“Everyone shows emotions everywhere but class photos”: On Steve McQueen’s Year 3 and Representing ‘School’.

Above: Installation view, Steve McQueen Year 3 at Tate Britain © Tate. 

As part of our digital series on ‘Sociology in Schools’ The Sociological Review is shining a spotlight on Steve McQueen’s Year 3 project, a collaboration between Tate, Art Angel and A New Direction. The project questions the representation of ‘school’, opening up the positions of schoolchildren themselves. Head to our Instagram to see a selection of the images, courtesy of Tate and Artangel, accompanied by responses from school-aged children from outside of the geographic context of the photographic project.[1] This blog reflects upon what is to be learnt from these responses.

Dr Laura Harris

An assembly of tens of thousands of London’s Year 3 school children tile the walls of London’s Tate Britain.[2] Earlier this year the same photos were pasted on billboards across the capital, unsettling the places, meanings and relationships routinely attached to ‘school photographs.’ Steve McQueen’s project, Year 3, is one of the most extensive and ambitious portraits of British school children ever undertaken, offering a snapshot of this generation that is rare and remarkable in its scale. McQueen invited every Year 3 student in London to participate, photographing 76,000 7-8 year-olds in 1,504 schools via a team of specially-trained Tate photographers.

Despite – or perhaps because of – consistencies in the genre of the school photograph, in Year 3 the differences and similarities amidst this broad assembly sparkle. The collection is perhaps particularly enticing to the sociologist, as subtle inflections of class, gender, race, faith and dis/ability abound. However, as is often the case with visual sociology, what images show is only as interesting as the social life surrounding their production. Year 3 therefore opens up a space to think sociologically with and about school photographs: as event, as object, as representation.

Thinking With Year 3

We invited school-aged children to respond to Year 3. 7-10 year olds in UK and Chinese school settings where shown the images, and asked questions including ‘Do these photos look like “school” to you?’, ‘Who are class photos for?’ and ‘Why did they take the photos?’.[3] As is the ‘new normal,’ these questions were mainly posed via the teacher through online learning portals. Some teachers choose to have this as an ‘optional’ activity while others included it in their classes. The students who were physically present with the teacher were occupying an atypical school environment. In these rearranged schooling spaces none of the students were wearing uniform, even in uniform-wearing schools; nonetheless the uniforms in Year 3 were often sited as the key that made these photos ‘look like school.’ As the pandemic has reorganised the school day, Year 3 stood in for the trappings of school on hold.

It is worth noting that the move to online learning has helped in the creation of this blog. The questions and visual prompts suited these platforms. It also made it easier to take this project to both UK and Chinese school settings. While we collected insufficient data to reflect on the difference between UK and Chinese students, the responses were marked by striking similarity.

In what follows we have organised the analyses present in children’s response, and below offer them to you in their own words.

On Year 3

The images of Year 3 are familiar in their format; the static, formal, ordered seas of smiles ubiquitous in schools and homes the globe (Burke & Ribeiro de Castro, 2007). All school-aged children who participated recognised the images as typical school photographs. This ubiquity is perhaps a symptom of the rules that regulate, and often prohibit, photography on school premises (in the UK at least), which leaves little space for non-official, alternative representations of school life. As a result school photographs often take on emblematic status, distinctive placeholders for memories of school.

Nowadays, a huge industry surrounds school photography. Today’s school photographers develop a competitive edge by offering characterful and composite images. In a recent interview with a school photographer, the New York Times reflected ‘he’s a salesman first, and a photographer second’; likewise, the school photograph is a commodity in addition to a meaningful object. The New York Times also report that official school photography in the USA is struggling as an economically-profitable activity in the face of cheap cameras. It is, perhaps, a harder sell these days to package the photograph as uniquely valuable, even with the official trappings of the school photography. There is also often a prohibitive and exclusionary price-tag. Single images can cost between £10-£20 and packages up to £100. McQueen’s Year 3 removed this particular economic barrier).   

Many of the children reflected upon posing for such images. In sociological parlance, their bodies are made to do representational work for the school, their parents, and each other. Peopling the ‘image’, and connecting such to school practices, opens up all sorts of sociological lines of inquiry. In the production of these images, the children reflected that the power lies with the photographer, who stands as proxy for the ‘school’ and the wider value system in which it operates. This takes place on the body of the schoolchild, and school teachers often ‘tidy up’ their appearance to make them ‘look the part.’ This is matched by other instructions: ‘Smile!’.

In so doing, school photographers, and by extension schools, ask for a performance that does not reflect the emotional realities of the school day. A school photograph is taken on a day like any other, during which schoolchildren run the full gauntlet of emotional experiences. What’s more, the arrangement of the photograph suggests a frictionless assembly, free of social contestations. Of course, the social life of a school is far from frictionless. In a 2006 study, Newman, Woodcock, and Dunham showed that when asked to use photography to represent their experience of school, schoolchildren photographed many different emotional states, friendship and camaraderie, feelings of exclusion and social friction.

