What I learned from my 7-year-old daughter:
Children’s current, future selves deserve privacy in photos
May 2021 - Last winter my family and I visited snowy Lake Tahoe, a perfect opportunity for a photo session. I donned my 7-year-old daughter, Kaia, in a pink, fur-lined BCBG poncho given to her that Christmas. I let her have a swipe of pale pink lip gloss, and for the first time, she really got into the modeling, taking direction and posing in front of the clear-glass lake in the snow.
Everything congealed into a beautiful portrait: My daughter’s hazel eyes looking directly at the camera, her hands framing her face and her light pink jacket contrasting subtly with the cobalt lake behind her. But I did a double-take at the edit. She’s beautiful … and looks like she’s 17.
The day prior, Kaia was wrestling with her snow clothes. I made a quick photo of her howling as she discovered that snow had infiltrated her glove for the 10th time. I showed the photo to her later, chuckling at the honest documentation of the highs and lows of a family snow trip. She glared at me and, for the first time ever, clearly expressed that she did not consent to my making a photograph of her.
On that trip, I twice faced the ethical question of how documentary photographers impact the lives of their children by photographing them and what we must do as we face the vast library of their childhood we have collected.
I was immensely proud of the portrait I had made of Kaia. Proud of the execution of the photo, proud of her beauty and that glimpse of the young woman she is becoming. I was planning to write the trip off as a business expense, so I needed to display some of the work on my website. As her parent, I am legally able to consent on her behalf to the publication of her image in any form. But that doesn’t mean I should.
It occurred to me that I would be mortified if my entire childhood photo album were now published on the internet. And it would not matter if the photos were technically good. It’s my childhood, and I do not consent.
I make images of children regularly in the course of my work as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. So how does shielding my child from public view make sense when I ask others to offer a glimpse of their child’s lives? I ask myself: Wouldn’t that be hypocritical?
So then I think about purpose. The purpose of posting her photo would be to promote my business and to, well, brag a little. I know you all understand that feeling of creating an image you’re proud of and having that burning sensation of wanting to share it.
But in this case, those reasons are not good enough.
When I enter the lives of other people’s children, the stories are defined ahead of time, and I am there for a limited amount of time that the parent has agreed to share with me. That story has a purpose and adds to the narrative of childhood stories that we tell in order to improve the lives of children. That work is important and should be done.
When I document my own children, it’s assumed that it’s OK. I have full access to all aspects of their lives. But sharing their intimate childhood moments without their being old enough to consent is problematic.
When I post photographs on the internet, I do face these facts: Those images are out of my hands. They can be shared. They can be stored, and they will live in cyberspace forever. They can potentially be accessed by future partners, future employers — basically, anyone.
And an even bigger question in my mind is this: In the not-so-distant future, how will I talk to my teenage daughter about being mindful of the images she posts of herself if I do not demonstrate mindfulness?
Whew. This is a tough discussion, and there are no perfect answers.
For now I am taking the middle ground. I do share photographs of my children on social media to keep in touch with family and friends, but I hold a lot back. Given the choice, I choose photos where their faces are in profile or obscured. I don’t post photographs that might embarrass them later on. I am more likely to include them in my video work as part of a narrative because moving pictures are more difficult to share and store. Most of all, I always keep my teenage Kaia in mind with my decisions.
Please don’t misunderstand. I very much enjoy seeing the incredible photographs my colleagues share of their children online. I bring this up because I’m wrestling with it. As visual professionals I believe that we should lead the discussion of child privacy in imagery as the digital world evolves. I would love to hear what you think, too.
Autumn Payne is an independent visual journalist based in Sacramento, California. She can be reached at autumnpayne.com. She is working on a documentary JudahtheLionheart.com. She has been an NPPA member since 2001.