Redefining the Family Portrait | Documentary Family Photography | UK
Redefining the Family Portrait - A Monochromatic View
[Definition of Portrait: A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.]
I have always regarded photography as a way to deal with reality, rather than an antidote to it. The satisfaction I get from looking at images of real-life moments is shaped by my understanding that time is fleeting and incredibly transient. When I look at specific images, I am transported back to that time and place and moment; it’s like having a time machine.
As a child one of my favourite things to do was sit and go through all our family photo albums and would marvel at all the different faces and moments captured. As I poured over the photo’s, I was always more drawn to the ones that my dear Grandma used to call ‘life pictures’. Little did we know at the time these were in fact ‘documentary’ pictures, that someone had snapped whilst we had temporarily forgotten the camera was there. These images always revealed a richer, deeper story about that period of our lives or that particular moment. They were literally snapshots of a moment in time that we never would have remembered otherwise. Our very few ‘life pictures’ help tell the story of our family and my childhood and they are one of the most precious things I own, particularly because we only have the prints!
Essentially photojournalism, real life reportage, documentary, whatever you want to call it, records people, places and moments otherwise unavailable to us. It is one of the most intimate and thought provoking forms of photography. It urges the viewer to consider the subject on a more deeper and intimate level and it is through this relationship it creates a bond between subject, artist and viewer. It also challenges our views about what society deems is ‘beautiful’ and enables us to engage with these images on a deeper more meaningful level.
But as documentary family photographers, we have a problem. We are forever coming up against people believing what society has led them to believe, that perfection equals beauty and that your normal, every day, domestic life is boring and not photo-worthy. Sadly, in our social media dominated world we are only confronted with images of perfection and this barrier is hard to break down.
But what IS perfection and a picture perfect family? Families have changed dramatically over the last 20 years and there are several variations on family structures now. Your family could have 6 children running up the hall with cheerios permanently stuck to the bottoms of all their feet. Or you could just be starting out your journey of parenthood with your beautiful new newborn. Your family may be just you and your parents, or you and your grandparents. Your family may be just you and your kids. You may be one of two Dad’s or two Mum’s. You may have twins, or triplets. You may be a single Mum or a single Dad. You may be a step-father or a step-mother. You may have divorced parents or remarried parents. You may have half-siblings and step-siblings. You may have such a large family it’s hard to get everyone in a picture. Or you may have such a small family you may think it’s not even worth booking a photo shoot. You may be a Grandma or Grandad and be fortunate to have grandchildren. Or your family may just be you and members from the animal kingdom.
And why do we feel a family standing in a studio and smiling at the camera is an acceptable representation of our family? It represents nothing other than our physical appearance at that time. The concept of smiling at the camera is such an odd one. I am not saying we cannot smile, quite the opposite! Give me all the real laughs and smiles! But we shouldn’t force a smile just because a camera is there. I will never ask anyone to smile and you can almost hear the sigh of relief when you tell someone they don’t have to smile or even look at the camera. Where did ‘smile at the camera’ come from? It’s a direction, to get people to look happy and ‘picture ready’ and sadly it seems to go hand in hand with family photography. A forced smile does not represent who we are and what we feel. Perhaps we think if we smile, everything will look OK, even when it isn’t. Catching a spontaneous smile is far better. I would rather photograph something that occurs on its own.
After I became a Mum I didn't realise I would find so much inspiration in all the smaller life moments with my child; the ordinary, day to day stuff. And after only a few months into my new motherhood journey I had this urge to document our real life, in all its gritty, raw, struggling beauty. Every day, ordinary, mundane life. So that one day I can look back and know exactly what our life was like at that period of our lives. Not us posing in a studio or with a scenic back drop, wearing beautiful outfits with freshly washed hair. No enhancements to try and make our lives look ‘better’ or our family to look ‘picture perfect’. A real snapshot of a real family living their actual life.
I wanted us on our sofa lounging around as we do so often. I wanted images of us making our breakfast in our pajamas and the mess of thrown scrambled eggs on the floor courtesy of our two year old. I wanted images of the daily furor of getting him dressed and wrangling a tooth brush in his mouth for a few seconds. I wanted images of the exhausting mission to get out the door in the morning. I wanted our real expressions of boredom, frustration, upset and sadness. But also of genuine joy, hilarity, laughter, huge bear hugs, love, and contentment. And kisses, so many kisses for our little boy.
Documentary is incredibly creative and also incredibly hard. As photographers we know what would make for a beautiful image, with perfect light and great composition. But as I can’t direct or set up a shot with documentary, I have to wait and see what unfolds, and wait for those magic moments happen in their own good time. I can still create beautiful images, but I’ll never know what they will be or look like prior to the shoot, they are always a surprise. And that’s what I love about it. A lot of it is luck and being gifted beautiful magical moments by your subjects. And also being quick to react and capture.
I get asked lots of ‘I feel silly’, ‘what do you want me to do’, ‘what should I be doing?’. Some people find it hard to relax and just go about their every day, because we are so wired to think if there’s a camera around we need to be ‘on’ and perform and look our best. It’s hard for people to understand how their every day life could be interesting. How can pictures of us eating lunch, getting ready and changing nappies be interesting let alone beautiful?! Well it can, it really really can. These seemingly boring and uninspiring moments of your day are the BEST part - because that is where real moments of affection, tenderness and love happen. It’s those ‘in-between’ moments.
During a time when photography is so easily accessible on our phones and internet I invite you to try and see your real life in a new light. See its beauty in the simple things and domesticity. What we perceive about our lives is not a true reflection of its beauty, magic and intrigue.
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