Photography

What Is Documentary Family Photography?

Discover a photography style that captures the intimacy, routines, and relationship ties of a family

If you are over 30, you will remember when your parents and grandparents used to pull out and show family albums to visiting family and friends. Together with many staged pictures, those albums are also full of spontaneous and unexpected snapshots.

In the days of analog photography, you could not see the result of your shots before developing them, which allowed for a lot more spontaneity.

And spontaneity is one of the main features of celebrated Brazilian photographer Grazi Ventura (@graziventura), a documentary family photography specialist.

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"Ciclos do Feminino," project by Grazi Ventura.

Documentary family photography depicts the unexpected, with only a little addition of style, quality, and storytelling.

A series of processes at the pre-production and editing stage and a few other techniques need to be in place before achieving a perfectly genuine family picture. Other tips will make all the difference to your shot.

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"Ciclos do Feminino," project by Grazi Ventura.

What is documentary photography?

Let us define documentary photography before we embark on a discussion about this photographic style.

It is a type of photography that prioritizes reality and aims to capture events, stories, conflicts, and scenes relevant to a specific community or group in a more artistic way.

It’s about freezing something that happens in the present moment and giving it a historical setting.

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"Ciclos do Feminino," project by Grazi Ventura.

Similar to photojournalism, it documents events to inform. However, while in journalism the photographer does not interfere with a scene and tries to capture it as informally as possible, in documentary photography (which also does not involve interference), the photographer gives more artistic direction. Therefore, the photograph acquires a more authorial look.

In documentary photography, the photographer’s role is to observe and record events of historical value.

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"Ciclos do Feminino," project by Grazi Ventura.

So, what is documentary family photography?

In this case, the objective is to record a family’s life, habits, routines, and behaviors as if there were no cameras. The photographer becomes an almost invisible observer and cannot direct or interfere with any of the settings or events that unfold.

For this to happen in the best possible way, it is necessary to create a special bond between the photographer and the subjects. This connection will allow them to become a natural part of the family group, albeit by behaving as a mere observer. In the end, it is imperative that people feel at ease for the shot to be as natural as possible.

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"Ciclos do Feminino," project by Grazi Ventura.

Documentary family photography requires speed of action and to be highly acquainted with the setting and living space of a family. This space is important because it adds a layer of meaning to the shots, thanks to simple activities such as eating together or a day at the park.

We could say that this type of photography is almost like a family heirloom, a timeless recording of different generations sharing their daily lives.

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"Ciclos do Feminino," project by Grazi Ventura.

6 tips for documentary family photography

Grazie Ventura shares some secrets and tips for using whenever you need when you start out in this discipline.

1. Always wear comfy clothes, so you can move around easily. You’ll need to sit or lie down on the floor, so don’t be too precious about getting dirty.

2. Find different places with unconventional and unusual angles from which to shoot. Make sure you capture something special that parents don’t usually think of.

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Grazi Ventura in action.

3. Look for instances in which parents are not present. When we are outsiders, we observe many things that parents don’t see, especially if they have more than one child. Many things happen within a household at the same time.

4. Engage in their activities and learn everything you can about the family. Play with the children and allow them to handle your camera. The closer they feel to you, the more comfortable and natural they will feel.

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Grazi Ventura believes it is important to allow children to handle the camera.

5. Rest when the family decides to rest. At lunchtime, eat. During a coffee break, have a coffee… You are never far away from your camera, of course, but Grazie believes that these breaks are a chance to connect, and this too can be crucial.

6. Be curious and attentive. Walk a lot, change spots, and delve into their situations. But be equally able to recognize a good positioning when you see it and stay awhile. Visualize a scene before it happens and wait patiently for it.

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"Ciclos do Feminino," project by Grazi Ventura.

References

Check out some of the most notable names in this field. These artists are a source of inspiration for all family photographers out there.

Alain Laboile

@alainlaboile

Alain is a French photographer who documents the life of his six children. His goal is not only to record intense and unexpected moments in their life but also to leave something behind. In his words:

"Although my work is deeply personal, it is also accessible. It reflects human nature and allows the spectator to enter my world and reflect on their own childhood. My photographic production is shared worldwide through social media on a daily basis and has become a way to question freedom, nudity, being, and having/owning.”
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Alain Laboile.
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Alain Laboile.

Sally Mann

@sallymannofficial

Sally Mann is a celebrated American photographer known for her family’s black and white portraits, which have been part of major exhibitions and published in the New York Times, among other press. Over her career, she has published various photo books, such as At Twelve (1988), Immediate Family (1992), Still Time (1994), What Remains (2003), among others.

“Few photographers of any time or place have matched Sally Mann's steadiness of simple eyesight, her serene technical brilliance and the clearly communicated eloquence she derives from her subjects, human and otherwise--subjects observed with an ardor that is all but indistinguishable from love.”

- Reynolds Price, TIME
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Sally Mann.
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Sally Mann.

Kirsten Lewis

@kirstenlphotog

Kirsten is considered one of the best family photographers globally and has developed a unique and unparalleled beach portrait style.

Her creative process involves spending 72 hours with a family, documenting as much as possible: life routines, interactions, and any detail that draws her attention.

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Kirsten Lewis.
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Kirsten Lewis.

Have you enjoyed this topic? Learn to capture real family moments with family photographer Grazi Ventura in her online course Introduction to Family Photography, in which she teaches pre-production, editing, and developing.

English version by @acesarato

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