“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. “
What makes a strong Documentary photograph in your opinion?
Such a good question! Magnum photographer Eve Arnold said, “If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.” So, what makes a strong documentary photograph, in my opinion, is a strong documentary photographer. Obviously, we all have access to the same super talented teachers and mentors – and social media gives photographers access to one another, for learning, growing, and friendships. Because of this wide access, I think we all know the elements: light, composition, moment. We know that a strong photo tells us more than the facts recorded in the image: it reveals the connections and relationships between people (or things) in the photo, it reveals the emotions related to those connections and relationships. I’ve really loved what Kirsten Lewis Bethmann has had to say lately about photos showing us how something feels. To come close to doing that, we as photographers have to also FEEL a way about the things we’re photographing. It’s so easy as working photographers (and here I really mean working moms because SO many of us in this family documentary genre ARE working moms) to focus on business, on delivering a quality product, on providing our clients with excellent experiences, all while maintaining the elusive work-life balance. But all that stuff crowds into the space that we need to BE and to FEEL. I’m awed by how many of the great artists, photographers included, had really messy personal lives. I say that not to imply that we working mom artist/photographers should throw our lovely lives on the trash pile and rush into Diane Arbus level craziness for the sake of our art, but I DO think we might need to embrace a little bit of selfishness in order to let our feelings surface more, and work from that place – the place of having an emotional perspective. If, as Eve Arnold suggests, the photographer, not the camera, is the instrument, then we should give our inner lives as much attention as we do to the gear and we choose for our work. We should spend as much time knowing ourselves as we do watch live critiques and taking classes and commenting on each other’s photos. Because a strong documentary photograph makes you FEEL something.
Tell us about your documentary work, how did you get started?
I was always drawn more to candid images than posed ones, but for a long time thought I needed to shoot what people want, in order to have a business. That’s not a bad way start out, because it’s good to learn to deliver, and it’s good to learn to build a business. And you need some money coming in. So my family and children’s work was “lifestyle” and “candid”, but it was still really mainstream. At the same time, I got good, I built a solid business, I made a comfortable living doing work I enjoyed. Then, (again, like many of us!) I noticed a Creative Live course on natural family photography with Kirsten Lewis… and realized there was this whole approach that was sort of the opposite of what I’d worked really hard to get good at. And I WANTED IT! I say “sort of opposite”, because it wasn’t entirely opposite: all the great lifestyle work I’d learned to shoot, all the great natural light skill I’d developed, all the ability to make clients comfortable was VITAL to making a successful switch to a documentary approach without hamstringing my business in the process. I definitely started with my son – he was around 3 at the time I started looking at Kirsten’s work and learning more about documentary family photography. The summer that he was 4 years old, I did a summer-long photo-a-day project with him, and that really supercharged my passion for the approach. I made a LOT of photos and a few of them were good. I started giving my clients more and more freedom in our sessions in order to capture authentic moments. And I started suggesting to them different types of sessions that would give me more chances to shoot documentary images, even while still delivering the more directed images they were used to. Little by little I’ve invested in mentoring both in how to SHOOT documentary work, and how to MARKET effectively, and I’m so happy to say that I’m gaining more and more documentary clients, and bringing past clients along helping them love it too.
And then in fall of 2016, I also started shooting street photography. At first it was just as an outlet to counterbalance all the “cute” and “ideal” images I took for families. I wanted some grit, some weird, some hard, some ugly. Turned out, what I also wanted was some REAL and some CHALLENGING. Not only has my street photography work become a fully developed aspect of my art, it has become a pretty amazing training ground for family documentary work! And at this point, which you’ll see in the images I’m sharing with this feature, is now actually informing and influencing the way I shoot families! I’m working right now to develop a particular approach to family documentary photography that is informed by street photography – even to the point of actually getting out in the city with families.
What were the challenges for you in the beginning?
Oh Lord. Everything. I wasn’t that good. I mean, I wasn’t awful, but all that stuff I said about what makes a good documentary photograph – yeah, I had none of that. And obviously I was also trying to cultivate a desire for documentary photos in my clients – all while producing really mediocre images. I’ll never forget a particularly hard critique at the end of a group mentoring class I took. Of the 50 or so images I submitted, most were completely ignored – the only comment being just, “No.” The ones that got feedback got mostly, “There’s no moment here,” and “Close but not really right,” and “If you had only just…” I think maybe there was some positive feedback but it was lost in the painful truth that my best images were mostly just so-so. But – ugh – I NEED to hear stuff like that. It pushes me. I’m the kind of person who cleans my house when I get pissed off. I’m the kind of person who needs to get pissed off to push past my own comfort zones. So I was motivated, but I also felt lost as to how to improve. Fortunately, a fellow photographer offered her first workshop a few weeks later and it was JUST what I needed to push past some of my blockages. She excelled at pinpointing ways for me to expand, and she’s the one who helped me realize that my path lay in integrating my street and family photography approach.
The other challenge is one I think we all know well: connecting with the people who want this kind of work. I’m more convinced than ever that real connection happens when you start shooting from your gut and sharing that gut-level work. Some people will always just want a pretty picture that shows an ideal version of their family they can feel happy to see. But there ARE people who want something more. They want to see their families through the eyes of someone who really gives a fuck. …I’m working hard to make sure that not only do I truly give a fuck, but I also can make someone else give a fuck when they look at my picture.
Why are you passionate about your work being strictly documentary?
