Visual Culture

These Photographers Show There’s No One Way to Be a Dad

Molly Gottschalk
Jul 4, 2017 12:00PM

Photo by Mammamija. Courtesy of Fathers.

American fathers today spend nearly triple the amount of time with their children as fathers did back in 1965. But while parental norms evolve, outdated ideas of fatherhood—from absentee breadwinners or clueless Mr. Moms—continue to prevail across popular culture.

A Poland-based publication, Fathers, is dramatically challenging those stale notions. Founded in 2015 by Wojtek Ponikowski, a publisher and father of two, the magazine is filled with photographs of modern dads that dispel clichés.

Flip open a contemporary men’s magazine and you’ll be confronted by articles promising bigger muscles, smaller guts, greater wealth, and better sex—but rarely a mention of how to be a good father, or connect with one’s children. Meanwhile, in a store’s parenting aisle, says Ponikowski, magazines and books still bear images of mothers alone with their kids.

Photo by Polly Alderton. Courtesy of Fathers.


Yet evidence of small shifts in attitudes is easy enough to find—in public restrooms, for instance, where baby-changing stations are now common in both men’s and women’s rooms. “This is the kind of change that is really happening,” Ponikowski notes—and yet somehow, visual culture hasn’t quite caught up.

Attitudes, though, have changed. Consider their arc across television history, from the absentee father who pays the bills and makes the rules on Leave it to Beaver, to the obsessive single father of Full House, to the 70-year-old dad who comes out as a transgender woman on Transparent. It’s little secret that we’re shaped by these dominant images of culture. But while male archetypes in general have greatly expanded over the years, there’s plenty of room to grow and evolve.

“It’s changing, and we’re happy it’s changing, but there’re still those clichés that are keeping society in these roles,” says Ponikowski.

Photo by Jesse Burke. Courtesy of Fathers.

Fathers, which Ponikowski launched after a decade at the helm of a creative agency, became a platform through which to inspire and empower modern-day dads with a more accurate expression of their day-to-day realities. But “we aren’t pushing anything,” clarifies Ponikowski. “We wanted to show that there isn’t one perfect model of fatherhood; there’s no formula.”

While the magazine takes fathers as its subject, Ponikowski stresses that it’s not anti-mom—it’s intended for everyone. And in fact, he tells me, this multiverse of fatherdom is edited by a woman.

Indeed, Fathers showcases an eclectic variety of dads. They might have 10 kids, or two. Some are parents to toddlers, others to twentysomethings. There are single dads, gay couples, 9-to-5 dealmakers, and tireless creatives.

Photo by Jesse Burke. Courtesy of Fathers.

Photo by Jesse Burke. Courtesy of Fathers.

Pieces in recent issues drive that diversity home. In issue four, there’s a photo essay by Jesse Burke that is the product of five years of roadtrips across the United States with his daughter Clover, captured between the ages of five and nine. Burke, in a recent interview, said that he’d had free reign and full parental responsibility during Clover’s off-weeks from school. Burke seized the opportunity to teach his daughter about the world by introducing her to nature. In the essay, we see Clover standing in expansive wilderness—sometimes in the company of the occasional beached whale or bird carcass. For the young girl, it was an immediate lesson about life, and mortality.

“I want my child to be strong, to be a warrior,” Burke writes in Fathers. “I want her to know that it’s okay to hurt, to cry, and to bleed.”

Photo from the Herbert Collection. Courtesy of Fathers.

Photo of Kari Herbert with her father Sir Wally Herbert from the Herbert Collection. Courtesy of Fathers.

In that same issue of the magazine, the daughter of British polar explorer Sir Wally Herbert shares photographs taken with her father, who’d moved the family to live in a small Eskimo community on an island off northwest Greenland when she was just 10 months old. The images, which picture the daughter, Kari, bundled amongst dogsleds, with a mother and father bedecked in fur pelts, offer a less conventional view of fatherhood. “Yes, my father was a hero,” she says in an accompanying interview, “but more importantly, he was also a very loving dad.”

Further variations on fatherhood abound. We see a young carpenter, Ben McAdam, photographed in and around his Berlin workshop where he’d recently crafted a table and chair for his nearly two-year-old son, Kilian. Or Sven Ehmann, a creative director at German book publisher Gestalten, who is pictured on the streets of Berlin with his children, Lisz and Theo. (As an accompanying interview reveals, he proudly admits to gleaning much of his inspiration from his kids.)

Photo by Bartek Wieczorek. Courtesy of Fathers.

Photo by Lilli Storm. Courtesy of Fathers.

Together, these images are challenging tired constructions of fatherhood (not to mention the archetype of a distant, unloving patriarch). Today’s fathers aren’t just more engaged in the lives of their kids; they’re increasingly diverse in terms of the paths they take to parenting—and that’s a point Fathers lays bare.

A forthcoming issue of the magazine goes even further, and includes a portrait series of Anna, a trans father, among other stories.  

“You’re used to seeing this father who isn’t as involved as the mother,” says Ponikowski. But you’ll change minds, he says, “the more you can change what people see in images.”

Molly Gottschalk