Neither, it was felt, do the visual conventions of school photographs represent the spaces, activity or ‘stuff’ of the school day. Children themselves would represent ‘school’ very differently, as Newman et al. also showed. When asked what they would photograph, almost all children replied that they would photograph the playground or classroom, and show children doing work, playing or some other form of activity. Their images would be full of ‘books and pencils’. That is to say, ‘school’ was seen as synonymous with doing things, with different people and objects, in the everyday places of school life. The school photograph replaces this with stillness, a performance of uniformity, and, almost always, the school hall.

The children expressed a connection between school photographs as objects and the space of the home, recognising that they act as markers in ones unfolding personal history. The home, or school, is routinely characterised as place of social proximity and acceptable ‘gazes’ (a rule with significant exceptions). Even if the photos do not reflect a subjective experience of school, they nonetheless are personal objects. They are invested with emotional weight, and become entangled in the story of lives.

By contrast, an unequivocal ‘no!!!’ met the question ‘do school photographs belong on the street?’ It was recognised that not every ‘way of looking’ is the same, and that different places have different social lives, with varying degrees of safety and risk. The street was characterised as the dangerous place of the ‘stranger.’ placing Year 3 on the street was, in the eyes of these children, a genuinely challenging thing. The freedom of the curators to imagine the street as a safe-space was not one routinely afforded to schoolchildren.

This was, perhaps, the most striking part of the children’s responses. Art Angel’s intervention in bringing Year 3 to the street (with the full consent of all participants) was lauded by critics and the teachers who participated in this blog. The conception of the street as a site for meaningful artistic gestures and social comment runs somewhat counter to the street as it is imagined by these schoolchildren.

By sharing the images with schoolchildren – so recognisable in style, but with unfamiliar faces replacing familiar – Year 3 gives schoolchildren the space to think at a critical distance about what these images do, what they show, and who they are for. Doing so has led to insights from school-aged children, showing it in a new light. We now hand over to the children.

Follow us on IG: thesociologicalreview for more quotes and images relating to Steve McQueen’s Year 3 project.

Steve McQueen Year 3 2019. Alpha Preparatory School © Steve McQueen. Photo: Tate.

“You might not be happy because you might have fallen out with a friend or be afraid that you don’t fit in”

“I’ve never been legitimate with my emotions in any of my class photos because it would ruin the aesthetic”

“Everyone shows emotions everywhere but class photos”

Steve McQueen Year 3 2019. Little Ealing Primary School. © Steve McQueen. Photo: Tate.

“Sometimes we are made to look neat and tidy, but sometimes you don’t want someone telling you that”

“They are little businessmen”

“[School photos are] for the school to show off”

“There’s no adequate reason for you to tell me to look neat”

“They’re telling you to lie to the camera”

“Our family would be happy and proud that we did the photos even if we did not feel ok”

Steve McQueen Year 3 2019. Northway Primary School © Steve McQueen. Photo: Tate.

“Why are they all in halls?”

“Girls are wearing skirts. I don’t like skirts” [Why?] “Because you can’t run”

“I would take a picture of the school and a class doing work”

“I would take a photo of children in the classroom doing work with their teacher”

“[I would take a photo of] books and pencils or a classroom or a table”

“[I would take a photo of] the school buildings or children playing outside”

Steve McQueen Year 3 Project. A partnership between Tate, Artangel and A New Direction. © Steve McQueen & Tate. Courtesy of Artangel. Billboard(s) location: Coldharbour Lane, London Borough of Lambeth. Billboard(s) photographed in situ by Theo Christelis. 

“It’s like watching me grow up”

“I cringe and I feel awkward when I look at [my school photos] because over time they become more different”

“I have different feelings for every class photo”

“I have one in my dining room and like five in my living room. I also have one in my bedroom”

“[School photos are for] your family and friends”

“Only some people buy the photos”

Steve McQueen Year 3 Project. A partnership between Tate, Artangel and A New Direction. © Steve McQueen & Tate. Courtesy of Artangel. Billboard(s) location: Pimlico Tube Station, London Borough of Westminster. Billboard(s) photographed in situ by Theo Christelis. 

“[School photographs are for] me and family, since I value my own privacy”

[Do school photographs belong on the street?] “No because people look at them”

“They don’t really belong on the street. They are meant for memories”

“Random strangers… look at them. Although there is consent it just doesn’t seem normal or right”

Laura Harris is a Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review. She recently completed a PhD in the Sociology of Art in collaboration with Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, using a filmmaking-as-fieldwork method. She tweets @LauraMaHarris


[1] The schoolchildren who participated in this project were in UK and Chinese primary schools. No personal data was collected; consent was conducted by the class teacher. Ethical oversight was provided by The Sociological Review’s Digital Team.

[2] Year 3 has been extended and the exhibition continues at Tate Britain until 31st January 2021. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/steve-mcqueen-year-3

[3] These questions were devised by the class teachers.

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