Photographing Children at Play in Safe America

I wish we didn’t live in a world where there was so much suspicion about each other, where everyone is assumed to be ‘stranger danger’ until proven innocent. Where every man is looked upon as a creep, and everyone on the street has bad intentions.

A man with a camera can only mean bad news.

Because it’s not true. According to a 2015 Washington Post article, There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America. Read it for yourself. “Bottom line: If it was safe enough for you to play unsupervised outside when you were a kid, it’s even safer for your own children to do so today.”

As a lifelong photojournalist and documentary photographer, there are moments that are just simply priceless that call to be photographed and preserved. Like these two girls playing in a driveway who I saw while walking one day to the post office.

Documentary photographers since the birth of photography in 1839 have photographed kids at play. Because they’re alive, they’re free. And they do more fun things that are also often photogenic than most adults. Photographs throughout the 1900s were made and published in LIFE Magazine among others–childhood was celebrated.

There are not a lot of adults cooling off like this. How can I not photograph it?

What would we do without the many classic images of kids that have been made and celebrated by master photographs? Were these photos dangerous to make when legendary photographer Helen Levitt was working on the streets of New York City?

Or this group of photographs from Henri Cartier-Bresson, the famous French photographer.

And these from the recently discovered, Vivian Maier.

I have many photographs of kids being kids from years of working as a
street photographer, documenting life in public. Making photographs of life that can be easily observed, and I’m doing it very overtly, working as a documentary photographer does, with a clear goal to make photographs of the way we live today.

I try to communicate my joy in being able to photograph people living, at play, having fun, the joy of being human. I thoroughly love being a photographer making storytelling images that capture life in the present day that will be looked upon in 50 years like the black and whites above are looked upon now.

Here’s a sequence from my neighborhood when I was out for a walk. It was photographing kids with huge grins that I used in my Roy Stryker documentary project.

Alfred Eisenstaedt, the famous LIFE Magazine photographer who photographed the soldier’s kiss in Times Square at the end of World War II also had wonderful documentary photos of kids. Like this one.

And Elliott Erwitt, the Magnum photographer who’s still working today, did, too.

Does anyone photograph at the school dance anymore or is that too scary? (And I don’t mean blurry phone snaps by faculty members, I’m talking about real photographers making real photographs.) Are we missing out because we are letting fear drive us?

Here are several of my documentary photographs of kids from my Street View gallery. I don’t have any bad intentions for the photographs other than documenting kids being kids and sharing them with the world to show who we are today.

In 2020, is there more reason to be afraid of strangers than ever, or is the access to reporting of crime that much more intensified that it seems like there’s danger around every corner? Is the phone in our pocket that we are so addicted to, is it the culprit? The media survives on selling the fear that a lurker is out there to steal our kids and hurt us. According to the Washington Post article above, it simply isn’t true.

There’s a 2016 article by Thomas Baekdal, Selling fear and the role of the media which says, “People are much safer than ever. You are statistically more likely to be killed by falling furniture than by a terrorist with an assault rifle, but you don’t see people going to ‘how to avoid being crushed by a falling couch’ workshops.” That’s not the way the world we live in feels.

In my neighborhood, I see so many opportunities that would be wonderful to pull out the Rolleiflex and photograph the joy in a child’s face, playing with their parents or running around with other kids. I would love to feel welcome going up to them and making some photographs for their family to keep to remember these special times in the young lives of their kids.

To make them with my photographer’s eye and share my gift, my professional ability with over 30 years of experience documenting the news for papers and magazines. I’ve photographed U.S. Presidents and Vice Presidents, I can photograph your kid. It’s not even about money, I would gladly gift prints to the families.

But right now, the suspicion and weirdness is at the forefront. “Why would you want to do that?”

If we only knew what talent was passing us by on the street, not connecting out of fear of each other–it’s a shame that we’ve lost that trust in our neighbors.

There’s a public swimming pool a block from my house that I know would make for good photographs, not just kids but all ages at play. I don’t get to photograph there because outside of an editorial assignment, that’s just too weird for people to have a photographer show up and want to make photographs. And do what with them?

Publish them. Add them to gallery shows. Save these times.

I can make street photographs at the local lake, that’s okay. But even there, some might wonder why anyone would bring a camera to the lake and photograph anything but the sunset and the people they’re with. Photographing strangers, that’s weird. No, it’s not.

It’s a public beach at the lake. I’m documenting life at the beach.

Who do you know who is a professional photographer? A photojournalist? Invite them in to take photos of your family. If they’re a neighbor, welcome them next door to document your life, your kids at play, and let’s connect with a healthy level of trust that we are here wanting what’s best for each of us, and making photographs isn’t a dangerous, scary thing, but just a way to document life in a simple, quality photograph.

To savor a moment that will be gone a moment later.

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