Three Kids and a Flag: A Glimpse into the Life of William Klein

Three Kids and Flag, Photo by William Klein

© Photo by William Klein 1950s

At first glance, one can easily tell that the above photo is not ordinary of child photography. These children are not cute, naïve, or easily amused. Their emotions are raw; they hold themselves with a tough demeanor, one extraordinary to most children. However, this photo mirrors the life of its photographer.

William Klein was born into an impoverished Jewish family and grew up during the height of the Great Depression. He graduated high school at the early age of fourteen and enrolled at the City College of New York. He then enlisted in the US Army and was stationed in Germany and France during World War II (where he later stayed). Klein was a Jew on the frontlines of the nation responsible for the mass execution of his brethren. He witnessed firsthand the disturbing actions of a sadistic dictator, forgoing the mercy of humanity. This rawness, humanity in its most brutal state, is evidenced through this photo.

It is important to note that these children are on the street, where Klein spent much of his childhood during the Depression. The boy in the foreground of the photo is pushing out his bottom teeth, the calloused mark of barbarity. Even at a young age, he seems to have pushed away the naiveté of adolescence and accepted upon himself the bitterness of the adult world, further evidenced by his suit and tie. The boy is holding an American flag: the youth of America, forced bitter, raw, and adult. Growing up in an economically torn nation and witnessing the ruthless acts of brutality against his own people, Klein, like the boy in the photo, was too soon forced into adulthood.

Additionally, the children sitting on the sidewalk seem uninterested by the parade they are watching. Usually, children are amazed by the mass of people, floats, and balloons that a parade brings. These children are no longer adolescents, no longer awed by colors, sights, and sounds. They are thrust into the adult world, evidenced by the dark diagonal line of the sidewalk separating them from the crib in the corner of the photo. No parent stands by the crib, it sits halfway into the photo, infancy half thrust into the adult world. Just as Klein was forced to raise himself by the streets, so too does the baby in the stroller.

The camera acts as a mirror, a time capsule, granting the viewer a glimpse into the life of its photographer. The children’s’ raw, real emotions mimic Klein’s steps into the adult world, the brutality he witnessed and the pain he endured. The children are manifestations of himself; on the streets alone, yet not afraid.