It’s in an undergrad lecture hall I learned that the eye sees the world upside down. Since the cornea (where the light enters the eye) is curved, it bends the light creating an upside down image on the retina. It’s our brains that put what we see right side up! And you know what?! They’ve never been able to make a camera that operates any differently so maybe there’s a lesson for us in that.
What if the job of the photographer is to see through all the hard, ugly and unfamiliar to what matters most and to put it right for the world to see real? Our beautiful calling is to affirm meaning.
Stay with me here. The day of these photos was the hottest day of the summer. Friends were meeting to pick blueberries and I drove two very reluctant girls an hour’s distance to meet them. When we arrived the woman behind the counter suggested I buy bug repellent along with my overpriced berries because the green flies were especially vicious that day. As I walked out into the heat and humidity amidst my girls’ laments, I paused to consider a.) leaving my camera in the car or b.) just leaving. I chose neither. I chose to affirm meaning. We weren’t there to just pick berries. Berries are eaten or shrivel and are tossed. They’re insignificant. We were there to enjoy our friends and create a memory. I’m happy to say the girls rallied and the bug spray worked.
When I look at these photos I don’t remember the heat and humidity. I remember a berry field soon entirely to ourselves and the girl’s laughter as they ran between the rows. I remember their glee at gathering and the sweet taste of their little offerings to mom. These photos aren’t false, perhaps only incomplete. (I do wish I snapped a photo of their whining as a contrast to their determined gleaning.)
The point is, as photographers and artists we have an obligation to view the world differently. If the naked eye and long term memory were enough we’d be out of a job. They’re not. The average eye sees an inch deep and barely beyond an iPhone. Our storehouse of memories is chaotic at best with last night’s meal ranking higher than the kiss before bed.
We picked up cameras to see real and some of us went into business to help our clients do the same. Through a lens is how we see best – but how do we help clients see the eternal significance of their seemingly insignificant moments?
Shoot from the heart. A little part of me dies when people talk about family photographers as documentarians. I don’t want to document how big your kids are getting, mark their height on a doorframe for that. I want to capture how you FEEL about your kids growing. To do that I have to see upside down…past the squirmy kids, the frazzled mom, the uncooperative weather and whatever else might get between me and a defining moment. It’s my job to create a space to receive that moment and nail it down with all the creative power in me.
Affirm meaning throughout the session. I might compliment a family’s wardrobe at the outset of a session (our poor moms stress this so hard!), but may it be said that’s the most superficial point of our session. You get what you give. Don’t affirm smiles, hair and clothes. Let client’s FB feed do that for them. GAH! If we’re in the business of just making people look pretty I want out!!! Affirm their connection! Ask couples how they met and how long they’ve been married. Don’t shy from emotional language and a little prying. Ask kids to tell mom what they love most about her or dad what they love to play with him. They’re paying you to photograph what defines them not describes them.
Open your eyes to the wonder and beauty around you. We might see best behind a lens but we have to train our eyes all day to receive beauty. Slow down and look long. See that ray of sunshine across your counter and note the direction and characteristics. Don’t sit at Starbucks and scroll through your Instagram feed for inspiration when that sweet young thing is nestled into her boyfriend like no one is watching. Watch people to the point of being caught so a fleeting expression will translate to a reflexive trigger of your camera shutter.
Don’t photograph clients’ beautiful moments at the expense of your own. There’s this uncanny and very predictable decline in my creativity when I stop photographing my family. It’s no surprise. The heart is a muscle that’s only strengthened with exercise. My family is the cardio training I absolutely thrive on in order to photograph my clients with heart and vision.
Y’all, I haven’t perfected this and lose my footing often. It’s always a work in progress but I believe important soul-work to undertake. We can attend workshops on finding the light, defining our editing style or improving our SEO but when we’ve nailed those things we’ll be left craving more. I believe as photographers we’ve been given a second sight. A gift that allows us to see beyond ordinary time and space to the very heart of what matters.
Look long and love your clients well. Nothing will better define you in business.