A friend recently showed me his cousin’s family photo book, printed at Blurb or Shutterfly or one of those on-demand online photo printing services. It was nicely printed, and big, about 15×15″, so it featured a lot of pictures.
He asked if it was made up of photos from a pro, and I looked through and said no, there were too many photographs made in places without good light and weren’t the telltale style of a pro. He was impressed, especially when I said it probably is made up entirely of phone photos.
If you look closely, the photos aren’t the clearest. The quality isn’t professional, certainly, but that doesn’t matter. These are memories and they’re printed. That’s what matters. They they’re in a book that will stay the same age while all the people depicted inside grow older. That’s what photography is good at, stopping time. Letting us look back on who we were, where we were and how we looked.
So, he was enamored with this family document. Only I was left wanting. Something was missing. I went through it again, and yes, there it was. Every photo was a selfie with a person or two or three staring at the camera.
Only the background changed. Sometimes the photos were absolutely identical except for the setting.
I asked the question I’ve asked of my own family: “Do they do anything besides smile and pose?” I was looking at 75 photographs of people smiling for the camera and no idea about who any of them are. Nobody playing a piano. Or flying a kite. Or reading a book. No photos of them were real life.
No candid photographs of them just being.
Living. Engaged in something they love. Real moments. Unposed.
Those aren’t the easy photos to make. As photographers, we have to catch those special expressions, and they’re easy to miss. We have to be ready for the moment. We have to be photographers working with a critical eye to the fleeting moments that arise. In the light of the scene it happens in. We have to be skilled to make these photographs.
Or don’t, and it’s back to the selfie.
I’ve written before about how all weddings look alike, because the photographers make pictures of all the things that are easy, that look good in a catalog, that were set up by the art director, the set decorator, all the still images of the decor and the rings and wedding dress. Throw the background out of focus and look at that beautiful bokeh–“I bet they’re looking at my out-of-focus areas more than the flowers or place settings, it’s a Zeiss prime lens after all!”
Photographing the still life photos, like selfies, are easy. Making photographs of real moments, fleeting expressions, that’s difficult. The rings and flowers are easy. Grandpa with a tear, that only lasts for a few seconds.
Photographing our families with always everyone smiling at the camera, sure, they look happy. But they also look the same happy in every photo–maybe it’s a mask they put on when we pull out the camera. You can almost predict what they’ll look like since it’s the exact same practiced look every time.
Is that really documenting our families?
I choose to make photographs at moments that don’t always work out perfectly, but they work out perfectly for what they are. Real life. Moments.
The ones that matter. That tell who we are, and remind us of where we’ve been.
Real life. Not just smiling and posing for a selfie. It’s okay to have both.
But get some real moments, too.