American Creative Nonfiction Inspirational

They looked like mugshots. And those were the best. Others looked like morgue post-mortems.

June Tandy pointed to her first-grade daughter’s school portrait. In it, the girl looked like a refugee from a carnival freak show.

“She’s six. What were you thinking? How do you do that to a six-year-old?” She stared darts at Carter Lee, the photographer.

“The camera doesn’t lie…”

Exasperated, June looked for support to Kirby Hudson, the principal, and to Oscar Pedersen.

Principal Hudson responded. “You do understand, June, uhm… Mrs. Tandy, that Mr. Lee is the school photographer? He owns the contract?”

She almost laughed. “I do understand that Principal Hudson. I’m a paralegal. Can we dispense with the formalities? To me, you’ve always been Kirby. ‘Principal Hudson’ sounds weird for someone I’ve known since we were six.”

Kirby nodded. “Let’s do that.”

June continued. “Many parents asked me to represent them tonight. That’s why I brought Oscar.”

Oscar suppressed a yawn. He’d known everyone in the room since they were kids in school. He took their school pictures. Carter bought the contract from him last spring. Oscar never looked back.

Kirby said, “For the record, Oscar Pedersen is the former school photographer.”

Someone at the back of the room yelled, “Hey, Oscar!” A wave of laughter swept the room.

June said, “I’d like Oscar to give his assessment of Mr. Lee’s recent class pictures.”

Carter looked anxious.

Buying time, Oscar brushed his mane of white hair back. He said, “Every photographer has their own style. The deal closed six months ago. I’m retired. Not my monkey, not my circus, as they say.”

June didn’t hesitate. “Let me put it this way. Carter may hold the contract, but I don’t have to buy the pictures. The other parents won’t either.”

The smattering of applause stopped when Kirby shot a severe look at the room.

Kirby turned to Carter. “Mr. Lee, why do you think so many people are unhappy with your pictures?”

“My guess is, they want to blame the messenger. I press the shutter. Not my fault their kid is ugly…”

A roar of protest drowned Carter’s statement.

Kirby banged his gavel. “Sorry about that, Carter. You were saying?”

“Look, I get one school day to shoot… I mean, to photograph about three hundred students. Do the math. That gives me about a minute, twenty for each student to sit, smile and let me work my magic.”

June scoffed.

Carter continued. “If the kid is… uhm, not prepared, I can’t take time to fix hair or implant a new attitude…”

The crowd murmured.

June blurted, “How can others do the same job so well and you… so badly?”

“Art is very subjective…”

“Art, schmart! You wouldn’t know art, if it kicked you in the head.”

Kirby slammed his gavel. “June! Enough!”

June addressed Kirby. “These are our kids, Kirb. They’re important childhood keepsakes. Kirby, what would it cost to buy out the contract? Get someone else.”

Carter said, “I’m not selling.”

“How about a remedial course teaching more than how to locate the shutter button?”

Kirby said, “Carter, it’s your company, but if you’re losing customers, what then?”

“What will a class cost?”

June said, “I nominate Oscar. He’s the best.”

Oscar shook his head. “Sorry. I’m retired. Carter bought me out and I walked away. You couldn’t pay me enough to go back…”

Everyone stopped. The town’s people held Oscar up as a celebrity. If not money, what could they offer?

Oscar settled into his chair. He’d built the business over decades. Now he was free. He’d always considered himself an artist. Better than a school photographer, no doubt. But he’d needed an income.

He told himself a steady sideline would support his art. After years, art became an afterthought. One morning he admitted he’d sold out. He always regretted the compromise.

When Carter offered cash, Oscar grabbed the chance to be free of his self-made prison.

Of course, Carter was too smart by half. He waxed poetic about the pixel count in his digital camera. Being ‘old school,’ Oscar felt if it didn’t use film, it wasn’t photography. That Carter knew nothing about real pictures did not concern him. ‘He can use a crayon, for all I care.

So, I’m a film snob. I’m free.’ Oscar walked. He wouldn’t get trapped again.

