Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Photographing with Children: A Tutorial

There are few things more fun than sharing the joy of photography with children. As a father of three I've enjoyed the experience first-hand with all of my kids. They've been around cameras since they were tots, and their gradual exploration and development as photographers has come as a natural part of their childhood. In addition to my own kids I've shared photography with many of their friends. I guess you could say I'm a regular Johnny Photoseed. 

With all these youngsters I've watched closely. I've noticed patterns and pitfalls, and shortcuts and tips, and I've taken notes. Below are a few nuggets of wisdom to help you engage kids with fine art photography, and hopefully introduce them to a hobby which will provide a lifetime of pleasure.
Kids are drawn to subjects with immediate personal interest

In some ways, teaching photography to children isn't much different than teaching adults. Regardless of age a photographer will be most engaged when shooting something of immediate personal interest. For a very young child this may be a stuffed animal or a perhaps a seemingly abstract scrawl of excrement on the wall, perhaps in a very tight corner which is almost impossible for larger hands to reach or clean. Perhaps a photograph can help pin down the exact location and help provide visual reinforcement when teaching lessons about appropriate and inappropriate artistic venues. 

For elementary age children, the subject might be Legos or dolls or a favorite playground. A middleschooler or preteen's needs may be completely different. They may feel a strong connection to first-person shooting games or 24 oz. steak dinners, or anatomically questionable sex fantasies. Note that some of these subjects may be tougher to find in the real world than online. That's ok. Do your best. Just remember that whatever the age, kids generally make their best photographs when they're shooting something they care about. It's that direct and honest connection which leads most often to meaningful images. 

I'm often asked what camera is best for children. The easiest answer is a cheap one. Kids can be rough on stuff, and that includes cameras. Odds are they will drop their camera, knock it around, step on it, use it as a soccer ball, whatever. Basically any camera they use --or any object in general-- is going to absorb some physical abuse. So before you give them an expensive instrument, ask yourself if your kid is really worth it. Is it worth tossing $1000 down the drain just so your child can have a few weeks of fun destroying it? Why not accomplish the same task with an inexpensive point-n-shoot? Chances are they won't know the difference and you can spend that money on yourself instead. After all, you're a teacher now. You deserve it.
Kids photograph the darnedest stuff. Luckily most such photos can be deleted with minimal hassle.

Even if a child doesn't break a camera, the odds are good that he or she will misplace it. Kids are absentminded. Sometimes -perhaps quite often- you will find yourself wondering just what the hell they were thinking. You may even voice this question out loud. That's ok. Find that direct honest connection to your feelings. Learn to tap in and listen to it, whether it's a quiet inner voice or a loud outer scream bellowing from you uncontrollably. For that is the way of the child.

I learned this lesson the hard way several years ago. I was on a hike with my son and several of his friends. As usual I brought a few cameras along, and naturally they were curious to use them. I dispensed them carefully, keeping track of who had what. Most were inexpensive point-n-shoots, but one was an $800 digital pocket camera. I thought nothing of it until an hour later when I asked for the cameras back. I wanted to see what they'd been shooting. 

I got all cameras back except the expensive one. Where was it? The damn kid had no idea. He thought he might've set it down somewhere. You should've seen the look on his face. It was one of complete beatific emptiness. Camera? What camera? I could've killed the little fucker, but I didn't. Thinking quickly I realized there was a photo lesson to be learned here. I made all the kids march double-time back the way we had come, searching under every log and grass clump for that camera, but to no avail. It was lost. Luckily this kid had a college fund which I was able to dip into the next week. I'm happy to say I was completely reimbursed, and with interest, but not all such scenarios end on a high note. Many kids do not have much personal savings beyond a simple piggy bank. Before dispensing cameras, especially if any are valuable, it may be good to get written promissory note from the parent in the event of loss or damage. 

