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A Photographer’s Gift To Their Family

Sep 1

In Birthdays, Thanks at 2:55am

One of the single best things you can do as the resident photographer of your house is give back the gift of your skills to your family. Be the domestic documentarian.

This is what we can do, as shooters. It is a small thing to give back, considering the preponderance of annoying stuff that goes along with just having a photog in the family. We’re pains in the neck, right? Not to mention absolute hell on relationships. If you’re a wedding shooter, bye-bye weekends. Sports shooter? Ditto. And, if you’re a serious, serious sports shooter, say of football, so long Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, potentially. If you explore the rock and roll scene, you stumble home at 3 am, sporting bloodshot eyes, with perhaps the whiff of reefer smoke picked up from the party hard crowd, only to slump in front of the computer and move your pictures.  And if you ever make it to shooting for the National Geographic, by certain estimations you have made it to the mountaintop of photography. And, what you may find, is that hard to attain peak can also be a graveyard for relationships . If you are a traveling sort of location photog, you miss lots of birthdays, first steps, and soccer games.

Photography is an endeavor that tries the patience of even the most forgiving spouse. We run when others stroll leisurely. We work while others party. We don’t buy advance tickets to grand shows or events for fear we might be on assignment and thus OOT. (Out of town.) When we call a potential subject, our first question is often, “What’s your schedule like?” To hell with our schedule. Our convenience, the mandates of our life, aren’t even on the table for consideration.

Thus, one of the very cool things any photog can do to tip the scales back even slightly in our favor is to be there to document the family’s life and times, such as your mother-in-law’s surprise 80th birthday party.

Mrs. Cahill has been a wonderful, loving, mom to me. Nothing I wouldn’t do for the lady. She accepted me as Annie’s choice all those years ago, and that is an amazing gift, indeed. So it was a hoot planning a surprise party for her, and helping Annie and her sisters, Nancy and Teresa, orchestrate all the energy, subterfuge, and back alley arranging this required. We even had Pietro and his staff, at Terra Sole, our favorite restaurant, ever, in on the deal. 

It was fun to do, despite the fact that I had to lie through my teeth to her. After all was said and done, I told Annie we both have to go to confession, big time. At one point, I was arranging things with mom, on the phone, and Annie was scribbling post-its and popping them in front of me. “Say this!” “Don’t say that!” “Say you are making a lunch party for me and she has to come!” I was lucky I didn’t end up that conversation with post-its all over my face. All the shenanigans worked!

Mom was completely floored, and Annie and I did our best to document the shock and then the flood of good wishes. Her friends were there, some from as far back as nursing school. She hadn’t seen some of them in as much as thirty years! Some of the ladies were in their upper 80’s. And, trust me, these gals knew a good party when they saw one. The room was buzzing.

Me? I was afraid mom was gonna be mad at me, so I stuck my face behind the camera and kept flashing, and looking busy. Didn’t really pose hardly any pix. Just shot and moved. Tried party pix with the #D810, and a bit of fill flash, and a 24-70. No light shapers, BTW. Straight up bounce through the diffuser dome. Manual on camera, TTL on flash. Worked out well. It was good to not have to think about it much, as I was so nervous mom was gonna read me the riot act.

(I woulda just blamed Annie and her sisters, for sure. Annie, Teresa and Nancy all worked hard to get this together. Which actually was another good example of how important pictures are to family life. Obviously the pix of mom Cahill’s early life and times were not made on pixels. Annie and Teresa culled the pictures, got scans done, and then Nancy, the resident artist of the family, started collaging like crazy.)

Now, we’ll make a nice album, which will be a simple keepsake for all concerned. And a remembrance, a sort of forgiveness, if you will, the next time I step forward and say, sorry, can’t be home this weekend.  Charlotte, the newest addition to the family, below in mom’s arms, will have pictures of her self and her great grandmother. Which is very cool. 

Happy birthday, mom!

More tk……

Lu says:

on September 1, 2014 at 6:18 am

Lovely pictures of the family! I’m also the guest behind the camera. Totally share the feelings.

Ed Rosack says:

on September 1, 2014 at 6:40 am

What a wonderful thought and post – thanks for reminding us!

Al says:

on September 1, 2014 at 7:38 am

Joe, another wonderful post. I am only a serious hobbyist, but have had the times where I wandered off to take a shot on vacation and my wife couldn’t find me. She may not care anything about the equipment or the camera settings, but she loves to look at the end result. I am very fortunate. She encourages me, gives me time to take my time to “get the right light” and doesn’t even raise an eyebrow when the packages from B&H and Adorama arrive at our door step.

JerseyStyle Photography says:

on September 1, 2014 at 7:52 am

I’m impressed/excited to read that even a pro shooter like yourself documents the family gatherings. I think I speak for a lot of us amateurs when i say many of us find ourselves the “domestic documentarian.” And it’s not such a bad thing. We’re telling the stories and preserving memories. ~ Mark

Jason says:

on September 1, 2014 at 8:07 am

Nice post Joe, I’m shooting more family stuff recently, documenting the parties – children growing up

Jim Ruppel says:

on September 1, 2014 at 8:36 am

Wonderful tribute.

