'Tis the season to be bawly.
At photographer Jeff Roffman's Atlanta studio, tots' temper tantrums don't elicit lectures; they elicit laughs.
Asher Powell, 1, sat stoically on Santa Clause's lap for the first part of his photo session. But as his face began to crumple, and he began to pout and cry, the adults gathered around watching smiled and chorused happily, "There we go!" Roffman's camera snapped away. Asher gazed alternatively up at Santa and over at his parents, as someone fed his dog peanut butter to get the pose just so.
After the photo session was over, Asher's mom and dad said they were happy.
"Captured the real Asher. He's not always happy all the time," said Joey Powell. He says the crying photos are the "quintessential Jeff Roffman thing."
"Everybody was all excited about his crying," said Elizabeth Powell. "I just wanted to run over and grab him!"
"Was it hard?" WSB's Veronica Waters asked.
"Yes! Especially when he was making the sad little face at the end," Powell replied. "But we got some good smiles."
"Makes for good photos," Joey Powell said.
Stephanie Boyea calls it "the truth of parenting. It's not all fun and games," she laughs, a perspective repeated by several parents talking to a reporter about why these crying photos are so in demand.
Lindsey Torrens says she's been dealing with the terrible twos with son Chase, so she admits to being disappointed--and "completely shocked"--when he sat happily for his photos without one tear.
"After a certain age it's just smiles, so it's good to get those crying moments, that toddler face. Exactly what every mom deals with all the time," she laughs.
Roffman never expected kids-crying-with-Santa photos to become such a hot trend. When he began his Santa sessions, he thought it was a disaster when "the kids screamed bloody murder. But the parents loved the crying photos.
"Over the couple of years that we were posting on social media, we were getting the reaction from the crying ones more than the laughing ones," Roffman says. "At some point I just said, 'You know what? I'm just going to take a leap of faith and put in the crying ones.' And that's when things really took off."
There were millions of clicks on the photos, and parents clamored to get an appointment at his Poncey-Highland studio.
It's mostly the children between one and three years old, says Roffman, who will get weepy. Like Roffman, Santa tells WSB that it tugs at his heartstrings to see the kids cry.
"Yeah, I've welled up a couple of times," Santa says. "But the children, they'll be fine within a moment or two and then we're high-fiving each other."
Santa retired from Lockheed-Martin in February, and says he felt he had a calling to do this, so he grew his snow-white hair and beard long and ended up working joyfully in Roffman's studio.
"It just amazes me that I'm a native Atlantan who aspired to be a Phipps Plaza Santa, and now Phipps Plaza parents are bringing their kids to see me!"
Now, parents ask to be on Roffman's "Naughty List," a compilation he posts about every two weeks of the best runners and pouty faces.
"When they get on the Naughty List, it's like they won the lottery. And it's fun to see how they play on the kids' emotions [on their family Christmas cards]. When they have siblings, they have one kid that's nice, and one that's naughty. I love the ones they send and the kid's crying their heads off and they write 'Joy' at the bottom.”
Listen to Roffman’s breakdown of what separates him from your standard mall Santa photo op by clicking the link below.
It's not unusual for children to cry when placed on the lap of a bearded stranger in red and white, but Roffman says the way he takes the pictures--the lens, distance, and perspective--adds something different and dynamic to the piece of Americana that seemed relegated to far-away shots of kids with mall Santas.
Forget "You better not cry, I'm telling you why." Parents hoping for a pout from their well-behaved babies even pretend to walk out, saying, "Bye," and are disappointed when the kids stay all smiles, waving back happily.
Before and after the photos sessions, kids and families can enjoy warm and cold drinks--cocoa for kids, beer and mimosas for adults--and activities, including a snow pit and a long cookie decorating table. The decor changes from year to year, taking months to prepare. And Roffman reveals that the studio bought about 26,000 cookies this year.
Roffman tells the parents disappointed over a non-crier that if their kid happens to fall in the snow pit while playing or gets otherwise tantrumy while there, to bring them back over immediately and plop them in Santa's lap so they can capture the picture.
Jetrin Carlton, 1, didn't need any help. He wailed for long minutes in his photo session.
"It was awesome," said his mom, Ashley Carlton. "I mean, your heart feels a little pitter-patter because they're upset, but you know that the memories will be forever, and he'll laugh about it when he is older.
"It's easier when you're right there and you can get him," she added.
Jet's dad, Vor, was proud of his son's performance and looks forward to the photos of the 19-month-old dashing away from Santa as Roffman's camera lens aims upward at the boy's outstretched arms.
"Oh, it was glorious!" he says. "The crying? It was all I asked for. The more tears, runny nose? Perfect."
Roffman's three-minute sessions sell out within minutes, a year in advance.
Sometimes kids surprise him and their parents. One even proudly held up both middle fingers for his photos. Six years in, Roffman says, he finally got a first.
"I've always had a single-bubble booger. And this year, I mean it was like magic. The kid was so happy and just had the largest two booger bubbles in their nose. I got such accolades on that on Facebook."
Roffman says he takes about 30,000 photos a day during Santa season.
"We probably saw about 7,000 kids this year," he says. "So I've had a lot of therapy."
Roffman is available at 404-437-7437 or jeffroffman.com.