Some people keep a written documentary, some a visual one. I happen to be someone who keeps both.
As you know, if you’ve followed this blog or my work at all, a lot of my images feature my children, which elicits comments such as “Wow. Don’t you have enough photos of your kids?” or “Geesh, your kids will never say you didn’t take enough photos of them.”
I’m never sure if these comments are meant to be sarcastic or sincere but the more they’re made, the more I gather there isn’t a lot of sincerity in there. Instead many seem baffled why I’d want to take some many images of my own children. They see it more as narcissism than documentation, I suppose, and maybe they think I’m bragging somehow when I post the images. I’m not actually sure. More likely, though, they are teasing and don’t mean to be snarky at all.
My real purpose for taking the images is simply to document life as I see it and since I’m mostly home with them all day, they are who I see. Photography is like therapy to me. It is similar to writing in a journal. It’s a way to work out my internal musings, my deep questions, my efforts to understand a situation or a person or even an entire family, but it is also a way for me to slow down and simply notice the world around me.
Often, before I even take a photo, unless I’m shooting for stock photography, I think about what the scene means to me. Why do I even want to photograph what is happening around me? Do I want these images because of who or what is in them or because how the scene makes me feel? Many times I want to capture a specific moment on “film” (or memory card these days) so that when I look at the photo I am mentally and emotionally (maybe even spiritually) transported.
Almost every photograph I take is a desire to capture joy within my life. I rarely take a photo to capture sorrow but if I do it is so I can convey to someone else the heavy emotion of the moment, opening their eyes to the experience of someone else and maybe to try to change the future so similar situations don’t happen again.
I am sure there are some in my family who wonder why I would want to photograph certain situations in my life. When my husband’s grandfather became ill I sat by his bed many days as he slept. I never photographed him, but I did photograph the photo of his wife over his bed, the photograph he lifted his eyes to the day he was brought home from the hospital to be placed in hospice care. He was too weak from the stroke to move but he could lift his eyes upward and he wept at the site of the woman he’d been married to almost 65 years and who had died two years earlier.
The only time I photographed him laying in that bed was the day his older brother came to visit him, holding his hand, and speaking softly. It was one of his more alert moments in those days before he passed. In fact, it wasn’t long after his brother’s visit that he slipped into a restful sleep and never woke again.
The moment between the brothers was private, intimate, sacred and part of me knew I shouldn’t lift my camera, but on that day the desire to document replaced the worry of offending a reserved and quiet family. It’s not as if I went all paparazzi on the scene. I remember quickly lifting the camera and snapping off two quiet shots and then putting my camera away.
If anyone in the family had witnessed me taking the photos I’m sure they wouldn’t have understood, and may not even today, why I felt I needed to take that photograph. Looking back, I still don’t why I snapped the shots. Maybe because the family was often so shut off emotionally that I wanted to document this tender moment to remind me they weren’t as shut off as I once thought, but simply struggled knowing how to handle painful moments.
Sometimes when we photograph a moment we are doing so to learn something from the moment, not only to teach someone else about what we saw.
I’ve never shown anyone the image. It’s tucked away in a hard drive and maybe someday I’ll delete it. I’m not sure why I kept it and sometimes I forget I even took it, but then I’ll be looking for another photo and there it is; often showing up when I’m wrestling with a particular quirk of that side of the family. It’s as if God uses the photo to remind me that buried pain creates emotional distance people don’t know how to bridge. In other words, a person isn’t always rejecting us but something inside themselves.
When I look at photography as a way to document, rather than only a way to create something pretty, I am able to let go of preconceived ideas of perfection. The world of photography opens up and leaves behind the constraints of technical refinement. Learning the technical aspects of photography is a good thing, even a necessary thing, but being ruled by them is a creativity killer.
When I let go of the idea that every shot has to be perfect, that’s when I can pick up whatever camera I have on me, and document my world. No workshops needed at that point – just a desire to create and learn from what I capture.
Accessing my reason for picking up the camera creates personal art worth looking at.
We live in the day and age of scrolling through life. Scrolling through trivial information and scrolling through deep and important information. We scroll past photo after photo and thought after thought and rarely pause to truly think about what we are seeing and reading. Information slides in and falls out as quickly as it came.
We have become ghosts of ourselves.
When I first became interested in photography it wasn’t the posed, cheesy studio images that drew me in. It was the raw, real, authentic documentary photographs that weren’t technically perfect, that weren’t perfectly lit, and didn’t feature perfect expressions that lit a creative fire in me. These images tapped the brakes of a life careening ever faster forward and helped to facilitate a pause to help us focus on what was really happening in our little world or the world at large.
