I was recently invited by Light.co, a brand new camera technology company, to write about how my photography career has evolved, along with my style and technique, in relation to technology. I thought this was such a great topic to write about, so here is my response.
And actually, it just so happens that I was doing some decluttering the other day and came across the very first camera that I ever owned. It was a small point-and-shoot, film of course, and I was in middle school at the time.
This was way before smartphone cameras or the internet became prevalent - in fact, people were only just starting to get “personal computers” in their homes.
You took 24 or 36 photos per roll of film, took it to be developed, and a few days later, picked up your prints, and then mounted your photos into albums.
I’m guessing most of you reading this are familiar with what I’m talking about, but our kids would be flabbergasted!
Like many of you I’m sure, my family has photo albums of various kinds from throughout my childhood, and I made albums myself through high school and college. It also happens that my father was a pretty serious amateur photographer and the bathroom in our house doubled up as a darkroom. He never photographed professionally, but he did submit his photos to competitions and won awards.
I, however, never considered photography as a viable career path when I was growing up - it never occurred to me.
As you may know, I went to architecture school, and it was in fact then that I got my first SLR and took a black and white photography course that included work in the darkroom. Yeah, and I also got my first email address in college! A couple of years after I graduated, I got my first point-and-shoot digital camera - I remember instantly loving the immediacy of it, and my SLR quickly started to gather dust.
So, photography had always been an interest, and in my life, but it wasn’t until I became a mom around ten years later that I consider that I became a photographer.
It was 2009, and I had just gotten my first iPhone the year before. I was really into knitting at the time and had been photographing a lot of my projects. Because of that, I attended a photography course given by Jared Flood, Founder and Creative Director of Brooklyn Tweed which back then was a knitting blog but I now see has expanded to become a pretty impressive yarn and textile design company - way to go Jared!
At any rate, Jared talked about DSLR photography, explained the benefits of a DSLR, and covered the exposure triangle, which I had become pretty rusty on since college.
And I decided that having a baby was the perfect excuse to get a DSLR, even though I actually secretly wanted it for my knitting projects!
Needless to say, the baby arrived, and I fell head-over-heels in love with photographing my new son, Liam, while in the meantime, knitting fell completely by the wayside.
For me, becoming a mother and becoming a photographer were so intertwined that it’s hard for me to imagine one without the other.
I remember late night feedings nursing Liam while editing photos on my laptop, studying my settings, googling tutorials, and learning my camera. Although I did go on to take photography courses later, I started out self-taught (although drawing on a vague recollection of knowledge from before).
Mostly my process was of "iterating fast," otherwise known as "trial and error." I would take photos, download them, study them to see what I did right and what I did wrong, and then try again.
I remember one photo “session” particularly well where Liam was wearing a blue striped onesie. On the one hand, it was the first time I felt like I was starting to get pictures that came out how I wanted them to out of more than sheer luck - in other words, with some intentionality.
At the same time, I remember the frustration when I looked at my downloaded photos and saw background objects that I hadn’t noticed in real time, such as an errant burp cloth, toy or book. I learned that, and many other lessons, fast!
So yes, I mastered the technical and creative aspects, but more than anything, what I experienced was the immense joy I got out of not just having good pictures of my baby, but from the process of taking them, not just on my DSLR, but on my iPhone too.
It had taken me a long time to become a mother, and for a time, I hadn't been sure that it was going to happen. Now that it was here, I was so grateful to have the opportunity that I wanted to experience it as fully as I could, and not let the challenges overwhelm the joys, or have any of it slip through my fingers if I could help it, the good, the bad, or the ugly.
I didn’t articulate it as such back then, but I see now: I wanted to be fully present.
And my camera helped me do that.
And this may sound strange, but my camera helped me fall in love with my baby, and fall in love with being a mom.
Of course, I would have anyway. But my camera made it easy.
My camera made the joys of motherhood tangible and visible, at a time when it can be easy to get lost in the challenges.
It is also a very overwhelming and exhausting time, especially that first couple of years, and especially if you’re a primary caregiver.
Not to mention that our culture in general, certainly here in the US, provides so little support for new moms (and moms in general).
Photography doesn’t fix that, and it shouldn’t have to.
But it IS an incredible tool that, if taught in the right way, can mitigate some of those negative effects by being a source, not just of joy, but of connection, reflection, validation, strength, and ultimately resilience.
When you’re having a bad day, your camera can help you let go of all the distractions and worries and focus on the moment and what’s in front of you.
Photography can help you process your feelings and gain some perspective. It can give you something to show for what often feels like the endlessly repetitive and thankless tasks of parenthood. It can give you a voice, help you feel seen, and create space for you at a time when everyone else’s needs seem to come first.
It can help you see the joy that you know is there but so often seems out of reach in the hustle and bustle of daily life with kids.
When you’ve had a bad day, it can be easy to focus on everything that went wrong, and beat yourself up for it too. The “highlights reel” you play back in your head of your day is actually the “lowlights reel.”
What I found as a new mom and still do to this day is that my photos can tell me a different story, one that, yes, acknowledges the bad moments, but also celebrates the good ones.
When I wonder if I’m doing a good job as a mom, I only have to look at my photos to feel comforted that yes, I am doing the best that I can, and that is enough.
