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.

by Kira Cook
Originally Published: 

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?).

This picture becomes even more funny in the context of what this woman actually looks like. And yet her sociopathic child has chosen to capture her as a toothless (?), one-eyed (?), bean-baggèd cyclops? The dog, however, remains impeccable-looking. Riddle me that!

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?!

Steaming pot in the sink, another one in hand. The proudly feminist shirt graphic. The off-kilter Dutch angle. The slippers. The pothos optimistically crawling down the side of the fridge. A true modern motherhood snapshot.

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.

Another entry in the Sleeping Series. Mom gets a few winks? Not before we ruin her day with the resulting image.
These unflattering photos do what kids do best: they wholeheartedly engage with the present moment.
Taken by her third and oldest child, this photo speaks volumes. Sitting on the floor, hair askew, tandem breastfeeding two younger children. Reminiscent of a 17th-century painting!
It wouldn’t be fair if the writer didn’t include her own child’s gorgeous handiwork! Unwashed hair, some animated show on in the background, mid-yelling, “Give me back my PHONE,” obviously.
The mother informed me both daughter and mother were laughing when this action shot was taken. The mom underwear, the ghastly nude bra we all own, the quick-change in the garage (?), fabric bolts in the background. It’s giving “fashion mom on the go.”

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.

Don’t help grab one of these or anything. By all means, just steal the phone and capture the moment. You’re right, it is rather cinematic!
Unflattering angle? Check. Blurred? Check. Double chin? Check. Decapitated form? Check. This photo doesn’t have it all!
An intimate portrait of an analog experience: reading a book instead of a phone on the toilet. This child deserves both an award for framing and a punishment for invasion of privacy. We will settle for them, at minimum, grabbing a new roll of toilet paper.

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.

Here lies a mother, exhausted, possibly sleeping, while being assaulted by a) an uncommissioned photo b) the drawstring from a hoodie or pants that children are hellbent on pulling out of every item of clothing they can find.

“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.”

This photo says so much, no caption needed, honestly. Both parents, bleary-eyed, obviously having been awoken by a tiny tyrant now wielding their device as they greet a new day full of energy and zest.
An attempted smile at the camera gone awry due to those pesky eyelids (child probably took too long to press the button). A mother in the midst of putting together nine thousand Lego pieces. The visual definition of love as labor, labor as love.
The supine side-eye: a maternal classic. This woman has a burp cloth over her shoulder, indicating an extreme need for personal space and rest — neither of which is visible in this image.
We’ve all been there (screaming into a phone that’s charging).

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.

This woman is a literal model, and this is the photo her child manages to capture.
Birth of Venus vibes, but from the lens of the hyperactive toddler.
A mother in her natural habitat: surrounded by magnetic tiles in the foreground and Legos in the background, sporting overalls, kneeling so as to be at the level of her child on their portable potty, mid-conversation.

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.

This mother is literally BEGGING not to be photographed, and yet the tiny paparazzi stalk on, with blatant disregard for personal privacy!!!!

Kira Cook is a writer, actor, and host of the PBS travel series Islands Without Cars. She lives in Los Angeles and you can find her on Instagram @flamelikeme.

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