"Wait, so what is it you're doing?"
The morning I showed up at my friend’s house to photograph her family for my first ever Day In The Life session, she was in her home office on a call so I joined her husband and kids in the playroom. As I settled in with the boys on the rug covered in toy cars and started chatting with the dad, I soon realized that he wasn’t quite sure what I was going to be doing at their house all day. All he knew for sure was that a photographer was coming over and his wife told him that they didn’t need to clean the house. I can see how that might cause some confusion. He was super nice and seemed intrigued, if not a bit skeptical, as I answered his questions and gave him a better idea of what this business I was building was all about.
What is documentary family photography?
Since that first session, I have had similar conversations with many other people who also have never heard of this genre of photography, so no worries if you have questions, too! Let’s start with the first part of the term, Documentary. We all know this one, if you’re like me it’s your most frequented category on Netflix, and that’s no coincidence. To me, documentary means storytelling. That’s why those shows are so captivating for so many of us – who doesn’t love a compelling, masterfully told, true story? Similarly, documentary photography captures a moment in time and tells that story through art. Documentary family photography tells the story of a family’s life through a series of photographs.
Okay but what does that mean?
In practical terms, it means that I get to spend a day with your family! As a documentary family photographer, my goal is to spend a significant amount of time with a family in order to get a meaningful glimpse into what this chapter of their life looks and feels like. I'm not an invisible fly on the wall; I am a guest in their home. I take lots of photos, of course, but I also interact, take breaks, chat, get to know them and play with the kids. After a bit of time, everyone is quite used to me being there, and that is when the magic happens. Your family gets to relax and be themselves; you are just living your normal life. Nothing is staged or posed (unless we take a minute for a quick portrait). You may choose to go to the park, play games, cook meals, tidy up...the more ordinary the better. After the session you don’t just get a few nice pictures you can put on the wall, you have a collection of photos that tells your story.
How is it different from traditional family photography?
In traditional family photography, everything is controlled. Often special outfits are picked out, a scenic location is chosen or a studio arranged, and a time frame of anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 hour is usually allotted. The photographer is also the director. With a tight time limit, they must guide a family in order to get the stunning images that they do. Lots of instructions are given. Even lifestyle photography, which is widely popular and has a more casual feel, is largely posed. Documentary family photography places the photographer not as a director but as an observer. The family wears their normal clothes and they are in their home (their real home, that looks like people actually live there). An ideal session length for me is about 8 hours, usually from around lunch time until the kids are in bed. The shortest session I offer is 3 hours long. Families often plan a day that involves some of their favorite things to do together and go about their usual routines. The end result is a collection of photos that reflects the unique nature of each family.
Is that really something I want?
I don’t know haha! I don't believe that my style of photography is better than any other, but I do think it is a great fit for many families. Maybe you’re like my friend’s husband and you’re just trying to get a lay of the land. Now that you have a bit of an idea of what documentary family photography is, it might be something you want to consider. After some initial hesitation, that dad loved the photos they got back. It’s like a behind-the-scenes of your life. He has photos of him holding the baby, brushing his son’s teeth and reading the last couple chapters of a book to his older kids as they cuddled up on a twin bed. What are some of the little moments that you never want to forget about when you look back on this time of your life? Documentary family photography can help you to preserve those moments forever.