The Importance of Documentary Photography

Photography became part of my life during a summer camping trip in the Canadian Rockies when my parents put a basic film camera in my hands and told me I had a three-roll quota for two weeks. The incredible scale of landscapes in the National Parks is what led me down the path of becoming a geologist, where there was always a camera in my field pack. Eight years ago, I paused my career to stay at home with my girls when I had my second baby. I simply couldnʼt imagine a life in the field, away from my family.
A few months into the role of full-time parenting, a friend introduced me to a photo community where I began taking workshops to learn how to make better photographs. A couple more years into that, I found documentary photography and I am forever changed because of this genre.
To me, documentary photography is so much more than an approach. It is a way of thinking, not just about photography, but about life. You make the photo with the technical elements - thing like light and composition - in mind, but it is the story that you tell that says who you are and how you see the world. Documentary photography necessitates that you, the photographer, observe the world and interact with people as humans, not subjects. It is a fluid and dynamic process where you experience and express your point of view and art. I look at the work of Gordon Parks, Daniella Zalcman, Lynn Johnson, and Sam Abell. They inspire me to let go of preconceptions, embrace the reality, and express it from a place of intention and empathy.
Even though I have been photographing for five years now, I know my art is still taking shape, and I know it will always evolve. Some days it will feel like a plateau that is stretched out and stagnant, but other days, it is a powerful and meaningful voice with momentum. No matter the day, my ideal is always to use documentary photography to advocate for human stories. Who are these people I am photographing? What is their story?
Documentary photography is less about achieving an aesthetic product and more about honoring them and giving their story a voice and place in this world - just as they are, unaltered. There is power in bringing light to our differences and sharing this diversity will help normalize the way people and families are seen in photographs.
When I am working with families, I prefer the “long game”, where I get really comfortable in someones home, getting to know each person, learning about their life, understanding their relationships, and exchanging our own stories. I think my ability to open up about my own experiences helps them find their own vulnerability and acceptance, which is incredibly important for building trust.
The 4, 8, 12 hours that they have invited me to be part of their lives allow for the initial awkwardness to melt away. It is different than a typical portrait session where prompts can help a family feel at ease, which in turn helps to bring forth emotions that exude happiness and connection. As a documentary photographer, where prompts and direction are (generally) not part of the approach, I gain trust by investing time and conversation. Some prefer the fly on the wall approach. I enjoy the process of getting to know who they really are and the nuances of their relationships. I leave their home feeling like I have gained new friends and often walk away with gems about parenting and life hacks, or even new books and activities that my kids may love to try.
After the session, my turnaround time typically fluctuates between 1 and 2 months. I do not usually edit my sessions right away because I like to let my experience with these families distill for a while. I find it helps to shape the narrative of their story. When the photos are ready, I get in touch and present a slideshow first. Sometimes it is a photo-only slideshow, but more often than not, my families want a fusion slideshow, which is a story woven with stills and video. I encourage prints and albums, although albums often win out because it is a really effective way to show the story in a single tangible product.
All my family, newborn, and birth sessions have imprinted on me in some way, but the one that has impacted me the most is an adoption story I photographed in China this past Motherʼs Day. There is so much representation of nuclear families in photography, but in reality, families are brought together and defined in so many other ways that are underrepresented, and adoption is one of them. The familial bonds do not form easily at first - there are some really tough moments on both the child and the family in this formation. There is happiness in the union, but there is also heartache. Above all, the unconditional love these parents show gives hope that a new balance will be found in their family dynamic. This experience has made me think about the social issues of how families have been impacted by law (for instance, China’s one-child law), how birth parents came to make the difficult decision of giving up their babies/children, what happens to children that age out of the foster care system. Documenting stories like that has always challenged me to think beyond the photographs, and for that, I am grateful.
My mind is constantly simmering with ideas for personal projects. My current focus is on infertility awareness. I am working on a long-term project with a woman who has been trying to conceive a baby for almost 5 years. She has decided that waiting for the right partner is not the answer, so she has taken the helm and is charting this course on her own. I am documenting and interviewing her as she undergoes this chapter of trying to conceive. As with any of my work, the goal is always to help reduce stigma, normalize the perception, and open up the conversation. The reality is, 1 in 6 women (in North America) have a hard time conceiving but no one is talking about it much because it is considered a taboo subject.
If there are more people sharing their stories through different mediums, including photography, then it allows for conversations necessary to break the silence and stigma.
migrated_Felicia_Headshot_medium.jpgv1532464561Felicia Chang is a documentary photographer and who believes that everyoneʼs version of reality is camera-worthy. Connections are important, normal is relative, and everyday reality definitely deserves visual space in family photos. She lives in North Vancouver, British Columbia, but home is wherever she is with her husband, two girls, Schnauzer-poodle best friend, and camera

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