When Everyone Takes Photographs What Can the Photographer Bring?

My youngest daughter recently left primary school. A tradition at her school is that each year the parents come together to arrange a series of secret events for the children on the last day of school. Fun games, mocktails, silent disco, face paint, pizzas and ice creams all featured this year. In addition to this there was a call for photographs to be taken and guess what! I was asked to do this. Suggestions of fancy dress, props and banners were made and rejected by me.

I agreed to make some portraits. I explained that all of the parents would, could and should take as many photos they wanted of the general mayhem but I would do something different. I needed to differentiate what I do as a photographer.

I decided upon a serious portrait, a document based on the transition from being a child to becoming a teenager. Using natural light in the village hall with a dark grey background on portable stands my intention was to bring the approach I would bring to any professional commission to photographing my daughter’s classmates.

By the time they had reached the village hall the children were high on ice cream, sweets and adrenaline. Beach balls were flying above my head and large inflatables surrounded me as I crouched on the floor behind my camera firmly locked onto my sturdiest tripod. Slowly but surely the children took their place on the chair I had set in front of the background for me to photograph them. I didn’t want silly faces, comedy sunglasses or extravagant poses. I just wanted them to be still, to look into the lens or just off camera.

They didn’t understand what I was doing or why. The experience was new to them and that is what I wanted. I was not creating images to please people in the moment but to be assessed in the future with the benefit of hindsight.

This may seem selfish but maybe that is what a photographer can bring that someone who makes photographs cannot. A sense of knowing, of confidence, of self. The understanding of the image as an historical artefact rather than a ‘party pleasing trick’. I photographed twenty-five of the class of twenty-eight in sixty minutes. Three did not want to be photographed.

I later sent the finished frames to the parents. Some I sent just one, a few I sent two or three, but I had not made more than four images of any one child. I never make many frames. I don’t want to bore the sitter, especially when I am photographing celebrities. Again you may think me selfish or over controlling and you may be right but a careful selective edit of the work I submit is part of being a photographer who cares in my opinion.

I am sure that the images received were not what was expected by the parents concerned. A few emailed me to express their thanks and their delight in the portraits of their loved ones. Others did not. None complained but I expect that some were displeased with the non-smiling portraits they received.

They will have their own smart phone images that I hope give them the type of pictures they want. What I tried to give them was an alternative to the snap. I think that is what the photographer can give.

Image: Florence by me.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

Scott’s next book Condé Nast Have Left The Building: Six Decades of Vogue House will be published by Orphans Publishing in the Spring of 2024.

© Grant Scott 2023

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