Sports broadcasters have long known that people identify with watching sports they themselves have played. It's not necessary to have competed or even to have played well, but people who've never played golf (or my recent favorite, pool) won't enjoy watching golf (or pool) as much as people who play those games.
In part we identify with "photographer stories" because...well, we know how it is. It struck me recently that I've never really done any "nature" photography (unless The Great Pigeon Safari counts)—or even any landscape photography in the hiking-in-the-wilderness sense. Sure enough, I don't identify too closely with accounts of nature or landscape photographers working. I also can't identify with trying to find body armor that fits or needing to get to Africa in a hurry on the very next flight. But I sure have posed a lot of class pictures. (When I taught photography, Yearbook Advisor/Photographer and official Development Department photographer were both part of my job description. For no extra pay, of course.)
The mother making a big deal out of this is probably just as bad as the problem itself, but then, since it's on the Internet we have to talk about it. What do you think—did this photographer screw up? You can't put the wheelchair in front of the risers, because then you just have the opposite problem—you're spotlighting the wheelchair-using kid. The photographer could have scootched the kids in the front row down a bit, but who knows what the back row of the risers looked like? Maybe the photographer was constrained, and couldn't move the back row of kids at all.
I think I would have found the best friend of the kid in the wheelchair and had that kid reaching over and linking hands with the wheelchair-bound kid. But then, I always tried to get "creative" with class pictures, which didn't always work out all that well.
I think at the very least the photographer could have put the teacher in the gap between the wheelchair and the risers. Whoever took this sure got those other kids to sit there in an orderly fashion, I'll say that for them. I always had a tendency to rile the kids up too much to get, er, ideal compliance.
Let's face it, it's a wretched assignment, the kind of thing that makes you question your life choices. Even if you do well you haven't really done well.
Although as I cast back in my memory it seems to me that I have seen at least one really good group picture of students. When my class went to Washington, D.C. in seventh grade, the organizers of the trip got a professional photographer to take a group photo of us on the steps of the Capitol with a big rotating-lens camera, from up on a ladder. He had a kid from one end of the picture run down to the other end while the exposure was being made, and she tripped and stumbled, which made her appear as a faint ghost behind the other kids. The large negative (black-and-white, naturally) made a rich-looking print, with faces you could actually identify, and I remember admiring the picture.
My print of that picture is long since lost, unfortunately. I'd love to revisit it now.
Mike[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post used the term "wheelchair-bound," which is not right—wheelchairs, as Bill Stothers points out, are liberating. —Ed.]
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Rick D: "Oh my, that's a tough one. I presume the photo was part of a 'cattle call' of classes taken that same day on a tight schedule, and further presume the photographer has a formula for posing and shooting. Biggest concerns are getting everybody smiling in unison, all eyes are open and with kids, nobody is goofing off. Having a standard setup helps achieve those goals, but lacks artistic flexibility.
"On reflection, I'd probably have shifted everybody to the right of the risers, stood the teacher to the right of the boy, and moved my gear to the group's center. This would have made this class look different from the others, which would attract a different sort of attention that somebody, including the complaining mom, might have complained about anyway. It might also have thrown the schedule off, but probably not by much.
"Kids are resilient and I hope the little boy has friends and good experiences to take with him from his second grade year. Certainly, no harm was intended here. Mom is not, in my view, helping assure this outcome with her grandstanding."
David Zivic: "A sensitive topic, and my feel is that it is an innocent mistake. The other shoulders are between touching to 6" apart and that should have at least remained consistent. It actually appears that the second wooden seat is shorter in front of the teacher than on the offending side. Put the chair where the teacher is standing pushed up against the first wooden seat, shoulder to shoulder with the friend in the striped shirt, and put the teacher on the other side standing at the third row equal height with them again as in this photo.
"Now for a sports metaphor. This is all Monday morning quarterbacking. The most important part of this is the kid looks very happy, I'm OK with the mother's point of view, and the photographer might have taken 20 of these photos that day...an occasional 'miss' occurs with all of us every day."
