School photos facing challenge of digital era

1st March 2013 at 00:00
Sit up, chin down and say cheese - the school photograph mantra. But as the market for mantelpiece shots shrinks and parents' purses tighten, photographers are having to adapt

Ah, the school photograph. Twelve years of education, marked out in a succession of awkward smiles against a mottled blue background.

But no icon is shatterproof. Like inkwells and desks with lids, the school photograph is gradually being nullified by technology. In the era of camera phones and Facebook uploads, school photographers are being forced to adapt.

TES spent time with two school photographers to find out how they are doing this.

Hayley Lehmann: `You can't pose'

"Where's that gorgeous smile, then?" Hayley Lehmann is standing behind her camera. In front of her, a 13-year-old boy sits on a low table. Two masking-taped lines on the floor mark where he should place his feet. Behind him is a white background sheet.

"Do up your top button," Lehmann says. "Chin down just a little bit. Just relax." Then flash, click, and the next pupil steps up to the white marks.

In the hall at Burlington Danes Academy in West London, Lehmann is photographing an entire school's worth of pupils - 900 of them - in a single day. Each pupil requires one or two shots: an average of 15 seconds each. Lehmann cites her rate as 180 pupils an hour.

"It's relentless," Lehmann says. "But you have to remember that every single child is someone's darling. Most people think that school photography isn't skilled. But to be a good photographer and to pull children through at volume and to get the best possible result - it is skilled."

Next up is a boy. "Shoulders down, sit up straight," Lehmann says. "Come on, Mr Gorgeous, where's that smile?" Twenty seconds later he is walking out of the hall, chest puffed up: "She says I'm gorgeous."

Lehmann has been working in schools since 2008, having started out in wedding photography. The switch came when she realised that happy schools would offer a repeat commission; only unhappy marriages require those.

"But I don't think school photography is recession-proof," she says, during a brief break for lunch. "People take photos of their children on mobile phones every day. They only want photos for Facebook. They don't want them to put in frames on their mantelpiece."

"There's not much novelty in having a photograph of your child," agrees Stephen Adcock, assistant principal of Burlington Danes. "Parents of Year 7s like the formality of a photograph in uniform. But I wouldn't say parents are clamouring for pictures."

A small girl with tied-back hair approaches Lehmann. "Madam, when is there going to be a picture?" she asks.

"After lunch," Lehmann says.

"In lesson time? Ooh! Can we, like, pose?"

"You sit sideways on," Lehmann says. "But you can't pose, because the school needs the photos for their records."

This is the other side of school photography. All pictures are logged on the school database. When a head of year needs to memorise a new cohort, or a new teacher wants to identify a miscreant, there is an instant computer record to help them.

"Some senior managers will take home photos of all 1,000 faces to memorise," Adcock says. "I like to think I know most of the pupils in school, and I think it's the same for most senior leaders. So having all the photographs in one place is useful."

Traditionally, school photographers work for commission only. Lehmann, however, charges a minimum rate, regardless of how many photographs are sold. In part, this is because she has invested time and money developing software that catalogues all the pictures automatically within the school database. It will also create customised composites: a particular year group, for example, or a subject group.

Lunch break over, the corridor outside the hall is filling up. "I need a mirror," one girl moans. Another applies lip gloss surreptitiously, while her teacher's back is turned. Pupils are fractious with waiting and the post-lunch sugar high, and the patrolling teacher grows correspondingly irate.

"It's a hassle. It is," Adcock says. "Schools run on routine and regularity, and any disruption to that is a hassle. But we take the hit, because disruption for a day is worth it to have a year-long record of all the faces in school."

Next in front of the camera is the girl who approached Lehmann during lunch break. Her hair is now restyled into a half-ponytail; she carefully arranges each strand, so that it falls correctly. "I ain't smiling," she says, before she sits down.

"Sit up straight," Lehmann says. "Where's that smile, then?"

Despite herself, the girl smiles; the camera clicks. "Can I see?" she says, her voice rising to a squeak.

"`Fraid not," Lehmann says.

There is a sudden lull in the queue. Lehmann looks anxiously at her watch: there are 300 children still to photograph before the end of the day. In primary schools, she takes longer over each child, offering parents a selection of shots. "With primary children, parents are more likely to buy it," she says. "But when you get to senior level, some schools don't even bother offering them to parents.

