When I was a kid, I never felt “cool”. Maybe the cool kids never really felt cool either. Even as young as 8 years old, I knew who the “popular” or “cool” kids were and did not feel a part of that. I didn’t feel actively excluded, but there was something about my “softness” and sensitivity that felt at odds with being “cool”.

As a culture, why do we admire a “cool” that is defined by a facade of impenetrability, not caring, not engaging, and not connecting?

I was just reminiscing with a friend about how much we loved the movie Grease when we were kids and really how inappropriate it was for us. Remember how Sandy was only really accepted by her friends and the boy she liked when she changed her image to completely negate her true self (put on a lot of makeup, wore black skin-tight pants and started smoking)? But I still loved this movie for the music and dancing despite its terrible values. We laugh about it now, but I worry about the effect on girls of consuming stories and images of women who achieve worth and status only when they fit into cultural beauty norms or cultural definitions of “cool”. Don’t get me started on Disney…

Luckily, I had an upbringing that did not reinforce pop cultural beauty norms. I knew that the worth of a person was more about what was inside than out. But still, in vulnerable moments, I felt the pressure of the unwavering force of cultural beauty ideals and expectations for girls and women. I must admit, I took a liking to Seventeen and Sassy magazines when I was a teenager. Now when I’m in a waiting room sometimes I flip through a fashion magazine to see what, if anything, has changed. Nope. The majority of ads and stories still focus on women’s physical improvement and project unrealistic beauty ideals.

Representation is a powerful thing. And, as a photographer, I am aware of my position as a creator and curator of images that help to forge identities. Photographs are one of the ways we show the world who we are. It is also one of the ways we reinforce our identity to ourselves. I believe that photographs should amplify our true selves.

This is why I choose to focus on photographing children in real moments of joy, wonder and engagement in play and creativity, as a celebration of the best parts of childhood. These moments are unpolished and imperfectly beautiful. I believe that these are the things that we should aspire to, not unattainable beauty ideals, or a disengaged “cool”. I also make sure that I photograph the whole child – especially aspects that may not be culturally reinforced.

I’d like to see the idea of “cool” include people who are kind and caring. I’d love to see a cultural ideal that includes kindness and honesty and an uncontrived, natural beauty. Caring makes us vulnerable, and that vulnerability is what connects us and shows our humanity.

A couple of years ago I took a workshop with photographer Kate T. Parker who at the time was working on a series called “Strong is the new Pretty”, which has since gained much popularity. I’d like to think “Caring is the new Cool”.