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
Every other Tuesday I will be offering practical photography tips for moms who don’t consider themselves a photographer but still want to visually record the everyday lives of their children. These are merely tips or suggestions, not rules to follow. You should record your photographic memories for you in your own way and hopefully these suggestions will help give you ideas on how to do that.
This week my photography tips for moms (and dads for that matter) is to “get on their level.” In other words, when you photograph your child try to take less photos looking down on them, unless it is for an artistic reason. We’ve all done it – snapped a cellphone photo from our level and our child’s head looks huge and their feet small. This perspective can be used artistically but when used all the time it isn’t visually interesting ad doesn’t accurately portray your child for you future memories.
The looking down angle is great if you want to convey how small your child is in the big world or in comparison to the size of something or someone, for example, but it isn’t great when you miss out on a great expression your child has or an interesting activity your child is involved in.
My challenge to you is when you start to photograph your child as they are engaged in play or an activity, kneel or sit down or even lay down so your eye level is close to your child’s. Not only will this create a more compelling image that will bring viewers of your image into your child’s world, it will also literally bring you into your child’s world. You will not only be on your child’s level with photography as a goal but with personal interaction being a result.
Have you ever imagined what it is like for a child who has to always look up to see his or her parents? Not only is it probably bad for their spine alignment (don’t quote me on that, of course, instead ask your chiropractor) it creates an emotional distance between child and parent. Children are often delighted when Mom or Dad kneels down and looks them in the eye and actually converses with them instead of talking at them.
In relation to photography, an image which creates eye contact with the viewer helps the viewer to see more of the subject’s true personality and see not only a pretty face but also, maybe, a little of the child’s soul.
I’m not a fan of asking a child to look at a camera because I find that causes them to either fake a smile or put on a show and not reveal their true selves. I catch most of my eye-contact photos when the child looks toward me or someone behind me.
Even if the child isn’t looking right into the camera, being down at the child’s level can create layers within your photograph that tell a story about what activity your child was engaged in.
Photographs taken from above, looking down, or from above, even looking up, have their place as well, so I’m not saying never take them (especially since I do all the time). We will discuss how different angles and perspectives in photographs tell a story in future posts.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to comment below, contact me via the contact page or email me at email@example.com.
Lisa R. Howeler is a wife and mom living in a small town located in northern Pennsylvania, less than a mile from the New York State border. She is a photographer, writer, chocolate lover, and one of those Jesus freaks your mama warned you about. Find her online at http://www.lisahoweler.com; www.instagram.com/lisahoweler; and Facebook, www.facebook.com/lisahoweler.
This part of my weekly series, The Story Behind the Photo where I tell what was happening prior to or during one of my photos and my reason for capturing it.
This week I am sharing a photo I’ve titled The Struggle.
My daughter was about nine or 10-months old here. She was already walking and trying to climb but I wasn’t very open to her climbing a set of bleachers at our local park on her own. I couldn’t get to her fast enough so I asked my son, about 9 years old here, to grab her and help her down. It was close to nap time and my daughter is stubborn and doesn’t like being told no so being forcibly removed from somewhere she wanted to climb did not sit well with her. I chose to capture this image because I wanted to document the real moments of growing up – the good, the bad and the learning experiences. I chose black and white to focus the viewer on the emotion of the moment, removing distractions of colored shirts or backgrounds.
Do you have a photograph with a story ? Feel free to leave a comment with a link to your blog post about your story in the comments. You can find last week’s The Story Behind the Photo HERE.
I have been watching a trend in photography in recent years of photographers purposely dressing and posing children as if they are adults. It’s not a trend I am a fan of because I feel like our society is rushing children out of their childhood.
Dressing children in stylish clothes, posing them in a field and telling them to give their best model face or runway walk does not appeal to me and neither do the resulting photos. It’s not, of course, the stylish clothes that bother me. Stylish clothes are always wonderful. It’s the idea of coaching a child to look older than they are.
I also don’t support making high school senior girls look like women on a street corner of a major city in their senior photos, but that’s another post for another time.
I enjoy showcasing childhood as it is.
When I photograph children I want them to look like children.
Children have plenty of time to look fierce. For now they should be able to simply embrace the joy of childhood.
Children do not always have a smile on their face so I’m not saying photos of childhood should only feature smiling children. There is a place for “fierce” looking images, but I’m not a fan of coaching a child to look this way.
I find myself drawn to the beauty of childhood in all it’s forms: the smiling and the crying moments. My goal is to capture the now of a childhood not the rush of childhood into adulthood.
I know I run the risk of sounding like an old fart here, but to me we push our children to grow up too fast.
Let them be little.
Let them be children.
Let them revel in the innocence that is so short lived.
I love photographing children as they are and who they are without asking them to dress a certain way or pose a certain way or be someone they are not.
Childhood is such a blink of the eye in his journey we call life.
I want them to savor it, not rush it.
Much like we adults need to savor life more instead of rush it.
“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!” ― Ted Grant
I photograph a lot in color, but many times I later convert the images to black and white. Sometimes a photo simply feels like it needs to be black and white. My mom grew up in the day of black and white films and photography so she prefers color. A lot of people do and I I’m sure some question why I feature some of my images in black and white.
To me, some photographs need to be in black and white so the viewer can focus exclusively on the emotion or subject of the image.
With a color photo the viewer may find their eye drawn to a distracting element instead of the main subject. For example. If I share the photograph of a young boy playing at a splash pad and he’s wearing bright orange floaties on his arms, the viewer may lose sight of the real message of the image and instead find themselves fixated on the brightness of his clothing.
This will cause them to miss the idea behind the image, which is of a child enjoying summer and water and the reminder of how important it is to keep the child alive inside us.
“Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.” – Robert Frank