Intentional Family Portraiture: the critical work of photography in the home

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What is the purpose of the family portrait hung in your home? Let’s agree if you wanted a reminder of what the whole gang looks like, you’d just get a big mirror. And yet, many families proudly display photographs that do little more than document the weight gains and haircuts, the relentless march of time and it’s concomitant facets of growth and decay. I want more for your portrait, and your family. I propose there should not only be a purpose to your portrait, but an effect. It should do something in your home, for your family.

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Your portrait should tell a story about your family that affirms your core values, encourages pro-social relationships, and, as the years progress, chronicles the unique strength of your clan.

Ever been to therapy? If so, you may be familiar with the idea that you create “stories” about life that shape both your perception of the present and delimit the opportunities you’ll seek in the future. Many of the stories we live are narratives inherited from our parents. They can be everything from, “I’m a hard worker and a realist who strives toward, and is able to achieve, pragmatic goals” to “mothers sacrifice everything for their families, that’s why good moms are always sad.” The experts of the 1970s convinced a generation of parents of the paramount value of building up the “self-esteem” of their children. Subsequently many children of the 1980s were told, “you’re the smartest kid in your class!” without any supporting evidence available in the real world. Some contemporary thinkers now argue that these false stories and the inner conflict they bred, led to kids who felt entitled to success or who were/are fearful of taking on challenges that might contradict the accuracy of their theretofore unearned praise. Of course, many of us were also taught the old fashioned way, through conversation, storytelling, and modeling however subtly, (but also persistently, and effectively,) our unique limitations and gifts to the world.

I contend a family portrait can be an opportunity to (literally) frame a positive, productive family story in the center of our homes.

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For instance, let’s deconstruct this photograph. Mom and Dad are sharing a private giggle. Their moment of shared laughter is genuine. You can tell this by observing the way the corners of their mouths curve, and the smile lines near their eyes. Even if you’ve never studied the “Duchenne smile” you instinctively recognized the difference between these smiles and the ones they’d compose for, say, a photographer asking them to, “say cheese.” Meanwhile, their young son is in a “camera aware” position. His breaking of the fourth wall puts us, the viewer, into cahoots with the boy. It’s as though his expression of “geez, these two love birds!”’ is ours.

The boy’s contentment and pleasure is plain. The subtext of the photograph is, “our happy and fulfilling marriage provides the joy and safety in which our child can grow.” The verdant scenery and the warm, golden sunset all support this message of growth and harmony. Even their collective pose, the structurally sound triangle, signals.

Boy swinging with parents in Sacramento by Rachel Sima Photography

Now, it’s possible you read this, looked up at at the framed formal portrait above your mantel and thought, yup, I have no idea what this says about us.

Here’s two suggestions:

  1. Start with the question: What’s going on this picture? Look for concrete aspects of the photo to support your perspective. Ask yourself: what do I see that makes me say that? When you’ve finished that, ask: what more can I find? Teaching this process, a methodology called Visual Thinking Strategies, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was once my full time job. I have an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, but I’ve seen a first grader without the benefit a single critical theory class pull this off just the same. That said, it needs to be picture with something to say.

  2. Let me take your photograph, and deconstruct it with you. I can support your family in identifying, framing and sharing the specific story of your family in a way that will empower the whole tribe. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s do this.

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