Why I Photographed My Mother, And You Should Too
This is my mother.
She was about to turn 50 when these photos were taken. What is significant about them is not the fact that she looks happy and vibrant and beautiful, but what they represent, both to her and to me.
You wouldn’t know it if you met her, because she’s a very positive person, but her life had more than a fair share of difficulties.
Her mother got very sick when she was only about 12 years old, so she was tasked with raising her three younger siblings while she was still a kid.
She became a mom very young, having me at just 19 years old
As if being a young mom weren’t hard enough, my father was killed in an accident when they were newlyweds. I was only 5 months old at the time.
When I was about 15 or 16, she was driving to get lunch while I was at a horse show, and she was hit head on. Her entire face had to be reconstructed (you would never know it now).
About 11 years years ago, she was diagnosed with colon cancer - rare for someone her age at the time - and the fallout from that left her very self conscious.
With that came stress, and with stress came lack of appetite, so she lost weight, and that furthered the self-consciousness.
A few years after the first victory beating cancer, it came back in her lung, and she had to have another surgery. More trauma, more pain, more treatments, more sickness.
While never vain, she has always loved dressing up and looking nice, but after being diagnosed with cancer, she became much less excited to get in front of a camera. While she is now cancer-free for many years, it has remained a constant fear in the back of her mind.
To sum all that up, she's been through hell, so it’s no wonder that one’s personal confidence would take a hit.
Given all that, you can imagine what a challenge it was for me to not only convince her to do a shoot with me, but to capture images that I knew she would love. Talk about pressure!
It was also partially selfish on my part because I realized I had no really nice portraits of her, and I wanted them! A typical case of the “Cobbler’s children”, I’d been at that point a photographer for about 15 years, yet had never turned my camera toward my own family. How could I authentically speak to the importance of documenting your family, if I was not living it myself? And so began my mission.
We were going to be in upstate New York at my grandparents’, a place with a lot of meaning and spiritual connection. She agreed, and with her sister, we took off to find some amazing places to shoot, that also held personal meaning (for example, the old barn in the sunlight is across from her grandmother's farm; the silhouette in the slim light is her standing in the slightly-open door of the carriage house at the home where her mother grew up; the one of her with the little girl is my daughter - her granddaughter - who she always refers to as being the light that gets her up even in her darkest days).
After the shoot, I never showed her any proofs. I told her I had several weddings queued up before her and would get to hers after that. I knew her birthday was coming up soon, and I was biding my time. Out of about 120 proofs, I had the hardest culling job I've ever had, knowing my own mother's face as any child does, and being able to see through the shield that she had become so accustomed to wearing in public.
One of my realizations in that exercise was how incredibly difficult it is to bring someone who has been hiding to get them to take off their armor, even with their own daughter. Theoretically, of any photographer out there, I would hopefully be the one person she could trust to get it right.
In life, we get to catch glimpses of expressions only, but as a photographer, with the still moments before me on the screen, I could finally sit and look and see and study, just how much was there in certain photos, and how much was hidden in others.
So I chose and retouched the ones I knew were her best, ordered them as mounted 11x14 prints, bought a pretty box for them to go in, and flew up to Tampa to surprise visit for her birthday.
Remember, at this point she thinks I have not even looked at the images, much less have them there ready for her to hold, so she has no idea what’s coming.
I gave her the gift , and held my breath.
We were with the entire family, and remember she’s a private person so I was a little nervous honestly about showing her these in front of everyone.
What if she didn’t like them?
What if she felt like they revealed too much?
What if when she opened the box and realized what was inside, she shut it instantly and didn’t want to see?
But instead, what unfolded was magic. Normally when I do a print reveal, I put them up on the wall, spread them out, and make a big grand gesture about it.
This time, I had left them inside the box.
To see them, she had to take them out and experience them one-by-one.
She immediately became completely absorbed in the images, unaware of everyone else in the room.
Upon looking at the first one, she quietly began crying.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she smiled and held the images tenderly.
It was amazing to see her almost revere the photographs as precious objects.
She touched and felt, turned them over, inspected every inch, gazed for minutes at each one, quietly crying the whole time.
I was on the other side of the room, and just watched. It was a very moving moment for me.
As someone who does this for a living, sure, I watch the seminars about how our work matters, and I hear clients tell me they love their photos, but to see it HAPPENING in front of me with someone I love felt like a pivotal career and life-changing moment for me.
"This is what it's all about."
About 2 weeks went by, I’d gone home and was back to the usual grind. I got this message from her:
Please get photos of your mother. If you can hire someone to spoil her and make her feel glamorous for a day, great, but don’t wait for that.
If you have to shoot them with your iPhone, so be it…hell, grab one of those little “zip, zip, ZIP!” thumb-scrolly-made-of-paper-disposable Kodak instant film cameras from Walgreens if you have to. Go find some open fields, some old buildings, some meaningful locations, and get creative!