A few years ago I experienced an epic hard drive failure. It was just before external hard drives held huge capacities and were easily connected. So, I sat there staring at a smoking drive while it whizzed and clicked, knowing nothing was backed up. The sticker shock of a full on recovery was quickly forgotten as soon as I had all my data back in my hands. It had taken about 8 months of regular payments for us to get it back, so as soon as I did, I immediately plugged it right into my CPU and listened to it come to life with a healthy “whir” that could only mean I’d soon be previewing gigabyte after gigabyte of my family photos.
I scanned through each folder: Lola’s birth, Mother's Day 2008, Zoe's fifth birthday. It was an amazing feeling, but the more folders I went through, the more I wondered where all my images were, until I realized the truth- all the normal, everyday images of my family life I had assumed were there, just didn't exist because they had never been taken.
When you're a photographer you're always working. You see the world in frames, and for me at least, that meant I started putting the camera down when I was with my family. It would only come out on those big occasions that marked time like a metronome. And as I sat in there weeding through a glow of images, all I wanted to see was something normal: Breakfast, a messy syrup-covered face, bath time on a Tuesday night, maybe even a tantrum.
It was this experience, along with a section in Jonathan Canlas' book Film is Not Dead, that helped me realize that I have a responsibility to myself and to my family, to capture them just like I would any client, if not more so. This means being intentional. It means budgeting time, and with your less-camera-friendly family members, it means being accommodating. It also means that your responsibility goes beyond the photo taking. If you are going to capture your family in the right way, then you need to be making prints and books. Digital files are not photos, they’re files. Make prints, send them to people, watch their faces light up when they look at a picture of their grandkids or themselves even. Making time for all of this is not easy, but it is worth it.
Here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way:
• Set a goal. I work better on time, so my current goal is once a season to let my daughters wear whatever they want and give them a personalized mini-session. My ultimate goal is to do this once a month.
• Forget the location. A session doesn't need to be hours long, and if you make it shorter, then you might have people wanting to get their picture taken more often. Some of my favorite portraits of my father were at a holiday party where I pulled him aside and shot a roll of him up against a blank interior wall.
• Educate your loved ones. We let our girls use all of our gear to take pictures of us. It gets them excited about photography, and shows them and the rest of our family that we're not afraid to get our pictures taken too.
• Hide the bad photos. I never delete bad images or destroy negatives, but I will hide most crooked smiles and double chins. No one is going to want to let you take their picture again if they hate the way they look in everyone of them. Capturing real life is beautiful, even when its not flattering, but I wouldn’t push this point at the expense of a family member’s feeling.
For me, the process of capturing my family and cataloging life is always evolving, it has to be. My dedication level is not where I want it to be, but I can tell that with some small steps, I’m getting closer. I know in the years ahead I’ll thank myself when I can look back and see time stopped, if even for a little while.
Contributor Bio: Matthew Novak is a Photographer & Designer based just outside of Manhattan. He is half of the husband and wife photography team Tin Sparrow Studio and a freelance tablet designer at Bon Appétit.