Let’s be real. All of those pictures on social media showing perfectly coifed and smiling children are cute, but their connection to real life with kids is tenuous at best. Chances are most of those photos were made possible thanks to a bribe involving candy, or the promise that the kids could take off their “nice” clothes once Mom or Dad got a share-worthy shot.
Photographers (and parents) Heather Whitten and Kirsten Lewis decided long ago that they would skip any shot that involved the phrase “say cheese.” Instead, in the style of photojournalists, they focus on capturing images that honestly depict kids just being themselves, whether that is bare toddler bottoms, an epic tantrum, or eating candy in the grocery cart.
Whitten and Lewis photograph life with kids in the course of a non-staged day. They have no expectation of getting a perfect, smiling shot in exchange for candy. Both proudly share their images, unashamed to show that real life isn’t perfect. Rather, it is often difficult, and is more fun and more beautiful than anything a photographer could stage.
Many parents appreciate the real-life moments that Whitten and Lewis capture because nearly everyone with kids in their lives can relate to the messiness and chaos that come through in the images. Lewis is known for her humorous photos of children testing limits when unsupervised by their parents, such as one of a three-year-old boy urinating in his house, making as high an arc as he could while his 10-month-old brothers lounged in the background. Whitten’s most well-known image shows her husband, Thomas, comforting their son Fox in the shower during a bout with salmonella when Fox was a year old.
But, as popular and as real as Whitten’s and Lewis’s photographs are, both have also come under fire from those who say they are sexualizing kids, or oversharing.
Lewis’s photo of the little boy urinating was removed from Facebook after it was reported for being sexual in nature. Lewis wrote an open letter to Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg that went viral. In the letter, Lewis said her biggest concern with the removal was that parents who post pictures of their own children being free and innocent are being told that it’s wrong, sexual and dirty. Lewis, who has degree in child psychology and has spent her adult life working with children, worries that labeling ordinary childhood events as “dirty” sends the wrong message to parents who are devoted to protecting their children and their adorable baby bums.
Whitten’s image of her husband and son was criticized, as well. An anonymous viewer reported it to the Arizona Department of Child Safety, and Whitten was charged with child neglect for posting this and other photos of her kids. Although the charges against Whitten were found to be unsubstantiated, the experience has made her hesitant to share many family photos online. She has made her Instagram account private.
It’s unfortunate. Images such as the one of the boy urinating can make parents of misbehaving children feel less alone and alleviate some of the pressure to be perfect parents with perfect children. Photos such as the sick boy being comforted by his father in the shower show all of us that parenthood can be really difficult and that fathers can, and should, play a strong role in their children’s lives.
Even though she posts fewer photos of her own family these days, Whitten still thinks that parents should actively share their real and imperfect lives. If more people honestly posted both struggles and successes, more parents could be content with their real lives, instead of always feeling like they are falling short compared with the perfect, carefully edited lives they see on social media. Being honest would allow parents to support one another, and would show that we all have dishes in the sink, and children who prefer to wear mismatched clothing (or no clothing at all).
Lewis continues to share honest photos of life with her one-year-old daughter, Byrdie, as well as photos of clients who are comfortable with her doing so. Those images include nursing in public without a cover, and going out with her daughter at 11 p.m. during a trip to Spain for work. Although she has received backlash for some of her images, she doesn’t let it define her parenting choices.
Some people criticize Lewis for so openly (and frequently) sharing photos of her daughter, but she points out that because her daughter is only 1, she and her husband Greg make all the decisions for her, ranging from whether her photos are posted online to when she goes to sleep.
“I would never make a decision that I feel would put my daughter’s life in jeopardy,” she says. “I would never share photos that I felt sexualized her innocence. No one will ever love and protect my daughter more than I do and others need to acknowledge that.”
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