Rob Feiner says:

on September 1, 2014 at 9:43 am

Great post, and as the resident photographer of my family, I can totally relate. Of course, when I photographed my mother-in-law’s 75th birthday, I only had a short timeframe,mad usual, before the annoyance factor of pointing my camera in her direction kicked in. :-)

Bob Friday says:

on September 1, 2014 at 10:47 am

Been doing this at family & friends gatherings forever and it is very gratifying. But you’d never know I was at any of these events because I’m never in front of the camera and rarely, if ever, end up in a photo. And, truth be told, I wouldn’t mind being part of the documentary record and history. Anybody feel the same?

Wolfgang Lonien says:

on September 1, 2014 at 11:11 am

I understand, Joe. But don’t forget to sometimes hand it over to some of the relatives as well – they will cherish the photos which contain *you*, I’m sure.

Be well,

Fred Langer says:

on September 1, 2014 at 11:40 am

Wonderful post – thanks for sharing!

Brant says:

on September 1, 2014 at 3:47 pm

Such a wonderful post Joe, thanks so much for sharing. I can relate to the part about being the photographer in the family. Most go run and hide when Brant whips out his “big” camera , as my wife calls it :)

You’re a good man for being there to capture such wonderful memories such as your mom in law’s 80th bday party.

Have a good day!

Brant Thompson

nate parker says:

on September 1, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Really beautiful work Mr Joe. As mine own family documentarian I feel your pain and stress regarding making those images, I just tell them “you’ll thank me later”. Of all the images I’ve made seemingly photos like these become the most invaluable and important. Huzzah!

Ken Michaelchuck says:

on September 1, 2014 at 7:46 pm

What a wonderful blog! As the official “Family Photog” in my family since I was about 10 years old, I can relate. I have taken many a course and Photo Safari from you Joe and loved every minute, but must admit, this is one of the neatest things I have seen from any “Pro.” Thanks,
p.s. I am now 68 years old. Had I not taken those black and whites of my family with my little Brownie when I was young (and poor), we would have no photos of them.

Johan Sopiee says:

on September 1, 2014 at 8:59 pm

awwwww.. the pictures tell a lovely story. so sweet..

Vicki LeBlanc says:

on September 1, 2014 at 9:17 pm

How cool! Love the way you tell (write) a story. It made me tear up reading and seeing the photos. I so wish I could have done this for my grandmother. Now you have inspired me to do this for my mom! You and Annie are the best!!

dr frank says:

on September 2, 2014 at 4:47 am

Great post! So true!

Alex Atienza says:

on September 2, 2014 at 9:36 am

I agree with Wolfgang Lonien. I don’t mind being the domestic documentarian, I love it in fact. And as much as I enjoy taking the pictures instead of mine being taken, I do hand over the camera (pre-set) to someone else just to include myself in the celebration. I am part of the family after all. And while a few people will ask who took the photographs, most will simply just not notice that you’re not in the pictures and to them you’re simply not there.

Brian Orcutt says:

on September 2, 2014 at 11:49 am

Such a story! heart warming!

Simon Fleming says:

on September 2, 2014 at 9:12 pm

Really nice post Joe, and one that hit’s home in many ways.

I’ve always enjoyed documenting my family & friends photographically and there has been many occasions over the years where those images have taken on an extra level of appreciation. The one down side is, as pointed out to me by many, is that I rarely appear in any photos myself (maybe not such a bad thing if you’ve seen my mug). I recently helped with a similar project for my wife’s 90 year old Grandma which was fantastic. Having lost my Grandma when I was quite young she feels like she is genuinely my grandma too – and is one of few people I have met who genuinely gets my sense of humour & comes back with her own.

Joette says:

on September 3, 2014 at 2:03 pm

I absolutely love reading this post. It’s true, we photographers work a lot and I find that pulling out the camera to photograph my own family has felt like “work” too. So, I don’t do it. And I should. Because at the end of the day, my kiddos are growing up and I’m going to miss seeing their faces this little. Thank you for reminding me of what’s truly important.

Michael says:

on September 4, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Very lovely! I feel just like I was there. Photos truly are very powerful. I actually very recently proposed to my now-fiancé using a picture book that documented our story. Thanks for sharing!

Eric Carlino says:

on September 4, 2014 at 5:27 pm


You are a class act, all the way, in every way.

Nikolay Mirchev says:

on September 6, 2014 at 2:41 pm

This is the sort of photography I love!!! Full of content and peoples stories.

Bojan says:

on September 11, 2014 at 6:36 pm

Thanks for sharing this story and the reminder.

Allen Cook says:

on September 16, 2014 at 2:04 pm

I agree with Eric Carlino…you’re a class act, Joe. It’s almost always expected that my wife and I would be equipped with our Nikons and willing to document whatever occasion we happen to be attending (recital, picnic, etc). Giving back or contributing to, is always appreciated. And it’s fun. Sometimes a cell phone camera just doesn’t cut it! Thanks again, man.

Valent Lau says:

on September 21, 2014 at 10:32 pm

The great thing about family is that they always love our photos.

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