Aaron Sheldon: Exploring "Small Steps as Giant Leaps," a Father and Son Photo Series

2Share

Columbus, Ohio-based photographer Aaron Sheldon was riding the bus with his young son Harrison when he had an epiphany.

“What was a normal everyday event for me had him completely transfixed,” he writes. “I realized that my son is an explorer, and that the world I take for granted, to him, is an amazing place filled with new sites and experiences.”

Later that week, the two were discussing bravery during a visit to the doctor’s office when young Harrison provided further inspiration. “What about astronauts, Dad?” he asked. “Are they brave enough?”

What started as a simple game of pretend to get through a medical appointment soon expanded to an ongoing photo series with Astronaut Harrison in the starring role, exploring the world around him, and, more recently, addressing the role that autism has in how Harry sees that world.

We recently asked Sheldon a few questions about the project and his photographs to share this heartwarming story as a Father’s Day treat.

All photos © Aaron Sheldon, Documentary Dads

Preflight Checkup
Preflight Checkup

Jill Waterman: Your project Small Steps Are Giant Leaps started as a way to avert your three-year-old son's fears of certain places and objects by referencing the bravery of people such as astronauts. Did your son (Astronaut Harrison) already have an interest in astronauts, or did he already own an astronaut helmet when you had that first conversation about bravery?

Aaron Sheldon: Shortly before we started the project, Harry got an astronaut helmet from the gift shop at our local science museum, and he was enjoying learning about the planets and space travel.

Where did you find Astronaut Harrison's tiny spacesuit? Have you had to purchase multiple suits and helmets as he has grown?

We purchased his first suit at COSI, our local Science Museum, and, yes, we have had to buy multiple suits and helmets throughout the project. He has suits from the Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex, and a few with custom badges made by the manufacturer Aeromax Toys.

Resupply Mission
Resupply Mission

When you first came up with this project idea, did you have a fascination with astronauts, space exploration and/or adventure sagas such as Star Wars and/or Star Trek yourself? If so, please give us a brief backstory.

Growing up in the ’80s, I have fond memories of when they would wheel the TV cart into our classroom to watch a space shuttle launch, but I wouldn't say I was a huge space fan (that has since changed). What I love about this project is that Harry and I have so many of these first experiences together, including:

  • First trip to Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex
  • First Rocket Launch (it was at 1:00 a.m., and he was asleep, but he really liked the pictures I took).
  • Meeting astronauts and hearing about their experiences firsthand.
  • Sitting in the cockpit of so many Southwest Air flights!



Back of the Bus

Back of the Bus

One of the everyday activities that you describe as being particularly fascinating to your son (and an impetus for starting this project) was a bus ride. What role have you played in focusing his attention in these situations or heightening his sense of exploration?

Harry has never really needed help exploring. He is an observer. Everywhere we go, he studies everything happening around him. What I did was to consciously recognize his engagement and not shortchange his experience by trying to move him along or stick to some arbitrary time frame.

Chemical Reactions
Chemical Reactions

You use this project to encourage learning about STEM subjects and to introduce Astronaut Harrison to those areas of study. In the course of your adventures have you found there to be a particular area of study or learning activity that he's most interested in, or that he's especially gifted at?

Math and chemistry. He has had an affinity for numbers since he was 2 years old, and he recently memorized the periodic table of elements. For the past three months, he has constantly peppered us with facts about the elements he’s learned. My only real science education came from watching MythBusters, so finding ways to help him build and expand his knowledge on those topics has been a bit of work, but well worth the effort.

Movie Night
Movie Night

How much advance planning do you put into the pictures you make of Astronaut Harrison?

In the early days, it was a mix of just taking along the suit, the helmet, and a camera with a 35mm lens as we went out to explore. Sometimes I'd have a shot in mind and grab it quickly, as he didn't like it when people watched what we were doing or fussed over him. As the project became more popular and we were invited to more places and given special access, I would low-key obsess over my shot list, but I always tried to look for that unscripted moment to capture. Many of my favorite images were taken after my shot list was exhausted and Harry was doing his own thing.

Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building
Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building

What kind of access have you needed to arrange for pictures? Is there any one story about permissions or access that’s been most challenging, or most thrilling?

