The Joy of Smiling Faces

As I wrote in my last piece, I spent five weeks in 2017 working as a photographer in Santa’s Kingdom at a local mall. Over those five weeks I saw thousands of smiling faces–children and adults alike.

The experience was insightful for me in a number of ways. It reinforced a discovery I made in 2015 while attending a fashion photography course; it gave me insights into first-hand experience with customers that I’ve rarely had in all my years of working; it gave me a new understanding of children as my photo subject, and even gave me a new appreciation of how children feel.

The discovery I made in 2015 was that I love photographing people. When I started my journey of career transition a year prior–and chose to take a nearly 30-year love of photography to the next level–I had it in my mind that I was most interested in action (sports) and product photography. Over the years I had made occasional sales of photos: several shots taken in Kingston, ON, during the 1998 Ice Storm were published in 1999; and I had a couple of paid motorsports shoots in 2005. As these were both more documentary in their nature, I hoped to explore those types of shooting. Then came the fashion course and the experience opened my mind to shooting people, giving direction for a shot, enjoying the interaction between photographer and subject; it really was a revelation for me. Over the next couple of years I increased how often I photographed people, and came to find myself thoroughly enjoying it. As 2017 wrapped up, and I was shooting photos in Santa’s Kingdom, I found myself positively affected by all the smiling faces. It’s impossible to be anything but happy when photographing something that is largely quite a happy scene. While there are always kids who are terrified and who cry the whole time they’re with Santa Claus, the experience is largely a happy one. And thus it was that my joy of photographing people was reinforced through the Santa Claus experience.

Through my years of working–2018 will mark 20 years since I completed a university degree–I have rarely had public facing work. Even before I wrapped up school, my summer jobs rarely put me in direct communication with customers, and those summers were in bicycle shops assembling new bikes and repairing older bikes. I’ve largely been confined to some kind of office environment where the customer, the consumer of my work, is unknown to me. While I always worked with the consumer in mind–as I have done a lot of user manual writing–the mental image of the consumer was an abstraction based on what I believed them to be: based on my own approach to assuming a consumer viewpoint, and the insight delivered by product managers. Photographing people gives me first hand experience with the customer. Yes, the Santa Claus photos tend to have an expectation from both photographer and customer, yet there remains a degree of interaction to ensure I am delivering the shot(s) the customer wants. And this is where I have come to love photographing people: the interaction, the immediate chance to deliver on their request, and in this digital age of seeing the photos immediately being able to share the results. As a writer, I have very rarely been afforded direct feedback from the consumer of my work. Photography, and the smiling faces both in the photo, and later when it is delivered, brings me so much closer to my work.

Photographing children can be a challenge unlike photographing other people. It can be quite hard to keep a child’s attention during a shoot. And more so when, as was the case with most days in Santa’s Kingdom, there is a bit of a rush to get through one customer and on to the next–evenings and weekends, I found my average time per customer hovered around two minutes! One Thursday evening, during a 16h to 20h shift–that included a one hour supper break–I served 102 customers in 180 minutes of working time. That’s under two minutes per customer. It behooves the photographer and, when available, the assistant, to get children settled down with Santa Claus as fast as possible, to illicit a smile, and to draw attention towards the camera all within 90 seconds so it can be wrapped up and the next customer welcomed as soon as possible. When time permitted, of course, more effort could be put into making children comfortable with Santa Claus, and recognizing what they needed to relax and look at the camera. Which naturally led to becoming more insightful about children.

Within a few days of starting the contract, I began to recognize children’s behavior as somewhat following an age pattern. This helped me know when I could expect a tough customer when it came to getting not only the sought-after smile, but even sitting still. It also helped me know when to carefully guide parents and grandparents to stand behind me so the children–who looked for reassurance–would look in the general direction of the camera. The older the child, the more likely I could capture their attention and have them smile with a gaze directed at the camera; the younger the child the more likely it required the parents or grandparents to draw their attention generally towards the camera.

Children, we all know, but sometimes overlook, have profound feelings. And having feelings is a good thing. As much as parents prepare them for the visit to Santa’s Kingdom, the scene seems to overwhelm certain age ranges, and the children are afraid. It was definitely beneficial when the families wanted both family photos and the children on their own with Santa to have the family shot come first, to give the children time to get used to the setting with Mom or Dad close at hand for comfort. More than a few times, arranging the parents so they remained on the bench with Santa and their child, but carefully out of the frame, was the best solution for getting a solo shot with Santa. As adults, we do our best to cope with feelings of fear and sadness–or at least put them aside until a situation has passed. We may forget from time to time that children haven’t learned this yet, and maybe even that since having feelings is normal for all of us it might be a good thing that they express rather than repress the feelings. Indeed, when having the time to comfort children as they sat with Santa Claus, when being able to take their feelings into account and accept and work with them, it became much easier to bring out a smile, even from a child who had moments before been in tears.

As I move forward with photography in 2018, I count on this great experience in Santa’s Kingdom as one that will inform and instruct me for years to come and continue to bring me the joy of putting smiles on the faces in front of the camera.


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