We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

“Yaaaay!” says photographer Mike McGowan. The baby in front of him, tears in its eyes, eats a bar of soap.

The shot has just been ruined. “At home, I can just say, ‘Oh shit,’ and start over,” says McGowan, who lives in Sterling, Va. “But if I make a bad picture here, it’s ‘Yaaaay!’ and I just keep on going.”

McGowan, 40, is shooting babies for Ivory Soap’s national “Ivory Baby” search, a contest tied to a dusty promotional campaign that Procter & Gamble is reviving from a 30-year coma. Ivory’s advertising partner, Parents magazine, is managing photo shoots at secondary-market locales, including this one in Springfield Mall’s Gymboree Play & Music Center. The baby who best reflects the soap’s “purity” and “mildness,” according to an Ivory press release, will have its face plastered across the company’s ads for the foreseeable future.

McGowan uses Ivory Soap—”it’s the cheapest one on the shelves”—but Parents probably didn’t choose him for that reason. Actually, he can’t fathom the reason. Until now, his experience has consisted of portraits, weddings, and one quinceañera. He is working toward a photography degree at Northern Virginia Community College, but he earns his living as a Giant Food clerk. He is not a member of any photographic organization; he has never exhibited.

“Most of the stuff I do is, like, somebody I know knows somebody who’s getting married in two weeks, so I just show up,” says McGowan. “The farthest I’ve ever been away from around here to shoot is about 30 minutes.”

But Parents and Ivory didn’t want an artiste. They wanted somebody who could shoot 100 temperamental babies in two days with a crappy Canon Elf digital camera and not complain. They wanted a man who would tolerate parents waving puppets in his face while he tried to focus. When it came down to it, they wanted somebody who would smile, no matter what, and make babies do the same. “As long as I get a smiley picture, it’s all right,” says McGowan. “That’s the bottom line.”

In this respect, he has two liabilities: his 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound frame, which proves terrifying to many people under knee level, and his inexperience with children. “I’m used to dealing with adults, mostly men,” he says. “You can play rough with other men, have a little bit of cussing and swearing. I have to approach this with a different mind-set.” McGowan’s formula for happy babies is to lie low, hum a marathon rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and say “Yaaay!” after every screwed shot.

Fortunately, McGowan has backup: a horde of competitive parents employing their own smile strategies. There are bribes: “Are we going to get ice cream later? Yes we are!” There is flattery: “Look at those eyebrows going up—you’re going to be a lady-killer!” There are thinly veiled orders: “Laugh at mama—she’s being totally silly.” And there are dirty tricks: jiggling babies or prodding them in the ribs to generate guffaws.

McGowan reloads the batteries in his Elf while another choleric tot climbs onto the sheepskin modeling pedestal. Despite the pain of lying on the ground for eight hours, he’s pleased to be earning twice what a wedding pays—and earning it from a prestigious publication, to boot. “I was going to try to push my own skills a little bit more,” he says. In fact, McGowan was prepared to bring along his own backdrops and lights and a more sophisticated camera—until Parents told him what a cattle call the shoot was likely to be. “So I’m just going along with it.” —John Metcalfe