June tapped Oscar’s arm. She said, “I need my kids to not look like zombies, Oscar. Please…? Would you help us out?”

He saw they wouldn’t let him be. These pesky kids had grown. He sighed.

“Alright. I’ll donate a day for reshoots. I’ll teach him what I can. But no more.”

Everyone, even Kirby applauded. Carter shook Oscar’s hand.

They set a date for the reshoots and adjourned.


Carter asked Oscar to meet before the big day. He spread a sheaf of prints onto the table. Oscar looked and grunted.

Carter said, “So, tell me. What am I doing wrong?”

Oscar let Carter stew until he began to sweat.

“Look. You take catalogue pix? You light them and shoot. They are what they are. But these aren’t butterflies pinned to a board. They’re kids. Get their personalities. You’re not just recording light off of skin here. What makes their eyes come alive?”

Carter looked at the pictures. He didn’t get it.

Oscar tried again. “If fashion photos were only about the clothes, hanging them on mannequins would save them a ton. You go into the make-up department of a store. See those vampirish models… Are they selling paste for your face? No. It’s an attitude. One month, it’s ‘Fierce is feminine.’ Another, ‘Glum is glamourous…’”

Carter pointed to one portrait. The kid had no presence. His eyes were dead. He asked, “How d’you get a kid like that to smile?”

Oscar raised his eyebrow. “First thing, take their phone. No phones allowed. We’ll banish anyone found with a phone. Look at him. He’s starved for human connection. Not a glass screen filled with dancing pixels.”

Carter nodded.

“Next, he’s a kid. Smile at him. He’s been wearing a mask for two years. He hasn’t seen another face. Ask a question. Show some interest. Get him laughing.”

“So, Oscar, tomorrow…” Oscar waited. “Would music be out of the question?”

“Good idea. But it has to be something they like. Whatcha got?”

Carter put on a top forty radio station. Oscar winced and covered his ears.

“How about something I can stand? It’s a school, right? We’ll educate on how music should sound.”


“Not classical. Oldies? How about surf music. Dick Dale. Wipe-out. Beach Boys.”

Carter programmed his app. The beat captured them. Carter smiled.

“Let’s do it.”


They arrived at the gymnasium early and got the flash umbrellas and backdrop set. Oscar had a sign reading ‘Biggest Smile Wins!’

Every time a class entered, some kid with a big smile would point and ask, “What will I win?”

“You get your picture framed.”

The teachers helped scout out forbidden phones.

The day went smoothly. With so many students in the queue, avoiding the assembly line proved impossible. But Carter engaged each within his minute and thirty window. The students responded to his energy.

Each grade level had a personality. The early grades had a few mavericks but most followed direction docilely. When the sixth graders arrived, Oscar and Carter were ready.

Carter said, “Hey, Oscar, ever do any BFF shots?”

“Now you’re cooking. Go for it.”

Carter announced BFF shots were an option after the individual shots.

“You know. For fun…”

The boys drifted to the far side of the gym.

A student named Jacqueline had four BFFs in her orbit. There were only six girls in the class. That meant one girl, Janie, was odd one out.

She stood to one side trying to look indifferent. Her sadness showed.

Carter said, “Jacqueline, you’ve got four BFFs?”


“How about five?”

“Have you met me? Janie doesn’t fit. Not BFF material.”

“She could be though.”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “Never happen. If everyone’s a BFF, then no one…”

Oscar intervened. He waved Janie over to the camera.

“Hey, Janie… Ever take a picture with a real camera?”


“Look. I’ll show you.”

She joined him behind the camera. Oscar had her peer through the view finder and gave her a quick tutorial.

“This is how you frame it. You turn this ring to focus. Press here to snap the picture. You have amazing control over how your subject turns out. Zoom in. Zoom out. Play with the lighting. Turn this and the iris closes. Just like your own eye…”

“That’s cool…” She tried different settings. She had fun.

Jacqueline’s group began to get anxious.

Smiling, Oscar said, “Take the picture. I’ll give you credit.”

