Every August we head to our family cottage on the shores of quaint little Black Lake in Ontario. What’s usually a quiet, serene property nestled among towering pines on the quiet shores of an unassuming lake, transforms into a week-long family ruckus of loud personalities, passionate (yet, trivial) arguments, and a cacophony of screaming children. There are 4 siblings, 4 spouses, a set of grandparents, and 8 grandchildren. Somehow we survive 7 days with each other. I am not sure how.
A typical day involves lots of swimming, pranks (this year we hid my brother’s shoes every day for 7 days straight), amazing home-cooked meals (we take turns cooking), Lanny’s amazing cocktails, more swimming, a 30-minute argument about who is the most famous Michael in history, and a game of charades before bed. It’s chaos, but it’s a kind of beautiful chaos.
Documenting this annual chaos has become my longest-ever personal project. This year will mark my twelfth year. Below are some lessons I’ve learned — or, more accurately, I’m learning — through the process. These lessons have trickled into my professional work like food colouring trickles into water. Just a few small drops change the whole colour.
- My favourite photos are never the same as my family’s. My family has good taste — for the most part. I have to say that because they’re reading this (hi fam!). But they don’t have the same taste that I do when it comes to photography. Which means it’s useless for me to search for validation from them when it comes to images. Their favourite pictures will always be of the people they love. But, not always the same ones I find the most impactful.
- What it actually means to photograph from the heart. I’ve heard the phrase “photograph from the heart” bounced around the photography world for years. But, I didn’t truly understand it, until I started photographing my family. Photographing from the heart doesn’t make it easier. There is Erika, the wedding photographer. And there is Erika the mom, wife, aunt, daughter, and sister who is photographing. When I am photographing from the heart, I have no need for gimmicky tricks. My photos come from a place of innate interest in my subjects, in this case, my family. It’s important that I try to bring that same interest to my clients.
- Being a photographer means being a photographer 100% of the time. I cannot turn my photography brain on or off. I used to think this was a curse, preventing me from being able to be in the moment. But I’ve since realized that being a photographer makes me see and appreciate moments, more than ever before, making me more in the moment than ever. Whether I have a camera in my hands or not is irrelevant.
- Every year I question whether or not I should continue this project. Every year, it’s the same location. Same people. Doing the same things. There are only so many angles you can get water skiing from. The resistance in my head tells me that all the photos are going to look the same as all of the previous years. And, if I am being completely honest, they do look very similar. But, there are subtle shifts, if you study the photos hard enough (which no one, other than me, will care to do). Just as the kids grow each year, but so slowly, it’s hard to notice, as does our photography. Every once in a while there might be a growth spurt (which is a noticeable shift). If I look at the first three years (much like the change from a newborn to a three-year-old), the shifts are much more noticeable. The longer I grow, the less my growth is noticeable. But it’s there.
- What I am making isn’t created for instant gratification. In fact, it’s not even for gratification in this lifetime. Much like an artisanal furniture maker from hundreds of years ago crafted pieces to last for generations that have become heirlooms. That’s how I think of these photos. They’re for the current generations, but they’re also for people who don’t even exist yet.
- It’s not all magical… in fact, the majority of it isn’t. Many of the photos I take are pieces of shit. Most of the photos I take are mediocre. And, by most, I mean well over 99%. But, they’re mediocre photos of people I love. People I am curious about. And every once in a while I’ll notice something different. An observation of something I didn’t see before. These photos account for about 0.01% of the collection. This 0.01% is the ART I strive for. And, they would NEVER exist without taking the other 99.99% of photos.
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