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.