Over the years, you may learned – without even realizing it – that your real life is ‘ordinary’.
We have all seen those photographs. Of families on blankets at golden hour. Those photographs are beautiful. They are to be cherished, for sure. But photographs like that – studio or posed photos – teach us that only special things should be photographed. You, in your best clothes. You, with your best smile toward the camera. The kids, hugging and grinning, squared on to the photographer.
We’ve all learned that “Special moments” do not occur daily. They do not happen naturally, and without a fair amount of orchestration. But that is all a lie. What we have learned is a lie.
It happens when we stack our events in our lives, and then we give them ratings based on how important they are, or how rare.
For example, a graduation is more important than one of the many regular days of school, we reason. It is the culmination of something great. Yet, without those many days of school, a graduation would not have been possible.
A wedding is more important than the many thousands of small touches, glances, kisses, or acts of kindness partners express toward one another every day, we reason. Weddings truly are wonderful things, and often times they bring together family and friends and all the love of the world under one roof. Yet so are the ‘everyday’ moments leading up to the union of two people.
I believe the best photographs happen in real life.
This old studio photograph of me in a white dress and pigtails, aged about 5. That photograph is cute. I am smiling and look presentable. My grandmother – who took me to the studio – loves that photograph. It is nice to look at, for sure. My grandmother might remember something about that day that she took me – she might remember whether it was rainy or sunny out, whether it was winter or summer, perhaps even what day of the week it was. She has an uncanny quality like that, to remember all those little details.
Yet there are no details in the photograph itself. You cannot tell by my white summer dress, whether the weather outside the studio was cold or warm. It is possible I wore snow pants to the shoot and removed them at the studio. You cannot tell what phase of my life I was really into. Was I playing with dolls or trains? (Both, I think). Was I a quiet kid, or loud and boisterous? What were my pastimes?
None of this information is available from a photograph like that. There is NO STORY.
Photos of real life are different. Photos of real life (a.k.a. documentary photographs) can capture the entire gamut of human experience, from the very negative to the very positive. They are appealing because they tell a story. They remind us of people we love, living or gone. They remind us of silly stories, tiny details we’ve forgotten.
Documentary photographs can also save us from the constant desire to be perfect! Because they tell a story of each person and each family just as they are, in all that makes them human, flawed, relatable. The people in the photographs are NOT ‘perfect’, if perfection means smooth skin and flawless smiles. But the photographs are more perfect because they celebrate the human condition, and human character exactly as it is, without finding and correcting perceived ‘flaws’.
In other words, documentary photographs go against the trend to achieve perfection. Because here is the thing: Families are all different, and no one has it all figured out. Some clients I photograph tell me that they normally do not like the way they appear in candid photographs. It is a common feeling, I think. It is probably because we have no control over how our faces look when we don’t carefully plan the shot. That’s why selfies are so popular.
What we often forget, though, is that the people around us already know us. They already see us for who we are, they see all those ‘unsightly’ angles of our faces that we might try to hide when we take selfies, and all those moments in between the smiles. They see more of us than we see of ourselves.
And they already love us. Just the way that we are.
So, in addition to all the functions I’ve listed above, I have come to think of documentary photographs as a kind of therapy for people who are still coming to terms with the way they appear. It is a chance to view yourself just as the world sees you. And to begin to accept yourself. To just go with it, without thinking about the things you cannot change. To embrace your messy house and unbrushed hair, and the food smeared on your children’s faces. To focus, rather, on the human touch, the connection, the shared smiles and hugs, and even on the conflicts. To see yourself as this imperfect but powerful force in your life, a force that works tirelessly to provide for those around you, to wipe up the messes and the tears and tickle out the laughs.
Give yourself some credit, because you owe yourself that much: you are so worth it, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the smoothness of your skin. I believe that documentary photographs are good for the soul. They are good for the people in them, good for the community, good for the world.
They preserve meaningful moments full of context. And they remind us that everyone experiences struggles and everyone experiences joys. They show the world that a tender moment between parent and child is at least as important and worthy of attention as a tucked out chin and contrived smile.
Photographs of real family life are therefore not ordinary. Because our real lives are simply extraordinary.
Our Ordinary Extraordinary Lives at The Museum of Lennox & Addington
Over the last two years I got to be a part of an exhibition to showcase real life in Lennox and Addington. It was such a joy to meet the eleven participating families, and to capture little snippets of their real lives. My focus on these was to show just how unique each family was!
For instance, even though we had three families who own dairy farms and one who lives on a hobby farm, each of these families’ galleries looks completely different!
We also wanted to focus on daily routines, because these are often ignored in photographs. For instance, how The Lowry family prepared their grandchildren to get on the schoolbus each morning. Or how the Roberts Family lovingly takes care of their daughter with special needs, helping her towel off after a swim in the pool, or carefully chopping up the food on her plate.
And of course, we wanted to showcase some of the beauty and diversity of things to do in L&A county. I had the Rochette family show me around their apiary (where they do “bee tours”), the Milne family took me to Fairfield park in Amherstview, and the Flood family enjoyed a (chilly) afternoon at McKinnon Brothers Farm, complete with food, bevvies, and live music, and the Carriers invited me to their backyard rink!
Possibly the most spooktacular of all, the Eves family had me over while they prepared their Halloween decorations for their annual haunted walk. They open this up to the community of Entreprise (and anyone else who is up for it!)
It was so much fun to take these photographs. It was also a lot of fun to see them on the walls of the museum. I hope that they not only spread cheer and intrigue museum visitors, but that they also make you think about your own life, and what holds magic for you.