I always use digital cameras. Don't give kids film cameras because they will waste film, and it will only encourage them to place value in their images when there likely isn't any. In addition I've found that loading and unloading film becomes a distraction, and old film cameras usually require some level of manual expertise. Digital cameras on the other hand require minimal thought. Most camera settings can be automated which frees up kids to focus on images. And with digital there is zero cost per shot. If they want to shoot a thousand photos of some stupid flower it's no skin off your back.

Delete? Not so fast! Blur can be bankable 

This brings me to image quality. The most important thing you've got to realize -and for some adults the toughest lesson to learn- is that most kid photographs are miserable. Don't expect the moon. Maybe one of out fifty photos will be halfway interesting but for the most part you'll find them a waste of time. You don't have all day. You've got better things to do. So task number one is to erase the crap. I find it's best to do this out of sight of the kids. A bar of chocolate can distract them for several minutes, especially if it's wrapped tightly in extra packaging. Duct Tape is great for this. Turn it into a game. Find the prize. Kids will usually fall for that. Say "Johnny Photoseed needs some down time." Then find a quiet corner or private room away from them and start deleting. Your tone during all of this should be upbeat and appreciative. Use familiar catchphrases like "Great Photos!" or "Very impressive!" If you're stuck for exact buzzwords, a few minutes on Flickr will generate many possibilities.

The tricky thing here is that sometimes their "mistakes" can actually be quite interesting. Don't erase those ones. If marketed properly they can hit a good target market with the art crowd. Note that I'm talking about a very specific type of image here. Photos with soft focus, motion blur, or ambiguous splashes of color can be quite rewarding. Financially, I mean. That stuff is redhot in certain galleries, but only if it's edited and marketed properly. But kids will have no idea which work has financial potential. You've got to guide them. You've got to help them tap into their inner child and find the images which say "Youth! Freedom! Innocence!" in a marketable way.

Photo by some kid I was watching. I forget which one. Teaching children photography can provide innumerable rewards.

With kids usually their social contacts are too young to have gallery connections, but it's worth doing a bit of research on their parents. You never know who might know someone who knows someone, and if their own kid makes an interesting photo they will likely put some networking muscle behind it. This is where you can sometimes get a piece of the action as middleman. Kids usually have no idea how to sequence, edit, or come up an artist statement, and usually their parents won't either. But you have those skills. You can provide certain services for a fee. And the bonus: You helped them make the photos! That's a golden goose that can lay for a while if carefully tended. So don't give up on a kid just because their photos suck at first glance. Look deeper. Network. Think through all the angles.

There is an added twist here, and that is the general view in the fine art world of artworks by children. Sometimes it is segregated and dismissed. But if marketed correctly, an artwork's value can be enhanced by the fact a child made it. We've all seen art in galleries and thought My Kid Could Paint That. In photography it's especially true. Nowhere is the line between genius and infantile so blurry. Picasso said, "it took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." Young photographers can take those words to the bank, literally. Stick a 10-years old label under the artist statement and you just doubled the price! All of the sudden those blurry off moment snapshots take on the whiff of prodigy. Forget Weston, it's Tichy you're emulating here. Think of Moriyama, not Cartier-Bresson. Your job is to remind people that not just any 10-year old can shoot like these guys, only the true prodigies. And if you're a collector, getting a piece of a prodigy ain't cheap. Getting a piece means getting a piece of you. That's the equation. Call yourself the child's protectorate or mentor or something. Help yourself to a slice. You deserve it. After all you taught that kid everything he knows about photography.


loongan said...

I once taught myself photography, but to very little success. I seemed to be quite unreceptive as a student and would often go against my own advice, resulting in many copycat arty photos of not very much. I thought that perhaps I was teaching myself the wrong things because all I did was show myself photobooks by Robert Adams and Stephen Shore and Eggleston (you know) and read every article ever written by John Szarkowski (not quite)so I changed it up a bit. I now wander around not taking many photographs at all and when I do take pictures they look just like the ones I took before I stopped teaching myself. Thus I decided that the only person who could teach me photography was me, and there is a lot to learn.

Unknown said...