HOW THEY SEE US
The Humbling Tyranny Of The Photos Our Kids Take Of Us
These unflattering portraits do what kids do best: they wholeheartedly engage with the present moment.
Six months into the pandemic, a member of my wonderful online mom group posted a laughably unflattering photo of herself: she was sitting on the floor of her living room, in sweatpants, surrounded by all the familiar kid detritus, staring straight into the camera, with the serene, grim, vaguely pissed expression of one who has no idea a picture is being taken. She said she was considering making a book of the horrible pictures her kid seems so fond of taking of her. And then, a funny thing happened: we all started sharing our own. Portrait after portrait — hundreds of them — delightfully intimate, messy photos taken in the kind of hostile lighting you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, and from even more spiteful angles (how many chins can one child’s viewfinder find?).
We immediately recognized this type of photography was a genre of its own, one we had never before considered sharing with anyone else (they’re…bad). We had all, at one point, privately reckoned with these “unusable” images on our camera rolls, rolled our eyes at the horrors they revealed. But now, we could revel in the unique joy of learning we weren’t alone with camera rolls bursting with truly cursed portraits. And somehow, these malevolent images are borne from the tiny fingers and eyes and perspectives of the ones who love us… most?!
Children, of course, know little to nothing about "crafting" a good portrait. They know naught of symmetry, or contrast, or depth of field. They do, however, know the specific power of finally having control over the rectangular device normally glued to their parents’ hands. They pound that round red button at will, capturing images from their abbreviated heights, their lilliputian thumbs obscuring the lens, often blurring the image with their relentless movement.
These unflattering photos do what kids do best: they wholeheartedly engage with the present moment.
These pictures remind us that while we study our children, they study us back. Before we speak, we see. For months before spoken language ever enters the relationship, a child gazes upon its mother for hours, every day. The gaze of the child is the least judgmental, the most accepting. When a child takes a portrait of their parent, there is an absence of so many of the elements that inherently exist in the portraits an adult makes. There is no moralizing, for one. No manipulation. They don’t bother to hide or deny the aspects we normally do in photos. In fact, unlike in every other photographic example, there is a total absence of forethought or editorializing.
Each photo is a matryoshka nesting doll of a story. An alien would immediately understand so much if they were to happen upon this collection.
“Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights,” wrote art critic John Berger in Ways of Seeing. “This is true even in the most casual family snapshot. The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject. Our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our own way of seeing.”
As unbecoming as they may be, the portrait a child takes might be the most frank visual diary of contemporary parenthood that can be found on one’s bloated camera roll. They are technicolor tributes to what it felt like to be in these homebound moments together, featuring us as we are, with a lot of chins, a lot of cellulite, a lot of messy hair. The photos do what kids do best: they wholeheartedly engage with the present moment.
These images are not made to be shared, which is what makes sharing them so fun. These are a few of my favorites, but I’m also dying to see yours — tag me @flamelikeme or @romper so we can all feel deeply seen and deeply known, just like these women here.