Images of a true, actual scene or event as it happened made me want to capture the same types of moments in the same way. In the images that I saw in magazines and books, I knew it was the moment and the feeling a person got from looking at them that mattered, not if they were edited in Photoshop with overlays or the softening brush. When I first started taking photos I had no idea what Photoshop was. I had little to no interest in digitally manipulating an image, something that some photographers, even those who call themselves “documentary photographers” do today. For me, true documentary photography means little to no alteration to the image. There are a few of my photos, therefore, that are not strict documentary, but the bulk include no changes, other than a conversion from color to black and white.
My first camera was a film camera, an Olympus point and shoot. For the non-photographer, this means the camera didn’t feature interchangeable lenses and the back opened to load a film canister. It did feature an optical zoom lens, which, if you zoomed too far, would cause the image to pixelate severely. I photographed mainly my friends and pets and a few vintage hats from the chest at my grandmother’s and none of it was remotely award winning. The photos weren’t even remotely interesting, but they captured people who were important to our family in everyday moments and therefore were worth more than any of the posed images other families had. My parents most likely spent thousands of dollars helping me develop film at local drugstores with very little to show for it, other than a few memories mixed in between the shots of me trying to figure out the concept of composition.
I had no idea what I was doing with the camera, to be honest. All the images were simple snapshots with very little thought to composition. I didn’t think much about composition or even know what it was. It was a photo that my dad took that sparked the idea of layering, even though I didn’t know what layering was. He photographed the daughter of a friend with the little girl standing in the foreground, eating an apple and smiling at the camera and behind her was her sister, playing in the creek down behind our house. It opened my eyes to the idea that photography didn’t have to be boring, but should instead tell a story.
I found myself fascinated by documentary photographers and photojournalists like Harry Benson, who traveled with The Beetles. I didn’t even know the name of many of the photojournalists whose work I loved, but whose photos I had seen in magazines and books.
I didn’t have the internet back then to learn more about the photographers whose work I had seen in history books or magazines. Yes, I’m really THAT old. But, yet not THAT old that I can’t remember when the Internet became more popular and the world of photography was suddenly at my fingertips. I can still hear the squeal of the modem connecting in our dining room.
But there was and is a downside to the internet. It invented scrolling.
Scrolling our life away and barely slowing down to learn from what is zooming by our view.
“It can be more difficult to penetrate deeply into the subject matter and really impact audiences. It’s so easy to like an Instagram photo without really digesting what it means because you’re just scrolling through it,” documentary photographer Award-winning, American photographer, Sebastian Copeland told Capture Magazine, an Australian photography magazine, in 2016. “There may be diminishing returns to the mass of communication that is being made available through social media.”
(Read more at http://www.capturemag.com.au/advice/the-power-of-documentary-photography#S2gJ8aR9lolWo6so.99)
Writer Amanda Copp speaks about the idea of documentary photography slowing life down in the introduction to the same article Copeland was interviewed for.
“Today’s world feels like someone has slammed their foot on the accelerator and everyone is scrambling to keep up. Endless streams of information and people with limited attention spans have become the norm. Moments that slow people down in this hyper-paced world are few and far between. But documentary photography allows such moments to occur, as well as contemplation, consideration, and, maybe, action. These photographers, dedicated to documenting the world around them, gently apply the brakes on this accelerated world and capture the stories of things left behind. Many of the issues facing people and the planet today are slow and inching forward. While others are far more rapid.”
Read more at http://www.capturemag.com.au/advice/the-power-of-documentary-photography#S2gJ8aR9lolWo6so.99
I never have had the chance to travel the world to take photographs, as I once thought I would, so I’ve instead photographed my own life in the style of the photographers I loved. I never wanted to imitate them because we all see the world in our own way. I never had much of an interest in posing an image and hated when I had to do so at the newspapers I worked at – instead always asking for assignments where I could photograph the action. The action in our area wasn’t really “action.” I never photographed a protest or conflict, but an elementary school field day was always fun.
All photography is documenting something, of course, but documenting a scene as it is, as it was, and as it will always be within the frame poses a challenge for me that I enjoy as much as a portrait photographer revels in nailing the right expression.
I’m grateful that I’ve chosen to capture the everyday moments of my family’s life and the world as I see it through the camera lens. Looking back at images that documented a moment, instead of a pose, takes me on an emotional and visual journey that nourishes the soul like a hearty stew nourishes the belly.
