Shooting babies

I was a Wal-Mart photo peddler.

Published January 3, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

It's a Monday afternoon in summer and I'm standing in the Wal-Mart in Tazewell, Tenn., trying to convince Tiffany to smile. Tiffany's family is gathered around her as she lies on a table moaning and threatening tears.

My job: Take her picture, whether she likes it or not. Tiffany, a dear little 4-year-old with tremendous stamina, is dead set against it. She is afraid of me, afraid of the table she's refusing to sit up on, afraid of the big black camera bristling with duct tape and squeaky toys -- and she's freaking out. Her family is just as determined to have the photo as Tiffany is not to sit for it, and I, as always, am caught in the middle.

Twenty minutes of clowning, cajoling and begging pass, during which the line of impatient customers behind my collapsible desk has snaked into the boys' wear section. I have to call it off; I am defeated. There will be no 8x10s, no 5x7s, no 3x5s, no wallet-sized snaps of a beatific Tiffany, resplendent in her youth. There will be no picture of Tiffany at all.


Painful as it was, the Tiffany episode was a fact of my life -- repeated daily and most often involving a Kaitlin or Kaitlyn or Caitlin or Kaytlin or Kate Lynn -- for about half of this past year when I worked as a traveling portrait photographer in Wal-Marts across Tennessee.

It was my job to hit every store in the territory that didn't have a built-in portrait studio and stay for five days. I would shoot the masses with my handy traveling studio -- a seven-foot-high exoskeleton bearing several scenic backdrops; a table with color-coordinated rugs thrown across it; and a shopping cart bursting with toys and stuffed animals, all of which could be collapsed and crammed into the trunk of a car -- and move on.

I had been roped into this peculiar brand of torture by a newspaper ad. I had wanted a writing job, but after six months of unemployment I was prepared to take anything I could get. The ad promised travel and photography, both of which are hobbies of mine anyway. After six months of interviewing for a variety of jobs, the encounter for this one featured just one question: "Do you have a good car?"

I had the right answer, and immediately became an employee of PCA International, owner of every photo studio in every Wal-Mart in the nation.

Over the next three weeks of training, I learned that the traveling portrait photographer must be, by turns, a workhorse, an artist, an accountant, a salesperson, a sheep dog (getting more than two children at once to sit still and look at one fixed point is a tremendous challenge) and the head of the complaints department.

I learned that traveling portrait photography is barely a photography job at all. The camera is designed so that almost anyone can use it, not even allowing for a change of focus. Instead, it's about baby wrangling and retail and I assumed, erroneously, that I could handle it all.

So every Thursday morning between May and October, I stuffed the studio into my '93 Saturn and drove to another far-flung corner of east Tennessee, where I would spend an hour and a half setting up the studio, crammed between the aisles of the women's or children's departments.

At 10 a.m. I would open for business, luring beleaguered mothers and other bearers of children into a kind of bait-and-switch photo scheme that required them to pay just $6 to $10 for a package of prints -- of one shot -- that they could pick up at the store in about three weeks.

Following the photo session, I was expected to coerce the customer into buying the company's $19.95 discount card. If I didn't sell as many cards as other photographers, I could expect to hear about it. Three weeks later, when the customers came back for their package, a salesperson would press them into buying a selection of the other shots I had taken during the session.

During those months, I experienced fleeting moments of warmth and creativity and even triumph -- surrounded on all sides by hours of misery, frustration and defeat. And stress, lots of parent-induced stress. The emotional weight placed on these discount pictures is immense; and so failure, for the parent, carries the stench of betrayal. When a child is too frightened, angry, suspicious or indifferent to smile for a total stranger, it means Grandma and Uncle Herb won't get pictures to hang on their walls, and the parent will not be passing out wallet-size photos at work.

Woe to the individual who deprives a parent of a moment, or everlasting moments, of pride.

Of course, when the kid relaxed, smiled and had fun, my job was a pleasure. Once, in the small town of Carthage (Al Gore's ancestral home), I shot a session with a very young boy whose parents referred to him as "Q," and whose full name featured an intricate spelling I couldn't hope to recall. Q's smile threatened to burst off his face; he appeared overstuffed with happiness. I can't recall ever being as pleased as Q seemed to be, even when I was his age. Especially when I was his age. After we had breezed through seven poses, I thanked him vociferously.

Easy as Q or tough as Tiffany, it didn't really matter. Under all circumstances, the job required me to have a split personality. For the retail work, I had to be persuasive and commanding. The photography part demanded the bozo treatment.

I guess I knew that I would have to act as silly as possible -- make bizarre noises and raid my shopping cart for every colorful toy or tickling device I could find there. I was chasing a chimerical moment, an unself-conscious flash of innocence, joy and wonder.

Gripping the camera trigger behind my back, I would watch carefully for the unforced, honest smile I knew would make the heavens part. When it didn't work, I felt guilty, as if there were some wonderful face I could have made or corny joke I could have told and didn't.

Sometimes my customers provided the shtick, with me as unsuspecting straight man.

