Cast-Off Cameras, Failed Photographs and the Freedom to Make Mistakes: Childhood Media Memories in Mass Observation

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation


A conference paper for the workshop, Children, Media and Communication: New Histories of Experience, organised by the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in the History of Experiences (HEX) in Tampere University and the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS).

In 2012, the British social research organisation, Mass Observation, asked its national panel to share their earliest memories of photography. 175 responses were received from correspondents aged 19 to 91; childhood experiences were shared by users of Box Brownies, Polaroids, Instamatics and disposables. The experiences collected are strikingly different from those promised by camera manufacturers, however. In place of clear bright prints, we find fuzzy failures and beheaded boyfriends. Instead of modern precision instruments, users described ancient hand-me-downs.

Children who were gifted a camera at Christmas or for a birthday felt special, entrusted with something fragile, expensive and sophisticated. But special is a relational term and, in a childhood context, photographic values are often family values. Child camera users needed to compete with photographically enthusiastic fathers and meet the moral demands of their mothers. They were under pressure to make special pictures, and the results rarely rose to the occasion.

Photographic errors provide a lateral way of understanding norms, as discussed in Ernst von Alphen’s Failed Images (2018) and Kim Beil’s Good Pictures (2020). In Mass Observation accounts, faulty first attempts may have been disappointing, but they also offered autonomy in an adult-oriented world. Cameras enabled children to narrate their own experiences, to centre their own subjects and, ultimately, to make their own mistakes.
Period24 Apr 202325 Apr 2023
Held atTampere University, Finland
Degree of RecognitionInternational