Oh no, it's blackmail again

The packages keep coming, relentlessly demanding cash. They contain pho tographs taken by a stranger. Adrian Mourby is speaking out at last, but he is afraid

Every year I am blackmailed over a series of photographs taken by a stranger. It's been 12 months since the last lot turned up soI was hoping we might escape this year. But no, last week my daughter arrived home with the dreaded package. Inside, a s ever, were seven prints - one large one in a brown cardboard frame, two medium-sized and four small: The School Photo was back in town. The price this time was £10.95.

Over the years I've battled hard with my conscience in the hope of finding a convincing argument for returning my daughter's school photo. "Shred and be damned," is what I'd like to say. After all, most of the time the picture is not even recognisably mychild. The effect of setting any intelligent seven-year-old in front of a bogus sepia backcloth and shining bright lights at her until she smiles is hardly likely to elicit a natural portrait.

Since Miranda started school we've received photos caught in mid-blink and photos taken on inopportune days when teeth had gone missing. Such blemishes do not deter the school paparazzo, however. He is not going to take one look at your child and say "I'll come back when that sty/bruise/spot/ dandruff has cleared up", or "I'll come back when she's more confident with me." He flashes on regardless. As long as he can extract a smile, the school photo is laid down for posterity.

I've known parents who would have been willing to pay the accompanying ransom note just to suppress it. One friend of mine was very distressed by the photo that had recently arrived of her seven-year-old. "She's a tart!" the poor woman exclaimed, seeing that her demure daughter had been making love to the camera in a manner worthy of Marilyn Monroe.

Of course, the obvious thing to do is just say "No", unless the School Photo happens, serendipitously, to be an image you both like and recognise. But here the force of peer-group pressure comes into play. No child wants to be the only one returning his or her package to the teacher on Monday morning. So in the end I usually buy the damn thing in the belief that at least I can circulate the four miniatures to prick the conscience of forgetful godparents.

But don't think that £10.95 is an end to the matter. The chances are that our son or daughter will now want to see the wretched thing displayed. Photos this large are not intended to be slipped discreetly into an album. A cardboard framed 10x8 full-colour matt-effect print this big expects to be placed on the mantelpiece for all to see. Miranda has already noticed that framed versions of Sally and Cassandra aged four, five, six and seven adorn their parents' living room, so where are her pictures?

It's bad enough for us parents, having to chart the annual progress of our children's blemishes over several alcoves, but spare a thought for the elderly and infirm. The School Photo pack cleverly includes two medium-sized full- colour specials, one for each set of grandparents. It is a startling statistic that if the average set of grandparents has between four and five grandchildren, they could well be in receipt of up to 75 framed school photos in the 15 years between four and 18.

Think of the wall space required! I'm sure that once upon a time the school photo had some value. When cameras were expensive and the results unpredictable, school photos were probably the only way many people ever saw a decent picture of their offspring. But these days even disposable cameras shoot on 35mm, and with built-in zooms no one should find it difficult to capture a pleasing, unself-conscious picture of their child at play.

Why should we be emotionally blackmailed every year into buying these artificial head-teeth-and-shoulder shots of our kids in their school clothes?

The solution is simple. Like so many iniquitous demands placed on parents - party bags, pets, vastly overpriced trainers - all we have to do is get together and say "No". If the nation en masse returned its school photos unbought, the practice of taking them would cease overnight.

But who will be the first? What keeps us shelling out £10.95 is a fear that in a few years' time, when our children are teenage single parents, drug dealers and ram raiders and we ask where we went wrong, among a list of shortcomings our errant child will cry, "And what's more, you never bought my school photo!"

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