A morning with the Bolton family, Atlanta Family Photographer

On breathing

A father holds an oxygen tube near his son's face

When Colleen and Derek’s twins were born, I offered to come photograph their family whenever they were ready. I spent a morning with them soon after Dylan got to come home, and I am still breathing in the gratitude and love that I got to experience in their home that day. I’m always amazed by the families I photograph, and this family taught me more than they will know. One of the first things I noticed when I was hanging out in the kitchen was the Mommy Sticker Chart hanging on the fridge that serves as a reminder to take a deep breath. It reminded me of these words Colleen had recently shared.

“Two hundred seventy-one days is a long time to hold your breath. If you do the math that’s June 19th. I tried to hit the brakes but it was too late. My water, Dylan’s protection and lifeline, broke. A stupid, minor, avoidable collision that changed the course of my life and almost took my sons from me. For days I was inconsolable. Then I felt God tell me to chill out. Literally, what I heard in my heart was “chill out.” So I did. But I held my breath. People would say, “Twins!! Are you excited?” How do you answer that? I can’t explain to every person who asks about my pregnancy that I have no idea if I will ever get to brings these boys home. So I smiled and said, “I’m so excited!” And I held my breath.

September 26 I went into labor. My body, my boys, had held on as long as we could. Dylan had been growing without amniotic fluid for 3 months. They pulled Dylan out first. He made no sound. He couldn’t breathe. The doctor resuscitated him and got him on a ventilator. The ventilator was breathing for him but his lungs were so fragile that one of them tore. Can you imagine? Your lungs being so fragile that just inhaling air rips a hole in one of them. They switched him to an oscillator which allowed him to take fast shallow breaths. On the oscillator his body wasn’t getting rid of the CO2. His lungs collapsed multiple times. Somehow, the doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists found the right combination of support to allow his fragile, tiny lungs to do the job they were created to do and to keep my son alive. But I still held my breath.

I do not understand prayer. My village prayed, fasted and negotiated with God to let my sons live. I begged Him not to take my boys from me. Did we pray harder or more faithfully than anyone else would have under similar circumstances? Certainly not. I do not know why God chose to let my boys live. But I do know the choice was His. The grace was His. The mercy, the healing- His.

Today, for the first time in a very long time, I can breathe. And with every breath I will be grateful. With every breath I will work to extend the grace and mercy that was bestowed on me. With every inhale and exhale I will love. I will love.

When I think about how close to death Dylan came and how close to unimaginable grief I came I have to remind myself to breathe. But I can breathe. Today, I can hold my son in my arms with his dad and siblings nearby. And I can breathe.” —Colleen Bolton

Click on the slideshow to see images from the session or scroll down for more.

papers hanging on a fridge from a documentary family photography session
a mother puts a bow in her daughter's hair and the girl has her mouth open in a painful expression
a man with scars on his knees sits on a bed near his twin boys
twin babies lie down on a bed one is looking at the other
a father and his older daughter care for a baby boy
A girl plays on a changing table in between two cribs
a toddler puts her hand on her baby brother's head as he is being fed a bottle by his mother
A mother and father feed their twin sons in their nursery while their daughters play in the boys' cribs
a girl sits on a bed looking at her baby brother
A mother holds her baby son and looks at him
A mother puts her hand on her son's face as he looks at the camera
A mother holds her infant son in the corner of a living room as her two daughters play on their own
two girls climb on a fence
A father embraces his daughter and smiles
a father holds open a grill and a mother sits on a chair as they watch their daughters play in their backyard
a couple embraces in their backyard
a father holds his daughter who is reaching out and pointing to her smiling mother in a playful way
An infant boy looks up at his mom who has her hand on him
a girl wearing a shirt that says sister squad leans back against a table and smiles
a family lounges on a couch in their living room
A father holds his arms up ready to catch his daughter who is walking towards him on the couch
A mother holds her twin baby as a father holds a drink while being crawled on by his daughters
A mother and father hold their twin sons
A baby sits in a rocker and looks up at the camera
A girl stands on an ottoman in front of a dinosaur poster with a dinosaur toy in her mouth

The way I see it...a look behind the scenes of a documentary family photography session with me

To help people better understand what a documentary family photography session is like, I joined a group of amazing photographers here in Atlanta who use the same approach. We decided to photograph each other while we work to show what a documentary family photography session looks like behind the scenes.

Barbara (from Barbara Naso Photography) photographed me while I was photographing Kristin’s family (from Kristin Watkins Photography). It was a whole lot of fun and the results have gotten me thinking more about why I am obsessed with both having my family photographed and photographing other people’s families. You can check out Part 1 of this blog series on what it feels like to be seen. For Part 2, I want to show you the way I see it, why I wouldn’t want to photograph families any other way.

