Documentary Family Photography: Embracing the Reluctant Mom

Tools to record meaningful pictures for you and your clients

I want to start by acknowledging the dirty little secret of family documentary photography: for many, it takes some selling.

I’m a part of several Facebook groups of photographers, most of which are filled with incredibly talented, open-hearted, and yet frustrated women who are struggling with how to get more families to embrace this style. In short, moms who will pay them to capture the precious, intimate moments of their life.

Although there are plenty of fans and positive comments and likes, and although there absolutely are moms who can’t wait to have us follow them around their homes with our cameras, the vast majority of women I talk to have reservations.

While some of these moms may never buy into this concept and are clearly not our future clients, some are firmly on the fence. These moms love the idea of showing their kids’ personalities, photographing them at home, capturing some of the little moments that only mom and dad usually get to see and that would normally get lost to memory. That all sounds absolutely freaking amazing. But when it comes to the realization that they, too, will be photographed in this way, the vulnerabilities kick in and they start backpedaling.

Have you ever have sighed with disappointment after hearing,

“I’m thinking we’ll just go to a pretty park at sunset?”

Although it’s tempting to refer these moms out, because they’re not our “ideal client,” I think we risk missing opportunities in doing so – turning away potential ideal clients that simply need a little easing into the concept

So is there a space in-between?

An opening of arms within our genre for those clients who love the concept, but are a little afraid to dive straight into the deep end with us?

I’m coming to a place of yes to answer that question after talking to friends, clients and family. We need to open our eyes to the truth of those insecurities that live within us all, judgment and idealistic vision fully aside, to show moms that they, while honestly documented, can be truthful, lovingly and compassionately captured.

One fellow, flawed mom to another.

And, to do that, I’m seeing that sometimes I need to give them space to experience the concept a little more on their terms and a little less on mine.

This, in turn, means recognizing that, just as people come in all shapes and sizes, so do their lives. And not all of them fit the mold.

The words imperfect, messy and authentic are thrown around a lot in our little documentary niche and have become almost interchangeable.

It’s almost as if, in order to be authentic, your session needs to be full of imperfections (theirs not yours, of course) and in order for that to happen your photo (and your client) needs to be messy.

Let me give you an example. I belong to a collective of documentary photographers and we all take turns moderating the group’s Instagram account, featuring other artists within our genre whose work we love. Early on, one of us featured a gorgeous, candid image of a little boy in the bath wearing goggles. Almost instantly the complaints came in about how beautiful and “clean” the bathroom looked. Where was the mess? The spilled water on the floor? The pile of toys? The photographer’s bathroom was too white and perfect some said, the suggestion being that the photo was staged, fake, or inauthentic.

Sometimes I feel like many of us in this genre have created our own perfect way to be imperfect: laundry on the floor, spilled cheerios on the kitchen table, chocolate smeared around the kids’ faces and mom looking adorably un-put-together yet oh-so-confident in her boyfriend jeans and slouchy t-shirt. And while I do love me a session full of all those details of everyday life, by golly am I beginning to challenge this narrow aesthetic.

Because while this is the reality for some of us, it’s not the reality for many of us.

I have friends who are interior decorators with beautiful, tidy homes (yes, even when nobody is coming over). I have friends who LOVE fashion and wouldn’t be seen dead outside of a yoga studio in yoga pants. I know kids (my own comes to mind) who will bawl their eyes out if there is a speck of dirt on their clothing.

Are these people any less authentic or imperfect? Of course not. They’re beautiful, flawed humans with real emotions, relationships and characteristics that are worthy of our documentation.

And I want to take ALL of their photos. I do! I find people from all walks of life, cultures, and lifestyles, incredibly interesting and beautiful, especially if they’re different from me. I don’t want to throw all my eggs in the basket of one depiction of real life at the exclusion of all others.

By not finding honest and intimate ways to embrace these awesome peeps and their lives too and by continually showing only the rawest, messiest, most intimate photos of family life, we send those that might be converted straight back to the portrait photographer in the park.

And that makes me super sad.

So, I’d like to share some photos from a family dear to my heart, to open up the discussion about how else we photographers might go about embracing more families in our little niche.

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The mom in this session, Brandie, has become a good friend of mine.

Although we love to work together, she’s always been honest with me in that the idea of documentary photography sounds downright scary and too revealing. But, through working with her for more than 4 years now, I’ve been able to assert a little bit more of my vision and style into our sessions year after year, as her trust in my process – and the results – grew.

I asked her a little about that evolution over lunch recently, and here’s what she had to say:

“What’s happened over time with you being our photographer is that now I’m looking forward to seeing more than just a pretty photo. Now I can’t wait to see our personalities in your images. That’s where the shift took place that I wasn’t even paying attention to. I didn’t even realize that we were doing more of a documentary session, because that probably would’ve freaked me out if you’d said it.

But, each year you capture each of my boys, individually in their own space, doing things that immediately made me think “Oh that’s Cole” or “Oh that’s Max” or even “That’s Damon [my husband]. Look at that smile on his face looking at them!” It may not be a picture that I’m going to put on my wall above my fireplace, but they are my favorite photos. They squeezed my heart more than any of the other ones.

I don’t love myself in those photos. Let’s be honest, who DOES love themselves in photos? I love what they represent. I love the love that they show. I love the connection between me and my boys and they show more than just me looking at the camera smiling, looking my best. So, I’m glad that I have them now, whereas before, I probably would’ve said “No, no, no, no, no. I want to know you’re taking it. I want to be looking at the camera. I want to make sure my hair is in the right place and I want to be smiling.”

