There’s apparently a rule when you become a paid photographer and get a website: you have to blog, preferably twice a week. People aren’t always up front about it, but if you’re a photographer and you have a website, you’ve heard the rule, and chances are, you’re trying to follow it. The thing is, this ends up creating the most BORING content.
Why? Because what are you going to blog as a commercial photographer? Surely not bad poetry or stories. ;) Well, those are some of my favourite things to blog as you might know if you’ve kept up with my drivel in past blogs. (Before I became a photographer, I used to have a parenting blog - how original! - and before that... I used to have a blog called “Dreams of Fulfilment”... about as deep and fulfilling to the reader as the inch of brown water at the bottom of our broken pool. There’s a dead squirrel in there, too, if that helps propel the metaphor.)
Most of us blog entire photo-sessions with all the associated photographs, and usually with a good old paragraph at the beginning, like,
“I had the pleasure of hanging out with the amazing [client]. First we did [X], then we did [Y], and it was so much fun y’all! Now share in the fun by looking through all 500 photos I couldn’t cull.” (i kid. We cull carefully)
One of the reasons to do this, we're told, is to improve search engine optimization for our websites. So that we might be found. Search engine optimization (SEO) is like the thing my chickens do when they lay an egg in an existing clutch, hoping to sit on them later, and then I go in and steal them all and eat them. Or when my daughter makes detailed plans and printouts and questionnaires for parents about the children she’s going to babysit... in three years. It keeps you working and producing and the benefit is so very far over the horizon that you have go by blind faith alone.
I’m pretty sure when I switched websites last month, SEO all went out the window anyway. All those old blog posts might never appear on my new site. Who wants to hear the regurgitation of my tired tale about going from academia to photography? No one. Least of all me.
It’s a new season (sorta), it’s a new day, and I’m starting this blog with fresh things in mind.
So if you intend to follow my blog (you might even decide to subscribe to updates about it by entering your email in the space I’ve set up on the side), then that’s all well and good. Just don’t be surprised if you occasionally encounter bad poetry, and random photos, and thoughts about the world that seem to have little to do with what I do as a photographer. I promise to always include photographs I like, among the jumble.
The first thing I want to do - right NOW - is to introduce some definitions.
It’s not a snore fest. This will be quick.
Let’s talk about documentary photography for a moment. What is it? And is it so much better than regular ol’ family photography? Well, that's all a matter of perspective.
To lead the way, a quote by Mary Ellen Mark, an awesome documentary & portrait photographer who died just two years ago:
“Photograph the world as it is. Nothing's more interesting than reality.” (Mary Ellen Mark)
Documentary family photography means that I get out to you, my potential client, and I watch you do your life the way only you can do it, and I photograph it. I don’t try to tell you where to stand or what to do to make the light better. I don’t even turn on the light if your house is as dim as a cave. That’s just the way it is. I’ve lived in caves, too. You can still get photographs in a cave. They’ll be a little noisy, a little grainy. But that’s ok. That’s what makes them different from the next ones. No pretence. Let’s just let things be.
I don’t want you to wear special outfits just for me. I’m not easily perturbed by stains or holes on clothing, especially on kids, because they’re usually signs of great activity, of tiny brains computing great risks and taking leaps off things they shouldn't and smearing mud and not using napkins and traversing childhood exactly the way it was meant to be traversed - the raw and messy way.
Don’t even bother wearing a special outfit just for you. Or for social media. Resist the temptation to book this photography session solely based on what it might look like posted to your wall. I’m as big a Facebook junkie as the next guy, but don’t invest in family photography for that purpose alone. That’s all I’m saying. Do it for authenticity's sake. Do it for your kids, and for their kids. Imagine flipping through a digital album, or a printed one, one day, fifty years from now. What will you see? What will you want to see?
My studio photos from when I was a kid - I think I’ve got a couple of those - are empty vessels. They're fully devoid of context. Other than my cute pig-tails, and the virginal white dress, I can’t answer any questions about the time and place. What was I into at that period in my life? I didn’t wear dresses except on that one day my grandmother took me to the studio, and I didn’t wear my hair in pigtails, either, I know that much. I wore "boys'" clothes and played with sticks and stray kittens and I was afraid of frogs (which hasn’t changed). None of that comes through in my childhood studio portraits. Not even a tiny bit, though I wish it could.
Actually, scratch all that. Don’t even book this session with the future in mind. With the ‘remembering self’ in mind, as Dan Kahneman says. Book it for the now, for the ‘experiencing self’. Book it because you want to live some moments truly, with your family, and allow me access to these slices in time, exactly as they are.
So, what is documentary family photography? It’s a documenting of the every-day things that make up your life. It’s the illustration of a life not put-on, not staged. The life lived.
All clear as mud now?