent children from being sexual beings is to follow the advice attributed to Mark Twain. When asked for his suggestion on raising children (or perhaps, just boys) he is said to have replied “place them in a barrel with an airhole at the age of 13“. When asked when to let them out he supposedly said “at 16 plug up the hole“.

I’m sorry to disappoint anyone looking for tips on photography techniques. Nor do I offer any solutions to the issues I’ve mentioned; just posting my thoughts on my experience. Feel free to share any reactions in the Comments Section below, subject to my ‘play nice or play elsewhere’ rule.

© 2012 Brian Gryphon

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