Photography Burn Out is real.
The journey of Unpopular started about a year ago when I became bored with my personal work. I have been shooting my children pretty much non-stop for the past 5.5 years and I have literally thousands of images of them. The styles range from professional portraiture, to documentary photography, to more modern/fashion styles of photography – and this is not even counting the thousands of cell phone pictures I take yearly of the four of them. I can’t help myself – photography is my drug and the more I take the more I want to take. This though has led to a certain degree of burnout for my own personal creativity and has really inspired me to take a new road – one that appears to be quite unpopular.
I have been interested in forms for many, many years. There is something amazing to me about the human body and how it is different for all of us. Some of us are big, some of us are small. Some heavy, some petite…some hairy, some bare. We are all very different and when I look at children – which of course I do on a very regular basis I have begun to really look at them in a way I have not previously and have been enjoying them all individually so much more. It is really easy as a photographer to get into the habit of looking for just that key thing that you know will sell an image. Maybe a child has a beautiful smile, or perfect skin…or maybe they are just a little different looking which is perfect to set the image apart but at some point you start to only see those things and stop looking at the child and who they are rather then just how you can capture them so that you can make a great sale. All photographers are guilty of this at some point – I am not alone I don’t think. Our job is to create images that are meaningful to the people who are purchasing them – not to us.
This is the hardest time of year for photographers in Canada as well. It is cold, dark still (though it is still bright out at 5:30pm right now so I am feeling optimistic that spring is just around the corner) and really hard to “embrace” right now. The atmosphere in the winter when you photograph mainly outside is very unpopular with many people and families…not to mention the children that I am photographing. Trying to get a child to participate when they are literally shaking they are so cold is no fun and just a waste of time in my opinion – unless you are going for a “frozen toddler” look to your images – which I doubt many people would pay for. This also forces a few of us to really start thinking about how we can make something out of nothing at this time of year.
My children have always been my muses. They have been groomed by me over many years to not fear the camera and to associate it with fun, treats and opportunity…as well as play time most often. The girls are now used to getting all dolled up in beautiful outfits and the boys love the end result (current fee to rent my oldest for 45 min is $1 and a Kinder Surprise Egg). They are always eager to participate and while my oldest is 5.5 years old now, my triplets are only 3 and they have a threshold of about 10-15 min tops for any photography session, so that puts even more pressure on to be creative and try to do something genius which is near impossible when you are working with little independent people who are JUST starting to understand and exercise their rights and ability to say NO when they get the whim.
So this brings us to where I have been the last few weeks. My oldest triplet Alora has been a spit fire since the day she was born. I remember when she was pulled out of me so clearly during my c-section. I remember being able to breath for the first time in months as she was laying directly on my diaphragm and then the sound of her cry. She never had that newborn cry that is lusty and high pitched – no – Alora sounded like a fog horn right from day one. I smile while I write that because it is not meant to be mean, it is just an accurate description and since that day she has always walked to the beat of her own drum. She is incredibly smart, resourceful and kind but is also full of drama and can make a pouty face better then ANYONE on earth. It is a signature now and one of my most favorite things to ask her to do in front of the camera. The image that I wrote this post about is one that took us about 2 minutes to capture and about 15 for me to edit. It is such a basic image that focuses on her form, her age and her innocence, as well as the frailty of childhood as a whole. You cannot ignore the fact that as society moves faster and faster we see children losing out on the very essence of what makes it magical. The essence of this image was to show the frailty of childhood in all its glory…but that is not what I received online when I asked for constructive criticism of this portrait.
Into the Lions Den – the making of Untitled into Unpopular.
