I Am A Photographer
I wrote this a few years ago and found it clean some files up over the weekend, and something seems to be nudging me to share it here, today. I hope if it finds you if you needed this, too!
I am a mother, who also happens to be a photographer. One is not defined by the other, nor is one dependent on the other. And yet, I find myself often at odds with who I think I should be as an artist, and who I am. The work that I am most passionate about, that I care the deepest about, is the photographs I create in and around my home. I spend much of my creative energy documenting my daughters’ childhood and our simple life through photographs that I will be able to hold onto long after the baby toes and toddler giggles have disappeared.
My work revolves around themes of motherhood, connections, emotions, and childhood. It’s something that so many of us can relate to, across cultures and across time, and yet I worry that others won’t see the value in what I do. When I meet other photographers, I’m shy about voicing what I photograph. I often find myself belittling what I do with the word “just”. “I just photograph my family” - “I’m just a mom with a camera” – “I’m sure it’s a lovely photograph, but it’s just my kids”.
As a mother, I’m tasked with loving my children like no one else can. I cherish, I care, I know, I pay attention, I listen, I kiss boo-boos, I clean and cook and launder and pay bills and drive endlessly, I chase monsters, I sing, I giggle, I help create memories – I love selflessly and fiercely. I am my children’s rock, their everything, their true north and the thing they call home. In order to do this, to be this – I have to see my children. Really see them, their emotions and personality and environment and being.
And if I, as their mother, as the one person on this earth who knows them more intimately than they know themselves – if I can take that love and detail and capture it in a photograph, what more could I ask for? And how can I possibly not find confidence in my ability to do exactly that?
After all, isn’t that at the heart of why we create photographs? To capture the essence of our subject, to bring our viewers to the scene as it unfolds before our eyes, to show them not just what it was to be there, but what it felt to be there?
It’s why we chase the gear and the dream and the high of getting just the right shot. Because when we are able to make the flattened frame express exactly what we felt in the moment, we’ve done our job. And my job is no less important simply because I have chosen to focus on those nearest and dearest to me. But yet, the struggle is still there.
It seems like we often place a higher value on photographs that are far from home. The more exotic the location or harder the travel to get there, the more automatic worth we place on those images. It’s no wonder then, considering that most of my photographs are taken within a mile of my home, that I worry that they aren’t enough. That they aren’t interesting enough, flashy enough, special enough. I worry about who will find them appealing beyond my family. And I worry about whether I have the same right to call myself a photographer as those who travel to exotic locations.
But then I think about the struggle others go through. I think of the travel photographer who journeys thousands of miles in order to get close to her subject. I think of the wildlife photographer who saves for an entire year in order to get a few days photographing his dream animal. The landscape photographer who is limited by weather and light and season, and who may only get a few chances to photograph a formation she’s dreamed about her whole life. Every photographer, no matter their chosen subject, style, or medium, struggles. We all wish for more time, more money, better light, or deeper emotions. And here I am, with the gift of having access to my subjects every single day, questioning if it is enough. I can practice my craft daily, and search for the art in the frame over and over, without the added pressure of a timeline or budget.
How many artists get that opportunity?
We read stories of people who have had the opportunity to travel to the other side of the world and live with their subjects for extended periods of time, and we’re envious. We celebrate how dedicated they are, we are envious of the time and life circumstances that lead them to that journey and place, and we look at the images they produce and think, “Wow. If only I could do that. If only I could do more.” Insert whatever dream applies to your situation, but I’m willing to bet it is going to focus on “more”.
More time, more gear, more opportunities - and here I am right there with you, thinking of what my “more” is – completely ignoring the fact that I have gotten to live with my subjects every day for their entire lives. The access I have to my children is something that only I have, and the understanding of who they are, what makes them feel safe and loved, what they are scared of, and how to make them feel better – that knowledge is something that only I can turn into a compelling photograph.
And so I find a sense of appreciation for what I do. I’m thankful that I have the chance to practice my craft so regularly, and to spend time with the subjects I love the most. I find worth in the photographs, and a common sense of struggle with other photographers.
My struggle may be different, but it is no less worthy of my time and effort. The photographs I create of my family are valuable. They are valuable to my family, and me, but they are also valuable to our collective sense of compassion and memory.
My voice may be a small, still voice in the chorus of humankind, but it is no less authentic or valid just because it is quiet. We all struggle. We are human, and the human condition is of constantly pushing forward. You might identify with my specific struggles, or maybe not, but we have that sense of struggle in common. It unites us as artists; it unites us as people chasing our dreams. I might not understand what it is to wake up early and fumble with equipment in the early morning cold; I might not be able to keep up in a conversation about tripods and filters; but I can listen to your struggles and identify with them in my own way.
We aren’t alone, though this craft is one of individuals. We are united by our common need to push through our setbacks and celebrate our successes; we share the desire to be heard, seen, validated, and to have our art and work and passion be found to have worth. I’m no different.
So when I look at my art, the photographs I create that document the lives and the poignant beauty found in an ordinary day, I want those images to have worth. I strive to create photographs that are universal, that appeal to more than just my peer group; to create photographs that show the humanity in childhood, the bittersweet joy of being a mother - the simple, universal themes and emotions that unite us all.
Does my work have worth? Absolutely.
I believe it has worth, because I found these universal moments worthwhile to photograph. I found them worthwhile to capture, to edit, to work on, to print and hang on my wall. If I found them to have worth, then that should be all that matters. But worth isn’t the same as appeal. An image that is universal isn’t the same thing as an image that has universal appeal. I don’t expect everyone to understand my work, or appreciate it, or even care for it. I’m not here to please everyone, though I struggle to remind myself that.
Your work has worth, too – it doesn’t matter if you photograph strangers on the street or your family, if you get paid for it or not, if you have the newest gear or a hand-me-down camera – worth isn’t defined by any of those things.
It’s defined by how you feel about your work and your subjects. It’s defined by your authenticity, and how you translate an authentic moment to the frame. It’s defined by your vision and how you express that vision to others.
The real secret of photography is that it isn’t about the subject. It’s about how you feel about that subject, and in turn, how you present that feeling to your viewer.
When you put your camera to your eye, you make a number of decisions that ultimately come together to turn the scene in front of you into a created image. If you can present your subject, no matter what it is, in a way that is authentic to your vision, you will have created an image that has worth.
And so, when I take a photograph of my children, I am not simply stopping a moment in time. I am creating an image that speaks of common themes and emotions, and that is deeply authentic to who I am as a mother - and as a photographer.
While one doesn’t define the other, at the same time, I cannot separate one from the other. They are both who I am, and if I turn my back on who I am as a mother, my images will lack authenticity. I can’t change who I am any more than you can, nor should I try.
I am a photographer, who also happens to be a mother. It takes courage to own your vision. The courage I need to speak up, and state with confidence what I do, might be different than the courage you need for your craft, but it is still courage that fights the struggle.
Staying authentic to who you are as a photographer is one of the best things you can do for yourself and for your art. Photograph what moves you, and do it with as much authenticity as you can muster, and you, too, will find the worth in your work.