The goal of our project from the start was to show how kids are in their own little world, so keeping others out of our images has been crucial. While not so easy to do in the frozen food aisle at Target three days before Christmas, it's become reasonably easy to wrangle things as we’ve been invited to visit and collaborate with others.

As for the most challenging: A barbershop we visited early on had me shooting around mirrors everywhere and four other people.

Most thrilling? There have been so many amazing experiences that we’ve been given with this project. It's a toss-up between exploring Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex with an astronaut who had piloted the space shuttle Atlantis and getting to visit the space shuttle Discovery at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, before they opened for the day.

Exploring New Worlds
Exploring New Worlds

Does Astronaut Harrison ever come up with ideas for places he wants to visit or people he wants to meet? If so, can you share any recent examples?

Harry has had a voice in the project from the start. His first location idea was the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, so he could visit the polar bears. Every shoot involves us talking about where we are going, who we will meet, and ideas on how to capture our experience. His favorite shoot recently was to explore White Castle's new corporate headquarters, to try out their two-story slide. Being on the spectrum, he is a bit shy around people he doesn't know, so that’s a big part of preparing him for when we go out to explore.

ISS Playground
ISS Playground

What cameras, lenses, and accessories do you use for your pictures?

From day one of the project, I've been using the FUJIFILM X-System. I started with a FUJIFILM X-T1 and FUJIFILM XF 23mm f/1.4 lens. As the project has progressed, I've upgraded bodies and mainly use the FUJIFILM XF 16-55mm f/2.8. Just last week I upgraded to the FUJIFILM X-T4 for the in-body image stabilization, and I picked up a FUJIFILM X100V to get back to that 35mm field of view and ease of carry for everyday use.

Do you ever use artificial lighting, or do you stick to natural light? If yes, please describe your gear and lighting techniques.

Our entire project has been shot handheld in available light, which has sometimes been quite tricky, but that is why I love FUJIFILM cameras. I leave the camera set to auto ISO with a limit of 6400, which does a fantastic job. We've done three gallery shows with metal prints up to 20 x 30 inches, as well as an entire book with images at ISO 6400, and people are blown away at the image quality when I explain things to them.

He Reads It for the Articles
He Reads It for the Articles

Has the process of photographing Astronaut Harrison made him curious about cameras and photography? Have you shared much about the process of making pictures with him, or post-production editing and image selection? If so, do you have any tips to share for child-friendly photo instruction?

Yes, over the past year, Harry has really enjoyed taking and editing photos with his iPhone, and just last week he got his own FUJIFILM X-T20 kit. We've always looked at the pictures from our shoots together, and he always gets a say as to what images get shared and what stories we tell. As far as tips, I recommend getting one of the many books available that offer kid-friendly photo assignments and just letting kids explore and find shots that speak to them (after you teach them how to care for and hold their camera correctly).

A Soft Landing
A Soft Landing

You have a website and Instagram feed called Documentary Dads, on which you describe yourself as an editorial, commercial, and street photographer, social media consultant, and stay-at-home dad. Generally speaking, how much time are you able to devote to your photography and social media consulting versus parenting? Do you have any tips for other stay-at-home dads about balancing multiple roles such as these?

I started my business as something to do while Harry was in preschool and, from day one, set the limit that I'll do as much work as possible between drop-off and pickup, but once Harry is in the car with me I am a full-time dad. I also book work for evenings and weekends and try to do most of my editing and writing in the morning before Harry wakes up. Of course, the past few months have changed that with distance learning and stay-at-home orders. I have been fortunate in that, while I saw a significant drop in my photography work, my work as a social media consultant stayed constant. But balancing that and helping Harry with his schooling has been challenging, to say the least.

As far as tips, for me, it's all about maintaining a schedule, setting clear expectations with clients, and sticking to them when mission-creep happens.

You mention that you're working on a new project about dads and the gig economy. Please elaborate!

Unfortunately, the coronavirus has put this on hold for a while.

Capsule Living
Capsule Living

In 2019, you attended an event called the Dad 2.0 Summit. How did you find out about this event, and what kind of takeaways did it offer you?

