Bring the Camera. Take the Photo.
My most valuable work is not my best work. It’s not a personal project with hours of conceptualization and production behind it. It’s not the frame I made right at that single, beautiful moment where photographic luck and skill collide. My most valuable work is not the series that helped a non-profit bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars or the concert photos from my early photography years that I continue to license.
My most valuable work is held in the hands of people as they grieve, as they mourn, and as they heal. Not so much a photograph, but an affirmation that the person they love and miss was — is — exactly who they remember.
“He always loaded and unloaded the dishwasher every single day because he knew it was my least favorite chore.”
“One time she said that she wanted a car horn that sounded like a machine gun so everyone would hear it and just get out of her way!”
“It wasn’t so much that his breath was bad. It was just his. Like it had a dash of old man breath but mostly it was like cinnamon Red Hots.”
Will You Bring Your Camera?
Every photographer, no matter where they are in their career, experiences a moment when someone in their circle of family and friends asks if they are bringing their camera to an event — a birthday party, a family reunion, a school performance, etc. There are a lot of things that we, as people, say that are never intentionally rude, but they are still rude. This is one of them.
Non-photographers (or non-creative professionals) often see photography (or any creative career) as a “hobby” or “interest,” even if it actually is our career with which we make money and pay our mortgages and buy food to eat. They don’t really understand the weight of what they are asking, or at least, not in the same way they would if you said, “Hey accountant-friend Julie, can I bring my bookkeeping for September over? Maybe you can just reconcile it for me real quick when we’re done with the cake and presents?”
As a full-time visual storyteller, my visual and creative brain doesn’t just turn off when the clock strikes 5:00. We don’t work that way. As creative people, we constantly read our emotional intuitions and observations and translate them into whatever form of art happens to be our thing. It’s not something we actively flip on or off (and frankly, I wouldn’t want it to be).
This isn’t to say that you should work for free, let people abuse you and your work, or some woo-woo-art-love-gift-joy hippie mantra. Like other photographers, I used to bristle at being asked to work for free in my free time. Sometimes I still do, but when it comes to family, chosen or otherwise, I always bring my camera and I leave any attitude I have about it back at home. It doesn’t mean I have to bring out the camera or that I’ll photograph an entire event. Just bring it along.
Yes, of course, I’ll Bring My Camera
A few years ago, someone I cared about died. The family didn’t really have any decent photos or snapshots of the person, only selfies or random photos from their social media accounts. None of the photos they had really “felt” like their person. I felt remarkably sad for the family of the deceased, not only for their loss but for their not having a photo of their loved one laughing and enjoying life to hold and use as a time machine back into their best moments together. I could see how not having a photo they really loved added an extra layer to their grief, in the same way that a great photo adds to their joy.
Every day, I see photographers ask other photographers’ advice on how to best remove someone from a photo for someone they know who has lost someone. People usually want a photo for the obituary or memorial service, but they don’t want one that includes other people — that just feels weird. So they turn to their photographer and ask them to comb their archives from an event seven years ago and see if there was a photo of that person that would work (sidenote: if your photographer provides digital copies of your photos, pleasepleaseplease-for-the-love-of-all-things-holy download them and store them in two places and print your favorites).
Just a couple of years ago now, a few days after our own wedding day, my husband learned one of his uncles in attendance had passed. Our (incredible) photographer, Amanda, had a wonderful photo of him. He was with his wife, and his daughter, and his grandson and they were all smiling these joyful, big and authentic smiles that no amount of Pinteresting could have planned. It’s a wedding reception photo of people we love. I don’t think Amanda would be offended by me saying this isn’t a prize-winning photo or a piece of fine art like her other work, but it was easily one of the most valuable.
That Photo Matters.
As a documentary photographer, the visual stories I create are about the things that most pique my curiosity. For me, that’s the lives of people (and all things birds). But in both life and birds, I’m not one to be blown away by the grandiose. Yes, eagles are Majestic AF, but, wait, is that a Golden-winged Warbler?! GTFO!
When people talk to me about the loved one they have lost, they don’t focus on the big ways they loved that person. They always focus on the smaller, but equally as meaningful, details of how they loved and were loved day-in and day-out. The tapestry of big love is made of millions and millions of individual threads. Tiny moments of the macro and the micro that, as bits and pieces, create the semblance of the whole.
This is why you bring the camera. This is why you take the photo. Take the group photo. Let it be messy and real. No need to make it a big, orchestrated production. Don’t worry about wardrobes or the perfect pose or if the hair isn’t just so. Anticipate a memory, photograph the moment. Challenge yourself and take no more than 20 photos. Do it for just ten minutes. Make them count.
Single out the older folks and ask if you can pull them aside for a minute and make their portrait. Truth be told, I take all of the other photos so I can take this one.
Don’t be perfect. Just be present. Create something that didn’t exist until you arrived.
Inevitably, someone is going to hold that photo in their hands and it’s going to smell “like it had a dash of old man breath, but mostly like cinnamon Red Hots.” It’s going to make the loving sound of the dishwasher opening and closing echo in their head. It’s going to create a smirk in the corner of the mouth as they visualize her barreling down the highway and blasting a horn that sounds like a machine gun.
It’s going to be everything for them. Bring the camera. Take the photo.