A framed photo...
was on display in our living room when I was growing up. From a professional standpoint, it's a nice photograph: my sister and I are seated in matching cornflower blue dresses, the lighting is even, the composition is good and our hair is perfectly coiffed as we smile crooked-toothed grins.
I hated dresses but was expected to wear them for holidays and photos. My sister loved dresses but looked odd without "nakey baby", a doll that always dangled from her side in the nude. It didn't matter how many hand stitched outfits family members sent for it, three year old Sissy would correct anyone who attempted to dress the doll with an emphatic, "No!!! NAKEY baby!!!"
There's a performance to family photos. I have known this since I was small, staring at that photo of us/not us every day. Here's the message I took from it:
"These are the children my mom wants. They are clean and groomed and disciplined and proper girls and smiling and happy."
To be these children we had to be plucked out of context: out of our messy playroom, out of the backyard where I would dig for bugs, away from strange or embarrassing habits. To be these children we needed better clothes and a LOT of hair brushing.
Thirty years later, as a professional photographer myself, I recognize how performance remains.
Each fall I send an email to parents who are planning outdoor sessions in November. Morning is when young children are most fresh and calendars are most free but it's also when the air temperature is most cold. We tend to meet in the woods where colorful leaves are abundant but there's very little sun. I ask parents to make sure the kids are dressed warmly with sensible shoes, I always suggest layering to stay warm without jackets. I remind parents that its hard to take a great picture if someone in the family feels uncomfortable.
I already know that someone will be born female.
I see her standing next to her brothers who get to wear pants, socks, sneakers, sweaters/sweatshirts and vests while she is wearing thin white tights, dress shoes, a dress and sometimes a cardi on top. I watch her face turn grey/blue, I hear her teeth chatter. Sometimes her mom asks her to remove the sweater to better show the dress. There are constant reminders to keep legs together and not show undies. "Its just for a few minutes, you can do this", they say.
I always feel awkward. I notice her mom is wearing a sleeveless dress with heels as she smiles. I realize the only difference is that she is more practiced: she has been doing this longer.
I've tried pushing for family photos in the summer time. No tights necessary, sundresses are adorable!!! What I really want to capture are bubbles and goggles and sprinklers and popsicle drips running down small arms but I would settle for a sundress and warm air.
If you feel judged right now, breath in deep and exhale slow: I don't want to single anyone out or sound like I'm criticizing my own (very feminist) mom. My mom, all the mothers, we have all been conditioned to present our children a certain way because we were presented a certain way once. They are not fully free because we were not fully free. That's what I aim to explore, I don't blame anyone for wanting nice photos in nice light with nice clothes.
But I can't help but wonder....what if we took family photos that leaned into who we really are instead of who we think we are supposed to be? How joyful could family photos be and what could they look like? How might this approach empower our children while affirming for them that they are loved, no matter how they present themselves to the world? How might photos like this validate us as parents, knowing that our families are enough just the way they are and that we don't have to pretend to be anything else? Could it help us better accept they were never ours to mold or control?
Because here's a hard truth: they have always been theirs, not ours. Our job is not to control them but to help them become. And this will happen, with or without us. I know that it's so much better, so much safer, so much less traumatic and so much more fun when we sit shotgun, cheering them on and celebrating them during the ride.
My sister and I are in our 40's now. My parents don't even know where that photo in the cornflower dresses is anymore. These days, the living room upstairs is filled with photos of grandkids. Downstairs is where the photos of our childhood live in a series of collaged frames. Downstairs is the inner sanctum, the warm root of the tree with memories of the children they raised and fondly remember. (Side note: my niece, upon noticing these photos, said to my son, "Hey, check out these pictures of our moms in the 1900's!")
The downstairs photos are of vacations, ordinary days in ordinary clothes, homemade Halloween costumes, a turtle I built out of snow, the softball team that my dad coached, that time we drew a moustache on the neighborhood kid who wanted to be "French". These photos are proof that they parented, proof that we played, evidence that we were creative and wonderfully weird. We all wish Nakey Baby had made it into just one family photo.
I know in my heart of hearts that these are the photos we treasure in the long run. We just tend to realize it too late.
There's a family I want you to meet in connection with this reflection. They work with me each year and continuously embrace the process of being seen. I also want to share the wonderful blog Colleen and her daughter KK write on raising gender expansive children, Raising Unicorns. I hope you will check it out and share it with others because, not only is it honest and beautifully written but it's also full of resources for families whose children question the gender-shaped boxes that society tries to sort them into. I wanted to write about my own experience photographing girls and being photographed as a girl while sharing KK and her family with you because, as we celebrate Pride and all the people who refuse to live inside these boxes, its valuable to look more closely at the boxes themselves. Pride is about fighting for the existence of our most authentic selves and I'm so proud to know KK and her fam because I learn from them how to be a better parent, community member and photographer. We're learning together.
And I love these photos because you can feel the progression. With each shoot the children bring more of their own ideas, identities, personalities and even toys into the mix, making each set of photos increasingly personal and unique.
Happy Pride and props to every family out there parenting with courage, loving fully and learning to be seen!