We see them each and every fall—parents snap pics of their child’s first day of school.
There are documentary style photos where the kids are smiling, or patiently waiting for the bus, with their snazzy first day outfits. Then there are some who add a bit of humor to the day, with moping kids and cheering parents.
Around this time, every year, these images sweep across our social media pages.
I have a feeling that this year, we won’t see as many.
Families are disappointed, frustrated, exhausted—you name it—and I’m wondering just how many don’t plan to snap a picture of their child sitting down for their first day of remote learning, or them stepping onto a bus with their mask in place. While back-to-school is definitely not the same this year, I think it’s still important to take pictures. Maybe even more important than previous years, because of the stark difference.
As a photographer, I might be a little biased. I think it’s important to document childhood and preserve that fleeting time in their lives.
When I say document, I don’t mean asking them to smile big for the camera; I mean taking pictures of events and emotions as they happen. Many families get yearly portraits done, either for their holiday cards or updated wall art, and even with that I strive for more realism and fewer cheesy smiles.
This style creates a more genuine image. It’s not to say that there isn’t a place for posing, because that can be great too, but when an expression is real, it shows. Then we can look back, years later, and remember how one side of their smile pulled up just a little bit more, or how their cheeks rounded when they grinned. Photographs help us remember the past, and I don’t think we should exclude 2020 from memory.
It’s hard to tell just how much this pandemic is going to shape our kids. Daily life for many families has changed drastically. While we can look at past pandemics and see how it affected the younger generation, there are differences in how we face it now. I mean, they didn’t have Zoom or Skype, for starters. Still, this change is going to affect them, in big ways and small, but it’s all temporary. There will come a day where we can get back to some sort of normal, even if that day feels far away.
Our kids are going to look back on this time, at some point, and tell stories about how it changed things. It’s for that reason that I think it’s important to document how their schooling was different—whatever that looks like for them. Are they doing remote learning? Back in school with masks on? A hybrid of the two? Take pictures, and offer them the opportunity to have tangible memories to share years down the road (remember to print them!).
And this advice is coming from someone who homeschools. Yes, full stop, this is coming from someone who you may not expect to even take yearly pictures of going back to school since, you know, my son doesn’t actually go to a school.
Well, if you were thinking that, you were partially right. We don’t take first day of school pictures. Instead, we take not-back-to-school pictures and share those on social media.
In past years, we’d take photos on the beach during the first week that public school was back in session, to show that we were, in fact, not back to school. It started as a joke, since we were on family vacation at a more affordable, off-season price, while other parents were putting their kids on the bus. When the second year rolled around, though, I decided to morph it from a joke to a tradition, and we started taking annual Not-Back-to-School portraits.
This year, we won’t be on the Cape for the first week of September. We’ll still be in our little bubble, waiting for the world to be safe again, because we have high-risk family members. We won’t be poking fun at the fact that we aren’t back to school, because there are a large number of kids who aren’t, either. Many of them are shifting back into remote learning, and some are even switching to homeschooling full time.
I wanted to capture the difference with this year’s photographs, instead of skipping over them. We may not be enjoying the last stretch of summer on an empty beach, but we’re still gearing up for homeschooling. So, while it may not be the same, I wanted to move forward with the tradition of yearly pictures.
The goal was to show the contrast between the relaxed photoshoot on the beach, and the masked expression in the driveway. I wanted to capture the overall feel of how things are in quarantine, most of which happened with gentle direction for a pose, followed by allowing my son to simply be. This is my default for older children, so that their expressions are genuine in every snap. This session was no exception, even with half of his face being covered.
Not only does this capture the feeling of how things are now, but he’s also going to have these photographs when he’s older. He can show his children, his grandchildren, and talk about what it was like for him. He’ll have other memories and pictures of course, with all of his adventures before and after quarantine, but instead of there being a gap in 2020, he’ll have photographs to help tell his stories.
I encourage other parents to do the same. The pictures don’t have to be professional or posed. They can simply be snaps of your child’s school life during the pandemic. If they’re saved in a few places, and printed out for good measure, your children will have access to them years from now, and be able to better share their experiences with the next generation.