Niki Boon says of her photos: I document our days, together, in an environment full of nature and uninhibited play. I photograph as a physical record of their childhood, life as it is, the real.

Niki Boon says of her photos: I document our days, together, in an environment full of nature and uninhibited play. I photograph as a physical record of their childhood, life as it is, the real.

In Niki Boon’s photographs, it’s a kids’ world. Grown-ups almost never show up, and when they do, they’re merely functional: putting on a bandage, cutting hair. The kids wear what they want, get as dirty as they please. They pick up animals, play with skulls and jump in rivers. They hug and scowl.

It’s a free childhood for Boon’s four children, who don’t go to school and have the run of their 10-acre New Zealand farm unconnected almost entirely to the Internet or television. But life is not always carefree for these children whose play, explorations and emotions are documented by their extraordinarily talented photographer mother.

niki boon 1There’s her son in one picture, eating an ice pop and looking furious, perhaps at his two sisters lazing behind him in the doorway. In another, a boy stands against a twist of trees and roots that looks like a haunted fairy-tale forest. Is the little girl being hosed as she lies in the mud joyous or scared?

Boon’s lush black-and-white photos, featured recently on the Maptia storytelling site, call to mind the childhood many people had for moments, maybe on a camping trip, or wish they had. They connect us to the memories of an abiding love for animals, for pretend play, for messing around in the water or with a pile of rocks. They are startlingly revealing, and in that way reminiscent of Sally Mann’s pictures of her family.

Boon’s choice of parenting style is rare and extreme. For me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, it’s the kind of brave life I kind of wish I’d been able to live. I asked her a little about that and about her work. The Q&A has been slightly edited.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you do your work? Are you always carrying your camera in case something happens that you want to document? Are the children so accustomed to your work that they barely notice? Or are they sometimes annoyed? Do they ever say, “Stop”?

I generally have my camera sitting on the bookshelf in our living room, ready to pick up if something interesting is happening, and then I will just wait and hang out with them and see if the interesting thing evolves into something that is unusual or visually appealing to me.

My children are so used to having the camera around now that they react very little to it.

I generally captured play as it unfolds, and they are oblivious to the camera, mostly — they just focus on what they are doing. Occasionally I might ask them to do something again, or hold it for just a second, and they will sometimes get a bit frustrated with this, which is a reminder to me to back off.

niki boon 3Your children are being raised free of the technology that gives so many parents anxiety and keeps so many children from the natural world. But you are obviously not disconnected. How do you make that work in the household? And do you have plans to introduce them to, say, the Internet or film?

Yes, we have one computer. This mainly is used by me for my photography. But it is also used for research if we need to, although it is not our first resort. We look to books, atlases, encyclopedias, etc., and the world around us for answers first.

The children themselves don’t use the computer; as yet they haven’t asked. They usually turn to books to find answers to questions, or they will ask me to research something. They haven’t ever asked to play games, etc., on a device, even though they know they exist as they all have friends with them. Occasionally, my eldest (12) has been allowed to use the computer to access some classical music for his orchestra and practice with his violin.

We don’t ban them from the use of devices at all. We encourage them to use other sources first, but the computer is there to be accessed when they want it.

Your children are often wearing little more than underpants. What are your thoughts about how exposed they are physically and emotionally to a wired world that they have no access to? How have you talked with them about the fact that people all over the world are looking into their lives and their emotions?

I document our lives as they are, and in the summertime this is how it is here. Part of our decision to home-school our children was so they could develop a strong sense of self without the societal pressure that exist in our world right now. They will be and already are subjected to all the judgment and beliefs that are out there. I believe very strongly in a degree of freedom that we all possess, and that includes with our bodies. My children think nothing of how they present themselves in day-to-day life at home, and I celebrate (and document) that. As they grow, I see them becoming more aware of both themselves and how they are viewed by others; it is the world we live in, and that is OK, but I hope that I have given them the experience of freedom enough for a base from which to both stand strong and grow.

 

I don’t think I will regret taking the pictures. My mother died when I was in my late teens, and I have only a limited number of pictures from my childhood. I want to make sure my children have their childhood story documented to the best of my ability, so that they will have their story to look back on when they are older.

I consider the pictures I take to be very much their pictures, and I ask them if they are OK with it before they are posted on social media or elsewhere. My two eldest kids are now old enough to be more than aware of what that means.

How did your ideas of raising children without technology come together with your idea to document that life? Was there a point that you realized what you were doing was bigger than a mother taking pictures of her kids?

My eldest attended a Rudolf Steiner school for one year when he was 6. We fell in love with many of the school philosophies, one of them being no TV or computers for children at primary school. It was something we’ve adopted at home ever since.

I am not sure that what I do is any bigger than a mother taking pictures of her kids; to me, that is just what I do. I work had to try to represent what their childhood is like, so that hopefully they will be able to look back of their pictures and get a glimpse into how it felt for them.

The series of photos of your daughter, On Being 11, shows the emotional and physical chaos of moving from childhood to adulthood. Have your daughter’s views of being photographed changed as she moves into adolescence? In what ways will your documenting of her life change as she becomes a teenager?

My eldest daughter is now more aware of being photographed, and it has been interesting seeing this change. It’s trickier when they get older. I guess we will see where this leads.

When your children are grown, what will make you feel that your choices for their childhood were successful? How do you want them to be in the world?

I don’t think I will regret taking the pictures. My mother died when I was in my late teens, and I have only a limited number of pictures from my childhood. I want to make sure my children have their childhood story documented to the best of my ability, so that they will have their story to look back on when they are older.

What do you say to criticism that in these deeply personal photographs you are unfairly laying bare the lives of these four children?

Part of our decision to home-school our children was so they could develop a strong sense of self without the societal pressure that exist in our world right now, I celebrate who they are with my pictures.

niki boon 4

The photos make me yearn for my childhood, which wasn’t as wild and free, but was certainly a lot freer than many children have now. Do you think that’s what resonates with people when they see your photos? A nostalgia, a longing for that kind of freedom again?

The freedom that they have is what I hope that my children will see when they look at these images in years to come. I think it represents the lifestyle we have chosen, and it is important to me that it is represented as real as I can get it. Freedom is a part of our culture we are blessed to have; it is something I cherish and celebrate and hope to never take for granted.

You capture all the emotions of childhood: the joy, the anger, the uncertainty, the boredom. The photos are like little movies that add up to a whole: childhood. Can you talk about that for a bit?

I wanted to also explore more about what childhood is, and what it is to grow up, and for this reason I choose to show images which may depict the loneliness and solitude of childhood, the pain and hurt that is also experienced, I didn’t want to shy away from the less joyful aspects of the journey.

Why did you decide to shoot in black and white? Was it merely an aesthetic choice, or was something deeper involved?

I choose to use black-and-white processing as I think it depicts their story best. I truly believe there is certainly a magic in black-and-white imagery that I find impossible to explain. I love the magic in the shadow and the highlight, and in the mystique. I have tried to process in color a few times, but I usually revert back to black and white. Sometimes it seems almost as if the color in an image is a distraction away from what I am trying to show.

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment