Rachel and Chris Stewart watched as their son Henry’s face crumpled.
Tears popped out of the toddler’s eyes. “I feel so bad,” cried Rachel, sucking in her breath.
Henry, 13 months old, screamed, raging against a cruel world that had dropped him into the lap of a large bearded stranger.
Then he was rescued. Freed from the man in the red suit, Henry rejoined his parents, and had a lollipop and a smile.
But mom was still recovering. “Oh, that hurt so bad I almost wanted to vomit,” groaned the 30-year-old Decatur resident.
>> PHOTOS: Check out more of Roffman’s work here
Rachel, Chris and Henry were part of a rite of passage that takes place every year at photographer Jeff Roffman’s studio. The Stewarts, and hundreds of other parents, come to the Poncey-Highland address to hand their children over to Santa.
The resulting photographs often show the poor children at their hollering worst. But these public relations nightmares haven’t put a dent into Roffman’s client list. In fact, his customers begin signing up for Christmastime photo sessions a year ahead, and Roffman’s Santa appointments always sell out.
His specialty? Crying children.
This wasn’t always a Roffman trademark. He made a name for himself shooting for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Atlanta Opera and such corporate clients as Chick-fil-A. Then about six years ago, he decided to try the holiday game. He collaborated with a 71-year-old east Cobb Santa who prefers to be identified as “Santa Gary.”
“I had visions of everyone being happy and Santa being jolly,” said Roffman, 36. Instead, there were cries and lamentations.
“I thought it was a complete disaster, because everyone cried.” Roffman sent out the photos anyway, and the parents loved the crying photographs the most.
A year or two later, he put a gallery on Facebook that collected all the sad children in one place. “I hope people don’t get angry about this,” he thought. But the opposite happened. His audience exploded. “I think we got 4 million views,” he said. The crying children became the “Naughty List,” and the Naughty List became chic.
“It’s kind of fun to be on the Naughty List,” said Michael Kehoe of Brookhaven, who brought his 7-month-old son Thomas to the studio. But Thomas Kehoe was angelic and poised.
Gabby Baker of Marietta was similarly sanguine last year. Roffman described her as stoic and calm. This year, the 20-month-old was not. “Stoic and calm went out the window,” said grandfather Richard Baker with a tolerant smile, as the little one shrieked. “Ah, the best-laid plans.”
When Santa put her back on her feet, she ran to her parents like an escapee from Alcatraz.
Yes, mom Katie Baker felt a pang. “But it’s worth the short bit of distress for me just to have the really funny memory of Christmas and the obligatory Santa photo,” she said.
Roffman’s studio, which is dressed up like a winter wonderland, helps to ease the stresses of parent and child. Children can decorate cookies or play in artificial snow, while parents can enjoy a beer or a mimosa and ogle the toy soldiers, miniature trains, realistic fireplace, twinkling icicles and other gewgaws that Roffman keeps in three different storage units during the rest of the year.
Roffman will host 22 days of Santa sessions with Santa Gary this season, shooting about 150 families each day. Sessions, which last only minutes, cost $100 and up. Roffman has a staff of about five helping to coordinate all the families, His wife, Rachel Ackley-Roffman, takes names and hands out the sort of timers that you get at Disney World rides or Outback dinners.
“The first few years we took these photos, people came in and said, ‘How do you make all these kids cry?’ We told them it doesn’t work that way,” said Ackley-Roffman. “I used to shoot weddings,” said her husband. “I like the Santa photos a lot better. It’s more predictable, and less stressful.”
The sessions go very quickly — no one wants to see their distressed child kicking and screaming. Also, the kicking part poses a risk for Santa Gary. “The thing I fear is seeing a well-dressed child with hard-soled shoes,” he said.
In Santa Gary’s day, parents wanted straight-forward portraits. Today, the millennials, “they’re more free form,” he said. “If the kids cry, they cry. That’s how they feel about it. … This will all come out when they go through therapy in 50 years.”
But Santa Gary plays along. Part of the charm of a Roffman photo is the expression of Santa Gary, who sometimes mimics the doleful faces of his small customers.
The experience is often loud, said Santa Gary, but an audiologist told him that no matter how loud children scream, they rarely exceed 100 decibels, “and it’s only at 120 decibels that you begin to have hearing loss.”
Rachel Stewart said she was not among those hoping for a blue Christmas photo. “We obviously knew there was a chance he was going to cry,” she said. “We went hoping for happy pictures, but knowing that Jeff knows how to turn even the sad pictures into good pictures.”
And despite her agony during the photo session, she admits that the crying pictures are pretty funny. “Oh yeah, we’ll laugh at it later on.”
Santa photos at Jeff Roffman Photography are booked through the end of the week, but families occasionally cancel, creating available spots. Roffman can be reached at 404-437-7437 or jeffroffman.com.
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