Rethinking school pictures: a documentary approach

by - March 25, 2018

I remember standing in line on picture day in school, comb in hand, trying to keep my long hair looking reasonably neat until those few seconds where I'd try my best to look presentable and smile at the camera (it helped if the photographer was funny). And then be herded off so the next student could do the same. This was THE professional picture that many families would have for the year, and it was taken very seriously. We'd wait anxiously to receive our photos in a paper envelope with a crinkly plastic window and see how they looked. Sometimes they'd turn out ok, and then there were the times when we had an awkward half-smile or a weird in-between expression. Our parents would send 8x10's to the grandparents and 3 1/2 x5's to the aunts and uncles, and our Dads would keep "wallets" in their wallets.

It would have been so cool to have photos of me flipping backwards off the monkey bars (over pavement, because it was the 70s) while another student stood watch for roving teachers who didn't appreciate our stunts. Or sledding on the back hill during winter recess. Or the time I was so fast at chasing the boys in "boys chase the girls" that one of the boys did a somersault trying to get away from me. Or the small, bring your own lunch group, where we were left to our own devices in a classroom while other students were bused to the high school for "hot lunch" and where one girl always raffled off a huge bag of those sugary orange peanut candies in funny contests until we all dissolved in laughter. 

My children also had traditional picture days in elementary school. One loved it and dressed one time in a suit, another in his own combination of layered plaid shirts and a tie (with my wholehearted encouragement). The other mutinied and refused to participate, again with my blessing. For me, photography should be about more than just looking nice for someone else and saying cheese. What is a portrait, if it doesn't show personality?

As a volunteer and room parent, I loved coming in to the school and photographing my children and their classmates during special projects and class share times. The moments of focus, discovery, delight, connection and fun showed true personality and friendships. I caught a glimpse of this important part of their lives and captured some childhood memories of more than just picture day at school.

I'll admit to being a little envious of my homeschooling friends, who get to see more of these moments first hand, and be a part of the whole learning experience. I always enjoy photographing homeschooling families and their unique styles of teaching, learning, and connecting with their families. And of course, playing. A few of my favorite images from one of these sessions follow.

Of course, our family does plenty of projects and learning at home, after school and on weekends and holidays. And there have also been many flips and friendships captured. Those photographs are wonderful to have as well.

homeschooling family with dog in the woods ©Diana Sherblom Photography

homeschooling family boy and girl in hammock in the woods ©Diana Sherblom Photography

homeschooling family boy and mother playing flute ©Diana Sherblom Photography

homeschooling family talking about lesson outside  ©Diana Sherblom Photography

close up of boy writing in homeschooling lesson outside  ©Diana Sherblom Photography

girl writing in homeschooling lesson outside  ©Diana Sherblom Photography

brother and sister writing in homeschooling lesson outside  ©Diana Sherblom Photography

mother and son homeschooling lesson outside  ©Diana Sherblom Photography

mother and son homeschooling looking at tablet ©Diana Sherblom Photography

girl playing violin ©Diana Sherblom Photography

mother and son playing guitar and drawing in front of campfire ©Diana Sherblom Photography


What photographs do you have of your school experience? Of your children's? Of projects at home? What photographs do you wish you had? Tell me more in the comments.

For more information about a documentary school or homeschool session, or a family field trip/project (a walk around the neighborhood to discover fall leaves, or a trip to learn about nature at a local park, or a parent-child woodworking or gardening project), please get in touch here or send me an email at photo@dianasherblom.com.

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8 comments

  1. These are great. These kids will love having these photographs of their learning experiences growing up. I love your stories about your times in school. Wouldn't it be amazing to have photos of those times?

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    1. You know Kaleen, the more I wrote about it the more little details I remembered. I even contacted one of my friends from way back when to ask if she remembered. And then I pulled out a few old photos. Even as a photographer, who talks about this all the time, I'm always amazed at the power that my personal photographs have to instantly take me back to a specific time in my life and how it felt.

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  2. Diana,I can't agree more! This year we only purchased a class photo from my daughter's school portraits,because those were so fake! I just couldn't make myself pay for the pictures that don't represent my child's personality AT ALL!
    Being a photographer I am often taking pictures at my daughter's school, just as you do. There are so many memories to capture! I think every school should consider opening the doors to a professional documentary photographer for a day once a year. School is so much more than learning and it's worth documenting for our kids!

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    1. Polina I had the same experience. It's hard to pass up your own child's photo, but some of them didn't even look like my children. Maybe we need a movement from parents to ask for these type of photos!

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  3. I photographed a 3 year old's birthday party at his daycare a couple years back and thought about offering documentary sessions to daycares, but for now it's only been a tiny spark of an idea at the back of my mind. Your words make me think I should revisit the idea! Love the thought about how a portrait is supposed to show personality – sometimes the posed portraits are much more about the photographer than the people.

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  4. I would have loved to have had photographs to go along with the stories I heard about my sons' preschool/daycare experiences. Great idea!

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  5. Beautiful images and I completely agree with your words. School or nursery is such a home from home that photographs that capture the place and the routines and the feelings, rather than just the uniform, are so important.

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  6. These images really take me along with you during your day. This is our first year homeschooling (and likely our last!) and I loved being able to document what my kids were experiencing throughout their days - mostly on our outdoor adventures. I always appreciated when their teachers (when they were in public school) would post up and share pictures of their activities during the day too, as I always felt so out of the loop!!

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