I was introduced to the Dad 2.0 Summit by a friend who had attended previously. I applied for (and received) a scholarship to attend, and my life has not been the same since!

What I learned at Dad 2.0 was that there are a lot of dads who enjoy sharing their experience in a variety of ways, and there are brands that want to help them tell their stories. I was so inspired by Dad 2.0 2019 that I went back for Dad 2.0 2020 and was a presenter on a panel about my experience with Instagram.

Are you aware of any other groups or organizations related to fatherhood that you find to be particularly informative or helpful?

I'm proud to be a co-organizer of the Columbus Dads’ Group, one of 40 local groups that are part of City Dads Group (full-disclosure: I am also the social media coordinator for City Dads).

Coworking at Facebook HQ, NYC
Coworking at Facebook HQ, NYC

In your introductory text for Small Steps 2.0, you mention an interest in expanding your scope to encompass things like maker fairs, robotics competitions, and other sites where science is being done and people have exceptional stories to share. Are there any specific events or activities on your bucket list for future exploration?

I gave Small Steps 2.0 a go back in 2018. I met and photographed a variety of individuals in some very unique places (a space lobbyist in a senator's office on Capitol Hill, a Facebook employee in their NYC HQ, and an astronomer and space fashionista at the Observatory at Columbia University, to name a few). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find funding to keep it going. I spent more time applying for grants than I did taking pictures, so I decided to pause the project and focus on building my photography business and to continue exploring with Harry. That is also about the time that Harry started speech and occupational therapy, which required me to focus my time and finances on getting him the help he needs to thrive.

Say “Cheese”
Say “Cheese”

Do you foresee there being a point where your son might outgrow his interest being photographed as Astronaut Harrison? If and when that happens, do you have any other collaborative photo projects poised in the wings to keep him engaged?

Over the past year, the project has shifted focus as we document our experience as a family navigating Harry's autism diagnosis and how we have dealt with the related struggles and successes. While the space helmet is still used relatively often, we break out the full suit for fewer shoots. When we started the project, it was just a way to get out with the camera and try a few new techniques; I never imagined it would bring us to here, and I never saw us using my photos as a form of outreach and education. But now that we are here, and Harry enjoys seeing the impact he has on others, I think we'll be working together for quite a while, even if the astronaut helmet ends up in the closet.

Do you and Astronaut Harrison have any specific activities or rituals for celebrating Father's Day together?

My plan for Father's Day usually starts with a little time to myself and the chance to get out and explore for a few hours with a camera, breakfast out, and maybe catch a movie, followed by dinner as a family somewhere I can get a great steak.

Future So Bright
Future So Bright

Finally, in hindsight, how would you say your life changed when you first became a father? Are there any things you'd plan for or do differently based on all you know now? Any tips for soon-to-be or future fathers on how to best to prepare for this role?

There is not one aspect of my life that hasn't changed for the better by becoming a dad. Leaving my career to be a stay-at-home dad meant I was there for everything. Having to make do with less led me to be more creative and to take the initiative to do more myself. I never saw myself starting a business or becoming a social media consultant (I don't even know if that was a thing in 2011). I also never thought that I would be speaking about my personal experiences with Harry's health and wellness.

The only thing I would have done differently is that when Harry was three, and I had my first inkling that he might have autism, I wish I had pushed back when his pediatrician minimized my concern. Had it been diagnosed then, instead of at age 7, he would have received intervention much sooner. Other than that, I have no regrets.

As for tips for other dads? Buy cargo shorts; they might be a fashion faux pas, but when you have a little one, those pockets are a lifesaver!

Do you have a story about helping your children explore the world around them? Please let us know about it in the Comments section, below.

2 Comments

From start to bottom this Idea, its execution and final results as far as the photos are concerned are simply a crystal clear example of why i love and adore this website and its contributors. some of the photos here simply make you feel so challenged whether to just see them as a 'child wearing a costume' or actually crossing into the imaginary world he is currently exploring! 

Thanks so much for the compliment on this story, Yonathan. I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed the images, and I know that Aaron Sheldon and his son will appreciate knowing this too. Thanks so much for reading the Explora blog!

Close

Close

Close