Jason Lee’s Fantastical Images of Childhood

Jason Lee isn’t your typical photographer… Or your typical dad. Joanna Schroeder chats with the artist behind the dazzling photos.

As a boy, Jason Lee didn’t dream of being a photographer. In fact, he sort of stumbled into his career shooting weddings after chatting with the photographer at a coworker’s nuptials.

But what’s earned Lee his world-wide notoriety aren’t his photographs of weddings, but rather the fantastical and imaginative photos he takes of his own daughters, Kristin and Kayla. These photos started about 5 years ago as a way to help his mother—who was fighting Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma at the time—feel included in the day-to-day lives of her grandchildren. Because of the disease and her treatments, Jason’s mother was unable to spend as much time with the kids as she would’ve liked, out of fear of picking up any of the little colds kids get.

“I wanted a way to document the things that were going on in their lives, and maybe have a little picture to go along with a short blurb. I completely suck at writing, and I thought pictures would be the best way for her to watch the kids growing up.”

So Jason started a blog, Kristin and Kayla: A Photo Journal of Two Sisters with the great subtitle: *do not try this at home!

Why not try it at home?

Because in his photographs, Jason creates the types of scenarios that feel very real to parents but aren’t necessarily possible. For instance, this photograph of his older daughter Kristin lighting a rocketship on her sister Kayla’s back and sending her to space:

Or this famous photograph of Lee’s that really resonates with parents. I mean, who doesn’t sometimes wonder if their kids have been sneaking espresso?

And so I set out to interview Jason Lee about life as a dad, and what inspires such mind-blowing shots that are somehow both incredibly fantastical and also very… true.

First, I want to get the technical stuff out of the way for those of you who love photography and graphic design:

Jason uses a a Nikon D700 DSLR camera and a series of Nikon lenses. Almost all of the images you see of the girls were shot using artificial lighting, as he almost never relies upon natural light. This gives the photos their very sort of commercial feel, as well as the fantastical elements of darkness, shadows and extremely vibrant colors.

He then then uploads the images to Adobe Lightroom as basic editing software for the raw files. For the composite work he uses Adobe Photoshop to get the images to look how we see them here.

Now, on to the fun stuff!

JS: So how did your typical family snapshots, the kinds we all have, turn into the greater projects we see now?

JL: I wanted to create something different to make my mom smile, make her think a little bit. I wanted her to wonder Did he really do that? Did he really throw them up in the air like that? And that little project developed me as a photographer, in addition to documenting the kids for my mom. It just kind of started from there. I still can’t believe I’m doing this five or six years later.

JS: Obviously there is a real passion behind these photos.

JL: Definitely. I love taking pictures of the kids, I love hearing their ideas, I love hearing their input. I love seeing their expressions in the final image. It’s a really fun project for me and I hope that they’ll appreciate it when they grow up and I can embarrass them at their weddings. And as long as they want to cooperate I’ll keep doing it. It’s just a lot of fun for me.

JS: I love the way the photos often have these really dramatic backgrounds. Are you shooting these on a green screen and then comping in the backgrounds?

JL: No, everything is shot as-is. I think what makes the images look different than a regular person’s photo is the lighting. About 90% of the images you see are using artificial light. I really almost never use natural light.

JS: So looking at the image of your little one who is taped up on the wall*, I mean, she isn’t really taped on the wall, right?

JL: No, she’s really taped to the wall.

JS: No, she is not!

JL: She really is. See, what I do is take two photographs and put them together. In the first picture she’s actually standing on a box or some sort of platform. So you can kinda make out that her foot isn’t exactly how it would look if she were actually taped to a wall. But she’s standing on something and I rotated her counter-clockwise a tad to give it the look like she’s not just standing there. Then I photoshopped some more tape, but I took the real tape from another section. There was actually just one piece of tape, I think, around her middle and I used that image to make it look like she was taped there. But she really wasn’t.

A lot of these photographs are a composite of two to three different photographs put together. Sometimes less, sometimes more.

JS: The pictures are all really fun. Is there a way in which you see your photographs as being distinctly “Dad-ish”?

JL: I think there is an aspect of the photos that is maybe more crazy? Maybe moms wouldn’t want to put the kids in what seems like a crazy scenario?

JS: Yeah, maybe not! Most moms, or dads for that matter, wouldn’t think of taping the baby to the wall, but it really works out to be super fun and inspiring…

So, now I’m going to ask you some of our founder Tom Matlack’s Man-to-Man questions. These are the same questions Tom asks all his interviewees and we like to pepper them in here and there with everyone we interview.

JL: Okay… (laughs).

JS: So, who taught you about manhood?

JL: My dad worked a lot, he was in the restaurant industry, he owned a couple of restaurants, so he was there when I woke up, but he came home after I went to bed. So growing up, I really cherished the time I had to spend with him. But as far as growing up and becoming a man, I have to say I guess my mom kind of taught me about manhood. She didn’t talk too much about what a man should do, it was more what a child should do, but it was about respect, taking care of the elders. But it wasn’t exactly about “being a man”.

There are so many things that influenced me and got me to where I am today: I’d have to thank my wife, my kids, I would have to thank my parents and my whole family. I think every one has a little bit of influence on how I developed as a man.

JS: What two words would describe your father?

JL: Kind and Carefree.

JS: What’s so interesting about those two words is that is exactly the idea of the kind of dad you seem like from your pictures.

JL: Yeah, that is interesting.

JS: So Tom’s final question: Have you been more successful in your public or your private life?

JL: I would say private. I mean, I don’t consider success by money or by what you have. I consider success how happy I am in my life. I have a loving wife who supports what I do. I have two crazy rambunctious kids who don’t listen to me, and I have tons of fun with them. I think it’s a huge success that I’ve made it this far and my kids are happy.


For more photographs by Jason Lee, visit his Flickr at jwlphotography where you can find these images, his blog Kristin and Kayla, or book Jason as your wedding or event photographer via his blog, JWL Photography.

*Photo courtesy of jwlphotography via flickr

About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and editor with a special focus in issues facing raising boys and gender in the media. Her work has appeared on Redbook, Yahoo!, xoJane, MariaShriver.com, TIME.com, and more. She and her husband are outdoor sports enthusiasts raising very active sons. She is currently co-editing a book of essays for boys and young men with author and advocate Jeff Perera. Follow her shenanigans on Twitter.


  1. CajunMick says:

    Ms. Shroeder:
    Fantastic images. Thank you for sharing with us. Makes me want to do something creative myself.


  1. […] April of 2012, The Good Men Project interviewed Jason Lee, a dad whose ‘shopped photos of his daughters, Kristin and Kayla see the sisters in themed […]

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