We each have hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of photographs at our fingertips. Be it selfies after our morning runs, the family on the beach during a vacation, that divine seared scallop risotto we are still dreaming about, a sunset from the balcony of a cruise ship, or countless photos of the cats — so many photos of the cats. Hopefully, there are also some of the best of the bunch hanging on our walls; tangible pieces of art made from our finest memories and greatest experiences.
The ways in which we document our lives vary from person to person, but I think the reasoning is all pretty similar. We act and we shoot, instinctively, living in the moment while trying our best to save pieces of these memories on our phones and with our DSLR cameras.
In time for Mother’s Day, I spoke with Laura Ann, a photographer from North Carolina who specializes in documenting the real moments of motherhood. Laura believes that to truly capture motherhood — the authentic moments that will be remembered for years to come — you need to do more than just make sure Mom is in the frame.
It’s actually OK (better, even) when Mom isn’t done up perfectly; when the playroom still has LEGO pieces and crayons scattered around. These candid moments together are the images that, over time, will pull out the truest, most heartfelt emotions as the years go by.
What does motherhood look like to you?
It’s often messy and beautiful all at the same time. It can also be easy and hard — well, probably never easy!
I know that not everyone views motherhood the same way that I do. I also know that there are some universal moments that everyone can cherish.
Really, I just try to tell a family’s story as best I can through the images that I take with a focus on connections and perspectives. I think about what a mom would want to remember about her two-year-old and also, what that child, once they’re all grown up, would want to have documented about those precious early years with their mom.
How does your own journey (as both a mother and a photographer) inform your approach to documenting motherhood?
My journey, in life and photography, has helped me to see and value different perspectives. Let me explain. I have always had a tendency to want to understand other people’s stories. I have also always been super sentimental. I also have a horrible memory so pictures have a very practical purpose for me. They’re able to bring back moments for me and I want to do that for other people.
A dear friend lost her son at a very young age. That had a significant impact on me, as a mom and photographer. We were both new mothers and my son was just a couple months older than hers at the time. During that time in my life, the only people that I had known to pass away were people that were much older than me. His passing made me realize just how precious time is and how you never know how much of it you have together.
I saw firsthand how important the pictures I took were for my friend in dealing with the loss. To this day, when I visit her in California, we look through those scrapbooks and reminisce about him. This is also why I think printed photos are priceless.
Parents, moms especially, it seems, often aren’t in the frame. Maybe they are behind the camera or working behind the scenes to keep the chaos at bay. How important is it for children to see their mom in photos with them?
It’s very important to me. As a photographer, I’m absent from a lot of my family photos, too. I’m thankful that my dad took all the pictures when I was growing up, so I do have a decent amount of photos of my life with my mom in them. I love seeing her like that, even though I know she didn’t like to be in the photos because she didn’t think she looked right or was too busy. Women tend to be more hesitant when there’s a camera present — maybe we didn’t have time to do our hair that day or want to lose a few more pounds before being photographed.
I hear that a lot when speaking with clients. I urge them to remember that kids, when they’re older, are going to want to look back on their childhood and see their mom. It’s also helpful for them to know that their mom was present; to see that their mom was right there with them, baking cookies in the kitchen, playing with toys on the floor, watching them ride bikes, stacking blocks, and snuggling up tight in a quiet moment.
I have a questionnaire my clients fill out before a session. I talk with them and make a strong effort to understand what it is they want to capture and remember most about their kids’ lives right now.
When I am photographing a child, I try to also consider what the child would want to look back and see when they are grown. This is where I try to incorporate moms (and dads, and siblings, too) into the images.
I feel like we all want to know we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter what our family might look like, we are connected. Maybe, in one photograph, Mom is looking at their child a certain way — watching her daughter dance in front of an oven full of half-baked cookies, perhaps. In another shot, little chubby hands are grabbing at Mom’s shirt while an older sibling is smiling a toothy grin or carefully “concentrating” on something (an expression which usually includes a tongue sticking out.
When it comes down to it, years from now, it’s the love, connection, and moments that matter, not the mess, not the five pounds we wish we’d lost, and not the outfits that don’t match.
In an age where video has been proclaimed content king, why does photography still matter — and what makes physical photos such an ideal gift?
It’s cheesy, but a picture is worth a thousand words. Our life stories are important. And the stories are fluid and always changing in some way. Sometimes, within seconds of taking a photo, something can change. My documentary family sessions capture frozen moments in time that can be enjoyed and looked back at without having to search for a photo on your screen.
Physical items carry a different weight. I still love physical books, too — the way they smell and feel in my hands. Physical photographs are just as important to me, so much so that while I provide digital files to clients, my focus is on delivering an actual photographic product that families can have and hold; a tangible item to cherish forever without fear of technology changing or access to hard drives and USB storage becoming archaic and outdated in a few decades time.
We should be preserving a full range of mothering moments and emotions, right? Not just the cupcakes and rainbows?
We’re both parents, here. When we think back about our kids’ lives, they’re not always smiling and happy, right? In fact, oftentimes they are expressing the opposite emotions or no visible emotion at all. And that’s okay, because that’s genuine. It’s real life.
During one session recently, I observed the young daughter of a mom I was shooting. They were all in the kitchen, just going about everyday life, and I was roaming, looking for moments to capture. The daughter was sitting at the counter, just staring at her phone screen. Nothing special on the surface, but I captured the scene because that is what was truly happening — it represents the honesty found in life and motherhood, in that family, and in that moment.
How do you choose to shoot in color versus black and white?
I shoot in color exclusively, but when I’m editing I look for photographs where color is creating too much noise. Meaning, if the color is not adding anything positive to the story within that image, I take it away and look at it again. Usually, that photo is already giving me an emotion and I modify it to be in black and white to see if it makes that emotion even stronger.
Physical touch plays a big role in parenting and, as such, in your candid documentary photography. Do you direct this or allow the contact to unfold before you naturally?
I don’t direct sessions with clients, but I do focus on moments when a parent and child are making physical contact. The touching of hands, for example. This is because that’s what pulls emotions from people when they look at a picture. The use of additional senses in documentary photography is important to me when I’m spending time with a mom and her children. I am documenting the look, feel, sound, smell, and taste of motherhood — all of those senses can come through in a still image!
Documentary Photography Tips From Laura
- Change your perspective. Get down low, turn around, look behind you, and capture the face of your child while they are watching something like fireworks or a parade. Sure, it’s neat to get a few pictures of fireworks, but children’s reactions tell a much more interesting, personal story.
- Live the moments. Photographs are great for preserving memories, but don’t forget about creating those memories with your children. Put the camera down and enjoy the moments alongside them. Watch them and be part of what is happening in front of and around you.
- Be present in the pictures. Your kids (especially young ones) don’t care if you put your make-up on or did your hair. What truly matters is that you are in a documented piece of their childhood stories. Get someone to take at least one picture with you in it.
- In praise of a good selfie. Don’t shy away from selfies — but do get creative with them. Take pictures of yourself with childhood antics happening in the frame behind you. Not only will you accomplish getting yourself in the shot, you’ll also have an artistic representation of the action, mess, chaos, and fun of motherhood, all in one snapshot.
- Use natural light whenever you can. Sure, golden hour (the hour just before sunset) is lovely but relying on all-natural light is best for creative memorable and evocative images.