Since the 1990s, Luca Zordan has been at the forefront of a trend to elevate kids’ photography, both creatively and technically (See our story “Kids’ Photography Grows Up“).  He has shot editorial work for Vogue Bambini and ad campaigns for Adidas, Guess Kids, Hasbro, Mini Boden, and other international brands. Recently, Zordan launched L’Enfanterrible, a digital magazine of kids’ fashion, art, and design. We asked him about his tips and advice for conceptualizing and shooting stylish photos of kids, and about how he selects photos for L’Enfanterrible.

PDN: Why did you launch L’Enfanterrible?
Luca Zordan: After more 20 years working for Condé Nast, I always [felt] limited in the way of portraying children. I wanted to photograph stories done in a different style, without being so concerned about the clothes. I’m interested in images and contributions from other photographers who do similar work. I ask them to be free and do stories that they might not be able to publish in the regular outlets. I do themes for each issue. I did one on black models and culture [Issue #1]. The issue I just launched is about love and expressions of love [Issue #3]. The next one will be about London.

PDN: How do you choose the themes?
LZ: I’m not following commercial trends.The theme is something that resonates with what I see in my trips. I choose whatever intrigues me, and whatever gives me the chance to combine graphic designs and photography.

PDN: How do you distinguish L’Enfanterrible from other kids’ magazines like MilkPapier Mache, and La Petite?
LZ: I do spreads that are just visual, and don’t have any utility except to be visual. The other magazines don’t have that luxury. They’re more commercially driven.

PDN: How big is your staff?
LZ: I work with a designer–Francesco Giarrusso. I also work with different art directors–Liz Sheppard is one in England–and stylists I know through my network. I collaborate with different photographers who are on my radar [Federico Leone, Ian Boddy, Mark Shearwood, Dani Brubaker, Stefano Azario, Anna Palma, Amanda Pratt, and others]. I’m trying to break these barriers of jealousy and competition and do something convivial, where everyone has a different point of view to put together in the magazine.

PDN: Is the competition really fierce in kids’ photography? Is there a lot of professional jealousy?
LZ: When I started there were only a handful of photographers in kids’ photography. We all knew each other, and we were sharing all the same clients, more or less. Things have changed.

PDN: Why did you get into this niche rather than men’s and women’s fashion?
LZ: Children have a very interesting ability to be true to themselves most of the time. It’s also very fun to photograph children. Sometimes I don’t find that with adults, so I stopped photographing adults many years ago. Maybe another reason I’m not photographing adults is because there are too many egos flying over the set, which you don’t have with children.

PDN: What’s your secret to your longevity in this niche? There are a lot of emerging photographers, and a lot of competition.
LZ: It’s probably that I don’t have a very specific style and I like to explore everything. I’m very interested in all different aspects of photography, so it’s always a challenge to find a new way to express children.
PDN: Tell me what you’re looking for–what are you trying to show or bring out?
LZ: The conversation and body language is always different, depending on the age of the children. But what I’m trying to get is that natural, easy-going aspect, and the funny side of them, and the beauty of youth. I don’t photograph children posing like adults in a very emotionally uncomfortable way, which is what you see in some magazines. I think it’s wrong to show kids models acting as adults, either with heavy makeup or hairstyles that are beyond any realistic possibility. That’s not what I do.

PDN: What distinguishes good kids’ photography from really good or even great stuff?
LZ: You can see a really close bond [between the photographer] and the person in front of the camera. There’s an interest in the subject, and there’s a self-portrait in each image, and you see that.

PDN: How do you connect with kids and get them to engage and do what you want?
LZ: You have to know a little bit about children’s books, children’s games, children’s [television], and you try to find a common ground to talk and not to be just the guy behind the big black thing with the lens in front.

PDN: How do you come up with your concepts for your shoots?
LZ: I’m interested in everything, not just visual arts, but science, anthropology, music, gardening, whatever, and that is always a stimulus of your imagination. Sometimes I’m reading about a particular issue, or I’m flipping through my photographic books and have an inspiration.

PDN: Where did the idea of the children ballroom dancing story [Ballroom, Issue 0]
LZ: My wife asked me to watch a series from the ’50s or ‘60s called Leave it to Beaver. I’m Italian, and seeing the American lifestyle during the postwar boom years was very interesting. In one of the episodes, many children were going to dancing lessons. It was a beautiful possibility for a photo story. The girls were wearing beautiful dresses, with their hair up–it’s like nothing that’s part of our culture now. As you can see, it’s not just images, its built around graphics [inspired by the esthetics] of silent movies. Little by little, I built the story.

PDN: You did another story called I Love It [Issue 3] that looks completely different.
LZ: That one was driven by text. The theme was love. I started writing sentences with “love” in them. There were sentences from Einstein, from The Beatles, and then I came up with the sentence “I love it.” Then I came up with the idea of food, since food is a very popular topic now. I thought we should do something with children of different ethnicity, and different ethnic food without being very specific.

PDN: How did you decide on the visual style for that shoot?
LZ: This sentence “I love it” is very strong, and very bright, so I feel [the photographs] had to be very square, very direct. I think the idea was to have a very chromatic and strong impact to go with specific dishes, and instead of photographing in a real kitchen or real dining room, I thought, we should do each dish in a two-square design: the background is one color, and the tablecloth is another and between that is the children dominating the scene with his or her relationship with the two colors. The stylist [Mariah Walker] and I decided together what the relationship between colors should be—for instance, a white-and-red checkered shirt on the Indian boy eating spaghetti.

PDN: How do you decide who contributes to L’Enfanterrible? And are there opportunities for emerging photographers?
LZ: I do receive inquiries, and depending on the project, depending on the style, I choose which one I prefer to work with. But you know, being a very small magazine, and publishing only every six months, it’s difficult [to publish work of unknown photographers]. I hope to be able to accept more contributions in the future.

PDN: Are there any stories by other photographers that you’re most proud of having published?

LZ: I like Dani Brubaker’s story [Baby Girl Barrett, Issue 2]–it was very American. It’s a bit autobiographical, about [her childhood] in a foster family in Nebraska.

PDN: What makes it stand out to you?
LZ: It reminds me a little bit of the photography by Dorothea Lange, during the ‘30s. We were able to combine this reference from western black-and-white photography from the ‘40s with fonts [from]  LIFE magazine. It was very simple. Sometimes we tend to overdo our photography and style. I like images that are done with almost nothing. You have to be a very good photographer to do something like this, with nothing, just a child and not over-acting.

PDN: Do you have particular stylists you work with all the time?
LZ: No, not at all. But I work mostly with European stylists–from France, England, Holland, Italy. From my experience, they’re most interesting in their style. They have a little bit more edge.

PDN: What do you mean?
LZ: They do a little more research, they have a visual culture that allows them to experiment a little bit more without being overdone.

PDN: What advice do you have for photographers who are trying to break into the field?
LZ: You have to always focus on the face—that’s the key point of getting a good kids photography. You have to be careful not to overwhelm the images with the clothes. It has to be between you and the children. It can’t just be between you and your idea, and the children are just posing in front of you.