REDEFINE | Documentary Photography feature by Kristy Westendorp Photography

“There is only one sun. We can’t all claim to only have one way to use the light, but we can REDEFINE how we choose to express it. “


Why are you passionate about Documentary photography?

KWP : How much time do you have?! I love everything about documentary photography! I used to take lovely, posed portraits of families. And that was great; they make lovely Facebook profile pics! But ultimately that can feel so divorced from the reality of daily life. I am a big believer in the concept of “unmoments”. They’re the everyday occasions that feel mundane and unimportant when they’re happening but when we look back I just know all of those unmoments are what will make up the story of our lives. Our children will want to remember what their childhood bedroom looked like or their special cereal bowl more than they’ll want to remember that one day they went to stand in a field and smile at a photographer.

When I had my logo designed I knew immediately what I wanted to represent my work. I excitedly told my designer that it had to be a narwhal. Why? Because everyone seems to want to be a mermaid but (spoiler alert) they aren’t even real! Narwhals are real and magical. Digital retouching is so accessible these days that it’s easy to Photoshop away the messiness but in doing so we can also Photoshop away the truth. Digital retouching is so accessible that these days even people’s iPhone selfies are often unrecognizable from the reality of their true self. Rather than fantasizing about life looking like some fictionalized version of itself where the toys are always put away, hair is never messy and no one ever fights I believe it’s so important to embrace the “what is” of life. A life that’s often not always pretty but is continuosly beautiful.

When did you first learn about the art of Documentary Photography, When did you realize you wanted to pursue this genre professionally?

KWP : The first genre of photography I attempted was boudoir. I went all the way to Paris to learn how to pose women on beds and balconies. And I did that for a while. Some of it was ok, some of it was really bad. Then I had a baby. My studio (aka bedroom) was suddenly always a mess and my head was in a different space. So what did I learn to do? More posing! I took a mentorship with a wonderful newborn photographer to learn how to place newborns just so, capturing them sleeping and still like bowls of fruit or bouquets of flowers. Over time I started to notice this disparity between my professional work and my personal work. As I watched my own family grow I wanted to capture the realness of it, the movement, the truth of who we were and what our life actually looked like rather than these perfect posed moments. And the response was so different to my real life work vs my posed work whether of newborns or families. Looking at a photo of a sleeping baby you don’t really get a sense of who they are, who they will be or the context in which they exist. The images I loved from my newborn sessions started to become the ones before, after and in between the stuff I was supposed to be there to shoot. Baby nursing, dad getting spit up on, tired mom swaying back and forth trying to settle a fussy baby or even just the moments where they lay content but very awake. The photos that stood out from the family sessions I was shooting were the same. They were the real life frames I snapped when the poses weren’t working. (And might I add, they rarely do where toddlers and young children are concerned.) I started to wonder why I was doing the poses at all so I slowly started to migrate further and further away from it. It wasn’t until I’d been shooting like this for a little while that I realized there was a movement of other photographers who were feeling the same way. So I couldn’t say exactly when I switched over but it’s been a slow transition happening over at least the past four or five years. But I’ve been shooting pretty strictly documentary with no posing at all for just over a year because it’s just what feels right for me and my work.

What are the tips you would share with anyone trying to break into the documentary photography genre

1. Don’t fake it. I see so many photographers who say they are documentary but they want to go around turning on and off lights and opening and closing windows and oh, maybe the light would be a little better if you read that story a bit closer to the window? Now, I know a lot of people love lifestyle photography. And I understand the desire to make everything pretty. But if you really want to shoot documentary style try to think of yourself as a storyteller capturing the true story of a family. If they always read their stories in the bedroom that kind of has a weird colour cast- that’s ok! Make it work! That’s part of their memories and even though the front room with the big windows may be a prettier place for stories it’s not going to feel as true ten years down the line.

2. Forget that you ever heard the phrase “fly on the wall”. You’re not a fly on the wall. You’re not even a fly. (Presumably anyway. If you’re a photographer who is also a fly, reading this blog post I humbly apologize for making assumptions.) Whenever I hear fly on the wall I picture a photographer wearing some kind of a disguise huddled in a corner trying to go unnoticed. There is nothing that will make a family less likely to interact with each other naturally than being observed by a person who is trying to pretend they aren’t there. I think the best vibe you can give off as a documentary photographer is that of visiting friend or family member. You know when your aunt visits and she’s so funny that you don’t mind that she acts like she knows you even though last time she visited you were three and you have no memory of that even happening? Do that. Ask the 5 year old to show you his room. Make jokes where you guess that he’s 42 years old when you guess his age. Laugh when he makes fart sounds. If you can smoothly integrate in this way then you actually will be more likely to get authentic, relaxed moments rather than hiding in the bushes with your zoom lens.

3. Only show what you want to shoot. If your various portfolios are a mix of old posed stuff and new documentary work you will send a mixed message. I hear from new documentary photographers that they show up wanting to shoot real life but the family just keeps looking to them for direction. It’s your job to prepare them for the type of shoot you’re doing so make sure they’ve seen your work and that most of what you show isn’t camera-aware. And give them lots of info ahead of time as to what your shoot will be like. I usually tell my families to have some activities planned that they would be doing anyway. The point isn’t to capture the story of that activity but to give them something to focus on other than you and your camera.

What were the challenges for you in the beginning?

KWP: To be honest I didn’t have too many challenges in switching over to documentary because it just felt right. Most of the challenges came before that when I was trying to make things happen instead of allowing them to happen. I guess the only real hurdle for me in documentary has been educating people on what a family photoshoot can feel like and look like. I don’t like to generalize but…I’m going to anyway. A lot of dads are the ones that look super unenthused when they see me at the door with my camera. As the shoot goes on and they quickly realize they don’t really need to “do anything” they start to relax and I capture the moments of connection between them and their family. And it’s dads who tends to be the ones who are the most enthused when they see the final images and they freak out and want to get a photoshoot multiple times a year. So the challenge is really just getting the word out there that family photos don’t have to be a stressful hour of staring at a camera saying cheese.



Kristy Westendorp is a documentary photographer in Victoria, BC. In addition to telling true stories with her camera she also enjoys making pottery, playing the ukulele, afternoon naps, late night snacks and living room dance parties.


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