A Personal Journey into Documentary Photography

So I get it, this is new and kinda different so you may be asking yourself -- what is a documentary session? 

And I promise I'll get to that-- but instead of just spewing some Webster's-like definition, how about a little story first?



I'm flipping through my daughter's 1 year photo album- filled to bursting with images from our first days together, monthly milestone images from the same angle of her laying on the same white bed to show her growth, stats of her height and weight and favorite foods, mini sessions I've set up to show off her adorable little outfits or a specific holiday. I fall in love over and over again with every page.

But it's the picture of her napping on my husband's chest that makes my fingers pause. It's her tiny feet flung high in the air from the slots of a swing that I want to pull and frame because there's something about it that instantly makes me feel nostalgic, to recall the peace at the empty neighborhood park and the sound of her wild giggle filling the warm, spring air.

There are so many pictures that show how she looked and not nearly as many that tell a story of that year and all the emotion it entailed. I suddenly found myself grasping for those moments to not be memories; I wanted to see and feel them over and over. All the mess and fear and joy and discovery and coffee and everything in between.


(These were some of the first shots that really gripped me to start documenting life differently. Out of all the smiling, standard shots, for some reason, this is what made my heart beat faster.)

And then I gave myself a challenge: one photo a day for 30 days that showcase real life. I started January 1 - it was cold and there wasn't a whole lot going on, so I wondered what in the world I would even shoot that would be worthwhile. But suddenly, I began to see things differently. Technically, I was forced to get more creative in difficult lighting, to shoot from new angles, to tell a story instead of setting the scene. But more importantly, rather than looking for pretty, I sought the feeling. I became present, ever seeking details, asking myself in the moment, "what will I miss about this in 20 years." And wow, that perspective shifted my work into a new dimension. 

Instead of simply photographing what was plainly in front of me, I became hungry for the roots of love -- it wasn't my daughter taking a bath that I loved, it was how the bubbles make her hair so curly and how strong yet comforting my husband's hand looks as he washes them from her head.

It wasn't just what she was eating that was memorable (I mean really, who cares?!) -- it was how she flashed the widest, toothy grin of carefree enjoyment after drinking yogurt from a cup and getting it all over her face. The chaos of getting both her and our anxiety-driven pup to the vet on a weekday morning. How she almost always falls asleep in her car seat and I let her snooze while I unload groceries from out little blue hatchback. That's the stuff that flies by without  a second glance on most days, but it's what makes up our life in this season and I want to savor it!


And then one night, my husband was sitting on the couch with our toddler in his lap, the glow of lamps illuminating the living room on a winter night, as they shared a bowl of ice cream before bed and our dog rested hopefully at their feet. I grabbed my camera and snapped this shot.

Almost immediately, (and I'm really being open about how sentimental I am at heart, here) tears came to my eye. It may seem pretty unremarkable to the outside eyes, but as soon as I saw it in the back of my camera, I told him, "I can't wait to show her this someday."

Ever since then, I've been on a mission. A mission to educate myself, develop my skills in this genre, then share that love with you so we can work together to make real the new perfect. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm still in love with lifestyle shooting and will continue capturing honest expression and beautifully styled, natural-light sessions --

--but over the next few weeks, I'll begin to share more about this alternate option of documentary style sessions as well and why it could be the next perfect thing for you. 

What's the difference between Lifestyle and Documentary? Which is the right type for you? What are some fun activities and ideas for your documentary session? What if you think you're "too boring" for documentary? Answers to all of those are coming your way as well as features and stories from other families who have caught the documentary bug! 

More favorites from my 30 day photo project : click to enlarge

"Because life is short but sweet for certain" - Dave Matthews