Full disclosure: I’m in the middle of the fall season shooting golden hour mini-sessions in parks for families in coordinated outfits. I’m not yet “strictly documentary”. But, I hope next year I’m not shooting these because I can feel it when I’m shooting: I don’t love them. On the other hand, every opportunity to put a willing human being in front of my camera is an opportunity to practice something, and right now that means practicing how to create images that have the feel of my street work, even when I’ve just got nicely dressed siblings in ideal light being a little too posed for my taste. Recently, a dad emailed me upon receiving his mini-session gallery and told me, “That black and white photo of my sons in the tree made me stop in my tracks. I like a lot of the other pictures of them, but that one is art. It reminded me of photographs I’ve seen in museums. You made something really special and I can’t stop looking at it.” I learned that a documentary approach isn’t always limited to documentary sessions. When you shoot and process from your gut, that comes out whether you’re getting a kid taking a clandestine pee in their backyard, or a couple of nicely dressed boys in a tree in the park. And when you shoot from your gut, it gets noticed.
But as to why I’m passionate about shooting documentary work, I was about to say all that stuff about keeping it real, and capturing life honestly, and giving my clients beautiful images of their actual lives… and that’s all true. I DO love seeing the real, the raw, the true – kids are just fascinating and beautiful and crazy and parenting is a big messy, emotional, gorgeous process. Photographing that is AWESOME. But deep down, I’m passionate about shooting the way I want to shoot. About being free to grow and develop as an artist, about doing what makes ME happy. About pushing myself. About creating something that only I can create in this world.
I can’t say I’ll always shoot this way – I think I might, but the day may come that I want to create elaborately controlled images like Annie Leibowitz does or studio portraits like Irving Penn’s tradesmen series. I want to always be able to shoot what I want, the way I want.
What are the tips you would share with anyone trying to start shooting documentary?
- Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” He said that while working with an 8×10 field camera on individual sheets of film. So I guess probably multiply that number by 10 for the digital age… So: shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot and when you’re sick of it, take a nap, and get up and shoot some more. You’ve got to get those first hundred thousand worst images done.
- Invest in yourself, but be picky as hell. There’s literally endless content and classes and mentorships available now. Selling stuff to photographers is a bigger business than photography will ever be. You need to learn/study/practice, but you don’t need it all. Be super picky and do the BEST classes – save up and put the money into one or two very high-value learning opportunities rather than every $30 breakout and $50 download. As much as possible, find the opportunities that put you face to face and one on one with people who inspire you, and who get good reviews from other people who inspire you. If you have a hero you’d like to learn from, skip a step and find out who THEY learn from, then go there.
- Learn about photography in general – that is, get past the big names in “family documentary photography” and learn more about the masters of photojournalism and the men and women who shaped the early years of photography. Look at contemporary photography. Don’t limit your education to the genre you shoot. I’ll never forget when Beyonce released her “maternity photos”. Family photographers all over the place were losing their shit over how “tacky” they were, I included. Until a photographer with more exposure to the modern photography world shared more about the artist who created those images – and I realized my mockery came from a place of ignorance. The more I learned about the artist the more I understood the meaning of the photos he had created – and the more I learned about Beyonce as a human being – AND the more I learned about my own cultural awareness and feelings about race and power. My point here is this: don’t be a dummy like I was. Expand your mind!
- Shake things up and try something new. For me, it was street photography. This is where I learned what it feels like to be completely “in the zone” as an artist. It helped me overcome fears about boundaries, and hone the ability to make lightning-quick decisions about light, composition, and moment. As well as teaching me patience and pushing my own work ethic. It also opened up a whole new sense of understanding myself and being bold enough to make work look the way I want it to look. All these things stretched me and brought me new insight. That makes me a better photographer of families too.
- I just read this quote from photojournalist/documentary photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith: “Think about what you want to say. Think about what you care about. And then photograph that.” Which reminded me of another quote from David DuChemin (I think – he might have been quoting someone else), “If you want to be a better photographer, read a book.” These are reminders to me that what I shoot comes from my perspective on the world. The more I develop a perspective, the more I know myself, the better I can convey something in my photos. And we all want to see photos that convey something – no one wants photos that leave us feeling nothing. So take a walk, meditate, tap into your views, get a great therapist, talk with people, get sure-footed about what you really think. Give a fuck.
- Be kind to yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you. Have buddies you can troubleshoot with. Give as much as you can, and take everything you need.
Has there been any education that you have done to further your work?
Marie Masse’s 12-week Moment Seekers course on business/marketing and group mentoring.
Kirsten Lewis’s CreativeLive courses and group mentorships.
Stacey Ilyse Craft’s workshop and group mentoring.
Eric Kim’s extensive free content and in-person street photography workshop in NYC
Lots and Lots of great photography books and museum exhibits and gallery talks
Michelle Morris’s material on school photography which led to me shooting AND writing an ebook on DOCUMENTARY school photography which just released!!
On my bucket list:
a David Allen Harvey workshop, some kind of overseas street photography experience
ABOUT THE ARTIST:
Katie Jett Walls is a documentary photographer, specializing in family photography, and street photography in the Washington DC area. With over 12 years of professional experience in the family and children’s photography field, her photojournalistic approach is supported by technical expertise and an easy rapport with adults and kids alike. She is the author of a book for photographers on shooting documentary school portrait photography. Her street photography work is a personal passion, and has been included in group shows throughout Washington DC, and was recently selected for the annual Best of IGDC Exhibition. Buy her new guide: Shooting + Selling documentary school portraits
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