Greg Roberts: "I saw a newspaper article on Sunday about that photo and I thought the headline would have been more truthful to have read, 'Underpaid button pusher takes mediocre photo.' In my and my wife's opinion, the parents are reading too much into this. This photo is not discrimination, it is just a poorly executed photo."
Doug C: "Rotating-lens camera? Please, the whole camera rotates on a turntable. It's a #10 Cirkut camera. And yes, it's a pretty neat tool for group photographs, I still use mine, it's a bit better than digital in some ways, though the advantages are getting nibbled down. Contact prints are very nice, even in color, which is what I shoot mostly."
Steve: "I'm the father of a child with special needs and can attest to the need for such parents to constantly advocate for their children in even the most accommodating school system. School photos are a prime opportunity to (unintentionally) highlight these children's differences. A professional, especially a pro consumer portrait photographer, should remember that it's not about us as the photographer, but rather the client and their needs/wishes. It isn't an overstatement that this photo is ostracizing, as that is precisely the feeling that special needs children get when their differences are put on display or commented upon. I know it to be true for even more trivial things than the class photo. I photograph my son in ways that I later see his embarrassment or sensitivity to, so I try to be aware of it. The image here does that clearly, even if it is unintentional (as it no doubt was—what decent person would intend to make this boy and his family feel that way?). I understand the reaction against the mother, but the complacency shown by the company initially is typical and difficult to overcome. It's great that the school promptly joined the effort to simply have the photo retaken. I'm not sure that continuing to criticize the mother is helpful, though."
Richard: "There are tons of things the photographer could have done...however they now have immense restrictions put on them for digital school photos. You set up your lights on a grey card system to get it to fall into a perfect parameter and then you do not move anything, lights, camera angle, or else an adjustment needs to be made. I was made to use this system on one of my more creative dance schools this year and I can tell you it wasn't long before it went out the window, but a small cog working for a big machine does not have that option.
"The company still needs to take responsibility for not training the photographer properly for these situations so they know what they are allowed to do and what they cant do."
Mike adds: That's kind of what I thought. The regimented nature of the other children and their arrangement signifies at least the possibility that the photographer is acting by rote and rule and doesn't feel the freedom to depart from the script.
Susan Hastings: "Speaking as the mother of a son who is in a wheelchair I think the mother was right to protest. On the Internet that may have been turned into an 'overreaction', which was not her original intention. I think the child will feel sad rather than angry looking at this photo when he is older. The suggestions people have already made about getting the child out of the wheelchair and onto one of the risers are spot on."
Ernest Zarate: "For me, this photograph illustrates the transformative nature of photography. The real time situation was possibly one of motion, activity, and some chaos—that is not uncommon in these settings (I speak not as a school photographer but as an elementary teacher of 23 years' experience, having endured a score-plus number of these). But when the photographer pressed the shutter and took the picture, all of that flux is gone. The only thing left is the recording of that moment and decision, defined and limited by the frame, and the (in this case godawful) setting, lighting and the vantage point. At the time of the photograph being made, I'm sure it all seemed innocuous enough, or at least good enough. Other classes of squirming, noisy, active kids and their patient (or not) teachers are waiting.
"I have found it often the case with photographs that only when one has time to see all those decisions, removed from the action of that moment, that one sees the full impact of those decisions as a whole, i.e., a photograph. And many times the sum of the photograph is very different than the time of the photograph.
"For me, such is the case with this photograph."
Ryan: "I used to work for this company, and yes the photographer screwed up. Move the back bench over to make room for the chair. Teacher stands between front and back bench."
Peter Stacey: "It is wrong because they could easily get him closer to the others and haven't even tried. Apologies to the purists but five minutes in Photoshop improves things a lot!
"Something similar in the real world surely wouldn't have been too difficult."
Mike replies: Much better, but I'd still like to see the teacher standing behind the wheelchair, not distancing herself (or "being distanced" perhaps) from Miles.