Now I love those photos for what they mean for my family, what they mean to my heart. And they’re in my home, framed. Even if I feel like that’s not the most flattering photo… I see that I’m looking at my children. At the end of the day all the other stuff is just self-critique and none of that matters, because you can see how much I love them.”

Despite all the wonderful things that she said about her family photos, it was still hard to hear that she doesn’t love herself in them.

I, personally, think she looks beautiful and alive and animated and I know I’m not alone in that assessment. But I love that she said it to me. I love that she felt comfortable admitting it. I love that, through going through this process with me year after year, she has learned to identify and accept her own self-critique and put that aside for something that matters to her more.

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But we got there slowly.

I knew, from talking to Brandie and seeing the photos she liked of mine online, that she really does love the more candid moments. Still, jumping straight into an at-home, fly-on-the-wall session just wasn’t going to work for her. And so, year after year, we craft sessions that are comfortable for her and true to my style.

This past October we met at her house and walked with her husband and two boys around the local trails – a walk they do often as a family with bikes and scooters in-tow. We went at sunset and she didn’t wear yoga pants and sneakers. She put on make-up. Meanwhile, I didn’t find perfect light and pose them, although I did manufacture a couple of moments to ensure her active boys remained in the frame for a family photo. Mostly, they walked and talked and played and I dashed around them documenting their interactions.

We each gave a little something up in this session: a little bit of control. Her, because she really does understand the inherent value in capturing something deeper about her family, and me, because I recognize that this is her life, her family, her photos and her version of genuine.

It might not fit mine like a glove, but the shared gesture between her and her husband is real and unscripted, as are the tender hugs she gave her boys at the end of the session as their energy and enthusiasm waned.

And for these reasons they are authentic, imperfect and honest to me. Maybe this year we’ll push the envelope a little further. (Brandie, if you’re reading this, don’t panic!)

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Perhaps my way of handling this session doesn’t feel right to you. That’s ok. This is not an A-B-C guide to getting reluctant moms to participate in a documentary-style session. I don’t have all (any of) the answers. I just wanted to open up the discussion, to think a little more about what it means to photograph families honestly and to embrace more families and session types into that definition.

I’m just saying: there’s more than one kind of authentic.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Comment below, we’re reading!

Writing + photography contributed by Michelle McDaid

Follow Michelle McDaid and all of her beautiful photos + thought provoking writing here:


Tools to record meaningful pictures for you and your clients

Author: MarieMasse
I help client documentary photographers fine-tune their workflow + marketing game, so their work is filled with sessions that represent their voice + client values while earning a living. I shoot undirected, off-beat stories that aren’t preserved often enough (like the story of couples before starting a fam or becoming empty-nesters – a dream project of mine), so my clients’ old box of photos is a meaningful, visual diary of their life + legacy to leave behind.

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  • Absolutely 100% agree. Couldn’t love this post any more if I tried! I do a mix as well. I would rather give a little to make a client more comfortable AND still make beautiful documentary pictures, than lose out of the session entirely.

  • Yes! I have some photographer friends who say that they feel judged by other documentary photographers because they are neat, and tidy, and their lives just aren’t “messy” enough for some to take them seriously. My house looks like a bomb went off…but that’s not everyone’s reality. And we should be striving to embrace whatever the reality is for each family.

  • I think this is a wonderfully realistic point of view. I don’t tout myself as a documentary photographer, but at home documentary type sessions are my favorite to shoot. But I think the key is that the moments are authentic to the family and the relationships. I’d rather find a way to record those memories for my clients, in whatever way they are comfortable, than adhere to some strict ideal of a particular genre of photography. If the emotions are real when recorded, they will be cherished and remembered as such, regardless of what kind of environment in which they occur.

  • This is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing it. The comment that stuck out to me the most was the fact that we don’t all have to be “messy” and “chaotic” to be able to be documented. That meant a lot to me because I always hesitated using those words to convey my art because I know, from my own experience, that my “real” is NOT messy. It’s not perfect. But it’s not chaotic and messy.

  • I loved this article! It really spoke to me, too. With documentary-type sessions, it’s still kind of “new” to families. So much focus is put on the photo of the family that is sitting on a blanket, in a beautiful park, with hair in place and everyone looking at the camera. It’s a different way of thinking to come into a session and let things unfold naturally, let your guard down, and have a photographer capture the emotions, the bonds, the belly laughs, and the personality. I do a mixture of both posed and documentary in my sessions. While the moms do love the “photo over the mantle” picture, their hearts melt over those moments they don’t even realize I’m capturing. And, as a mom/woman – I’m often critical of how I look in photos (the few I’m actually in!)…but, as time goes on and I look back on these photos, I hardly see the flaws anymore. I just see a pretty amazing time I might have forgotten about if I didn’t have that picture.

  • This is really great. I love that you have found a way to be your authentic self and to allow your clients to be the same. You’re so right, there is almost a snobbery to the “look how unruly my life is” style of documentary photography. It’s almost a status symbol like “I’m so busy,” which is something I have been struggling to stop saying because I totally get how manipulative and I’m better than you it is. If your subject’s authentic self is tidy and well put-together, then that’s how they are. And it’s great that you can see that and celebrate it. Fantastic. Very proud of you and your work.

  • Thanks for this! I’m early in my business journey and this helps me understand why it doesn’t feel right when I try to go by someone else’s “rules” for documentary family photography. There’s enough room to adapt for both ourselves and our clients and make images we both love.

    • You’re welcome – Michelle did such an amazing job writing that. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I see so many photographers with their head held high saying, “My clients will value this and that.” But sometimes, we have to teach, inspire, and empower people before they actually believe.