I have had something playing on my mind for a while which a recent event has made me look at more closely. It’s an issues I am sure most street photographers have wrestled with before, and many more will in the future. However, it is something that has now really started to frustrate me. Why is there a stigma that certain people carry when it comes to photographing children?
Whilst walking around the streets of Caye Caulker, Belize, I photographed many people along the way - both in a candid and non-candid setting. As I walked the final stretch back to my accommodation I came across a young boy in shorts and flip-flops who was walking in the same street. As is common on this friendly island, we said hello to each other and I asked him if he was local to the area. After chatting for a couple of minutes, and realising he was a cool kid, I asked him if he would like me to take his photo. He was happy to get involved and even asked me what he should do in front of the lens - I told him he should do whatever he wanted to do. I took the shot, then offered him my Instagram details so we could connect and I could send him the photo.
After we parted ways, only a few moments passed before I found that I was asking myself questions and becoming paranoid. “What if he tells his parents about our interaction and they get angry that a strange man has photographed their child?” and “Will people think I am a pervert because he was topless?” are just a couple of examples of the thoughts that ran through my mind.
The reality is I did not even process he was topless as it just was not something that occurred to me in that moment. The paranoia soon turned into frustration. What if the stigma surrounding taking images of children is harming the wonderful art of capturing people from all walks of life, because some photographers fear being labelled a pervert or a paedophile.
The words of stigma
I have heard it all before - “Surely it is illegal to photograph children?” or “I would not want my child photographed, you do not know what people would do with those images”. Of course, I understand people's reservations, as a society we all have a responsibility to ensure children are kept safe. The truth is that the worries more often than not are simply irrational. Those who are sadly taking advantage of children in the worst possible way make up a very small percentage of the population and therefore we should assume photographers are working with good intentions. Also, and this is even more unfortunate, paedophiles are not on the lookout to capture street portraits of children. Instead they are accessing extremely disturbing, inappropriate and illegal content to fulfil whatever needs they have.
When I take a photograph of a child, same as when I photograph an adult, I am interested in their story; maybe I am capturing their inquisitiveness, positivity, innocence or carefree outlook on life. Whilst some children have terrible starts to life, others have that beautiful ethos that the world is a perfect and amazing place - something I feel we can lose as adults. Any photographer would want to record that magic.
Over come your own mental barriers
I know for many street photographers this kind of worry is of no concern to them - like water off a duck's back - but I also know many who are reluctant to photograph children because of the potential backlash they feel they will face. To those in the latter group, I say to you this…
If you know as an artist that you only have good intentions and that you want to capture the essence of youth because you see the beauty in it, then you have nothing to worry about. You are not like the select few who sadly sexualise children and instil fear and distrust into parents and adults. If the young person is comfortable (I would aim to always ask their permission if you want to take a portrait of them) and you feel you have approached them in a sensitive and non-threatening manner - then again you have nothing to be concerned about.
Processing my paranoia and reminding myself I am a good person with strong ethics, has allowed me to start to overcome both the frustrations and barriers that I have allowed to take over my approach to photographing children. There are many amazing stories throughout the streets, with children being the main characters. It would be a shame if stigma was ever able to win the war preventing those stories from being told.
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