How (Not) to Take a Great Christmas Photo

I wanted to get a family photo—a professional one—taken while I was home for Christmas.

 A cousin photo, actually. I’m usually content to document my days with iPhone snaps, but Christmas is different. I wanted to keep my two children and my nephew forever the ages they are. Jack on the eve of his fourth birthday with long blond curls and energy that crackles out of him like lightning. Reese at 18 months all wiggly and chubby and pointing to demand the things she wants. My nephew, Solomon, shy and adorable with heart-melting dimples. So I found a portrait special at J.C. Penney and then, always one to pinch a penny, I thought, why can’t we do the photo ourselves? Dressing the kids in some cute clothes and doing a little research on Pinterest would be a great way to save money and have more control of the results.

 I told my sister-in-law Nicole about my idea and she agreed that her brother, who lives next door, could take the photos with a nice camera he has. I’m pretty sure she did not run this idea by him. Then she gamely offered to host the photo shoot at her and my brother’s place. Their bedroom is a beautiful, peaceful blue with black and silver trimmings and just the sort of place for a photo shoot. A white sheet made an improvisational backdrop. I looked up poses on the Internet. Done.

It was snowy, very snowy and icy as we loaded the kids in the car and trekked to Nicole’s house. Yes, they were already crying, but they would cheer up with a little bribery; I had a pocketful of suckers just for that purpose.

We tramped snow all over my sister-in-law’s carpet and then the kids proceeded to pull out every toy that my nephew had neatly stashed in the cubbies on the wall. Soon we could not take a step without fear of tripping. Erik and I sat on the deep beige couches and waited for Nicole’s brother to arrive and take control of the situation.

When he arrived, the brother looked quite unprepared for the sight that greeted him. He started setting up his camera in the bedroom, and we decided to have the three of them lie down on the bed, chins on folded hands, Reese in the middle, boy cousin on either side. Erik and my sister-in-law held up a sheet behind them. 

It may have been a split second that they all lay there in a row, or maybe a millisecond. Then just as the brother moved behind his camera, shrieks burst out of Reese like she had been poked with a pin. As if fired from a pair of cannons, Jack and Solomon’s bodies hurtled into the air and began bouncing off the sweet blue linen bedspread, limbs flailing and mouths wide open in exhilarated screams. Their closeness in age paid giant dividends in their ability to match bounce for bounce, scream for scream, as if they were doing a synchronized routine. I mean, put a kid on a bed and tell him not to jump! Jack did a backwards somersault off the bed and Solomon ricocheted off the headboard. Reese somehow got caught in between them and screamed bloody murder, her crumpled face covered in snot.

So we repositioned them. Lie still. Lie still. Just for a minute. Reese, smile! Jack, look at the camera! Solomon, move closer to Reese! Smile! Hey! Smile!

Jack and Solomon began wrestling like young lions. Even though they are cousins, they are still strangers. And the competition over who would dominate the middle of the bed became fierce. Not to be outdone, Reese slid off the bed and rushed toward the camera, sobbing, “All done!” Her hair, carefully pulled back with a purple rubber band, was sticking to her face in clumps. I pulled out the suckers: bait.

The adults then entered into a jerky sort of slow-motion dance, like life-size marionettes. Repositioning, beseeching, tugging, crawling on the ground. My brother came in and Nicole’s brother’s wife arrived, so there were six adults to three children, all of us equally useless. We waved toys. We sang songs. We clucked and clicked like idiots. A decorative Santa with a fat tush who gyrated along to “Jingle Bell Rock” worked for half a second. But even with all of us on tiptoe, shouting, gesticulating and cursing under our breath, the children still roiled across the bed like an ocean. 

In good faith the brother snapped frame after frame, hoping for just that one, but even after we took a 10-minute break and tried to line up the kids on the couch, propped on charming pillows, he shook his head and confirmed what we all feared, there was not a single good picture. Not one of them all smiling, let alone all looking at the camera. Their faces were contorted in all sorts of maddening expressions but nothing that remotely resembled a smile. Their clothes were wrinkled and their faces were sticky from the suckers.

This was a major waste of everyone’s time. I was not going to be able to Facebook or pin these photos or even frame them. 

“I did not know this was going to be this hard,” I said to Nicole. “I would never have tried if I had known.”

“I know,” she said. “Me either.”

I’m a little ashamed to admit how frustrated I was. If I’ve learned anything as a parent, it’s that kids are not particularly malleable. What you expect them to do, they almost certainly won’t. We once took Jack to this hot air balloon festival. I had imagined how his face would light up as he saw the huge, colorful orbs sweep into the sky, and how fascinated he would be by the whoosh-hush as the balloons breathed their way higher. But Jack did not even notice the balloons. He was much more interested in the twinkling lights on the festival booths nearby.  I felt a little disappointed and maybe even a little angry.

 That’s how I felt at the “photo shoot” that had become “shoot me now.” I know that things don’t ever stay still or quiet. There is always an urgent, violent and unpredictable child flying around on the bed. But truthfully, I like being in control a lot. A whole lot.

And then the brother started laughing. He was clicking back through the photos he had taken over the past chaotic, disastrous hour. “Look at this!” he exclaimed. “This is hilarious.”

 All the adults crowded around the camera. On the screen, our children appeared to be caught in the midst of a hurricane. At least, it looked like some force of nature had descended on them and their eyes were closed, mouths open and bodies entangled. In one, Jack and Solomon looked downright demonic. On her own little island of misery, Reese was awash in tears and sucker goo. The bedspread was mangled and the sheet was falling down.

 We all started to laugh. It really was funny. No, it was kind of hilarious. It wasn’t a still life or a portrait, but it was a wild range of motion and expression and color and angst and glee. It was funny. And psychotic.

I looked over at the kids. Jack and Solomon were slashing at each other with foam swords. Reese had just emptied out Noah’s ark. Clearly, they were just living life, and didn’t care. I’m no match for three kids on a good day, let alone a bad day. So I let go of my Pinterest fantasy and decided that I’d laugh and laugh some more when I got the photos and frame them anyway.

After all, I got what I wanted: these three young rascals in all their glory. I imagine in 10 or 15 years, when I look at these photos, I will giggle to myself. “Oh yes, there’s Jack in mid-air. And Reese dangling off the bed. Solomon sprawled flat on his face. Of course.” Once all the frustration is gone, the scene will just be funny.

And I have to admit, there is something pretty great about that. 

2 thoughts on “How (Not) to Take a Great Christmas Photo

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