Images of caring masculinities: fatherhood and childcare

juJussara Rowland, ICS-ULisboa

ritaRita Correia, ICS-ULisboa

“Although the camera is an observation station, the act of photographing is more than passive observing (…) it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening.”

Susan Sontag, On Photography

When Swedish photographer Johan Bävman took a long paternity leave to be at home with his son, he discovered that he had no one he could relate to in spite living in the most equal country in terms of parental leave. So, he decided to take a series of photos of fathers who have chosen to stay at home with their child for at least six months. His goals were multiple: to understand who those fathers were – their expectations, motivations –, to show the impact of the experience of taking time off to be home with their child had on both, and to inspire other fathers by presenting positive, but “not perfect” role-models.

The collection of photos captured moments of everyday life of dads taking care of their kids. The resulting award-winning exhibition has been showed in more than one hundred countries around the world (Thailand, Kenia, Uganda, Argentina, Croatia, Portugal, among others), and it has been often associated with the promotion of initiatives that encourage local fathers to participate with photos of their lives with their children and to become “caring male role models” in their own countries.


Opening of the Exhibition “Swedish Dads”. Photo: UNESCO/Christelle ALIX

With this series the photographer wanted to distance himself from the pictures about parenting we often see, that are too commercialized, and ignore the “emotions of tiredness and hard work you have to put in becoming parents“. Fatherhood depiction in traditional media has been slowing changing in the last decade (see, for example, campaigns like Men+Care from Dove or the Lean In Collection from Getty Stock Photos  that try to ‘flip the script’ and associate men and care), but these initiatives are still a minority, and they often reproduce gendered depiction of parenting, with images that contrast tender gestures with masculine attributes, without actually combining the two (Aiello &  Woodhouse, 2016).

Bävman photos stand out because they represent lived intimate scenes (Plantin, 2016)- moments of care like bathing, feeding, sleeping, shopping – that depict close physical proximity between fathers and their sons/daughters during parental leave. They illustrate what Doucet calls the “embodiment of care” (Doucet, 2013), the embodied experience of caregiving that has been often absent from images depicting men and children.

The importance of photos representing masculine care – in terms of representation, attractiveness and impact – resides in the changing social meaning and practices of fathers and infant care in modern societies (Doucet, 2013). They show an “intimacy in fatherhood”, revealed by the explicit acts of “care”, distancing themselves from traditional fatherhood imaginary through the portrait of an ‘hands-on’ father (Ranson, 2015). They reflect individualized forms of being a parent, presenting men in a conventionally feminized sphere but as autonomous providers, and not as “male helpers” or even “modified providers” (Aboim, 2010). They also challenge perceptions of the risky nature of physical contact between men and children, displaying and normalizing masculine embodied practices of care, that are often seen with suspicion or open to public scrutiny (Gabb, 2013).

Their social relevance is hence multiple: they can act as validation for fathers, publicly reinforcing new practices that have been taking place in private over the last few decades; they can change social perceptions about men’s relationship with their children and about what is acceptable, or even expected, in terms of the visual depiction of men-child intimacy; and they also can create new social expectations regarding the male role in childcare, presenting alternative role models, and offering a potential for social change in terms of fatherhood identity and gender equality (Wall et al., 2007), especially relevant in contexts where these practices are not widespread.

What about photos shared by fathers on social media? If until recently the online parenting world was populated mostly by mothers, in recent years a growing number of men have been presenting themselves online as fathers, in websites and on social media platforms. As the use of mobile devices and smart applications becomes widespread, fathers increasingly share their parenting experiences through “snapshots” of their daily lives, that allow them to visual communicate and interact with different publics. This increased mediated visibility of father’s lives offers an opportunity to understand how fatherhood identities are publicly performed on line, in the context of a cultural shift that increasing values the ideal of ‘hands-on’ fatherhood.

But what specific role(s) have images of childcare practices in fathers’ self-presentation on-line? How is the intimacy of fatherhood embodied care visually enacted and performed on digital platforms by anonymous fathers, micro-celebrities and influencers? To answer these questions, we decided to focus our attention on the most visual social media platform – Instagram – and in the most visible fathers – Instadads.

View this post on Instagram

Anyone else scared shittless of cutting nails? All babies seem to have nails as sharp as very small, but very real box cutters. Don't have knife handy when scoring a pork joint? just use your kids. That's why keeping the talons retracted to avoid wolverine type incidents is essential, but it's not for the faint hearted. When Anya was a baby I was terrified. Tiny fingers & sharp implements, in my mind, equalled a bloody mess of homemade sausages on the floor. Still, I had to do it, so I got busy with my 1st baby mani. Within 10 seconds, I'd managed to cut the end of her finger off, producing enough of the red stuff to warrant putting all blood Banks in a 100 mile radius on stand by. Who knew you'd need the dexterity of a key hold surgeon combined with the skills of an alligator wrestler to get this done?! Fast forward 10 yrs & I now confidentially clip away like edward scissorhands after 20 coffees, as shards of splintering nails fly off in random directly & disappear into the carpet, only to be discovered later by a very annoyed @mother_of_daughters. #idontdobiting #cantkeeptrackoftinynails #babynails #whoneedfingersanyway #fod #FatherofDaughters #dadlife #instadad

A post shared by Simon, also known as FOD (@father_of_daughters) on

Instadads, as they are commonly called, are fathers from around the world that create thematic accounts on Instagram to publicly share personal experiences, stories and family images with other fathers and general public. Fathers that create these accounts, use them as social validation of their own personal practices and identities, but also to bust their own relevance as social influencers with the individual, familial and social advantages that come from these practices.

They are often explicit in their intention of changing perceptions of their parental roles, using the platform to distance themselves from traditional views of fatherhood. Instagram becomes a performative place where experiences of fatherhood are not only validated publicly, but also where these are portrayed in an affective and caring manner, allowing men to present themselves as “involved fathers”, a collective construction that, in the context of the platform, assumes not only self-expressional connotations, but also relational, political and economic dimensions (i.e., ‘sharing the journey’, ‘seeking and offering peer support’, ‘actively advocating as role models’, ‘monetizing the online presence’).

Photos of caring masculinities, and of child-rearing activities, when present in Instadads’ accounts, gain particular relevance, often assuming a performative/functional value to convey specific messages, to reinforce fatherhood narratives and to negotiate public masculine and paternal identities.

Childcare photos in Instadads’ visual narratives offer us an opportunity to better understand the multiple ways fatherhood and ‘caring masculinities’ (Elliott, 2016) are being enacted online by fathers for public consumption. We take in to account not only the specific function they have in fathers’ visual narratives or the visual choices fathers make in “snapshots” of their childcare activities, but also how the typified communicative forms of Instadad genre – community vocabulary, semiotics, and practices (Adami & Jewitt, 2016; Abidim, 2016) – shape these photo-sharing practices. For instance, in what way these images relate to the increasing commodification of childcare on Instagram and what value they have, beyond Instadads personal accounts, when they circulate inside and outside the platform.

Our main goal is to explore the variation and complexity of the self-presentation of fatherhood on Instagram, thus contributing to the understanding of the way public discourses about men’ parenting roles are shaped both by changing social expectations in terms of fathers’ roles and the mediated function of online platforms.

Como citar este artigo: Rowland, Jussara & Correia, Rita (2018) Images of caring masculinities: fatherhood and childcare. Life Research Group Blog, ICS-Lisboa, 02 de Outubro (Acedido a xx/xx/xx)

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