For someone whose mind races around in circles most of the day, getting nowhere, documentary photography helps slow my thoughts down and almost forces me to notice the world around me, which I see as a good and welcome thing.
Some of my favorite documentary photographers I’d encourage you to learn from and about, even if photography isn’t your chosen art form:
- Niki Boon
- Harry Benson
- Scotty Perry (a new discovery for me)
- Dorothea Lange
- Vivian Maier
- Gordon Parks
We photographers can be a depressing bunch. I mean how many more ways can we remind people they need to get photos of their family members because soon they’ll all be dead.
Yes, it is true we want to have photos of family members before they pass from our lives but enough with the emotional blackmail already. How about we just suggest people capture their memories in photos or video so they can share the memories with each other in the future? How about we stop depressing people into buying packages or spending more money than necessary by using fear tactics.
“Grandma will be dead next year so you better buy this $300 canvas for your wall.”
“Grandpa has been in and out of the hospital. You’d better spend that full tax refund on 18 different poses of you all together and the digital files that you’ll have to take a loan out to get. He will probably be dead in a few more days and you’ll want those memories of him forcing a smile for my camera.”
I think one reason I can’t push myself to market myself as a family photographer is I can’t bring myself to play the mind games of marketing small businesses 101. If I see one more Instagram post that talks about how glad a photographer was that she took photos of a relative at the last family gathering because a few months later they were dead and then ends with a sales pitch, I will scream. If you want to say you were glad you took the photos and then end it there, fine. But the sales pitch too?
I swear family photographers are becoming the car salesmen of the creative world.
Tell families they’re going to love capturing their moments together, fine. Tell them they will love looking back at the photos of their children as they grow. Tell them they will treasure these memories as the years pass.
But, please, stop threatening the deaths of their family members so you can line your own pockets.
It’s depressing and morbid.
I’m so excited to welcome Sven Berger to my Tell Me More About. . . feature. Sven is a favorite photographer of mine who I first discovered on Flickr. He captures beautiful, whimsical images of his children and life in Germany. He is from Dresden, Germany where he lives with his three children and wife. His images have a magical, mysterious quality about them and I have to explore each inch of the frame when I see them. After seeing what’s in his camera bag I admit I’m jealous of his equipment. That 70-300? Sigh. I need to find a way to get one of those!
Thank you for letting me feature you, Sven!
Tell us a little bit about you. Your background, where your from, etc.
I am a married photographer and father of three kids. Born in 1972, I grew up in Dresden, East Germany. My love for photography started early, when I was at school. I studied to become an IT professional. But after the birth of my first child photography became a passion for me again, as I tried to capture every second of the passing time. I am passionate about documenting real life moments and I am a long time contributor for Getty Images and specialize in people photography.
How did you become interested in photography?
I was interested as a child in photography … at that time it was the film camera. I was using my SLR EXA1b camera but sold it after the reunion of Germany. With the birth of my first child I knew I had to take pictures – a lot of pictures – so bought my first digital camera – my Fuji FinePix E900. But I noticed very quickly that I need a DSLR so thaf started my love affair with Canon.
What’s in your camera bag?
Canon – still Canon. I am using my Canon 6D, most of the time with my 70-200 2.8L lens. It’s perfect when you want to capture children.
What are your favorite subjects to photograph?
I love to take photos of people – from the newborn age on up. I love to capture the daily moments and sometimes I do some fine art shoots. I am not a landscape photographer. I just started food photography too, something that I really love.
What interests do you have beyond photography?
I love nature. I love to be out there and I love music. I was born in 1972 so I am a fan of the 80s and a big fan of Depeche Mode.
What inspires you? In photography and in life.
In photography I got my inspiration from other photographers. There are so many awesome and great artists out there. It is such a great opportunity for us these days – we are able to got so much information and there is so much inspiration out there. In life I got a lot of inspiration from many great persons in Germany just like Vera Birkenbihl, Wolf-Dieter Storl and Christian Bischoff. I am trying to have my very own opinion.
What advice do you have for other photographers or artists?
Find your way and don’t stop walking or moving forward. Do it and you will have fun and success.
Who are some of your favorite photographers?
I adore Sally Manns work, Tytia Habing, Alain Laboile, Niki Boon, Cris Stephens. Yes all great black and white artists… and I know I forgot many.
Oh and I love the older work of Elena Shumilova and the magic which is Megan Loeks able to create.
You can find Sven’s work at