Late one week, a long line had built up at the end of the day and those waiting had elected (to my dismay) to stand in a crowd around the studio and watch the sessions. Two boys were on the table, aged 5 and 7, with their mother standing guard on one side and their grandmother on the other. The kids seemed quite taken with my stuffed dinosaur, and I was "getting them" with it when the mother suggested I "get" Grandma.

As the crowd of perhaps 20 women and children watched anxiously, the older of the boys had an even better idea: "GET MAMAW'S BOOBY!" he shouted, at top volume. "Mamaw" hid behind the fabrics display as the crowd burst into laughter. "Don't you do what he said," she warned me.

And after each session, no matter how unpleasant, I would gamely launch into my discount-card spiel, explaining all the benefits of this little miracle: One free 8x10 every time you come in a free 10x13 family portrait once a year two sets of free accessories and five dollars off any purchase of the extra shots. I could take the most beautiful portraits imaginable, but I knew it didn't mean a thing to the company if I couldn't also sell cards.

In fact, it was the cards that did me in. I was wildly unsuited for the shuck and jive of pushing questionable bargains. I was too shy, too sensitive, too fragile, and I was not a salesman.

I also could not deal with the chaos. I was plunged into at least one completely unanticipated catastrophe per week. In a couple of towns, I actually ran out of film, an occurrence analogous to a gas station running out of gas. I sat in these stores with dozens of key chains, pendants and discount cards, but no film.

"Don't they sell film in the store?" I was asked.

"Noooo, not 46 millimeter film, ma'am. Not at Wal-Mart."

In Madisonville, the studio was set up in the snack bar at the store entrance, and the "air curtain" -- a wall of rushing air that blows at the entrance of most newer Wal-Marts -- was out of order. I hadn't considered it before, but I suddenly became aware of the reason for the air curtain: It was there to keep out insects. Throughout the week we were besieged by flies, which frequently buzzed into otherwise perfect photos. Oddly, the infestation seemed to dissuade absolutely no one from eating at the snack bar.

And then there were my nagging misgivings about tiny babies having their pictures taken. Doctors recommend that a baby not be brought into a store like Wal-Mart for about six weeks. The number and variety of germs in such a place, much less the concentrated germ population of a photographer's table, is a bit much for an infant's still-developing immune systems.

But many, many parents don't consider this (or don't believe it -- I recall the mother of a 5-day-old baby laughing and telling me, "That sounds like bullshit.") I often found myself queasily photographing children who I feared would become sick as a result. The company had no minimum-age policy, so there was no corporate line behind which I could hide.

During my training, I watched in horror as another photographer shot a 2-day-old boy. I couldn't bite my tongue fast enough.

"This child was born on Saturday?" I blurted.

"Yep," the mother cheerfully assured me. I imagined her lying in a hospital bed thinking, "Man, I just can't wait to take this thing to Wal-Mart."

A lot of kids were sleeping when their parents brought them in, which presented another problem. The company forbade pictures of unconscious infants. When I told customers this, I was often met with confusion and anger. What I didn't want to tell them was the reason I agreed with the rule --- Well, ma'am, if your baby died tomorrow you would have one creepy-ass picture in about three weeks.

So I whistled, clapped, banged metal objects together, squeezed squeaky toys, whatever it took to rouse the kids. For a baby who had just fallen asleep, I considered this an act of cruelty. What kind of fiend wakes a baby who's just laid down for her nap? Why, a fiend whose mother is giving him money to do it.

I do miss a few of things about the job, even beyond the paycheck. As a big fan of the surrealism in everyday life, I miss little moments like when a 2-year-old girl leaned toward me conspiratorially and whispered, "I steenk," or the little redhead who informed me that her mommy was going to have a 15-year-old baby.

And there was the fascinating trend of group portraits in which the man of the family was dressed in a pro-wrestling T-shirt. Many years from now, those children will see their family photo and remember just how much Dad loved some sweaty, muscular, nearly-naked bald man.

"Who is that, Daddy?"

"Why, that's Stone Cold Steve Austin, son. He was like a member of the family."

I also miss the underwear. Owing to an overwhelmingly female customer base, stores often had me set up the studio in the women's clothing department, invariably in the midst of a great amount and variety of panties and bras. On the rare slow days, I could only sit and stare at women's underwear all day (granted, this has always been a dream of mine, but I didn't want to do it in the middle of Wal-Mart.)

Above all, I miss the babies. Playing with babies is a highly addictive habit, and I'm still in withdrawal. Even now, two months after my departure, I can't spy a baby in a grocery-store aisle without feeling the impulse to dart over to coo and tickle.

But I couldn't hang in. I was pissing off too many people on a daily basis, and I felt it very acutely. I can't bear for one person to be mad at me, much less 10 or 20 at a time. This was pretty much a requirement of the job, so I knew I was never meant for the traveling photography business. I didn't like what it was doing to me; privately, I began to bitterly refer to my customers as "breeders," and to my subjects as the "little angels" and the "gifts from God."

It's satisfying to know that hundreds of people have samples of my photography in their wallets and purses, lodged in their photo albums and framed on their walls -- but all told, I'd rather not have to be humiliated, overworked, browbeaten and castigated daily just for a little satisfaction.

Somebody else is going to have to make Tiffany smile.

By Chris Neal


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