How my career and my style and techniques have evolved over the past eight years has been in many ways in how I have been able to continue and deepen my own experience with this, and to articulate and convey it to others in my teaching, coaching and mentoring.
It’s a work-in-progress because I still find that it’s not easy to explain this, especially as most people have the opposite experience with photography.
Most people I talk to find that photography is a source of frustration rather than joy in their life and that it takes them out of the moment and gets between them and their kids.
They want to HAVE the photos of their kids because of the memories they capture and represent, but the COST of taking the photos as far as the stress and disruption it causes so often ends up not being worth it.
Or, those who initially fall in love with photography find that the more they study it and get immersed in the creative and technical aspects of the craft as it is traditionally taught, the less they want to photograph their own kids.
This is because it feels in conflict with and to the detriment of the experience that they want to have when they’re with their kids. I’ve spoken with professional photographers, even those who teach photography to others, who don’t use their DSLR much with their own kids anymore.
I don’t think a DSLR is for everyone, and I don’t even think taking a lot of photos of your kids even on your smartphone is for everyone, but I do think it’s a missed opportunity for many who would get so much out of it.
For me, the EXPERIENCE I get from photographing my kids, the joy I experience from using my camera to be fully present, is hard to overstate. Having the photos for years to come that captures those moments is frankly just icing.
Here are some of the shifts in technology that I see have most impacted our everyday experience of photography and its potential in our lives:
The shift from film to digital means that photography is a much more immediate experience - we can see our photos right away, which can help us to be more present, and we can look over our photos that night, which can loop in a process of reflection and validation.
The evolution and ubiquity of the smartphone camera along with editing apps means that almost everyone has immediate access to a pretty decent camera and “digital darkroom” without having to make the decision to purchase one. Petapixel reported a couple of years ago that 8 times more people are taking pictures than 10 years ago. This means that photography is more accessible than ever to the average layperson.
The creation and development of social media means that we have the ability to share our photos with hundreds, maybe even thousands or more people at the touch of a button while standing in line waiting for coffee. While this is not always a good thing, it CAN be an amazing thing.
The shift to cloud-based photo storage means that we have access to our photos anytime, anywhere, from almost any device. Again, this is not always a good thing but does present incredible potential in terms of the longevity of the personal stories that we can tell through our photos.
The rise in vendors who make it easy for us to create products from our photo feeds brings us full circle to the old days where we experienced our photos through prints. I still believe in the power of having our photos take physical form, but this means that we can do so in a curated way that best meets current as well as future needs.
Light.co asked me to include a photo from early in my career and to compare it to a more recent photo.
Below is an early photo of Liam from that “striped onesie” session I talked about earlier, as I edited it at that time.
This was one of my favorite early photos of Liam that wasn’t a newborn photo and was taken when he was around 9 weeks old and I was just starting to come out of that early haze of new motherhood. It was taken when I was specifically in the process of learning my camera, but also brought me so much joy (and still does).
I decided to choose a similar head and shoulders shot for the more recent photo of Liam, below.
Aside from the creative and technical improvements, what these two photos show is how I take a much more photojournalistic approach to my photography now as I’ve come to realize this is the only approach that allows me to use my camera to be more present and in the moment.
This is the only approach that enhances rather than detracts from my experience as a parent.
And what you wouldn’t necessarily know from simply looking at this photo is that it was taken right after the election, on November 12th, 2016 to be exact, when I was deep in grief, shock, and trauma, and was using photography as a means of tapping into joy for self-care and healing.
Now, more than ever, photography has become about resilience through joy - for me and those I coach.
I am clearer than ever in my personal mission to support women so that the world can be a better place for all.
Photosanity’s mission is to help women find joy and connection through photographing their kids, so they can be the best parent they can be, without sacrificing themselves in the process.
If you’re interested in learning more about how photography can help you find resilience through joy, I’d like to invite you to join one of my Resilience Through Joy workshops, either online or locally here in Brooklyn, NY. These are small group workshops where you get to share and connect with other women as well as myself and know that you are not alone in your struggles as well as your joys.
Here is what some of the participants have been saying:
"I appreciated the tone of the workshop where I felt supported and not judged. I loved listening to the different stories - I learned a lot just from listening to everyone. We all had different concerns but it made me feel that I'm not alone.
I'm so thankful for being able to capture moments like these that would have been just fleeting ones without my camera. Thank you Alethea for showing me the way."
"I just needed to tell you how uplifting that was! Yet another drop in the sea of reminders that we are all in this together! Thank you! I can’t wait to soak this up!"
"The workshop was a very affirming and encouraging experience for the participants.There is something normalizing in hearing what others struggle with in motherhood, and there is inspiration in hearing the parenting dreams of other mothers. I walked away inspired as to how I can focus my heart and my family on a few themes by highlighting them in my photos -- connection / relationship, growing up / milestones, discovery / learning, and grace."
To find out more and sign up for one of the upcoming dates for this workshop, go to http://resiliencethroughjoy.com.
Or if you’d rather chat with me one-on-one, you can sign up for a free Photosanity consult where we’ll get on the phone and talk about your biggest challenges as well as what you most want as a parent. I’ll give you your very own customized strategy for finding joy and connection through photographing your kids, as well as three steps to put it into action.