Rethinking School Photos: A Documentary Photography Approach

Family Photography

I remember standing in line on picture day in school, comb in hand, trying to keep my long hair looking reasonably neat until those few seconds where I’d try my best to look presentable and smile at the camera (it helped if the photographer was funny). And then be herded off so the next student could do the same. This was THE professional picture that many families would have for the year, and it was taken very seriously. We’d wait anxiously to receive our photos in a paper envelope with a crinkly plastic window and see how they looked. Sometimes they’d turn out ok, and then there were the times when we had an awkward half-smile or a weird in-between expression. Our parents would send 8×10’s to the grandparents and 3 1/2 x5’s to the aunts and uncles, and our Dads would keep “wallets” in their wallets.


It would have been so cool to have photos of me flipping backwards off the monkey bars (over pavement, because it was the 70s) while another student stood watch for roving teachers who didn’t appreciate our stunts. Or sledding on the back hill during winter recess. Or the time I was so fast at chasing the boys in “boys chase the girls” that one of the boys did a somersault trying to get away from me. Or the small, bring your own lunch group, where we were left to our own devices in a classroom while other students were bused to the high school for “hot lunch” and where one girl always raffled off a huge bag of those sugary orange peanut candies in funny contests until we all dissolved in laughter. 


My children also had traditional picture days in elementary school. One loved it and dressed one time in a suit, another in his own combination of layered plaid shirts and a tie (with my wholehearted encouragement). The other mutinied and refused to participate, again with my blessing. For me, photography should be about more than just looking nice for someone else and saying cheese. What is a portrait, if it doesn’t show personality?


As a volunteer and room parent, I loved coming in to the school and photographing my children and their classmates during special projects and class share times. The moments of focus, discovery, delight, connection and fun showed true personality and friendships. I caught a glimpse of this important part of their lives and captured some childhood memories of more than just picture day at school.

Our family does plenty of projects and learning at home, after school and on weekends and holidays. And there have also been many flips and friendships captured. Those photographs are wonderful to have but, I’ll l admit to being a little envious of my homeschooling friends, who get to see more of these moments first hand, and be a part of the whole learning experience.

UPDATE: I first wrote this blog post well before the pandemic of 2020. In spring of 2020, my children, including my college-aged son, were back at home and learning virtually, along with many others. At home, “unschooled portraits” became a common thing to do. People started to accept a more authentic version of people as work and school and home all blended together. And more, now than ever, photographs have become more important as ways to connect when we can’t see our extended family or friends.

The beauty of documentary photography is that it encompasses whatever happens, so regardless of the details, the photographs reflect your life to help you preserve your memories.

I always enjoy photographing homeschooling families and their unique styles of teaching, learning, and connecting with their families. And of course, playing. A few of my favorite images from one of these sessions follow.

homeschooling family with dog in the woods ©Diana Sherblom Photography
homeschooling family boy and girl in hammock in the woods ©Diana Sherblom Photography
homeschooling family boy and mother playing flute ©Diana Sherblom Photography
homeschooling family talking about lesson outside  ©Diana Sherblom Photography
close up of boy writing in homeschooling lesson outside  ©Diana Sherblom Photography
girl writing in homeschooling lesson outside  ©Diana Sherblom Photography
brother and sister writing in homeschooling lesson outside  ©Diana Sherblom Photography
mother and son homeschooling lesson outside  ©Diana Sherblom Photography
mother and son homeschooling looking at tablet ©Diana Sherblom Photography
girl playing violin ©Diana Sherblom Photography
mother and son playing guitar and drawing in front of campfire ©Diana Sherblom Photography

What photographs do you have of your school experience? Of your children’s? Of projects at home? What photographs do you wish you had? Tell me more in the comments.


For more information about a documentary school or homeschool session, or a family field trip/project (a walk around the neighborhood to discover fall leaves, or a trip to learn about nature at a local park, or a parent-child woodworking or gardening project), please get in touch or send me an email at photo@dianasherblom.com.

May 4, 2021

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