There are plenty of dad artists out there, but not a lot of art focused on being a dad. That’s the void Zachary Stephens, a Vermont-based fine arts photographer and father of three young girls, wants to fill with his latest project, Are We There Yet? Through his series of 16 highly constructed tableau images aimed at humorously portraying the ups-and-downs of modern parenting, Stephens “explores the challenges, stereotypes, and realities of suburban fatherhood.” And he does it with a remarkable eye (and sense of humor); the images ⏤ which feature his (sometimes reluctant) family and are constructed in Photoshop using separate photographs of each subject ⏤ are striking, funny, and thoroughly relatable. You can’t help but nod and smile.
“Each of the photos isn’t necessarily a depiction of reality,” Stephens says. “They are either a vignette of a parenting struggle that all parents can relate to or they deal with a stereotype that we face as dads. And they’re supposed to be a balance between satire and humor, fun and funny, but also a little dark at times.” Fatherly recently caught up with Stephens from his home in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, to discuss the project and learn more about each of the images. Here are his thoughts.
Today is Awesome
We had the ‘Today Is Awesome’ jelly clings on the window above our shower for far too long ⏤ they were on there for years ⏤ and I don’t know what happened but they started to melt. And as they melted, these fruit flies got stuck in them and over time it became a really good metaphor for the everyday challenge and contradiction of parents trying to be their own cheerleaders. We say: ‘Yay, parenting is awesome, but in reality, it’s also kind of horrible and gross and hard.’ Ironically, the part that melted spelled out “IS ME.” As in, an actual part of you is melting away sometimes. Yeah, it’s a pretty cynical one.
‘Stuffies’ is the first photo I made in the series, and it was fun to shoot because it was the first real collaborative process I had with my kids. They were super excited when I said, ‘I’m going to lie down, and you need to find every stuffed animal in the house and bury me.’ And they had a moment where they were, like, ‘Wait, what? Really? We can do that?’
Slip and Slide
‘Slip and Slide’ is a good example of my using a little bribery to coax my kids during the shoot. I promised them that they could have roasted marshmallows afterwards on the little fire in the yard. It was actually the most challenging shot to create because my oldest daughter’s tears in the photo are legitimate. She got mad at me for something and started yelling. And then I took a picture while she was yelling, which made her yell even more.
Screens are a constant conversation in contemporary society, particularly when it comes to parenting. As parents, there’s this constant battle: Do we embrace this? Do we shun this? And then there’s the, “Hey, today’s wicked hard, and we have all this stuff to do, here take my phone.” This image is exagerating how much screens are everywhere. Everybody’s on some kind of screen. There’s a cat in front of the screen. There’s even a toy phone on the floor. And on the laptop, which you can’t read unless it’s printed really big, are parenting tips ⏤ just to acknowledge the fact that we as parents are on screens too.
‘Playhouse’ was the second photo in the series, and I was playing with the idea of being a dad, and being in these tight weird spaces all the time when you’re interacting with your kids. The position I’m in represents all the pressure on your shoulders and trying to balance everything all of the time.
The whole series is supposed to be satirical, funny, but also a little dark. Never would I put my newborn daughter precariously on a couch next to an enormous pile of laundry that could suffocate her at any moment. But at times, that’s what it feels like you’re doing. You’re putting your kid right there on the couch instead of in the $300 baby bouncer sitting right next to it ⏤ the one your kid had put a doll in instead.
This one is a little self-explanatory: You’re diving in. You’re going to leap [into parenthood], and it’s just chaos. The funny part is that there’s no manipulation here. It’s a straight photo. It’s not staged. And 10 minutes before taking the photo, I cleaned up that playroom. Seriously, I came back 10 minutes later and that’s what I found. The view looking down from the trampoline is kind of a defeatist, ‘oh no.’
‘Elephant Park’ represents one of the more mundane, quiet moments of parenting. I’ve got all the kids, and we’re going to go play in the park. Rather than trying to present a challenge, I’m also trying to use the series to present the realities too ⏤ to show a balance of fatherhood. I don’t want the project to say, “Look at how hard dads have it” or “Look at how hard parenting is.” I want it to strike a balance of everything.
This is another play on being in tight spaces. As a lot of dads know, installing a car seat is a nightmare. And I’m not that big of a guy, so to get them installed properly ⏤ where it’s not going to wiggle more than an inch, you know, that’s the rule ⏤ I have to put my full body weight in it. It’s such a pain in the ass. And that was the initial intent of that photograph, the car seat installation. But then building out from there, I asked what are the other characters going to do. What would and wouldn’t happen in this situation. My wife is actually vacuuming up Goldfish because, and I don’t know how it happens, there are always Goldfish in your car. And the Goldfish are in a printed Frozen bag, which is just another one of the little details and nuances throughout the imagery.
I wanted to make something about food, and how the food we choose to eat is all over the place, and there is so much waste. And Fruit Loops it’s not something I would typically eat, but my kids want Fruit Loops all the time. They spell out “Help Us” ⏤ which is something I did in a few of the photos ⏤ to again highlight how hard parenting is some times. My 8-year-old daughter had so much fun with this one that she ended up putting the Fruit Loops on the pizza and eating Fruit Loop Pizza, which was horrible looking.
‘BBQ’ is the lead image of the series and deals with the idea of the dopey dad who’s passed out with a beer. Having three kids, I’m constantly dealing with my own perception of the dopey dad stereotype, whether or not it’s true, or with other people’s conversations about it, which you hear a lot once you start having kids. There’s always a conversation about the husband or the dopey dad. I like this picture a lot, although I’m not entirely sure why. I think because it captures a part of me that I’m afraid of, but it’s also not representative of who I am, so it feels the most silly.
‘Are We There Yet?’ is on exhibit at the Williston Northampton School’s Grubbs Gallery in Easthampton, Massachusetts, from November 2 until January 2, 2019.