Photographing children is both exhilarating and exhausting. When I’m faced with a toddler’s classic meltdown, I wonder why I base my livelihood and sense of personal success on the whims of two- and three-year-olds. I wonder how I can capture natural, appealing photos in spite of runny noses, low blood sugar, and Barney. Hey, who turned on the TV?
My mother taught me photography. She was a superb amateur photographer, and as a child I was introduced early to the wonders of a darkroom. I grew up in a house filled with family photographs that were valued and enjoyed. And even when I was young I was aware that my mother’s photographs provided strong visual connections to the past.
I think of my books as extended family albums. In fact, many of the children have appeared in four or five of my books as they’ve grown from cradle to nursery school. But, more importantly, I seek a close “family” connection with each child that combines both photography and friendship.
None of the kids in my books is a model. They are children of friends, friends of friends, or strangers that I approach in the grocery store or the park. Sometimes I have never laid eyes on the child until I show up with my camera and lighting equipment in tow.
When I walk through the front door, I’m hunting for an emotional bond with the child, the joy of new-found friends that animates a photograph. In my ideal picture, the child is comfortable and relaxed and at the same time radiates an appealing energy. Overcoming the basic discomfort of the situation — the common anxiety of being photographed, the flashing strobes — is a continual challenge.
I always arrive with a wish list of photos, but I have learned to go with the flow of the child and to improvise quickly. I will use every device from silly animal noises to playing hide-and-seek to sharing crackers to create my personal hybrid: a photo playdate. As I pack up my equipment and say good-bye, I may be tired, but I’m also high with excitement because I’ve tapped into a special pool of energy — I’ve found the genuine smile.
This article is part of our Picture Book Month 2012 coverage.