Part 2: Seeing you

A mom brushes her daughter's hair as she cuddles a dog who is being pet by her brother who is petting another dog who is also being pet by a different sister

I see you. You as a family, and you as the individuals who make up the family. When you invite me into your home and go about living your life as you would any other day, I get to really see your family in a way that I wouldn’t if we were at a location that I chose or doing activities that I came up with. I want the images from our time together to be as accurate as they can be in depicting your family life. I want you to look at your images and think, “This is us.”

Of course, there’s always a bit of me in there too, as I am bringing my own experiences and ideas to the frames that I photograph, but I work hard to let my curiosity about your family lead me. From our very first conversations before the session I am looking for clues about what makes your family you.

Every family is different. I want your photos to be too.

What makes your family different? What values bring you together? What are your struggles? What brings you joy? How do you spend your days? What are your routines? What is meal time like? I love the nuances of family life that make your people your people.

When Kristin brought out the hair bucket and summoned Lucy to get her hair done, I knew this was a ritual that needed to be captured. The hair bucket, the way the feet are intertwined, and the expressions are all elements in this image that I hope these two will look back on with loads of nostalgia in many years.

A mom brushes her daughter's hair as she sits on her lap
Kaleen photographs family hanging out in the kitchen during documentary family photography session

I’m comfortable observing. I’m comfortable listening. I hate telling people what to do, so this approach makes perfect sense for me. I may be lurking in the shadows at times, and I may not always be taking pictures, but I am paying attention. Waiting. Thinking. Framing. As I am with you, I will most likely respond to your energy.

I laughed pretty much throughout my whole time with Kristin’s family. Their casual, playful, and witty conversation kept us all cracking up. And then I saw it, posted in the dining room, a sign that read, “Laughter is and will always be the best form of therapy.” THAT is what I wanted to capture around that table.

Kaleen laughs with a family during documentary family photography session
A family sits around a table laughing
A girl yells in her sister's face while a mother cuddles her son at the same table

I want to show you what you can’t see. When you are holding someone in your arms, you can’t see the smile on their face. When you are playing with your kids, you get to hear their joy, but you don’t always get to see it.

I want you to have pictures that remind you how it felt to provide comfort, security, and entertainment.

I want your kids to have pictures that leave no question about how they are loved, cared for, and delighted in. Images that will remind them of their place in their family when external circumstances try to shake their confidence.

A mother holds her son who is smiling
A man holds a boy in his arms in a playful wrestle hold as his daughter and dog play nearby
A girl runs with a leash as her mom chases after her

It’s hard. Family life. Parenting. Being in relationship with people for a lifetime. I come with no judgement (well, that’s impossible, but I work hard to be aware of my judgements and suspend them in order to hold space for you and your family and the moment in your story that I get to witness).

I’m always looking for the ways you relate. To your siblings. To your sons and daughters. To your pets. To your spouse. To the space you live in. It’s all very fascinating and inspiring to me.

It is an honor to get to see you. It’s a gift to learn from you.

a daughter stands behind her parents in the kitchen and places a hand on each other their backs
Kaleen photographs boy hugging dog during documentary family photography session
A boy sits on a couch with his arms around a large dog
Kaleen photographs boy lying down petting a dog during documentary family photography session
A boy puts his hand on a dog's head as they both lie on the ground facing each other
A mother looks at her daughter who is smiling at her
a dog watches incredulously as a boy and girl play tug of war with his dog toy
Kaleen stands on the couch to photograph boys wrestling during documentary family photography session
Two brothers wrestle on the couch

There are no excuses. This is the easiest way to have your family photographed. There are no matching clothes to coordinate, no rush out the door to get somewhere on time, no agenda. You don’t have to clean your house or bribe your kids or partners to behave. You get to just be together as a family, and I get to show you what it looks like and feels like to be you. I have yet to photograph a family that I haven’t fallen completely in love with. There hasn’t been one time where I wasn’t excited to show a family their images and say, “You guys are awesome. Look at YOU!” Even when I have photographed families in unfathomably difficult situations, these are my thoughts when I deliver the images. Because family is everything, in the good times, in the bad times, and in all the super ordinary boring in between times. Celebrate it. Print it. Remember it.

A man sits on a chair with his daughter on his lap as his son leans into him and his wife gives him a kiss

Please check out the other posts in this blog circle, starting with Kristin’s photographs of Barbara’s family.

And for goodness sake, get on with booking a session with one of us. It’s an investment that increases in value as time passes.

How does it feel to be photographed by a documentary family photographer?

To help people better understand what a documentary family photography session is like, I joined a group of amazing photographers here in Atlanta who use the same approach. We decided to photograph each other while we work to show what a documentary family photography session looks like behind the scenes.

The amazing Barbara (from Barbara Naso Photography) photographed my family while the incredible Kristin (from Kristin Watkins Photography) photographed Barbara photographing my family. It was a whole lot of fun and the results have gotten me thinking more about why I am obsessed with both having my family photographed and photographing other people’s families. Really, it has everything to do with being seen and seeing others.

Part 1: Being seen

A girl stands in a window behind a curtain

It’s just like any other weekend day. Maybe my kids get dressed, maybe they don’t. There are still meals to make and dishes to do. Most certainly my house is a mess. I’ve got three kids, so I’ve given up on caring about any conventional expectation for how things should look or be. It’s just us doing our regular thing. My oldest, an empath, has a lot of extra energy as she always does when she can sense there’s something a little different about the day. She senses Barbara’s energy so she’s a little more physical and a little more excitable. Barbara is there hanging out, watching us, talking with us, and sometimes hanging out creepily on a counter in the background. Lol. She quickly feels like a friend who is over for coffee and instantly wins over the kids and the dogs.

a photographer sits on a counter and photographs a mother doing the dishes
a photographer kneels on a chair and takes a picture of kids at the table making waffles
A photographer makes a face while looking at a girl's pretend phone as she pets a dog

The time goes by as it does with any other day. Sometimes things happen that feel special but often they do not. It’s not until I get the photos from Barbara that I can see what is special in the times that don’t feel special.

Life happens in real time and space and moves too quickly to think about the moments that take us from the past to the future in a fraction of a second.

At this point in my life, that movement of real time feels mostly like survival. Feed, clean, clothe (maybe), nap, snack, play, bed. Rinse. Repeat. It’s very easy to get stuck in the mundane routine without seeing or feeling the joy in it. It’s also very easy to get lost in the moments of frustration when the routine comes to a halt with challenging behaviors, spilled milk, sibling fights.

A toddler smiles as his mom squeezes lemon into a measuring cup
A girl measures flour while a woman gets ready to squeeze a lemon while holding a toddler
A mother puts silverware into a draw while two children look on from the background
a mother stands at the sink while steam from a waffle maker floats in front of her face
Siblings fight in their pajamas

But when we can press pause on the pummeling of moments that rapidly unfold, we can transcend real time. Within that fraction of a second pause the present is suspended forever in a photograph, and I get to see myself and my family in a way that is impossible to see in reality.

I get to exist. I become part of my family’s visual history.

How I am seen in the moment by Barbara is a welcome difference from how I often feel in real life. When I so often feel rushed, I am seen as a nurturer. When I so often feel distracted, I am seen as a giver of attention. When I so often feel like I spend my days nagging my kids, I am seen as playful. I am reminded that I am enough when I am seen.

a mother smiles and looks at her daughter who is on her lap and smiling and almost touching her face
toddler sleeps on mother's shoulder
A mother combs her fingers through her toddler's hair while he drinks a bottle and another child sits nearby
A mother and daughter make funny faces while a child perches on the mom's knee and a toddler and a dog watch
A mother holds her daughter on the couch while a father holds his daughter on the floor and a little boy takes a picture with a pretend camera

There’s nothing more thankless than the unseen labor of motherhood. Battles are won and lost within the walls of our home and most often there is no reward for not letting your toddler keep the pee filled diaper that he won’t let go of. No one is usually there to hold space for you keeping your shit together while your toddler tries so very hard to get the diaper out of the trash as he throws a tantrum on your dirty kitchen floor, a floor that says, “I’ll get to it at some point.”

I want to remember it all though. Dirty floor. Tantrums. That feeling when you make it through someone’s big feelings without losing control of your own feelings (which is much easier to do when someone is there photographing you by the way). But even if I had lost it, I would want to see that too, because it’s so often the way it goes, and the more we see that, the more support we can give each other and ourselves. This is the hardest work I’ve ever done. This is the most I’ve ever been challenged to grow as a person.

A mother pulls a diaper off a toddler as he walks away
a toddler fights to hold a dirty diaper that his mother is trying to take away
A toddler tries to get through his mother's legs
a toddler reaches up to the counter as his mom stands nearby
mother puts arm around toddler while he cries

So here we are in the most challenging season of family life we have experienced yet. 6 months of James pulling 12 hour days every day of the week and weekend, of me holding up all the childcare and housekeeping and bedtime duties while pregnant as a surrogate and balancing nannying and photography. 65 days of sharing our house with company from January through May while on a deadline to wrap up our basement renovation. Months of sickness after sickness.

We are a mess, but we are so okay. We have been stressed, but we are happy. We have been waiting for so long to get over this part of the year, but being seen in it is a gift to me and my family.

Thank you, Barbara, for seeing what I would never be able to see for myself during this time.

A toddler stands near a dirty toilet holding a bottle
A girl stands in a window behind a curtain and another girl smiles as she leans on a chair in front of the window
A girl drinks from a green floral teacup
A girl sits on a stool and holds a waffle in her lap while looking up and smiling
a mother helps a toddler wash their hands as an older child hides their face in her sweater behind them
Two children sit on their father who is lying down on the ground while another child balances while walking down his leg
A little boy holds a wooden toy camera to his face and pretends to take a picture

To see photos of the other families and read about their experience being photographed, follow the blog circle to Kristin’s page.