|Photos courtesy of various children in Santa Rita and Nueva Arminia, Honduras|
I know, it is not a wise choice to lend one's camera out to clamouring groups of budding photographers with sticky fingers and short attention spans. But I love the images that come out of it. Like someone who has just opened up the box of a brand new camera and is now trying to artistically photograph their feet and dirty dishes, children strive to document everything that is in sight, to capture everything that is the world within the camera lens. And unlike a new camera owner, they couldn't care less about artistic pretensions and the rule of thirds.
That is what I love about the pictures taken by children. They abandon conventions because, quite frankly they couldn't care less about the final product. All they care about is pressing a button, seeing a big flash, and then giggling at their little sister's face on the camera screen.
When I think about childhood photography, I am reminded of the passage in the Gospel of Matthew, where Christ says "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." It seems strange to me that Christ links children with humility. As adults, we sometimes have an idealized view of children. Children fit right in with sheep lying down their pretty cotton ball heads in brilliant green flannel board pastures.
But because I work in a daycare, I have no such delusions. I would never describe any child I have ever known or worked with as "bad." However I can not ignore their often blatant demonstrations of selfishness and meanness. Memories of children clambering for who gets to be first in line for the slide, or for the biggest piece of cake hardly corresponds with my understanding of humility. It is much easier for me to imagine kids asking together with the disciples the question "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
The seventeenth century poet Thomas Traherne describes described childhood as a state of wholeness and innocence. In the poem "Wonder" he describes his childhood self as "like an angel," full of "native health and innocence" and experiencing none of the harshness and all of the joy and goodness that is in creation. He describes the perspective of a child as one which is untainted by earthly affairs. For the child, "Harsh ragged objects were concealed, Oppressions, tears and cries, Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes, Were hid."
I am fairly certain that Thomas Traherne was not a childcare worker. I have seen too many "weeping eyes," "complaints," and "oppressions" amongst children to consider this an accurate depiction of children
But my thoughts return to childhood photography. Their photos are honest. They don't try to make things look better than they are, rearranging them to fit conventional rules of composition and playing around with lightening. Instead, their photos are dominated by cut-off heads, over-exposure and blurred lines.
When I first recalled Traherne's poem while writing this, I planned to use it as an example of how adults have a tendency to idealize childhood. However, I have changed my mind. Together with his depiction of children living in a state of wholeness and perfection, Traherne describes children as having a heightened awareness of the divine beauty around them. He describes children as seeing the streets as paved with gold as they are in heaven. He writes about how children are moved to wonder by material objects rather than avarice. And when they look to the skies, they are "oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!"
I see this wonder and sense of the divine in the pictures that children take. And perhaps this wonder is the key to their humility. Kids are so often awed by the immensity of the world around them, and are deeply filled with the awareness of their smallness in the face of such grandeur. When we grow older, we fashion ourselves as having the statures of giants. We seek to reach the heavens by building trembling towers upon shaky foundations of security in the material and by trying to fit ourselves into the composition others expect of us. But children, with their awareness of their smallness are enabled to see wonder in the skies, in the oceans, in the cities.
My challenge is to dare to view the world today through the lens of a child. The streets with asphalt glistening in the rain are really paved with gold. The bridge that takes you across the river that is so long and wide that it must surely fall over the edge of the horizon like a waterfall is incomprehensible. And when you stare up at the mountains and the buildings that tower up to the heights of the heavens and the birds that soar in unison through the sky, you are so very small in comparison. It is a world so beautiful that it doesn't matter how you hold your camera, or how you set up the aperture. Every haphazard shot is a glimpse of glory.