Storytelling & A Sense of Moment

Moment is truly the heart of documentary photography. When telling a story, capturing a memory, or holding onto an emotion, it’s the moment-driven photograph that rises above the rest, every time. On one hand, moment is incredibly intuitive; something we all feel throughout the day. But on the other hand, if the moment is a half-beat off, it can make or break a series of images. And when it comes to family life, a strong sense of moment goes a long way in keeping an image from feeling too much like a snapshot.

girl laughing on a trampoline

Understanding the Flow of Family Life  

The secret to understanding the flow of family life? It’s as unpredictable as it is predictable. All families have a similar routine in the flow of the day: wake up, breakfast, activities, midday meals, regrouping in the evening as family members come back together, the evening meal, bedtime routines, etc.  But within that, every family has its own special nuances that make each day a little different. And when you are photographing ordinary, daily life, it’s those nuances that you want to watch for. I go into greater detail regarding specific times of days and awaiting moments later in the book, but for now I want to talk a bit more generically about how to anticipate moments and find those little nuances.

Observation skills are a key part of being able to anticipate moments. Pay attention to the energy in the room, and key in on that “about to happen” feeling you get when energy changes or things seem like they are about to change. Stay focused and present in the moment. Be engaged with the scene. For example, if the kids have been lying on the couch watching cartoons, there comes a moment where you can tell they are about done with it and the TV needs to be turned off, or things are going to get ugly. That same sixth sense and change in energy that tells you that you need to step in and change something is the same thing that helps you key in on a moment that is about to happen.

Observe what is happening, but anticipate the reaction. In that same moment when you can tell that the energy is changing and something is about to happen, you want to be watching what is happening, but anticipating the reaction of those involved. That means that you’ll want to position yourself to be able to capture what is about to happen, rather than what is currently happening, as it’s often the reaction to that where the most emotion and connection occur. Pay attention to the silly faces dad is making, but make sure the resulting photograph includes the reaction from the kids.

Trust your own sense of emotional pull towards any given moment. Trust that the moments you are drawn to are the ones that you are genuinely connected to because they make your photographs more genuine. And if you are documenting your own family, capture what makes you happy. There is rarely one “best” moment in any situation, but there is often one that feels the most authentic and emotional to you. Go with that one every time.

The Observer’s Role vs. the Participant’s Role

When you approach a scene, you have choices to make:

 Are you going to portray the moment from the role of observer, or from the role of participant? 

Do you want the viewer to see the moment as if they were in it, or as if they were watching it? 

Are you putting your viewer in your shoes by wrapping the frame around them, or are you showing them the moment by presenting it in front of them?

You likely already lean one way or the other. I’m willing to guess that if you are more of an introvert, your images likely tend to have more of an observation feel to them, but if you are more extroverted, your photographs have a more participatory feel to them. This is a good example of how your innate personality is already coming through in your work, one of many things that add up to a sense of voice that is uniquely yours.

Think about how that translates to your viewer. Your images should be a reflection of your vision and preferences, but you also want to think about how those choices change the story for someone else looking at your photographs. Are they an outsider gaining a peek at an intimate moment? Or are they meant to be part of the scene, feeling connected to and pulled into the action?

There isn’t a right or wrong answer, but just one example of the dozens of little choices that add up to creating a body of work that is unique to you. Of course, knowing how to achieve either of those looks is really what’s important.

Moments with a more participatory role may have:

  • Elements where the action spills to the edges of the frame

  • Subjects looking at the camera

  • First-person perspective to place the parent (or yourself, as parent) in the scene (e.g., taking a photograph of a child on mom or dad’s lap, with the lap clearly visible)

  • A participatory feel via the “pull you into the scene” feeling of distortion offered by a wider focal length

To create images that are more observational in nature, look for things like:

  • Foreground elements that provide a sense of barrier between the action and the viewer

  • Subjects who are in their own world, or engaged with those around them rather than the camera

  • Framing elements that provide a sense of barrier between subject and camera

Additionally, you also may feel more comfortable with a longer focal length, since the compression and added distance can make the moment feel more separate from the viewer.

To tie these ideas back to literary techniques, think of this choice as being similar to writing in first, second, or third person. For example:

Are you making “I” statements with your photographs, showing a moment that is undeniably from your point of view and expressing the emotions you feel as you are photographing the scene? 

Are you making “you” statements, putting your viewer into the scene in their own way? 

 Are you making anonymous “this is the way it is” statements, by keeping your viewer in the observer role? 

Curating A Moment-Driven Set

Culling and curating a set of images, is just as important as making the photographs. Half of what I do is in the moment, and the other half is during culling. Often the difference between a good photographer and a great one is what they choose to share, rather than simply what they shoot. The choices made during culling—in seeing and picking the right moment or set of moments and curating them into a cohesive set—are just as powerful as the choices you make while shooting.

Don’t be afraid to share fewer images, so long as they are the strongest ones, and still tell a complete story. You don’t need 10 images that are all slightly different of the same moment; one single, strong image is the most powerful. Part of your job as a photographer is curating what you share. Choose quality over quantity, and your work will feel more cohesive, focused, and stronger for it.

I'll be back in a few weeks talking about composition within the context of documentary family photography, but if you don't want to wait you can purchase your own copy of my ebook for documentary family photographers, Stories of Home, right here.