On the Importance of Photographing Friends and Family

I was recently in Melbourne visiting two of my best friends Timmy and Della and their adorable kids Michael and Chloe. I was essentially given an all-access pass to them for two weeks, getting the full suburban Australian parenting experience. I joked with Della saying how this was part of my Meet the Jones project, a photographic journey of a regular middle class suburban Australian family. I photographed them freely, mainly with one camera (Fuji X100S). I wasn’t pressured into taking photos (I was never asked to), but found myself reaching for my camera more often than not. Best of all, I shot them in a style that is reflective of the work I want to create. 

I really enjoyed being there to see the mundane and routine tasks that the average family had to go through day in and day out. I was there to see Chloe feeding (then puking it up minutes later), Michael learning to rebound on the outdoor basketball hoop, going for long walks at the beach house, and grocery shopping with babies in tow. It was something I am so far removed from in my current life stage but was curious about. More than that, I got to spend quality time with my best friends, got cuddles from Michael and kisses from Chloe – the whole Jones family even got to spend their first Chinese New Year with my parents (who happened to be visiting at the same time) and my Aussie family consisting of my uncle, aunt, and some kick-ass cousins.

When I got back to Toronto, I went through the images of the Jones and felt there were a few that were quite strong. In search of some editing assistance, I showed the images to street photographer and close friend Eric Kim who went as far as to say that this was my best documentary work. After getting another five opinions from other friends and respected photographers, I knew I had a piece of work that was worth sharing. 

At Eric’s recent photography lecture in Toronto, he mentioned the importance of taking photos of your friends and family. I know, simple enough idea right? He spoke about how we invest so much time and energy trying to capture random moments of complete strangers on the street, but neglect to put that same effort when it comes to photographing our loved ones. I’m totally guilty of this. As someone who makes a living largely on documenting special moments for clients, I rarely choose to do the same when it comes to my own friends and family. It is a really weird thing and something I need to improve on. 

For me, I think the problem is that when it comes to photographing my family, they want images that I’m not particularly keen on taking; the standard posing with family and smiling into the camera. It’s not exactly inspiring to photograph. And especially not inspiring when your mom is nagging you to take more photos because you are supposed to be “the photographer”. 

I realize that my aging parents won’t be around forever. My dad just turned 80. That’s totally insane to me. I don’t want to regret not taking more photos of him, my family, and friends. These images are important! They’re part of a family legacy and story of friendship that will be around longer than we will. They’re evidence of the lives we’ve touched and of the lives that have touched ours. 

Toronto documentary photographer, archivist, and friend Patrick Cummins said in the documentary The Impermanence of the Ordinary that the only way to capture time is in slivers. 

“You can’t stop time, you can’t record time that way. You have to record it in bits and pieces as it slips along. Try to capture slices of it…and some of these will jump out more - like the drastic changes. And some of them won’t -  like the subtle changes…but they’re all there.” 

We can’t document lives (or things) in their entirety from start to finish, but we can capture snippets of them in time. So why not do it as often as we can? We don’t want to have the regrets of not having photographed something when we had the chance to. The great thing about photographing our loved ones is that they’re the one subject that most of the people reading this have access to. We don’t need to travel to exotic places, climb up a mountain at sunrise, or wait for some random decisive moment to happen serendipitously. When we do revisit these photos of our family and friends, we will see both drastic and subtle changes through the slippage of time. Are these ultimately the most important photos we will ever make?

My friend Josh White may have put it best: “Old and dying, the photos of friends and family you’ll appreciate the most. Looking at a wall full of them, you’ll be looking at a wall of your life for better or worse. I doubt I will give a shit about any of the ‘better’ photos I took. I would give every photo I took to have taken one photo of my father, by my hand, before he died. I could give a shit about the rest.” 

So my challenge to you all is this: photograph your family and friends with the same effort that you would photograph a client or a stranger on the street. Challenge yourself to get an epic Facebook profile picture of a friend or surprise your parents with a nice print (or photo book) from a recent family event. Get things printed! Hard drives and data will eventually fail unless you constantly update your drives and transfer your data. A hardcopy archival print or book will stand the test of time, not to mention how rare and nostalgic they’ve become in the digital age. The next time you are out with your friends or family, don’t forget to take more photos, even if mom is nagging you about it. 

A Note from Della Jones

“Meet the Jones started as a joke amongst friends, with us thinking that our stereotypical daily life could not possibly be the subject of a photography project. Of course we were totally at ease with Neil in our home as he is one of our dearest friends and particularly loved watching him interact with our children. 

As a traveller and guest he was adamant that this trip was all about hanging out and spending time together, no tourist attractions or planned activities, just us; his photo taking of our ‘real life’ went largely unnoticed. 

At first glance the images do seem just that, real. They are slightly confronting and I was challenged with the idea of showing pictures in which we’re not smiling and looking like a polished and poised family unit. The subsequent glances and some words from Neil have opened my eyes and mind though. I look at these pictures and see absolute beauty in the mundane. My husband’s weary brow, my son’s nonchalance, my daughter’s inquisitive eyes. The project is a true reflection of us, guards down but hearts full.”

[View the entire Meet the Jones project in sequence]

Also of Note: to get a better idea of how to awesomely capture your loved ones, check out the work of my friends Ricky Cheong and Caspar Claasen. Both of whom document their families in very unique and beautiful way. They do so in a way that is consistent with the way they see and photograph everything else. It’s really stunning stuff.     

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