"The Refrigerator Picture"

It was just a photograph, used to announce my daughter's adoption. So why did it spur such a big reaction?

Grace, and the photograph that started it all

Looking back, it seems appropriate that I “met” my daughter by means of a photograph. For weeks I stared at the picture sent by my adoption agency, slowly falling in love with that chubby little face and Don King hairdo. “How could you fall in love with an image in a picture?” I remember thinking. But I did.

Because I’m a professional photographer, I can comfortably say that the baby girl in the picture, whom I adopted from Vietnam, was the most-photographed child on either side of the world during our first year together as a family.

Not only did I document Grace’s typical firsts — first haircut, first steps — there was also every new outfit she wore, every fraction of an inch of hair growth, everything she put into her mouth. Everywhere we went, the camera came with us, packed in the diaper bag, along with the wipes, bottle, and snacks.

Picture Perfect

Several months into parenthood, I decided it was time to send out a formal adoption announcement. Enough of the candid, photojournalistic snapshots of her every waking and sleeping moment! It was time for Grace’s first professional photo shoot. Yes, Mr. DeMille, she was ready for her close-up.

I set up a red backdrop and several lights, dressed Grace in the ao dai (a long silk shirt and matching pants, a traditional outfit in Vietnam) and hat with a long fake braid that I’d picked up on my adoption trip. I propped her up on some pillows on the dining table and shot roll after roll, until my little star grew weary.

A friend used one of the portraits to create a beautiful announcement. I must have sent it to anyone I had ever met. I gave my mother a batch, and she sent one to everyone she had ever met, too, including the doctor she sees for her arthritis, the woman who styles her hair, and all the people she volunteers with at a local charity organization.

The photo soon made its way to Subzero, GE, and Maytag refrigerator doors everywhere. While I wouldn’t claim that it was the “it” poster of the decade, like that famous Farrah Fawcett pinup when I was growing up, it’s no exaggeration to say that hundreds of people saw Grace just about every time they went to get a drink from their kitchen.

The photo’s popularity spread beyond refrigerators. My mother’s friend framed it and placed it in her living room — never mind that she has seven grandsons whose pictures made it only to Grandma’s brag book. And when I sent a copy to Adoptive Families, they asked if they could use it as a cover shot. Sure enough, it appeared on the front of a winter issue. And pretty soon, my mother was asking me for more copies (people who had seen the picture on their friends’ refrigerator doors wanted copies for themselves).

Shoot First

I’ve taken some interesting photographs in my life — some are in art collections, and many have appeared in major publications, but none has gotten a response like “the refrigerator photo.” To be honest, I preferred many of the candid shots I’d taken of Grace — they captured her personality better than this picture. “What is everyone responding to?” I wondered.

By this time, I’d also tired of all the attention, of total strangers stopping us on the street and, point blank, asking, “Adopted?” I had never gone up to older parents with twins and inquired, “Fertility injections?” Maybe I was oversensitive, but I was getting fed up with comments about how different Grace and I looked. “The refrigerator photo” evoked comments, about her eyes, her nose, her hair that seemed, frankly, a little racist, and I began to have doubts. When I planned the picture, I dressed her up because I was proud of her and her heritage. But it was getting hard to brush aside comments like, “What a precious photo! She looks just like a China doll!”

I told my mother that I regretted dressing Grace up. I reprimanded myself for objectifying her and reinforcing racist and sexist stereotypes. Would Grace forgive me when she grows up?

“Nonsense,” my mother said. “It’s just a cute picture of a cute kid. You look at it and want to pinch those cheeks!” She told me that she showed the picture to her doctor. He said he could “tell by her direct eye contact that she’s smart and happy.”

Photo Finish

Time has given me perspective. (It helps that Grace, who’s now nine, still likes the photo, although she thinks it’s weird that so many people she doesn’t know have her picture hanging in their homes.) I still have misgivings, and believe that, on some level, people were responding to her “otherness.” But sometimes, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a cute kid is a cute kid is a cute kid. For the most part, I realized, people respond to the picture with joy because they’re genuinely happy for Grace. In a world full of sorrow and war, of children without homes, they’re happy she’s part of a family.

I recently had coffee with someone whose mother is a friend of my mother’s. The first thing she said to me was that Grace’s picture is hanging on her mom’s refrigerator door, and that it was one of the things that inspired her to adopt. For that alone, I would say it’s my most successful picture.


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