It's Not Always Sunsets and Kittens: Photographing the Tougher things in Life

It’s Not Always Sunsets and Kittens: Photographing the Tougher things in Life

Not every shoot I’ve done is full of lollipop promises, cute matching (but not too matching) outfits, and happy families throwing their kids up into a perfect blue sky with puffy cloud dreams.  In fact, typically the ones that didn’t, are among the most important pictures I have ever taken.  The ones that there are no road maps for, no instructions, and no cheat sheets.  Several years ago I photographed a beautiful wedding of a young couple deeply in love on a perfect July day.  I shot the wedding, went home, and put those images at the bottom of my “waiting to be edited” stack.  Which is where they stayed until I got a random call that the groom, a police officer, had gone missing in an attempt to save a young girl who had almost drowned in a fast moving river.  For three days rescue teams searched for him, until they found his body a day shy of his and his new bride’s first month anniversary.

I Googled everything I could think of in an attempt to edit the images, perfectly and quickly with poise and professionalism, as I knew that they would now would hold a gravity beyond what I could have ever imagined when I shot them.  I found nothing—no road map, no instructions, no guide for this massive task I had ahead of me.  Instead I holed up in my office for a weekend with a bottle of scotch and a case of tissues, emerging in time for them to be delivered to his bride at his memorial service.  Those images are now locked in a vault of sorts for me professionally, and I can only hope that by now they perhaps bring an amazing and strong woman great comfort and lovely memories of a beautiful day in her life.

Photography is a very powerful thing.  And having the ability to do it is an incredible gift.  Not all tough to photograph events will be dire, but do photography even just as a hobby for long enough and you will find yourself in situation beautiful in it’s complexity and the images you take poignant beyond words.

This is a picture of my dear friend, her son, and her son’s birth mom.  It’s out of focus and isn’t properly exposed.  The kid is wearing a Captain America costume and was feeling especially “spirited” on this day.  It is all of the makings of disaster.  Yet it is one of my favorite images and incredibly important to both myself and the people in it.  A picture doesn’t have to be technically perfect to be amazing.  Sometimes it’s just you being in the right place at the right time, hauling a camera in tow.  Sometimes it’s a matter of you being invited to something very special because you have been trusted to document it.  What a beautiful responsibility that is.  Sometimes it’s not about the where and the how you do it; it’s about that you showed up and did it.  The pictures you take may turn out perfect.  They may not.  Either way, they will be treasured as great gifts.

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Every once in a while I get asked to photograph someone (or a pet) who is gravely ill, or a funeral or memorial service.  I have never been in a situation personally to want a photographer at something like this, but I am always honored when asked to do something so significant.  This is one of those situations where if you have any reservations at all, you should politely decline.  It’s a heavy task, one that can only be done with complete focus and presence.  The first thing I do if I’ve been asked to photograph something like this is make absolutely certain that the immediate family members are all in agreement in wanting my services and what exactly that means to them.  While I have personal guidelines, I want to be sure that what they are wanting works with these, and also something I will be able to do with great compassion.  Each time I’ve photographed this type of situation I have come across someone that didn’t feel I should be there or was confused by my presence and camera.  My best advice is to reply very simply and quietly: “I was asked to be here today” and move on.  Not everyone will understand why a photographer was requested.  Often I don’t understand myself.  But I know that I am doing something important as part of a healing process for another and that’s reason enough.

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Sometimes the occasion is joyful and wonderful and still requiring of great tact and compassion.  Homecomings, be them military or adoption or just long awaited, fall into this category.  If you have been invited to something like this, take a moment to be a bit proud of yourself.  Go on—I’ll wait.  This means that you have been asked to be part of a moment so delicate and special that your abilities are obvious and you are trustworthy beyond measure.  Your camera may have been your golden ticket in the door, but your skills is what will get the job done.  This is one of the few times I stay completely out of the way and ask nothing of anyone.  I am there only to document, not set-up moments or force poses and smiles.  The event will happen so naturally and beautifully on it’s own that you need only to trust in yourself, stay alert and in the moment, and know that the most intense moments will happen very, very quickly.      IMG_0207b

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In my humble opinion, there is no greater honor than being trusted to photograph someone.  Making the honor of being asked to photograph a human coming into this world the highest of the high.  If you ever get the chance the witness life start, I highly recommend it.  Most of this is going to be common sense, but in this case, don’t shoot for the moon.  You are documenting something so special, so amazing, there is no need to force a specific shot.  In a perfect world, you’ll be allowed to stand near the mother, at the top of the bed (or similar), lessening the chances of angles that no one will want pictures of, and increasing the chances of being able to stay out of the way.  Photographing a birth is one of the only times I truly have to use everything I have to hold it together and do my job.  But it turns out you can focus (literally and figuratively) through a layer of tears pretty easily if you need to.  Much like birth itself, this is pure adrenaline; nothing to plan, no way of knowing what shots you are going to get.  I do like to always ask if there is something special that is hoped for—perhaps the first bath or a picture of the baby getting weighed.  Things like that are usually possible and of importance for some.  Photographing births is a game of hurry up and wait and only a couple of things are certain: good glass, a high ISO (no one wants a flash here and the room is often dark), and impeccable manners.

