I have very rarely bought a school photograph featuring my children. This is in part because someone is always looking the wrong way, or, more recently, that, thanks to visits from the tooth fairy, one or other of them is gurning particularly unattractively. I did, at one point in their infancy, investigate the possibility of making some money out of them through child modelling, being , as I am, convinced that my children are way more attractive than anyone else’s in this universe and beyond, and was all set to go until I saw the fatal caveat, ‘must be able to take instruction’. Ah. That’s not my raggle taggle bunch, then.
I took up a special offer of a photo session at home once (I don’t remember how I got it, I’m not usually the one who benefits from such things, being far too half-soaked to sign up for the right thing at the right time). The poor young photographer left my house with his hair sticking up and a slightly manic expression in his eye. I think this was because he had a fixed idea of the kind of image he wanted. His idea was to ask the children to pose, and, as in those school photographs, it didn’t quite work. I’m not a great fan of school pictures in general though, it has to be said. All those fake skies or fake libraries, and the way the children sit there, stiff and puppet-placed; hardly a reflection of the people they are at all.
My favourites are the ones where my children, rather than sitting on the ubiquitous furry rug, have been photographed doing what they do best, being themselves; so when I stumbled upon a photography studio, a national chain that take the very kind of pictures I love, in a local shopping centre, touting seriously reduced-in-price sittings, I jumped at the chance.
It was great fun. We pranced around in a white room, and the children positively glowed from all that attention. The problem was choosing the images we liked the best. There we were, in a miniature cinema, with beautiful pictures of our beloved progeny massively projected onto the wall, with a sound-drop guaranteed to pull the heartstrings. It was almost impossible to resist re-mortgaging the house. It was overwhelming; from being so disappointed in the group pictures we’d been offered before, there were more lovely image than I could shake a forest of sticks at.
The only way to do it was through a process of elimination. The first ones to go were the ones that highlighted Sam’s Down Syndrome. Don’t get me wrong, I have no axe to grind there, but I don’t want, either in a picture or in any other situation, those pesky chromosomes to be the first thing I, or anyone else, notices about him. Second: any picture that made the husband look bald. Which is a great shame, because possibly one of the very best photos taken of me, like, ever, did exactly that. Next, any pictures that made the children look like they were in a catalogue, which, considering we had taken some toys in with us for them to play with, was surprisingly un-difficult. Eventually, we had it down to nine or ten.
It’s at this point in proceedings that salespeople generally get shirty. We can’t afford to spend the sort of money that people do who cover their walls with enormous portraits because they just can’t decide, so when it becomes clear that we are not going to sign a blank cheque or take out a credit agreement, they want us to make up our minds pretty sharpish and get out of the door. They start offering helpful suggestions, their opinions on which images work well and what would look great on my walls.
One of the pictures that our salesman especially liked was an undeniably beautiful shot of the three children playing together. L was lying on top of A, her wild mop of hair dangling over her brother, the pair of them looking like two peas in a pod. By their side, giggling with glee, was their elder brother. All three of them were looking directly at the camera. All three of them were showing their best sides. We all agreed what a great picture it was Except I couldn’t live with it. I couldn’t have that image on my walls, there for all to see.
Because for me, a picture isn’t just a picture. I’m no artist, and I have no training in art appreciation, other than Sister Wendy and a good few years teaching The Tudors as a topic. There they are, those great paintings of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, strutting their royalty, their rule over land and sea; great and beautiful portraits, but at the same time, anything but. These are no naturalistic images, and yet their function is the same. They, rather than telling a story of family, tell a story of power.
And the story of that picture, that lovely image of my three beautiful children told a tale that I know is true, but that I don’t want to become the canon of my family. As they grow older Sam will, I know, take a different path to the two of them. His feet are already on that road. But it’s like those days when I accidently dress in the same clothes as my children (I know, I know, I don’t mean the exact same clothes). I wouldn’t want a photograph on my walls of that either. They are not mini-mes, their future irrevocably tied to my own. So I don’t want them to look at a picture on the wall every day, a picture that tells a story of a relationship they are too young to fully understand.
I want them to be who they are, unfettered by expectation. Uncluttered by a story they have not yet told themselves.