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36 Working-Class Kids Photographed Their Lives. Here’s What Happened

“She’s very beautiful. She’s very smart, even though she didn’t go to college.”

“She helps me with being a child. It’s the same mother rules: Clean up your room, fix your bed. But I like it when she does that. It’s really nice. I love her so much, I could just explode.”

“She’s my mother but she’s also my best friend.”

Those comments were made by 10-year-olds, describing pictures they took of their moms. The children shot the photos for a research project that resulted in the book Children Framing Childhoods, by Professor Wendy Luttrell (The Graduate Center). At first glance, the pictures show women doing ordinary kitchen chores. But the children’s interpretations reveal complex stories of caregiving, love, and relationships. 

In addition to photographing their mothers, the 36 children who participated in Luttrell’s research also collected images of their teachers, school, friends, homes, and prize possessions, from sneakers to stuffed animals. Luttrell later reconnected with the kids when they were teenagers, this time giving them Flip video cameras. A selection of their pictures, videos, and comments can be seen on a website about the project.

All the participants lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, attending a diverse school where 92% of the kids were eligible for free lunch and many were from immigrant families. “My research question going in was more about identity and what role did immigrant status play in the ways kids would represent their lives,” Luttrell said. “What became so interesting was the length the kids went to to establish their identity through care and that emphasis on being cared for and being grateful and caring for each other.” 

The children also used their images to convey messages that mattered to them, “regardless of what they thought the researchers were interested in.” Often they used photos to reinforce relationships “with people they respect or felt respected by.” 

Among the most interesting pictures show toys, clothes, or other possessions. An adult unfamiliar with the context might view these as examples of consumerism. But Luttrell says the kids were photographing these objects to showcase “gifts from beloved family members whom they no longer got to see,” or “cultural artifacts that they cherished and displayed.” One girl, an immigrant from Albania, took a picture of a boom box that no longer worked but that had been a gift from a neighbor during her first week in America.

“She can take pictures of anything,” Luttrell said. “But she chooses to memorialize the way she was welcomed in her new home by a neighbor.” 

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Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

Children Framing Childhoods
University of Chicago, 2020

Work By

Wendy Luttrell (Professor, Urban Education, Critical Psychology, Sociology) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

The Graduate Center