Photographing Other People’s Children

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Photographing other people’s children is what I do a lot of the time. It has unfortunately become increasingly sensitive. Whilst we are all taking more photos than ever before, and many parents post images of their children publicly on social media, parents have become increasingly concerned and protective of their childs image. Many are happy to post their own photos of their children, whist I am being treated with a great deal of suspicion for even asking permission to photograph a child.

I know some parents who do not wish to publish even a single photograph of their child online. At the same time I see many photographs online that I think infringe children’s privacy (I don’t mean nude photos here, I mean photos of things children have done in secret – notes they have written and some moments that have happened behind closed doors – not in public, that I personally would not broadcast).

My own perimeters of posting photographs of my daughter online, sit somewhere in the middle of these two viewpoints. If you don’t include photographs of children online you are automatically self censoring. I am happy to post photos of my daughter online, but some moments that happen in private, I consider unsuitable for public consumption. Some moments are too precious to be made so public.

Photographing children in the street is becoming particularly difficult. Many photographers simply avoid photographing children, as editors/publishers are concerned with having a model release form. This is not a necessity, but companies especially want that security. I usually stop the parent and child to ask permission, but sometimes you want to record the natural flow of human behaviour, without you and your camera altering it. It’s not always possible to seek permission. When I do ask permission, I give out my card and explain what I am doing. I am increasingly greeted with suspicion and hostility, when I am only taking photographs. I understand parents are protecting their child’s image and I do all I can to be open, honest and ease people’s concerns. But do we really need to treat photographers with such suspicion? I think it’s an unnecessary anxiety.

I experience this anxiety from the children themselves. It used to be the easiest photo to take – a picture of a child out playing. Twenty years ago, when I was at college children were willing participants, keen to show off in front of the camera. Now, I would think very carefully about approaching a child out without his/her parent. It could cause too much anxiety for both parent and child. When I have asked permission from children out on their own they have told me “no, I don’t know you”. On one occasion adult passersby heard our conversation and congratulated the children on their stance. I was made to feel like the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It is a great shame that a person whom you don’t know, who bothers to ask your permission to take a photograph evokes such anxiety in young people and their parents.

More photographs of children are being taken by parents, which will in the future, provide a valuable insight into family life. However a whole genre of photographs, of children out playing – I fear is disappearing. The photographs taken by the likes of Oscar Marzaroli and the numerous photographers of The Hulton Picture Library for example, could just not be taken today. What the professional can bring to this subject is being underrated and unfortunately may be lost.

7 comments
  1. Excellent blog post Kirsty, and a subject and point of view that probably needs a full debate. Think you have started the ball rolling here.. Well done..

  2. Jon Garrard said:

    This is a really interesting post. I am one of those parents who does not put pictures of my kids online. But I think this is different to the main issue you have raised which is about the sensitivity of taking photos where there is no connection between the photographer and the child. The reason I don’t put the kids pictures on Facebook is that they would lose any anonymity; it would be obvious who they are. I don’t feel I have the right to say to the world (and that is what it feels like) “This is Jo”. I suppose I am trying to preserve their right to do that when they decide to themselves. Which will be when they are about five I guess! But I would not mind someone taking a picture of them and putting it online as a photograph if they were not identified. I don’t worry about what the image is for.
    I think the most likely reason for the reactions you describe is simply the sad modern perception that behind every tree (and now lens) lurks a potential sex offender. We have also been taught that sex offenders are clever, devious and persistent and will go to any lengths to satiate their depraved appetites – like producing business cards and pretending to be a photographer. Hmmm typical. Ironically it’s the same paranoia that means people DON’T mind being recorded a thousand times by CCTV every time they go to buy a newspaper.
    In Ethiopia where I live there is HUGE suspicion about taking photographs, and it is banned in many areas of Addis. This is mainly about security and police paranoia, but I see a growing suspicion of the photographing of children too. We work with street kids, a couple of years ago a professional photographer was with us to take a series of pictures of aspects of the programme, we were out in the evening taking some shots of kids in the street. I knew the kids and we had arranged the session. In the space of one hour a plain clothes security guy came up to check what we were doing (did we have the permits? – we did) and another good-hearted passer-by stopped to talk to the kids to check they knew us and they understood what the pictures would be used for. He was worried that we might be exploiting them. Which I suppose we were, albeit with their agreement and for a “good cause”.
    People’s anxiety is over a (usually groundless) fear of what the images will be used for, this has become terribly cynical. At the same time the value of the type of disappearing documentary that you mention is being lost. Perhaps the ubiquity of (mobile phone) photography is squeezing out the idea that there is a value in a types of photography that are neither family album nor reality porn.

    • Thanks Jon, some great comments here. I am writing about these two issues here as I am coming across a lot of hypocrisy. Some parents post photos of their kids in a very boastful way, that reflect on themselves to show the parents in a good light. I am also finding that people are happy to post modelling style photos, but they are still concerned about me showing documentary style photographs on my website.

      I think the issue here is control and so many people not understanding the Internet. They think that if they, themselves post images, then they will be secure in some way. When the reality is that once an image is online you automatically lose any power over who can view it and where it will end up.

      The fear is, as you rightly point out parents are worried about a sex offended looking at the images of their child. Not pleasant I know, but firstly this can not harm your child in any way and secondly there is (I’m sure) explicate material out there that they would be much more interested in. So really I see no rational need for the anxiety.

  3. Great blog post indeed. Makes me think of images I have posted of my children on this blog as well as my Facebook fanpage. A lot of great points also brought up by Jon

    • Thanks for you comment Marcus. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. Liz Milner said:

    Good to see this subject aired Kirsty. I agree with your perceptions of the hypocrisy in this country and it’s a real insight to learn about the attitude in Ethiopia. I went to The Photographers Gallery in London yesterday to see the exhibition of shortlisted Deutsche Börse competition photographers, among them a man who came to talk to us about his work when I was a student at Trent Poly in the early 1970s – Chris Killip. A real pleasure to see the prints of such well known and less familiar images, but looking at his photos of kids in Northumberland and Tyneside the same thought crossed my mind, that a genre of photography – which began as soon as technical advances in cameras and film allowed capturing of movement – is possibly being threatened, not by ‘new’ technology itself but by people’s misunderstandings and misinterpretation of what technology can and can’t, should and shouldn’t do.

    Many other images of street photography and photographers’ work spring to mind – Cartier Bresson, Bert Hardy, Bill Brandt, Roger Mayne, Helen Levitt, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen (not so many women on this list!) that captured an immediacy that would be completely lost if they’d stopped to ask permission first.

    The Deutsche Börse show is worth a visit though – mostly for Killip’s work! Here’s a link – http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/chris-killip-2

  5. Hi Liz,
    Thanks for your comments. I’m planning to go to the Deutsche Borse and really looking forward to seeing Chris Killip’s work. What I am writing about here is also part of a greater distrust of photographers. I found a good article about street photography and the privacy laws in France on the NY Times lens blog (http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/paris-city-of-rights/) It’s well worth a read…

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