On mantels and walls in thousands of homes in Massachusetts, people proudly display the works of Deb Tyszkiewicz, though most owners of the treasured pieces don’t even know her name. They’re just grateful for the grins (and sometimes the pouts) that she captured of their children on school picture day.
For 17 years, Tyszkiewicz has worked as a photographer for Lifetouch, one of the oldest and largest school photography companies in the country. When she first started in this memory preservation business, she had to lug in more than 100 pounds of cumbersome equipment and shoot photos standing with a black cape covering her head. Today, her equipment is essentially a Nikon digital camera and a laptop.
While the gear has changed, she says, the children have not. They still like to show every tooth when they smile for the photographer – the dinosaur smile, they call it. They still get excited about the free combs passed out. They still make her laugh.
“It’s the best job in the world,” says Tyszkiewicz.“The kids really bring you to a place where you should live all the time.”
Here, Tyszkiewcz offers a snapshot of her line of work:
1. What’s the best thing to say to get a natural smile?
Some of our photographers can just give a look and it works. And a lot of them keep track of the crazy things kids are watching on TV, maybe something that’s said on SpongeBob SquarePants. But basically, ‘Cheese!’ always works. We tell them to just relax. Pictures are fun. It’s all about making the child feel comfortable. We all know that you only have a certain amount of time before they lose it.
The hard part is the class photo. With class sizes so big, you have to look at 30-something students and make sure they are lined up the right way and their hands are in the right places and there are smiles on all their faces.Sometimes we get a call from the lab that someone put the bunny fingers up, and we missed it. There’s always one. With Photoshop, we can take care of that.
2. What are some of the changes you’ve seen on the job?
With budget cuts, bigger class sizes and the demands of MCAS, we are restricted to how much time we have to take the pictures. We also have a strict ‘No touch’ policy. We will ask teachers if they wouldn’t mind helping to comb the hair if it’s needed. The best day is when the PTO is there and they can groom the children for us.
3. What’s the best color to wear for school photos?
That depends on the color background that the parents choose, or if we are outside. A blue background is pretty safe no matter what you wear. Denim looks beautiful on a red background. Actually, denim looks beautiful on everything. What we recommend for each color is on all of our flyers and online at our website (www.lifetouch.com). The parents are pretty good andknow to pick solid colors that don’t clash and without a lot of designs. It’s so cute when you see the kids all dolled up and the hair perfectly combed and the clothes perfectly pressed.
[As for fashions,] I’m just happier that the pants are higher – no more belly buttons exposed. I feel so badly for the school principals that have to enforce the dress codes. We see so many students, from the affluent communities to the very poverty-stricken communities. We see so many styles out there. We were seeing a lot of the buzz cuts with the football numbers on the side. There’s a lot of long hair now, which I can relate to.
4. You’ve said that this job helps you appreciate life. How so?
One time, the school office called and asked us to come down to the principal’s office to talk with us. In the office, we met with the principal and a mom who had brought in her son who was diagnosed with brain cancer.He couldn’t go to school every day because he was too weak but he wanted a photo with his class and she wanted us to take a nice portrait of him. She told us he had a scar from the surgery, which would show no matter how we positioned him, and we told her we could call ahead to the lab and they could fix that. Without her saying it directly, we knew her child wouldn’t be around much longer.
We took a great photo of him as an individual and a class photo. Unfortunately, three months later, the family had to use the photo for his services. It’s times like this when you realize you have an important job and you feel honored to do it. You saved a piece of time for this mom and dad. It also makes you count your blessings.
5. What’s the most helpful thing that a parent can do for the photographer?
One would be to read the ordering directions. We also hand out envelopes and ask parents to give us specific instructions. We love when they use these. It might say, ‘Make sure you get a natural smile,’ or ‘Make sure her face is wiped’ or ‘Make sure my son’s tie is straight.’ We usually post them up at work because they can be pretty funny.
Sometimes, we do get notes from parents that say, ‘Please don’t make them smile because they are missing teeth.’ I cherish those missing teeth and crooked smiles and the slings with broken arms. I love all that stuff. I have photos of me from Lifetouch back in elementary school. I had those bad perm photos. My mother used to do that to me every summer.
Susan Flynn was an associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper