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.

An afternoon at the Magic House, Atlanta family photographer

An extended family walks down the street swinging children from their arms

There’s something about extended family sessions that gets me so excited. I have photographed this crew several times now, and it’s my favorite way to close out the year. I love seeing the cousin relationships grow as the kids get older, and the adults keep me just as entertained as the kids. Cousin time was so important to my childhood, and I love hearing about how important it was to Tanya’s too. She articulates so well why it matters for her to have these memories captured for her children here. Thank you, Tanya, for being so generous with your words.

“We have been at the Magic House for just over two and a half years. In that time, we've celebrated all of Akira's birthdays, Anaïs' 5th and 6th birthdays, one of our wedding anniversaries and more than several handfuls of gatherings. But to me, what makes Magic House so magical is having our now annual New Year's tradition of having the Tampa Clarks visit and having Kaleen document a day of somewhat organized chaos.

I grew up in a big family with loads of cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and everyone in between. We would visit each other's houses all over the world (literally--Japan! The Philippines! Canada! The United States!) and no matter how small the home or how large the family, somehow, we always found ways to make physical space for one another. If it meant that kids would have to sleep with their parents, then that was what happened. If it meant that all the cousins were in sleeping bags in the communal living room, ok then. If it meant that siblings had to share a bed and room with others, well, that's what family is for.

These memories I have of my own upbringing are some of the best I have so it's only natural for me to want my own children to have those same experiences. Whenever we anticipate this visit, the air changes. There's an underlying excitement that explodes as soon as we see their car pull into our driveway and the kids spill out to greet each other. There's a comfort in seeing one of my best friends--who also happens to be my sister-in-law--jump out with hugs for everyone. And there's my brother-in-law who somehow manages to bring something to share whether it's homemade dough for fresh bread to be made, coffee, or even discarded/leftover liqueur that they don't even want to drink. There's also the familiarity between Jesse and James that hovers in the room. Brothers and confidantes who have literally known each other their whole lives, they share an unshakeable bond that gives me a sneak peek into the future dynamics between my own children.

Growing up, these family visits weren't extraordinary. What I mean is, there wasn't any one particular celebration or milestone to bring us all together. In my mind, these gatherings were just so normal and expected. They were what you did because we didn't live close to each other. It baffled me when I would hear friends in grade school talk about how they had cousins or an aunt who they didn't even know because they never visited them. I couldn't wrap my head around that idea because all of my extended family just seemed like my nuclear family. 

The difference this time around, though, is that we’re the parents now. We’re the ones who coordinate and plan and do the hard things. In those in-between spaces when we finally unite, the spaces we don’t notice that slip through cracks in the day, Kaleen is there to snap it up so that we have a tangible memory of something that would otherwise seem forgettable. With stealth and deliberate detail, she freezes all the wonder in the seemingly normal parts of time with a rapid click click click of her camera. It’s like she has an invisibility cloak when she enters our home. And the unnoticed are suddenly front and center, revealing that there is such a tangled web of complicated emotions and beauty in the every day.

With each passing year, my kids and my niece and nephews grow a little bit bigger and our hearts crack a little bit more. We see it in shifts in attitude with the older ones. We see it in the way they play. We hear it in the conversations they have and the jokes they tell. These extended sleepovers that include a lot of noise, makeshift toys, imagination and giggles also somehow preserve childhood enchantment and wonder. I now see more clearly why my own mother made it such a point to visit so many of her siblings when we were small. 

So I hope to keep it going. I hope Kaleen will continue to capture all of our feelings, our hopes, our amazement and our love that makes us a family through the lens of her camera.” 

A mat with the word home on it in front of a door that is decorated with a wreath with pumpkins on the ground on the sides of the door
the top of a door with the words Magic House written above the door frame
A mother places her arm around her son and lies her hand on his chest
A mother gently caresses the side of her daughter's head as she wakes from a nap
Two women prepare food at a kitchen island while a man reaches into a fridge behind them and another man walks towards them
A boy rides a cart down a driveway while his dad winces in the background as a piece of the cart falls off
A boy stands on a ledge in front of a fence looking down at the grass that matches his boots
A girl rides a cart down a driveway and laughs as she holds her feet out
A man comforts a child as another child swings and two boys climb on a playset
A man holds his daughters hand who is reaching out to hold her brother's hand as they cross the street
A boy bends over on a stump as another boy prepares to jump off another stump while a boy and a girl play behind them
A boy emerges from an underground tunnel
A child poses at a mural while her mom takes her picture with a phone
A boy puts his head through his dad's legs as two men stand nearby
A girl goes down a slide head first
A father and daughter play at an outdoor play kitchen
A little girl looks at another child as she mixes something at an outdoor play kitchen
A mother and father watch their boys slide down a slide and climb up the hill
A boy looses his boot at the bottom of the hill
Children play at a play kitchen as a dad holds a boy across his shoulders
A father comforts his son as two children and a man play at a play kitchen in the background
A boy lies on the ground and another child sits on a stump in the distance
A boy plays with his zipper as he sits on a painted stump
A girl slides down a slide as two boys jump across the slide in front of her
3 children play on and around a slide while their mother stands near them
a girl pokes her head into an underground tunnel
a scene of an extended family at an outdoor play area
A mother plants a kiss on her son's cheek as she embraces him
A mom embraces one son while her other son leap frogs over the top of a slide
a girl jumps from one stump to another
A mother watches as one son gets ready to enter a tunnel and another one exits the tunnel and her daughter gets ready to slide down the slide
A child pulls his hood over her face
an extended family walks down the street as a mom gives her child who is turned around the mom look
two children swing from the arms of their parents as they walk down the street
a mother pulls a boot off a child and lines it up with all the other boots
3 siblings take a bath and one child puts a pretend frog on another child's head
A girl lies in her parent's bed with her doll beside her
A mother watches at the doorway as a man sits on a toilet drinking out of a coffee cup as his children take a bath
a woman stands at her kitchen island looking off to the side
a child sits on the toilet and watches her brothers play in the bathtub
a boy shrugs his shoulders as his mother gestures for him to come
A mother holds her daughters arm and hands as she speaks with her
5 children sit on a bed in their pajamas watching tv