"I wonder if schools ultimately will do their own photos. The problem is that they will need the software, so that's what I've developed it for. My original career was in bookkeeping and management consultancy, so I have more of a business way of thinking on this. You have to think about the business side."

The next group of pupils arrives. A boy sits down and pouts at the camera, back arched, legs crossed. "Chin down a little bit," Lehmann says. "Sit up straight. Where's that gorgeous smile?"

Zak Waters: `Give me a surprise'

Zak Waters is taking a spontaneous photograph. "Keep looking at me. Keep looking at me," he says, shuffling crab-like around four-year-old Yasir. "Give me a big smile. Now stand around the side of this lamp post. Why don't you hide behind the lamp post, so I can't see you? Then put your head around it, like you're giving me a surprise."

He walks over to the lamp post and demonstrates for Yasir. "Now give me the funniest face you've ever pulled. And give me a serious face. Do you know what a serious face is? Now give me a happy face."

Waters is accompanying the Reception class at George Eliot Primary School, a maintained school in North London, on a visit to Hampstead Heath. Dressed in bright orange waterproofs and wellies, the children charge over hills and tree stumps, pausing only when a particularly deep puddle demands focused jumping efforts.

His job is to manufacture the kind of spontaneity that allows parents to feel that they are being given a sneaky glimpse into their children's school day.

"Children show their personality best when they're outside," says Reception class teacher Karen-Freya Marsh. "They can shine and show themselves as individuals." She calls to the group of children ahead. "Now, girls, remember: no screaming."

Waters finishes with Yasir: "Give me a thumbs up. Two thumbs up. Big smile." He takes his final shots. "Good boy, well done."

In difficult financial times, parents are unwilling to spend money on something that they could replicate for themselves at home, says Suzanne Noble, who runs Smile School Photography, the company that employs Waters. Parents regularly see their own children sitting still in uniform. She needs to persuade them that her photographers are giving them a snapshot of the school day in action.

During a previous shoot, Waters jogged backwards across a playground, in front of a group of racing pupils, taking photos as he ran. The result was an in-action breaktime running shot. "He was absolutely exhausted," Noble says. "But those are the ones that the parents like, because those are the ones that they can't get. It's about making them look spontaneous but it's also about getting those images parents can't take themselves."

And, says Sylvie Soudan, George Eliot early years leader, asking Waters to photograph the children at the Hampstead Heath forest school allows him to portray the children as their parents want to imagine them. "We have children who are shy in class and don't speak out," she says. "But when you bring them here, they really blossom and they feel confident."

Running ahead, the children reach a storm-felled tree. "Magic tree! Magic tree!" they chorus, clambering over its limbs.

Immediately, Waters begins photographing. "Give me a wave," he says to a small girl in a hat. The girl winks at him. "That's a wink," he says.

"It's good to be a bit cheesy," he adds, to the teachers this time. "You've got to think about the parents." Then: "There's a boy over there with a snotty nose."

"You want him?" Soudan says.

"Yes, but can you wipe his nose first?" It is raining lightly now, and Waters wipes his sleeve across his own face.

"It's raining! It's raining!" the children tell Waters.

"Have you got an umbrella?" he asks.

"Yes," they chorus.

"Can I borrow it, then? I've got nothing." The children grin and laugh. Waters keeps clicking. "Come and stand here. Now put your arms around that tree branch. Let me have that big smile of yours again. That's brilliant. Keep hugging the tree."

"It's hard to find photographers who can work with children," Noble says. "But the nature of the recession is that lots of very, very good photographers, who I wouldn't have been able to work with 10 years ago, are now available."

Waters was originally a newspaper photographer. He and other Smile photographers used to make their living working for national newspapers. But when the recession hit, they began looking for sources of work elsewhere.

News training, Noble says, helps her photographers to work quickly and efficiently. The reality, however, is that they work at a pace that a typical school photographer would find positively leisurely. Another school Waters visited recently required him to photograph 40 children in a one-hour breaktime. For him, that was unusually busy; the current shoot, providing access to a single class for an hour and a half, is far more typical.

"The attitude to school photography is usually that you get it over with as quickly as possible," Noble says. "But this is a different approach. You can see what children are naturally like."

Nonetheless, George Eliot staff also arrange a more conventional school photoshoot, so that parents do not feel cheated of their annual blue- background shot. "A lot of parents like that more formal look, with a uniform," Soudan says. "But it's nice to offer them an alternative."

Original headline: Where's that gorgeous smile?

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