How a workshop in Italy changed how I think about documentary family photography


Forget about what you should do, and ask yourself what you could do.About a year ago I reached out to a popular collaborative blog aimed at documentary family photographers, asking if they wanted to partner with me to promote my Craft & Vision eBook, Stories of Home. They responded with interest, but one question they asked gave me a huge pause.

It was centered around the idea of "prove to us that you are really a documentary family photographer." In other words: prove to us that you have placed yourself and your art inside of the same box we have.


This has eaten at me for the last year. Not them specifically - they can do what they want, of course. I know how comforting a label can be, especially when building a brand and trying to position yourself as an "expert". We all want to belong, and feel like we have a way to easily and neatly define our work, our value, and our tribe.

But man. How limiting is that? I bristle at most rules - if you tell me I can't do something, I am very likely to do it just to prove you wrong. My husband loves that particular quality of mine, let me tell you. But at it's heart, I just don't like to be boxed in. And I really don't like seeing others being boxed in.

My book was about documentary family photography, because that's how I choose to define my work. Does it meet the exact principals spouted by the self-appointed "experts" in the field? I definitely think so. I don't direct, I don't pose, I don't change anything in the scene, I don't edit anything out. But honestly? I don't care if it meets the rules or not. I do not create work just to fit into those rules - I create work that happens to fit into those rules, because I happen to be comfortable with them. If that changes tomorrow, I will change with it.

My work has heart. It tells a story. It brings my families back to a specific moment in time. It tells the story of not just how something looked, but how something felt. Does it really matter if I did it without interferring with the moment? I think there is a huge risk in letting those "hands off" rules creating work that feels out of touch and impartial.

I observe, I document, but I am anything but impartial. I become a part of a family for a short period of time, and their joys become mine, and I feel their struggles as if they were my own. Because that's how you truly document a family. Anyone can show a client what they look like - it takes being involved with them to show them what they feel like.

I can't help but feel that in our quest to distance what we do from what a lifestyle photographer does, we've missed the mark in why what we do matters. My work is not strong because I didn't move a glass out of the frame, or because I didn't pose the family or tell them what to do. And it certaintly isn't strong because I've agreed to play by a set of rules that are simply aimed at saying what we don't do.

I was talking to my friend and mentor, David duChemin, about this in Italy two weeks ago, during a workshop of his I attended. A big theme from that week was this idea of asking yourself what you COULD do, rather than what you SHOULD do.

And that really boils down what bothers me the most about the documentary family photography community. Stop playing by the rules. Who decided those rules, anyways? And why do they get to be the ones to make those decisions? Make your own rules. Don't look at what everyone else is doing. Don't ask yourself what you SHOULD do. For the love of everything, please stop copying each other's watermark. Stop trying to be like someone else. Figure out how to be the best version of yourself.

Ask yourself what you COULD do. You can make art, even when adhering to a photojournalistic style. You can interact with a family, break down barriers, and get to know them. Being an observer is not the same thing as being an outsider.

What would happen if the next time you were documenting kids dancing, you slowed your shutter down and caputered exactly what their joy while dancing feels like?

What would happen if you used a Lensbaby? Or shot purposely out of focus? Or used intentional camera motion? Or? Or? Or?

These things are not exclusive of documentary photography. Shoot the way that feels right to you.

When people found out I was going to do a travel/street workshop as a student, the first question they often had was "why" - they acknowledged that it sounded amazing, but didn't understand how it would strengthen my documentary family photography skills.

Honestly, I didn't know how it would, either. But my gut said that in order to stand out, you have to zig when every one else zags. The work I created that week I am very proud of. I worked hard for it, it pushed me, but it still feels like me. And I am full of ideas on how to bring the things I learned to my family work.

Every new voice, if it's a voice worth listening to, will only strengthen your journey. I sincerly hope that you start thinking about the voices in your life - even if you aren't a documentary family photographer, you likely have labled yourself and your work in a way that might be doing more harm than good.

Throw those labels off for just a bit, question everything, and find you own way of doing things.

Roman (e)Motion PDF

If you'd like to see my final project from that Italy workshop, you can download a short PDF of my images here. Thank you!


Kate Densmore2 Comments