The way your son wraps his little arms around your leg to hug you. The way your daughter leaves little notes for you around the house. How it feels to snuggle, dance, and play. His crooked smile. Her knobby knees. Eyelashes. Elbows. Ankles sticking out from socks.
As parents, these are the little moments that we live for, the ones that make our hearts swell, the ones that reflect the spirit of the people we hold most dear.
And yet, as photographers, these are the very moments that we tend to gloss over in their familiarity.
We’re drawn to that moment that makes us feel something. It’s often what leads us to pursue photography in the first place. Reminding ourselves why we love this art form so much, how it connects us to the world around us and brings our experiences to life, places it into a larger context.
Enter the family photo essay!
The family photo essay puts your technical know-how to work in service of telling an emotional and meaningful story.
You see articles on family life in parenting magazines, but in them everything and everyone looks so perfect and polished. And yet, you know that real life looks nothing like that. Your kids go to school with un-brushed hair, mismatched socks, and cream cheese on their faces. Your floors need sweeping, your dishes need washing, and your laundry needs folding.
And that’s ok. That’s real. That’s true. That’s you. You don’t need to vacuum the carpet in order to find beauty in your everyday life. In many ways, the most important story is the perfectly imperfect one you live every day.
Turning your lens toward home to create a photo essay of your family allows you to capture not only what you look like, but also what it feels like to be you, belonging to your family, at this moment in time. And in this way, you can literally show your loved ones just how much they mean to you.
There are three stages to creating an effective photo essay: photography, selection, and structure. Here’s what to focus on in each stage of the process.
Phase one – photography
This is the time to ignore the old saw about “picture takers” and “picture makers” and give yourself permission to shoot A LOT. Yes, be intentional, be careful, be thoughtful. But also let yourself experiment. Let yourself play. Take a different angle than you do in your other styles of work.
Create a diverse body of work from which to draw: close ups, details, wide angle. The more variety in your images, the more complete your story will be.
Life moves quickly. Life is messy. Kids don’t sit still. It’s ok to let go of the pressure to create the “perfect” shot in the service of capturing real life. What to look for:
1) The moment
“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory.” ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson
As you move through your day with your family, pay close attention to your rituals and routines, the things you do every day with each other. Take a step back from habit and mine these moments for your story. When people are actively engaged in something that matters to them their essence shines through.
The messes, the tears, the comforts and the struggles—these are the things that make our real lives so beautiful. These are the moments that matter. These are the moments that we look back on and wonder, “Where did the time go?”.
Let yourself slow down. Pay attention. When the moment arises, keep shooting all the way through it. Your attention is an act of love, and as you let the love well up inside you, you’ll find that the moment becomes clear.
Shape is often the thing that helps bring the moment into focus in a beautiful way. Often, when discussing photography the discussion centers around the general term “composition”, but when I think about it as “shape,” it helps me really see what I’m looking for.
That moment when her head tilts ever so slightly. The moment when he jumps in the air and his feet lift off the ground.
Shape and moment are almost inextricably intertwined. Shape is what gives the moment form, interest, impact.
As you look through the viewfinder, look for shapes between people, shapes between kids and their environment, the shape of their body as they lay on the floor reading. Diagonals, s-curves, c-curves, triangles–shape is what gives an image it’s life.
“There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kinda the point?” ~ Pam, from the final episode of The Office
One of the struggles of documentary photography is how to get your subject to stand out from all the other stuff around you. Remember that the camera is only a tool; it can only see what you tell it to see.
As you compose your image, look for simplicity and harmony between subject and environment. Can you frame your images in such a way that the background and surroundings add to the story you’re telling? Don’t be afraid to move your feet.
Notice how the environment also impacts the meaning of your image. Your home, even on its messiest days, holds so much love. The way your kids interact with their surroundings says so much about who they are as people (not to mention gives you a reminder of just how big, or small, they are at this moment in time).
As the photographer, you get to choose what to focus on. You get to show us what’s important to you. You get to show us how you see the world, your unique view on your unique life.
NOTE: For those of you whose kids are old enough, I highly recommend getting them involved in this project. Get them access to a camera and let them show you what they see. And that way, images of you will be included in the essay as well.
Phase two – selecting images
After you finish gathering your images, sift through them and see what stands out to you. What do you notice? Are there moments that feel like they “sing”? Moments, themes, or attitudes that recur throughout your collection? You’ll begin to see what matters, what you value.
