When I tell people I’m a photographer, the first question they ask is what my specialty is. I say, “Kids!” They either say, “Aw, how sweet!” or they say, “Whoa, that’s hard.”
I seldom think of how difficult it is to work with kids, because it’s what I’m always doing. And, like anything you get immersed in, you let it speak to you, like learning a language. So, I guess you could say, “I speak kid.”
Working with children for the past 10 years has made childlike thinking part of my reality, and it’s made me realize how much we “unlearn” as we enter adulthood that stifles and stymies our natural brilliance. In growing up, going to school, and assimilating into a society, many of our actions become things we do on autopilot. We don’t listen as closely to the beat of our own heart. We don’t respond as intensely to the immediate moment — we’re often worried about what happened an hour ago or what will happen tomorrow or next year.
Of course, we have to grow up and perhaps having adult concerns are an inevitable reality. But what children have taught me is that there is room in life to be a lot more childlike in our approach to problems, processing our feelings, and expressing ourselves.
This morning a 5-year-old attempted to tell me a joke at his photo shoot. He said, “Why didn’t the fish share? Because he didn’t have a shell!” I think this was supposed to be a shellfish joke about selfishness. The amazing thing was, the 5-year-old wasn’t really looking for a laugh. He seemed to know that jokes like this seldom get laughs, anyway. It’s just about making conversation, and perhaps sharing a hearty groan.
I had met him for the first time moments before, and he was willing to try to connect with me in a way he had seen humans do. He wasn’t worried about the joke not hitting, he wasn’t worried about anything. He was just making conversation with a potential new friend. I like this approach to life. It’s curious and fun, and it helps us make friends in the most unexpected places.
Over time, it’s become a lot easier for me to photograph kids than adults. Kids have an openness to energy, and if you approach them with a spirit of collaboration, they sense it, and respond to it. Adults are more timid than this. They are used to others collaborating only because they want something or with strings attached. Many adults have almost entirely forgotten how to play. It takes them much longer to warm up to me and my approach, to see the camera as a “toy” that we’re playing with.
I started shooting when I was just a kid so I have always thought of the camera as a toy. And, curiously enough, I have a photographic memory with very vivid pictures of my childhood. So, working with kids triggers thinking-memories for me that feel immediate — like something I experienced recently, even though it might have been 20+ years ago. I can recall the playfulness, and kids have always responded to my energy when I do.
So, when I shoot, I seem to automatically go into this inner mental state where the continuity of my life since childhood exists, where I *am* the little girl playing with a point-and-shoot film camera. And, simultaneously, I am an adult with years of experience of composition and exposure, knowledge of digital and analog, and adult and child psychology. I think it’s when all of this reality converges that the photos turn out the best, because they are stuffed to the brim with feeling and life and pure existence.
Mostly, like a musician, I have tried to tune myself to the feeling of my work through the years I’ve been practicing, not bothering to put it into words, and wanting to focus exclusively on the expression of the feeling in the work itself. But now that I’ve been focusing on photographing kids for 10+ years, I’ve realized there is a lot to say, about life, art, childhood, and the human spirit. So, I’m attempting to get it down in some form so others can experience a bit of the adventure I’ve had. Stay tuned.
Please support the expansion of the blog and the creation of my book on kids photography by voting for my business on Chase’s Mission Main Street Grant website:
I photographed this session on location at the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA. Images of me shooting by Erin Ashford.