Jacqueline called out. “Hey Janie! Come join us. You should be in the picture. With us…”

Janie looked at Oscar. He shrugged. They smiled at each other. He gave her a thumbs up.

Janie said, “You sure, Jackie?”

Jacqueline nodded. The others urged her to join them.

She walked over and they welcomed her. Oscar held his hand up, they smiled on cue, and he snapped the shot.

The girls laughed, joined their class and exited with their teacher.

Carter and Oscar bumped fists. “We did it.”

June approached and greeted them.

“Thanks for this, Oscar. How’d it go?”

He gave a big sigh. “Glad it’s over. Thought I’d finished with them. Hate the little mongrels.”

“Oh no you don’t. No one who hated them could make them look so good. You’re an artist, Oscar.”

He did a double take. “What?”

“Look.” June showed them her grade school pictures. “Oscar took these.”

June looked angelic. Her eyes shined with light from within. She was luminous.

Carter nodded in appreciation. “Wow... How did you do that, Oscar? You truly are a master.”

“It’s June. I just pressed the shutter.”

They looked at Oscar and burst into laughter. He joined in.

He said, “Actually though, no one ever told me that. I never thought…” His voice became husky. “But you’re right. These are pretty good.”

“Oscar, your pictures changed people’s lives.”

He wiped his eyes with a handkerchief and blew his nose. He slapped Carter on the back.

“There you go, kid. It’s all yours. I’m done.”

“Don’t know if I’ll ever get that good. Have a lot to learn…”

“Hang in there. It’ll sneak up on you. You’ll see.”

December 08, 2022 19:18

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Michał Przywara
22:30 Dec 14, 2022

A pleasant story :) While it does end happily, it did flirt with disaster, given the very public criticism Carter got. There's an interesting point there. People were quick to criticize him when they didn't like his work. They gathered together, tempers flew, they gave him a piece of their mind. But with Oscar, on the other hand, they withheld their appreciation. They withheld it so long, he didn't even think of his work as art, and had no idea others did until longer after he got fed up with it and retired. We're quick to complain, aren...


John K Adams
22:34 Dec 14, 2022

Thanks for the extended commentary, Michal. Your points are valid and astute. Always like getting feedback.


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Marty B
06:37 Dec 14, 2022

Your story is like Oscar’s pictures, you found the humanity in each character and, like Oscar said a writer ‘… (has) amazing control over how your subject turns out. Zoom in. Zoom out. Play with the lighting. Turn this and the iris closes. Just like your own eye…” great story!


John K Adams
15:47 Dec 14, 2022

And every viewer sees something different! Great comment, Marty! Thanks!


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Helen A Smith
06:39 Dec 11, 2022

I loved your story John. It was inspirational the way Oscar worked, particularly when he got the lonely girl included as part of the BFF group. A nice touch that made it very human. A good study of psychology. There’s a lot more to photography than meets the eye, clearly. Oscar’s artistry came through in everything he did.


John K Adams
15:17 Dec 11, 2022

Thank you, Helen for your kind words. And for reading. It was fun to write.


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Delbert Griffith
10:14 Jan 05, 2023

This is a heartwarming story, and one that all writers should embrace. Writing is much like taking school photographs: we take everyday people and events, and we turn them into something worthwhile. "The camera doesn't lie..." LOL Carter isn't willing to take the blame for his poor photographs. The human need to be right is on display right here. Nice work, John. Very nice.


John K Adams
15:00 Jan 05, 2023

Thanks again, Delbert, for reading and the comments.


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Mike Panasitti
01:08 Dec 17, 2022

For creative non-fiction, this reads literarily. You've depicted an constructive relationship between and uninspired artist and one who has paid his dues. Nice job.


John K Adams
04:37 Dec 17, 2022

Thanks, Mike. I skipped the opportunity to be a school photographer. This was my meditation on what could have been. Glad you liked it.


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Cassandra Adams
21:47 Dec 16, 2022

Oscar's gracious and offhand mentoring of clueless, but apparently well meaning, Carter is inspiring and believable. An effective demonstration of the subjective source of beauty.


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