Children in Documentary Photography

Many of the worlds strongest documentary photos depicts children. Since 1955 there have been 50 winners of the prestigious World Press Photo award, and 40% of the winning photographs depicts children. Again and again we see documentary photos of children in magazines, news stories and as leading photographs in fundraising campaigns for aid, development work and catastrophe relief efforts. Why is that? Well, not only are children cute, but because of their innocence and vulnerability, they evoke strong feelings of sympathy in the viewer. We simply can’t help empathize with the child we see in the photo, even if it was taken on the other side of the planet. With children too young to be seriously mixed up in politics and religion, the photos of children have the ability to cross all borders and reach out to our hearts. If they are produced rightly, that is.

What makes a strong documentary photo of a child? There is some concepts that just seem to work again and again. The mother holding her child. The child alone and crying. Children playing in the middle of poverty and destruction. Children staring from down to up, into the camera. With eyes wide open and a desperate look on their face. These photos motifs have almost become clichés, so it is up to us, the photographers, to use our artistic talents to avoid overdoing the cliché. As a general rule though, if you can capture a child displaying a strong emotion in your photo, you have a good chance to make a powerful photo.

There is another couple of tips to make strong documentary photos of children. Generally speaking, try to go close to the child and avoid interfering in the child’s natural behavior. These rules can of course be contradictory. If the child starts to make unnatural poses and gestures at the camera, you don’t get that authentic feeling. But if the child is doing something, playing, overwhelmed with feelings or otherwise occupied in his or her thoughts, you can usually sneak in a couple of shots without the child noticing anything. Keep your camera ready and have the exposure set before you put the camera in front of your eyes. And while you are in the process, try to ‘distract’ the child’s attention away from the camera by asking him or her some questions if necessary. Being close to the child and using a wide-angle lens usually makes for a more ‘open’ photo, one that asks more questions than it answers. It also gives a feeling of intimacy between the child and the person looking at the photo, thus evoking a stronger emotional response.

And don’t forget, since you are probably higher than the child, also try and bend down or even lie down on the ground, holding the camera in the same height as the children’s eyes. Eye contact can be a strong element and as with being ‘up close and personal’, it can give a more direct connection between the subject and the audience.

Sometimes it is alright to have the child pose a bit for the camera. Generally though, it can be difficult to give direct instructions to a child as to how to pose. “Try to look sad / happy” doesn’t work very well with children or, in fact, other people who aren’t actors or professional models. Instead, just use their natural curiosity for the camera and wait for the right moment. And if you really want to give instructions, ask them to do something in stead of asking them to look in a certain way. “How high can you jump?” “Kick the ball over there!” Active instructions makes for more natural looks. The key words to remember here is natural behavior, emotions, innocence and vulnerability. With that in mind, you can get great and powerful documentary photos of children.

And finally, it is also important to remember that journalism is never 100% objective. And neither is photojournalism and documentary photography. A photo only shows one angle of “the complete picture”. As documentary photographers, we have the power to choose which side of the story we want to show. But we also have a duty not to distort the facts. This is where a photo series can be a good idea. A photo series can not only capture the strong emotions, but can show the variety and diversity of a certain topic, be it children or any other theme.

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