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Photographs do not show reality

by Karen Hope on May 29

They show a version of reality.

The use of photography as a pedagogical strategy to make visible the learning and development of young children is now well ingrained within early years settings. Some settings might use photography a little, most use it a lot, and it would be fair to say that taking photographs of children has become, for a lot of early childhood educators, a daily documentation attribute.

Photography has become the key protagonist in a suite of documentation tools available to early childhood educators and the proliferation of digital platforms that are now available to the early childhood workforce has facilitated and supported its use as a pedagogical tool.

If we pause for a moment to consider the millions of photographs depicting children engaged in a variety of experiences and situations while attending early learning services, that are currently stored in clouds, on devices, in portfolios or other repositories we should consider have we blurred the line between authenticity and gratuitous oversharing and what do these images contribute to our deeper understandings of children?

Just because you didn’t photograph it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen

The idea of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ would seem to sit behind some decisions to document learning this way. It may well be that we ‘need’ to photograph children and the activities that they are engaged with as a way of evidencing that we are paying attention, that we are present and that we know what it is that we are looking at.

What do photographs offer to early childhood educators and children that sets them apart from other documentation tools and techniques? Do photographs offer a snapshot into what is really happening or are they offering a particular version of what is happening? A photograph never tells the whole story.

A photograph gives value to what the photographer considers valuable. The photographer holds the power and as such dictates what is shown and what is not shown, and the more that we use photography this way the further a particular value system or dominant discourse is embedded in daily practice. Photographs can make evident power relations, and this then becomes our ‘truth’.

The way that photographs are used and interpreted in early learning environments is subjective. It makes clear the values and beliefs of the person who takes the photograph and the value that they attach to that image is not the same as another person who might look at it. No two people view a photograph the same way, one will always see and understand something different.

Connection or disconnection?

It is possible that children are becoming desensitized to educators constantly taking photographs of them. While some may contend that the digital world provides more opportunities for us to connect, it is possible that it is actually doing the opposite. As Curtis explains “Putting a camera between you and children might actually interfere with what is unfolding, especially if they stop and pose for you” (Curtis, et al, 2013, p 215). The idea that you might actually change or interfere with what children are doing is a powerful one. By taking a photograph are you providing a real account of what children are doing, thinking, feeling and learning or are you changing it?

I am reminded of a story that was told to me about a conversation that was overheard by an educator between two children in the playground. The children were playing outside and upon making some discovery that was of great interest to them, they spent some time investigating and discussing it. One of the children expressed a desire to go and tell an educator in the playground so they too could take a look, but upon hearing this idea the second child said, “don’t do that, then we will have to talk about it and draw it and stuff, and get asked questions?”

Perhaps children are tired of being photographed and documented?

Children’s rights to participation

Repeatedly taking photographs can also leave us feeling that they are not real or that they are someone else’s interpretation of events. Often when we look back at old photographs, we are looking for evidence that this really happened. This could be especially true for young children whose rights to participation and consent may have been overlooked or worse, disregarded completely. The inclusion of children’s consent and their active participation in our documentation decisions is an authentic and ethical way of really evidencing what your image of the child is. An image that holds children as competent, capable and full of potentials, places consent to participation as an integral part of ethical documentation.

One of the ways that educators can enact children’s rights to consent ethically is to ask whether they want to have their photograph taken and to seek their input into how the photograph might be used. Do children want their image printed, stored, laminated or uploaded into an App – and if so, how do we know this?

Providing children with the opportunity to document their own work is another way of enacting consent. Children are inherently ephemeral, and this attribute lends itself well to children using photography to document their own work and that of others. Children documenting their own learning and those of their peers is powerful and can give us insights into what they are thinking and learning that our own documentation practices often cannot. Children’s photographs can give us a glimpse into how children connect with the world. This is often more powerful than the images that educators generate. Children view the world in unique and diverse ways and their photographic efforts will reflect this. Photographs are communication and meaning making and children bring to this process their everyday curiosity, questions, insights and provocations.

The rights to participation by children need to be more deeply considered and the use of ethical photography is a concept that should be at the forefront of photographic documentation decisions. Children have the right to be consulted about things that concern them.

Photography with awareness

Photography with awareness is a way of developing a more authentic approach to photographing children and the artefacts they produce. Considered by many to be the most famous portrait photographer of the 20th century, Yousuf Karsh stated; “Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera”. Photograph to see, to feel and to think. Photograph to challenge pre-existing beliefs and values and to create new ones.

Awareness as a documentation strategy can be developed. Take your time with photography and make considered decisions based on sound pedagogy about what you are going to photograph. Revisit the work, what have you not noticed before, and most importantly share the work both with children and others. What ideas can others contribute to making meaning from the image?

Consideration of the following points will help guide your photographic documentation decisions.

• Why have you photographed it? In the busyness of the day what made you stop and take the time to photograph this?
• What does this photograph say about what you value?
• What does this image make visible?
• Have you included the gaze of others? Are there multiple lenses on this work
• Try capturing the same image by 2 different people. What are the differences between the interpretations of the two photographs and how does this influence your interpretations?

Bringing an awareness to how you photograph children and their activities can improve not only the quality of the images captured but also provide wider assessment and observation opportunities. Taking photographs iteratively is one way of adding depth and complexity. Photographs captured over periods of time can evidence learning and development.

Photography as a way of making learning visible

Photography can be a powerful tool for learning and interpreting development and can provide to us information that other documentation strategies might not however it is time to consider before you click what type of reality you are bringing to your photographic decisions A photograph can be a piece of evidence that delivers new pedagogy, new knowledge and research questions, provided that there is opportunity for multiple ways of looking at it.

In Reggio Emilia, they refer to these multiple ways of reading and interpreting work as the gaze of solidarity, the need to have multiple eyes reading the work and the differing competencies of the various stakeholders within the group help make important determinations about what is reflected and understood in these images. This is multi perspective assessment and requires the gaze of children, educators, families and pedagogy. As Carla Rinaldi reminds us “Documentation is not limited to making visible what already exists; it also makes things exist precisely because it makes them visible and therefore possible” (Reggio Children, p 17, 2011).

What’s the learning?

Look at this photograph of a young child at the puzzle table in an early learning environment and consider;
• What do you see?
• What don’t you see?
• Does this photograph evidence development?
• Are you only seeing what you want to see? Might others have a different interpretation of the image?
• What do you think is the value of these types of photographs of children in early learning environments?

Photography as footsteps

Photographs can tell us who we are and where we have been. They can give us voice and identity and can share and communicate to others what is important to us. When used to document children they can make explicit development and dispositions. Photography without pedagogy and awareness, however, does not make explicit to children or others what the image represents and the value it holds for us. The key is to photograph with intent and to understand what lens, or bias you bring to the observation and recognise that these lenses influence what images are taken and then how they are interpreted.

Photographs do not show reality. They show a version of reality.


Curtis, D., & Carter, M. (2013). The art of awareness: how observation can transform your teaching (2nd edition). St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Giudici, C., Rinaldi, C., Krechevsky, M. (2011). Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners; RE PZ

Karen Hope

Karen is an early childhood consultant, academic and freelance writer who has had extensive experience in a broad range of services within the early childhood care and education setting. Karen established Karen Hope Consulting in 2014. Her consultancy practice provides professional development workshops, aiming to provide services with a ‘disruptive’ approach to professional development that challenge the dominant discourse. Karen’s consultancy practice and writing is strongly influenced by the Reggio Emilia project.