In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Visual Representations of Childhood

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Journals
  • The History of Visual Representations of Childhood
  • Visualizing Child Death
  • Visualizing Politics
  • Consuming Children and Childhood
  • Picture Collections

Childhood Studies Visual Representations of Childhood
Anna Sparrman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0060


The topic of visual representations of children and childhood is approached from a number of different academic disciplines, including art, sociology, film, consumption, media, history, popular culture, and anthropology. This view depicts a scattered research area where researchers hardly reference each other and are not necessarily situated in the academic field of child studies. Still, the production in this area is extensive, and this overview is more or less a way of formulating a research area. It is evident that the “new” theories of child studies have contributed to extend the field from one concerning primarily art-historical work to include pictures across genres, countries, and cultures, as well as different visual technologies. New developments in visualizing technologies have been important in developing new understandings of childhood. One example is the famous photographer Lennart Nilsson’s use of medical technology to photograph the fetus outside and inside the female body. The digital era has made it easier to publish, send, and distribute images, for good and for worse. People can share family pictures across virtual space, on the one hand, and it has become easier for international networks to share and trade child pornographic pictures, on the other. Since the mid-1990s, many publications concerning visual representations of childhood have addressed representations of the sexualized child questioning the commonly represented figure of the innocent child. Along with this figure stand visual representations of mischievous, dangerous, and ghostlike children. Innocence has not disappeared but has been turned into a commodity for adults. Moreover, the literature struggles with the relation between the “real” child, the fictive child, and the real child who participates in the production of the fictive child. This discussion is mainly concerned with the photographic genre, while the illustrated child raises somewhat different issues. No matter the genre, most of the research does point to how pictures of children tell something about the wider society, and not least about the power relations between children and adults in the production and use of childhood images. Some pictures, and some photographers, reappear with some frequency across the literature, as does the ethnically white child situated in the Western world. A change can be noticed, however, in the increase in images of nonwhite children in various sources. Visual representations of children and childhood do not just reflect on children’s symbolical values or children as proxies and commodities; rather, visual representations of childhood are at the forefront of child studies exploring and negotiating what it is to be a child and how one can see that a child is a child.

Introductory Works

The key text for the area of visual representations of childhood dates back to the 1960s and Philippe Ariés’s groundbreaking book Centuries of Childhood (Ariès 1962), and to the elaboration of the concepts of childhood and family put forward in that work. Ariés’s arguments were partly based on analysis and discussions of the iconography of images depicting children from the medieval period (12th century) until the 17th century. His work and use of pictures has been widely criticized, but as argued in Burton 1989 very little work has actually discussed his analysis of the images seriously. This might be due to the fact that the illustrations published in the original French version, L’enfant et la vie familiale sous l’ancien régime, were left out in later English translations. Even though exposed to severe critique by later researchers, it is somewhat noteworthy that pictures of children have contributed to the establishment of theories of child studies. Still, there exists no coherent area of research within child studies focusing primarily on visuality. There is, however, one major book used across the different disciplines that addresses visual representations of childhood over time: Higonnet 1998. Higonnet uses theories and ideas from the history of childhood to analyze a wide range of pictures of children from the 16th century until today. The book focuses on how one can see how the idea of the romanticized child has transformed into a sexualized and “savvy child.” Higonnet’s work was groundbreaking for child studies. In addition to this work, the freelance writer and lecturer Patricia Holland has explored the visuality of children and childhood in visual media (Holland 1992, Holland 2004). Both authors reference Ariés, but they do not seem to pay any significant attention to each other. Still, one must argue that both authors have had a large impact on visual research of children and childhood. One can also detect a change in focus for Holland between the first and the second of her books. The second book is firmly situated in theories of child studies that supplement Higonnet’s work by focusing on pictures of children, while also tying this work into the topic of sexuality.

  • Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Vintage, 1962.

    A classic work in history of childhood. Discusses in innovative ways visual representations of children investigating family demography. Artwork from the 14th century to the 17th century is analyzed, arguing that children are represented as small adults and that “childhood” did not exist before the Middle Ages. Original French publication: L’enfant et la vie familiale sous l’ancien régime, Paris: Civilisations d’hier et d’aujourd’hui. Librairie Plon, 1960. No pictures.

  • Burton, Anthony. “Looking Forward from Ariès? Pictorial and Material Evidence for the History of Childhood and Family Life.” In Special Issue: The Child in History. Continuity and Change 4.2 (1989): 203–229.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0268416000003660

    A useful overview of early literature on visual representations of the history of childhood and family life. Also a well-informed analysis of Ariès’s use of visual representations and the arguments he developed based on art work. No pictures.

  • Higonnet, Ann. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.

    Pioneering work on the visual culture of childhood, studied through a diverse set of picture practices form the 16th century forward. Discusses pictures of the unknowing to the knowing child, and photographers’ relations to their photographic subjects. Covers themes like the family, motherhood, the private and the public, and notions of children and childhood. Picture intense.

  • Holland, Patricia. What Is a Child?: Popular Images of Childhood. London: Virago, 1992.

    Investigates through the question, “What is a child?” How news pictures produce and reproduce values of children and childhood. Predecessor to Holland 2004, and includes less theoretical thinking. Picture intense.

  • Holland, Patricia. Picturing Childhood: The Myth of the Child in Popular Imagery. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2004.

    Explores pictures of children in popular culture from the 1970s until today. Discusses themes like superbrats, ignorant pupils, crybabies, damaged children, and sexuality in images of childhood. Gives a good overview of visual representations of childhood in media. Develops Holland 1992. Pictures.

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