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These type of images may not end up being part of your portfolio, they may not be technically perfect in any way, but likely to someone they will mean everything.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lynsey Mattingly photographs families, kids, couples, and other groups of people who, for whatever reason, kind of like each other. Her portrait work has been featured in People Magazine, Us Weekly, BBC Magazine, and on national TV including CNN, Oprah, and Ellen, but most importantly, in the personal galleries of clients across the country. Her photography can be viewed at www.lynseymattingly.com or on Facebook.

Some Older Comments

  • Shelly August 17, 2013 02:14 pm

    I want you to know how much I appreciate your articles and your style of writing. The subject of this article however was especially touching. It really gave me a lot to think about. How to do these tougher photo shoots and the demeanor and respect that should be accorded these events. There are times our photography can be truly priceless, and the satisfaction of being able to give such a gift...priceless.

  • Jess August 12, 2013 11:20 am

    wow, you made me a bit teary here.

    One very big and heartfelt thank you for writing this.

  • sandee hagen August 9, 2013 10:41 pm

    What a wonderful and sensitive article. I got wet eyes just reading it. Thank you.

  • Alicia August 9, 2013 10:23 pm

    Such a poignant article. So thoughtfully written that it brought tears to my eyes. You, dear, hit the nail on the head.

  • Rodney August 9, 2013 01:05 pm

    Well written and well said. That is what photography is all about anyway. Capturing that one magical moment or emotion to be remembered, to be cherished and to be reflected upon in life. Cheers.

  • Ellen August 9, 2013 08:55 am

    My mother passed away recently and had been in a palliative care hospice for most of her last three months. I took videos and the occasional photo of her at the hospice, on brief home visits, just after she died, at the funeral parlour and at the committal service (open coffin). We had a video taken at the Celebration Service and I took photos of the set up prior to the service. Then a few days later, we buried the ashes. In all cases, I only used my mobile phone camera so they're not the greatest shots as they were taken in a hurry because I thought people would think I was weird but I wanted to have a record of everything going on. Now, although they are sad memories, I am really glad I took them. I've got heaps of photos of happier times with Mum but these photos just complete her life story and are very important to me.

  • Lesley August 9, 2013 01:19 am

    I've been taking this type of photos for many years for friends and family. In fact I've just finished digitising the photos I took at my father in law's 'Kong Teck' (a final goodbye ceremony for Taoists). Given that this was 31 years ago I have been lingering over all the photos of our younger selves and I was very happy to find photos of some people who are no longer with us. When our grandma died five years ago, the uncles asked me to document to funeral (they go for days) from the inside which was a very special way of saying goodbye to the old lady who was much loved by all of us. There was actually an official photographer, but the photos are a bit sterile, which is why I was asked to do mine.
    When my own mum died, I was overseas and couldn't make it home so my sister had photographs and a video taken which mean a lot to all of us. A few people looked askance, but she was not put off.
    If there is respect and understanding, I think it is one of the greatest privileges to be asked to do 'the tough jobs'. I am happy to do them because I know just how much they are valued afterwards.

  • Mridula August 7, 2013 06:00 pm

    Amazing thought provoking article. And I am shy even of taking portraits!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Lorri August 6, 2013 08:05 am

    On the subject of funerals. A friend had her son take photos at my husband's funeral some 14 years ago, it was the only way I could remember who was there, the day was a blur of emotion, of numbness, of mental fog, these photos were my only 'memory' of the day for a long time.

  • Lara Farhadi August 6, 2013 04:36 am

    Thank you for writing this. We don't often understand, but it is a gift to others when we get to capture the difficult moments, and in the long run is a gift to ourselves. Eight years ago I was with one of my best friends ready for the birth of her second child, camera in hand to capture the moment - a film camera, no LCD screen to make sure I had the right light or the pictures looked fine, no photoshop to fix mistakes on the back end. Her daughter, we found out that morning, was dead in the womb. Now I found myself about to record the complete opposite of the happy occasion we had been expecting, and I was baffled that my girlfriend wanted the pictures. Eight years later, I am a volunteer photographer for NILMDTS, and my girlfriend has told me with tears in her eyes that, if it weren't for those pictures, she would have no record of her baby girl. I was humbled then, I am humbled now, and I take it as an honor to be able to give others that record they wouldn't have otherwise.

