Children in Architectural Photography

10th September, 2010

Marcus Fairs of Dezeen Magazine recently commented on his twitter that

…architectural photographers manage to make children look lonely, even in photos of a kindergarten.

Marcus’ point is timely and recognizes an underlying problem with images of children, as taking photographs with children as a secondary subject is being made more difficult.

Have you ever wondered why people in photographs are either blurred, have their back to the camera, look lonely and not engaged with neither the space nor the photographer?

Prior to digital imagery, film required long exposures, especially interior scenes and this resulted in blurred imagery owing to movement. Digital imagery meant that images can be recorded at higher speeds, as the light sensitivity of the recording chip can be rated at significantly higher levels than can be achieved with film. This can deliver more intimate imagery, as photographers can now successfully record scenes that are low lit.

Yet the images that are published are not like this. Home owners are often unwilling to be so critically exposed by the camera and have their living habits openly viewed. Pictures of the public in corporate or commercial buildings often depict people half turned away from the camera, or hurrying past so that they are blurred. Rushing out for a meeting or a sandwich, they often aren’t in a mood to be photographed, and see the photographer as a major nuisance; an inconvenience in a perhaps already stressful day. There is a suspicion of anybody taking photographs and the public become unwilling subjects in the attempt to bring scale and humanity to the buildings.

Photographs of schools or kindergartens raise entirely different issues. The blind belief that anybody taking photographs in a school, especially a male, must have an ulterior motive prohibits an easy interaction between subject and photographer. Some of the provisos I have operated under when photographing children in schools have been absurd. On a recent assignment photographing building works at a school in Hackney, the project manager told me it was illegal to photograph children, and advised me not to engage with the children under any circumstance. Other parents have asked whether the images would be on the internet. If the images were for printed publication, it was deemed acceptable; the internet was definitely out of bounds.

Some schools are quite relaxed about photography; a circular is sent out in advance that advises parents’ that a photographer will be working in the school. If they prefer their children not to be photographed, then the child does not take part in any activities that may be in danger of being photographed. However the normal restrictions are that children can only be photographed from the back, any front on images are blurred so that their faces are not recognizable, or they are far enough away from the camera so as not to be identifiable.

The result is often an image of a small child standing alone in a playground looking lonely.

Grant Smith is a branch member and also one of the organisers of the I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist campaign group.

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