why documentary: your looks vs. your legacy

there are a lot of different names for the type of photography i do- family photojournalism, documentary photography, storytelling sessions, etc- but when you boil it down, they are all rooted in the same basic principle: to photograph your life as you live it. no posing, no direction, no special outfits or locations, just you and your people being who you are.

because the concept of this type of photography is still so new and generally unknown and misunderstood, it’s been my intention for awhile now to start a blog series on why documentary sessions are so valuable and meaningful. like many other things, however, it has continually gotten pushed to the bottom of the pile as other things popped up and took priority. i was frustrated with myself for not getting it done, but when i came home from a recent trip to visit my grandparents, i was thankful i’d put it off for so long. this set of photos was meant for this series, and it’s the perfect way to kick it off.

my grandfather turned 90 a few weeks ago, and so the day after thanksgiving, we all loaded up and made the 6 hour car trip to celebrate with him. it ended up being an 8.5 hour drive, so when we finally arrived, we all felt like this:

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And even though it poured the entire next day, we managed to have some fun in the condo my grandmother booked for us.

it was fun to capture these moments of my kiddos enjoying our trip, but what i was really looking forward to was creating photos of my grandparents. i don’t get to see them nearly as often as i would like, especially now that i have three little ones and road trips are a bit more challenging, and even though this was a solidly joyful visit, in the back of my mind, i was acutely aware that this could very well be the last time i get to see my grandfather.

i have many deeply fond memories of my grandparents from my childhood that reach far beyond the way they looked. i remember how their house smelled. i remember my grandmother’s meticulous decorating and her treasured possessions. i remember the way my grandfather would point when he was talking (see above!) or telling a joke. his laugh is still the same now, although perhaps a little bit slower and quieter than it once was. i remember the way my grandmother would tilt her chin up to look down through her glasses at the right angle as she focused on a task. i remember how she would always find a way to let me help, the way she let my boys help get some decorations ready for the evening’s party, and the way she always had something small but special on hand for me to keep as a reminder of our trip to see her (i don’t think she really bought these harry potter glasses for herself like she said she did!).


when we walked into their apartment a few weeks ago, all of those memories came flooding back, the way they always do whenever we manage a trip down to see them. i was determined to create photos that held evidence of who my grandparents are- the things they value, the way they care for and live in their space, the way they love us, and the way they love each other.

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if i had asked them to stand next to each other and smile, they would have done that for me. they would have put their arms around each other and stood close and beamed because their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren were surrounding them. but this- this is so much more. i waited and i watched and i was rewarded with this brief but deeply real and pure exchange of smiles and touch and love that has lasted through time and through life.

the rest of our trip was full of moments, large and small, that held significant meaning for me, each in their own way- people, gestures, expressions, interactions, connections. each was a part of something larger than itself; these moments were and are the building blocks that when put together, create who we are as a family, with my grandparents at the foundation. they have spent their lives pouring themselves into us so that when the time comes, we can continue their legacy for them.

here’s what we need to keep in mind when we choose to have photos of our family taken- we are so much more than the outfits we put together or the way we do our hair or the way that we smile. well coordinated and posed family pictures in a stunning location are a beautiful keepsake to have (i have dragged my own family out for quite a few, believe me), but there is so much missing from them. they can showcase how our faces change throughout the years, but they can’t document how we grow in our hearts and in our souls and in our lives. they are an accurate and lovely representation of our physical beauty, but they simply cannot show the depth of our personalities or the way that we interact with the world. i am so thankful for the last photo shown above because it will help me always remember how my beautiful grandparents looked in that moment, but i’m even more thankful for the other photos in this post because they show me the legacy that they lived and will leave for us; they will forever make me feel the way i felt when i was with my grandparents then and now, and that is a treasure worth holding on to.