Look for patterns and through lines in your images. Look for moments that take your breath away or that “just feel right.” The images to include in your essay are the images that tell a story, reveal a truth, capture an essence, or evoke an emotion. Who is this person? What is their essence? What matters to them?
For each image you select ask yourself why it’s important. What story does it tell? And then ask again, why is that story important? You may also enjoy writing these stories down and adding them to your final product.
Phase three – deciding on structure
Once you’ve created and selected your images, it’s time to give them structure. There are several ways to go about this depending on the story you’re trying to tell:
- A day in the life
- The same event over time
- A theme that emerged that represents what matters to you
- A focus on each member of your family and the things that make them special
How you choose to structure your images may change from project to project, but the most important thing is to make a tangible copy. Print it, bind it, collage it, but make it a living document you share with your family and not just something that sits on your hard drive.
A family photo essay will grow to be a cherished part of your family’s legacy, giving your children a sense of belonging. Your story does indeed matter. It’s time to reclaim the art of the family snapshot.
Please share any other tips or comments you have below, as well as your family photo essay images. Have you done a project like this? Tell us about it.
Heber Menchu Tamayac, 8, sits on the bed inside his family’s shared bedroom in San Cristobal, Totonicapan, Guatemala, while his friends console him on July 26, 2015. (Scott A. Woodward)
As part of the documentary film project, How I Live, photographer Scott Woodward has been looking into children’s cancer in resource-limited countries. “The treatment of childhood cancer in the developed world is largely viewed as a success story, with survival rates as high as 80%. By contrast, in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs), the child cancer survival rate averages just 20%.” Currently, the project focuses on Guatemala, El Salvador, Egypt, Myanmar and Ethiopia, and is meant to show “stories of children from diverse locations, socio-economic backgrounds and cultures unified by an experience of cancer.”
Through How I Live, Woodward met Heber Menchu Tamayac, an 8-year-old boy living in San Cristobal, Totonicapan, Guatemala, who was diagnosed with T Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Woodward forged friendship with Heber after meeting him in the hospital. Heber’s journey to receive treatment involved three rural buses, one taxi and borrowed vehicles from neighbors or family members and cost approximately 350 Guatemalan quetzals (USD$46), six to eight hours of travel each way that had to be made every four weeks.
Heber has an emotional moment on his hospital bed as he and his father (not pictured) prepare to leave Unidad Nacional de Oncologia Pediatrica (UNOP) in Guatemala City for the long trip back to their home in San Cristobal, Totonicapan, Guatemala. (Scott A. Woodward)
Heber Menchu Tamayac, age 8 (Scott A. Woodward)
Gudelia Tamayac Tiguila comforts her son, Heber, at their family home. Embarrassed by his hair and his feeding tube, Heber became emotional and locked himself in a room when his friends from the local church band called on him to join them. (Scott A. Woodward)
Photographing him in his village, Woodward was witness to some of Heber’s difficult moments as he readjusted to being home, including Heber’s discomfort around his friends. “Before being diagnosed, Heber was in the local church band – but since his treatment he had not been able to participate. Embarrassed by his hair and his feeding tube, Heber became emotional and locked himself in a room and declined to rejoin his friends, despite their encouragement.” When the film crew asked Heber what he would say to cancer if he could speak to it, he responded “I don’t want to see leukemia ever again.”
Heber and his younger sister Saraí Menchu Tamayac (age 3) make bubbles in the courtyard at his family’s home. (Scott A. Woodward)
Heber takes a break from playing football with his friends while his mother Gudelia Tamayac Tiguila feeds him Pediasure through a feeding tube. At diagnosis, Heber had difficulty eating and, as a result, experienced severe malnutrition. (Scott A. Woodward)
Gudelia Tamayac Tiguila becomes emotional as her husband, Humberto Menchú y Menchú, talks about their son’s illness. (Scott A. Woodward)
Heber stands in a prayer circle at Iglesia de Dios Evangelio Completo (Full Gospel Church of God) in his village, his first time attending Sunday School classes since being diagnosed with cancer the previous March. (Scott A. Woodward)
Heber comforts his younger sister, Saraí (age 3), after she hurt herself while playing. (Scott A. Woodward)
Heber stands in front of a building beside his family home. (Scott A. Woodward)
The organization that is responsible for his treatment was Fundación AYUVI . AYUVI are the founders of UNOP (Unidad De Oncologia Pediatrica) hospital in Guatemala City and the powerful force behind raising the survival rates for children with cancer in Guatemala. The organization that has been advising How I Live and introducing the individuals and hospitals in the countries visited is The Global Health Initiative at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s.