While shooting in rural Rwanda, I was lucky to be told the village had a bathroom… go around that hut, they said, cut through the flock of chickens and don’t worry about the goat, just step over him.
Exotic locales always bring fascinating and unfamiliar experiences, whether it’s riding on the roof of a bus through the Andes or eating pizza with pickles on it.
It helps if your job is all about exploring the world. I started working with National Geographic over 15 years ago, first in documentary filmmaking and later in both film and photography for various media outlets and cause-driven organizations.
I’ve crossed the Atlantic on an aircraft carrier with soldiers returning from war; I’ve come nose to snout with a whale shark; I’ve talked to people on death row and interviewed parents whose infant was struggling for his life against whooping cough. (He made it, happily.)
I feel so lucky to be a part of these people’s lives. I love connecting people with others around the world, opening eyes and bringing awareness to social and humanitarian issues. Because our humanity is what connects us all.
Then I had kids of my own.
I didn’t give any of that up… although maybe I cut back on the exotic travel a tad. But instead of only pointing my camera at people in far-flung locales, I started photographing my children and friends’ kids, in my own home and my backyard in the Pacific Northwest. And what I discovered was that…
Ordinary really is extraordinary. I never knew that before.
The foreign and exotic tend to grab our attention, but if we take the time to stop and really look around us, our own “ordinary” lives are just as extraordinary as anyone’s. And our cameras help us see the ultra-familiar in a new, powerful way.
Here in the U.S., with our individualistic, hardworking, “do it yourself” attitude, we often don’t let our true selves show. We pose and put on smiles. But whether you’re in Bangkok or Baltimore, Chile or California, humanity is our common thread, and our ability to project compassion. We all long for that connection, no matter where we are, and through images we can share that with anyone in the world.
That’s why we need more authenticity in our everyday imagery. It lets us share a real and raw – yet still beautiful – glimpse of our everyday selves. It lets us connect, relate and spread compassion in a time when we can use as much of it as we can find.
So what did I learn after 28 countries and two children?
1. Connection elevates images
Take the time to genuinely engage with and get to know your subject. That connection will absolutely show in your images. They’ll be more relaxed and their personality will beam through. It’ll elevate your images more than any fancy high-end gear will.
We don’t always have the luxury of time, of course, but even when rushed, showing a simple yet sincere interest in someone goes a long way: a smile, a question about their day, a compliment, or showing a photo from your own life.
2. Patience begets the best
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it’s so important it’s worth repeating: great pictures come to those who wait. People often repeat behaviors, particularly children. Or they make the same silly facial expressions over and over. Observe. Anticipate. Get your camera ready. And wait. And then wait some more.
3. Spontaneity rules
When our first daughter turned one, we hired a photographer to take portraits in the park. I stressed over coordinated outfits and made all kinds of funny faces to get her to smile. They were beautiful photographs, but they captured such a small part of who we are.
I’ve always been in the field, immersed in someone else’s life, capturing things spontaneously as they unfold. I’m biased obviously, but documentary-style photography can be incredibly powerful. It captures and evokes emotion.
4. Details are powerful
I don’t just mean those close-ups of infant’s feet and hands and other macro details. Look around for the subtle details that bring an extra layer of interest and personality to your image, like this smile on the wall in the background.
5. I wish I had eyes in the back of my head
Be keenly observant of your surroundings. Capturing unique moments requires knowing what’s going on around you at all times, in all directions. (So if you’re a parent, you already have an upper hand!)
6. Embrace chaos
Chaos is real; chaos has personality; chaos has movement. Don’t shy away from it. Disorder and nuttiness can make for amazing, fun, funny and telling images. Try finding an angle with an uncluttered background and waiting patiently for all of your subjects to have separation between them. Then start clicking, lots.