The kids in Jeff Roffman‘s Christmas photos are not happy. All dolled up, they’ve been brought to Santa’s workshop to sit on the big guy’s lap, smile, and tell him what they want for Christmas. Instead, they scream, cry, or run away in terror. And poor Santa grimaces and pouts right along with them.
Roffman, an Atlanta-based photographer, never thought he’d become known for Santa shots (his initial reaction was, “that’s for the malls”) but four years ago, at a client’s request, he agreed to a Saint Nick photo session. He found his Santa, Gary, at an Atlanta Symphony holiday event, and snapped images of about 25 kids, most of whom cried and wailed on Santa’s lap. Roffman thought the shoot was a disaster, but to his surprise, parents actually liked the photos of their kids kicking and screaming at the sight of Santa Claus.
Last year, Roffman began posting the scared-by-Santa photos to Facebook, where they immediately garnered a positive response. This year, he posted an entire album of 200 photos called the “Naughty List” that went viral; it has been shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook and collected more than 1,000 comments in a variety of languages.
“If your child is crying any other day, you feel bad. But there’s something Americana about having a crying baby on Santa’s lap,” says Roffman. “Most of us have [similar] photos that our parents embarrassed us with, so it’s kind of payback.”
Roffman has photographed about 1,800 kids so far this season. He makes an event out of it—while waiting to get their picture taken at Roffman’s Virginia-Highland studio, kids can decorate cookies, make crafts, and frolic in machine-made snow. The studio becomes a “cry-safe environment,” Roffman says, because the parents develop camaraderie with each other.
“I’m sure you’ve seen kids [cry] at restaurants and the parents are super embarrassed, but here you just expect it,” Roffman explained. “It’s a one-day relief where they can just have their temper tantrums and it’s okay. There’s no judgment because everyone can look over their shoulder and go, ‘Yep, that’s gonna be my kid next.'”
Roffman says that many parents are perfectly fine—happy even—to have a photo of their child losing it after being plopped into Santa’s lap. But, he says, even those who come in with Pinterest-perfect expectations often can’t help but chuckle at the crying photos.
As for Santa’s priceless reactions to the kids’ outbursts, Roffman says that one day Gary just began mimicking their little horrified faces. Roffman encouraged him to keep it up—”it makes [the photo] a lot more animated than [what you’ll get at] the mall.”
In stark contrast to the not-so-jolly temper tantrums, Roffman’s photo of Santa with a gravely ill baby also went viral this year. The mother, whose infant son, Axel, had suffered a pediatric stroke, reached out to Roffman in November to see if he could photograph her son, who was too fragile to brave the crowds at the mall. Roffman did a private shoot pro bono, and she submitted one of the resulting photos to the feel-good blog Love What Matters, where it’s been shared more than 2,100 times on Facebook.
“This was a tough one for all of us,” Roffman said of the shoot. “We have kids and couldn’t imagine what this family had been going through and the sacrifices they had made for Axel. When we got this call and found out there was something we could do, albeit small, we didn’t hesitate. It was a very special moment to see Axel meet Santa for the first time.”
For parents who want to get an early start on their tantrum-riffic holiday cards, Roffman says he plans to begin booking sessions for next season’s Santa photos in January.