When you were a fifth grader, what did you want to be when you grew up? An astronaut? A ballerina? A football player? I wanted to be an executive at a major corporation. And now, almost 30 years later, though I would loathe working in the corporate arena, my many countless afternoons spent writing up documents have at least served me well in my current occupation!

Photographer Brandon Cawood asked a classroom full of fifth graders the same question. He was a guest speaker in his sister Malisa’s 5th-grade class about his own career and the adventures of being a  photographer who creates larger than life composite images. Being 5th graders, they excitedly told Brandon that he should take photographs of them. Brandon says that he “initially I laughed it off and told them you never know!” A few months later, Brandon, his wife, and his sister were talking about the presentation and had an idea of photographing Malisa’s class and make composites of them, dressing the kids up in “realistic costumes or uniforms, and creating action images that looked as though they were really doing that career, as a 5th grader!” And the project, ‘When I Grow Up Was Born.’

detectives and lawyer-brandon-cawood
Detectives & Lawyer

Malisa also works with youth as a volunteer for a local non-profit called City of Refuge. They team decided that they could use the images in the series to create a calendar, sell them, and donate the proceeds to the City of Refuge youth program. The program is working on starting a college and career fund to aid in college visits, application fees, testing, and other educational needs for their youth, so the tie-in for the project was perfect.

After 4 months of planning and then spending 4 days photographing the students between their studies, the ‘When I Grow Up Project’ was completed. Below is a video of Brandon, his wife, and Malisa speaking about the project. Brandon was also kind enough to answer some of my questions about the shoot, gives some tips on working with children and composites, and shares with us some images from the series.

Brandon, what did you want to be when you were a fifth grader?

When I was in 5th grade, I wanted to become a real life Batman. I had it all figured out! I was going to use my dad’s barn as my bat cave and my dirt bike as my bat cycle. Of course if that didn’t work out, I figured I would just fall back on being a professional basketball player.

What do you hope that the ‘When I Grow Up’ project will accomplish?

As a photographer, I obviously hope that the series will connect with people. With any long-term project like this, the goal is to connect with people and make your presence known. I like to do personal projects because it gives me a chance to flex my creative muscles and try to create something I haven’t seen before. On top of what I hope this project does for me as a photographer, I hope that we are able to raise a good bit of money for our cause. All the money made from the calendars goes directly to the youth program, and it’s for a great cause. I’m honored that they decided to partner with us on this project!

Military - brandon-cawood

What is your best tip with working with children?

I think when working with kids the best thing is to just have fun! This project made it really easy because the kids were so into it. They were still young enough to not be concerned with what the images looked like. They just liked the experience of being part of a photo shoot and feeling like superstars!


What are mistakes you should avoid when doing a composite?

The biggest mistake you can make when it comes to creating a composite is not being organized. Whether you shoot your background first or your models first, you need to have a final vision in mind ahead of time. With this project, I had to keep notes at what height and what focal length I had the camera set at for each image. I had to be aware of what direction I wanted my lights to be coming from in the final image. Composites are something that can’t just be thrown together.

You are selling an illusion and creating something that wasn’t there. It all takes time and planning to pull it off.

video game designer-brandon-cawood
Video Game Designer
doctors and nurses - brandon-cawood
Doctors & Nurses

Tell me a bit about the charity you’ve teamed up with.

The City of Refuge is an amazing organization in our community. They provide independent living units for single chronically disabled homeless, serve free meals, have a clothing closet, a food pantry, offer family and educational classes, and so many other things for the less fortunate in our community.

The youth program does the following:

  • Once a week a special youth service is held specifically to meet the needs and demands of at-risk teens within the local community.
  • Special youth events and outreach programs are conducted twice per month
  • Mentors are assigned to walk along side each teen registered within the program
  • Prevention and awareness programs are taught on teens in an age relevant way.
soccer players-brandon-cawood
Soccer Players
singer song writer-brandon-cawood

What was your biggest challenge in this series?

The biggest challenge with this series was shooting so many shots in a limited amount of time. I had to work with the kids while they were at school. I couldn’t take each kid away from class for too long of a time because they were still doing schoolwork. We also had to track down all the costumes. We had many people lend or donate clothing and props, which was amazing. We did this project on a grand budget of $0. I paid for all the expenses out of pocket, good thing for write-offs!! With some of our costumes, we only had one pair, like the military boys. I had to photograph each one of them individually so they could exchange out the clothes.

It was a lot of work, but well worth it. Before we could even start the project we had to get permission from the school, school board, and, of course, have all the students’ parents sign photo releases.

photographers -brandon-cawood

Where can readers find more information about the project and your work in general?

People can purchase the calendar or see the work at the project website www.whenigrowupproject.net or my personal website www.brandoncawood.com. They can also find me on social media:

CREDITS: Photographs by Brandon Cawood are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.