I will quite often submit my images into large Facebook groups for ‘CC’ which is short for Constructive Criticism. It is always a crap shoot in those groups. I have seen images go viral in them that are technically terrible and I have seen beautiful, well planned and executed images go without even a ‘like’ so I didn’t expect this particular image to be extremely mind-blowing in the group. So I submitted it and waited and to be honest, it had about 90 likes by the end of the whole posting experience (which is not too bad, however there is over 120,000 members in this group) but the conversation was extremely eye opening. Over the course of 9 hours that it was quite active, I had comments left to me like these:
- “Sorry – this looks like an ad for a child neglect charity”
- “It’s creepy”
- “She looks like she is waiting for lice to be removed from her head”
- “I don’t like it”
- “This is disturbing”
- “Not for me”
- “Distasteful” and the list went on and on…
I would say that out of 106 comments just from this one group, I would estimate that at least 75% of them were fairly negative towards this image – which as you can see is as plain as day. Many people felt violated by even viewing it and you could certainly come to that conclusion just by reading the same comments over and over. One person even suggested that she was starved because you could see her backbone and that really made me feel sad. Another group member commented that when pretty much anyone is bent over in that position you can see the spine – thin people, heavy people, children, adults…it doesn’t matter – backbones are visible in that position. Everyone can see that she is petite but she clearly is fed – I want to clear that up right away. She eats like a horse when she wants to – she is just naturally petite like all of our four children.
What I learned.
I have always been an academic and when I went through my social work program at the University of Calgary back in 2004 I learned to always reflect on an experience and make sure that it was fully processed to extract as much meaning as possible from it. It is a great practice that I wished more people would do – think about their actions and statements after the fact and try to learn something from the process or experience but sadly many people do not take the time to do that and in my opinion lead pretty unfulfilling lives as they never feel that they need to grow and change as time marches on – that however is a long topic for another day.
Reflecting on this image from its creation to its impact in a relatively large group it expressed two different very important things for me to consider going forward.
The first thing I took from it was that the general public finds it very hard to accept images of children that are not “happy”. I have been taking beautiful, award winning portraits for years now across different photography genres and the desire to move away from the status quo is quite hard. It is ok to see the same style of images OVER AND OVER through social media – you know the ones I am speaking of. Children photographed beautifully with impeccable editing and tone and emotion – happy emotions. The emotions I normally read in said images is “happy”, “contemplative”, “pretty” and “interesting” but that is where it ends. The only time you see images of children not falling into these categories is when you are viewing documentary photography – usually from war-torn places where children have guns pointed in their faces or are literally starving to death. We accept these images as “sad” but the general public refuses to consider them artful in many respects, much like this very small sample size refused to recognize this as art.
A handful of people did appreciate it and went as far as to consider it “genius” as one person put it. The simplicity and lighting painted an image for her that was breathtaking and many people agreed with her perspective. I find it very flattering that a handful of people appreciated it for what it was meant to be but so interested so many people were repulsed by it.
The second thing I learned from posting this image is that it was quite telling about the current state of negative opinion currently in our world. So many people were unable and unwilling to look past their initial gut reaction and try to see it in a different way and in a different light. While I don’t often mince words, I do always try to give people the benefit of the doubt when they say something objectionable. What is lost however – and why I try to never take much of anything serious online – is because you CANNOT convey tone, emotion or body language through the written word unless you pad it excessively which to me is a total waste of time. We read the comment and move along – it is an opinion and that is ok. The problems begin when you do not have that filter and you cannot just read a statement without inflicting tone and opinion on how you believe the person who wrote it means. Comments like the ones I was provided with would devastate someone proud of their work, who loved and cherished their work and submitted it with all the pride in the world to only be torn down by the negative. Who looks at a child who is sitting, minding her business and thinks – that clean child is the victim of abuse and is about to have lice pulled out of her hair – really??? That is pretty brutal – face to face no one would ever dare say a comment like that to an artist.
I am terrified. Here I am raising two boys and two girls in a society that places so much emphasis on “looks” and the need to tear down the images of children for no reason except that they feel like they should. I did ask for it – correct? That gives people permission to criticize and name call a toddler – not even 3.5 years old yet. Starved – anorexic – abused – dirty – sad – cold – alone – all words used to describe a child who is turned three quarters from the camera with her head held high and just waiting.
Just in case…
If this image was a trigger for you, the social worker in me needs to know that you are ok and you have the access necessary to feel better about yourself and your life. Lots of people who see this image have explained to me the pain it brought to them as they remembered their own painful childhoods and while the image was created to illicit feeling – being responsible for your healing is something that can take a lot of time and steps to achieve. I came across a website called Your Life Counts and if you click on the hyperlink it will take you to an area where you can find help.
Thank you again and please feel free to leave me a note – positive or negative about this image and how it effected you if it did. I am always honoured and appreciate all comments you choose to leave me.
Have a beautiful day,