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‘Be real, it’s beautiful.’ A documentary photographer thinks posed family photos fall flat

Erin Covey embeds herself with families for four or eight hours, documenting their daily lives. (Photo by Erin Covey)

The family portrait. We all have them. The whole family standing awkwardly in front of a studio backdrop. The itchy matching dresses your mom made you and your sisters wear. Family and wedding photographer Erin Covey has these photos from her childhood, but she doesn’t necessarily cherish them. She’d rather have photos that showed her family being real, doing things they enjoyed, wearing their favorite everyday clothes. Photos that would spark memories. The trend of perfectly posed photos obviously is still common today.

“Instagram, Facebook, seeing all of these 9professional) holiday photographs that are really pretty and also really meaningless,” said Covey. “It’s totally choreographed and everybody’s dressed the same and they’re all smiling. They’re in some fake studio backdrop or they’re on a random, red pickup truck or a fake fireplace, all smiling at the camera. And I thought, why are we doing this?”

Covey has a photojournalist background, shooting for newspapers, so she decided to offer a similar style of documentary photography to families. She hunkers down for four or eight hour sessions, capturing families in their natural state, usually at home.

“Favorite shoots are definitely activity based. Sledding, cookie baking, dinnertime. But I really think potty training is awesome. Sitting there, all this toilet paper and mom is a little bit stressed out or exasperated standing next to the toilet waiting. I really love those kinds of shots. In the morning, when kids are first waking up, they’re kind of groggy. Mom brushing their hair and getting them off to school. Those moments I really like because I know that happens every single morning. I really love kids eating, bed head, getting their hair combed out. Those really boring moments are what I think are amazing.”

But Covey admits that most people still prefer the perfectly posed professional photographs.

“A lot of times people are truly horrified at the thought of me coming into their house. They’re like, no no no, we don’t want you to see anything, my house is terrible, there are clothes all over the place, there are dishes everyone. I’m like, yeah, and that’s how your kid remembers it and that’s who I’m shooting for. I’m shooting for you a little bit, but I’m really shooting for the kids in 20 years. Totally honest, 95% of the people, once they find out what I do, they don’t want [my photos]. But that’s okay because it makes the 5% really into what I do.”

So who does hire her?

“I think why people are attracted to my work is because they have a sense of humor about life. They’re not trying to put on this veneer of, ‘We’re a beautiful family, we’re so perfect and look at this doting husband and look at my kids, they always smile and help out and they’re so lovely to each other and they’re always kissing each other on the cheek.’ That wasn’t my childhood at all! And I’m sure that isn’t 95% of people’s recollection of their childhood or their current day family. So I think people are interested in the realness. I’m going to get the meltdowns but I’m also going to get the really tender moments that happen between families. It could be mom in the kitchen cooking and the family’s running around but then the little boy grabs her leg or dad comes up and touches the nape of her back. There are things that happen that are really tender and you don’t necessarily have to be smiling at the camera to know that there is a lot of love and connection in that family because it’s done through other gestures.”

With everybody posting their perfect live son social media, Covey says the last thing we need right now are more glossy, polished, fake photographs.

“This isn’t just about photography for me, it’s about a lifestyle. It’s about everyday being bombarded by these messages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter: Look at my life! Look how awesome it is! Look how great my kids are! Look how good I’m doing! I feel like a lot of the realness and honesty in life is slowly disappearing from daily communication. Be real, it’s beautiful. Years from now nobody’s going to care about that perfect outfit you got at the children’s shop. Just, like, be normal.”

Erin Covey Creative is based on upstate New York, but she does travel for shoots. There are also photographers in Seattle who shoot in the documentary style. Click here and here for a couple examples.

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