Documentary Photography

by in Through the Lens

As I previously mentioned, this past winter I had the pleasure of participating in a series at the Schoolhouse Gallery in Kingfield. One part of the series covered compelling portraits and another part covered documentary photography (other topics were covered as well, by other photographers).

In this post, I’ll re-share about documentary photography.

The difference between straight portrait photography and documenting a subject are numerous. Documentary photography goes beyond photographing one subject and includes:

  • interaction between the environment and people (or some other part of nature), including small details
  • interaction between people
  • emotion and/or personality in an individual

I believe documentary photography seeks to portray the truth, in a natural, in-the-moment sort of way.

Not always, but often, when I take photographs of my children, I’m wanting to document, not capture portraits. I want to remember the “normal” way we live, the way they simply are. The face I want in the photos are the faces I see everyday. And lucky for me, I have very expressive children.

To start with, documenting a relationship: the ​brotherhood of my boys:

  • At the beginning of their relationship, this is the way they looked at each other. I left the scratch on the head (probably inflicted by Bronson) and camera cap on the head. (To be fair, I sat Oli where I wanted him, but the interaction is entirely natural, and at that time in their lives, ordinary. If this were now, my shutter speed would need to be VERY high.)Brothers1
  • This was the beginning of Oli paying Bronson back (you can see how much joy this brought Oli). An ordinary tubby time – boisterous and on the edge of chaos. Brothers2
  • Energy levels accelerate when they are together. I may be wrong, but I suspect that they will always feed off of each each other’s energy and moods. Them together is an entirely different thing than them apart. Brothers4
  • The way Oli is looking at Bronson reminds me of what has always been true: as the youngest, Oli looks up to Bronson, watching him to learn things (both good and bad) and wanting to mirror what Bronson is doing. Together, they are often very silly and very loud. A little trick for capturing true interaction: tell the subjects you are done taking photos. Capturing the next few moments will preserve something more natural.Brothers5

The story of an o​rdinary moment ­ jumping in the puddles:

When I look at all the photos in Lightroom on my computer, it is tempting to stop taking so many. I have more photos than I can handle. To capture ordinary moments though, I must allow my camera to see and capture when “nothing” major is happening, when the only event occurring is life itself. Here is the story of a morning puddle jumping session:

  1. Detail – The story opens with setting the scene. A detail shot gives an idea of where things are going without revealing too much.OrdinarySeries1
  2. Interaction with each other – The story continues with the characters introduced.OrdinarySeries2
  3. Interaction with environment, an action shot – Here is where the action happens.OrdinarySeries3
  4. Interaction with environment, an action shot OrdinarySeries4
  5. After the “photogenic moment” is over – This is how the story ends. Does anyone else recall the meltdowns over been soaked and not being able to peel their pants off? Puddle jumping is a blast. Ending it can be a disaster.OrdinarySeries5

The Truth about parenting/being a toddler.​

In this day in age, people often put their best face forward, and it’s a very public face. I’ve had many interactions over the course of my children’s lives that made me realize people thought they knew my children through what they saw on Facebook. They thought my kids were always happy and adorable, silly and outgoing. These things are true of them sometimes, but that’s certainly not the whole picture. This made me realize that I wanted to capture the truth about our family, not just the well-composed version. The whole story wasn’t being documented, so…

  1. Trying to photograph Bronson at one year (aka, trying to take a portrait). This is how he actually felt about it. (When moments like this are captured, a portrait moves into the realm of documentary.)Truth1
  2. Cross­country trip with two toddlers: this is what it’s really like. Picturesque place and beautiful light, but this is what they were really like. No brotherhood could accurately be photographed without plenty of shots like this.Truth2
  3. Ryan, my husband, was traveling to Alaska for work and gone nearly two weeks. I woke up with the boys at 5 a.m. I stayed with them all day, put them to bed at 7 p.m. And of course, visited them when they cried throughout the night. Needless to say, I was fried and exhausted. We often Skype Ryan when he’s gone, but he didn’t know if he would have a strong internet connection on this trip, so he pre-recorded a video of himself before he left. This is them trying to watch the video:


  1. Oli watching and holding iPadTruthSeries1
  2. Bronson now holding iPadTruthSeries2
  3. Bronson boxing Oli outTruthSeries3
  4. This is how I often feel about being a mom.TruthSeries4

I hope, someday, my boys will appreciate these photos. For me, I’ll appreciate their authenticity.

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