  • Mark August 6, 2013 03:08 am

    Excellent write up. As one already mentioned, we are frequently deluged with - well - the same old thing, sunsets, equipment reviews and so on. Seldom have many broached the more difficult and sensitive issues that arise. I did in both concert and conflict photography where every minute was constantly shifting in mood and energy, sometimes never knowing what was coming next. That can be difficult work but I think what you shared is even harder.

  • Robin Gornell August 6, 2013 02:46 am

    Thank you so much for writing this. Among other things, a photo I took of my dear friend's son is her favorite; but I've been kicking myself because it is just barely out of focus. You have confirmed that those photos dearest to us don't have to necessarily be technically the best. Thank you again.

  • Irina August 5, 2013 04:12 am

    Amazing and well written article!
    I am very pleased to hear your prospective! Photography is my passion and although I always strive to get better pictures, a lot of times - the unexpected, emotional and sincere moments caught through my photographs are the hit.... I also share your opinion that every time someone trusts you to be there and take pictures of their most sincere moments is a great honor...and yet you have to use your skills, but more importantly - you have to feel the moment with your heart...then you take the most incredible photographs.
    Photography is about seeing the moment through your own eyes, expressing a feel and prospective - and similar to other types of art, someone either has it in him or doesn't.
    Thank you for explaining so well of what photography is all about!

  • Memo August 5, 2013 03:41 am

    Great article. It really sums up what photography is all about for me.

  • Avani Jain August 4, 2013 08:28 pm

    Amazing work man!
    I agree with whatever you wrote in the article above
    And yes photography is expression , not expression of good but beautiful

  • katesi August 4, 2013 10:26 am

    Other than the ill pet and the funeral/memorial thing this is still sunsets and kittens for subjects, the rest of it was pretty joyful stuff. I really liked the Captain America kid one. I guess the difference between your perspective and mine is I'm equating the emotion of the photos (happy) and you're equating the style (posed happy)?

  • Les August 4, 2013 04:14 am

    Longtime DPS reader here. This is my first post here as we'll. This is the best article I've read on this site ... By far. I'm a grown man with children of my own ... and I'm still blinking back a tear or two as I read write this comment. Excellent article ... very emotional photographs.

  • stacie August 4, 2013 02:47 am

    What a fantastic article on the ups & downs of photography sessions. It's so true how moving some sessions can be!

  • marie August 4, 2013 02:46 am

    omg this is such an incredible article on photography! i actually often feel bummed when a client wants me to take them to a pretty park in the summer with their matchy outfits. I want to tell a story, their story, through photography & this totally sums up why. Thanks for writing this!

  • raghavendra August 4, 2013 12:10 am

    This is the next step in photography, Moving out of the realm.

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/03/kids-feeding-goat.html

  • Mark August 3, 2013 06:08 pm

    >>they may not be technically perfect in any way, but likely to someone they will mean everything.>>

    This is why people trust you with their moments.

    You're not a photographer-blogger-essayist, you're a philosopher. Where can we get more of you?

  • Jeff August 3, 2013 01:47 pm

    I have photographed a couple memorials and the best thing is being able to hide my blubbering face behind the camera :)

    In all seriousness, well written. Thank you.

  • Huggy August 3, 2013 07:44 am

    An amazing, beautiful and intensely meaningful article. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and recommendations. This is one of those articles I print to read again in the future.

  • Rosa De Nola August 3, 2013 06:53 am

    Thank you for the fabulous, well written and motivating article! On the subject of taking photos at funerals, I actually took many photos at my Grandmother's funeral. I enjoyed them as they reflected the bond and support of all our family and the honor and respect that was given at her service. I love taking off-the-cuff, capture-the-moment photos as opposed to portraits.

  • Marc August 3, 2013 04:25 am

    I read a lot of photography websites. Most of them talking about new camera gear or how to take the "perfect" shot. I don't know that I've ever read an article that talked about photography quite like this. Thank you. This was a joy to read and it was perfectly written.

  • Shannon August 3, 2013 04:02 am

    Well written. Thank you for writing about the side that is not often written about. As a photojournalist I can go from happy smiles to tragedy, up and down, in a single day. In one work day I went from kids releasing balloons to celebrate the last day of kindergarten to a shooting and then people picketing for a cause and then an automobile accident. When I started photography I didn't think about the more emotional side.

    Thanks!

  • Angie August 3, 2013 03:17 am

    Awesome post

  • Pieter August 3, 2013 02:45 am

    It's something special when you capture emotion in your photos. Good job!