Oh, hello Ego!
A look at the Ego and its role in documentary family photography
Ego has become something important to me with my documentary style work.
It shows up EVERYWHERE, naturally, because the ego holds itself with the utmost importance.
The ego tries to take the drivers seat leading up to, during and after the session. It craves predictability, safety, perfection and control - oh does it want control.
But, we are dealing with humans, after all. A documentary session by nature is unpredictable, messy, and very human. So I find that the ego kind of freaks out. My ego is very present leading up to a session, during a session, and even after. And I need to be mindful of acknowledging it without letting it run the show.
Because - what happens when I let the ego take the steering wheel?
Before the session
The ego can stir up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings for me as a photographer. It wants to have certainty, to know what to expect, because the unknown is sometimes scary, isn't it? If not kept in check, feelings of fear, doubt, worry, and insecurity might dominate my inner experience, taking aware from my connection to myself and my authentic work.
I handle this by reassuring the ego that it can trust the unknown. It can trust the process, the beauty of how humans show up and connect despite anything. It can trust that the truth is perfect exactly as it is. And it can trust me, that I have enough experience and intuition do my work well in any setting.
during the session
If I'm reimagining the moment, I'm not present in the moment.
My intention during a documentary family session is to be present and open to life exactly as it is unfolding around me. To remain open, instead of constricted, when there are nerves, big feelings, surprises or mishaps that life inevitably will throw our way. My intention is to see clearly the beauty in the real, however it happens, and to frame it artistically and thoughtfully. To hold space for a family to show up exactly as they are, to feel loved and seen exactly as they are, and to offer gentle guidance that is in alignment with the real.
If not kept in check, the ego might It may miss seeing what's unfolding in front of it because it's not in sync with the moment; rather, it's searching for something else, perhaps offering suggestions for how the family interacts instead. When the ego fires up, the mind fires up, and suddenly instead of being present in the moment, I'm scanning the space for interesting prospective scenarios or thinking of what type of interaction would be amazing to photograph. This sort of creativity is certainly important, and has a place and a time, but if it takes the lead during a documentary-style session, I'm falling out of alignment with my intention. If I'm reimagining the moment, I'm not present in the moment.
After the session
After I physically part ways with my clients, I continue on to another journey with hundreds of digital photos in hand. Anyone who has ever had a camera phone knows that there is such a thing as "digital noise", where having too much of something takes away its potential effect. My job now is to be with these photos, and somehow choose the keepers, the images the client will receive. In the past, I'd wait a full week before looking at the images. I found that time is the best editor. The ego, so far removed from the session, more easily steps aside, and I'm able to see the gold so clearly. When I process the photos immediately after the session, my intention is to search for genuine expressions. These are the first indication that something meaningful is happening. I may cull in black and white so that I can more easily see the soul of the photograph.
If not kept in check, the ego might miss the gold. Instead, it's looking to feed itself by finding the moments it tried hard for. It might choose perfection over content. It might loose touch with what matters to the client because it is thinking about what matters to itself.
So, what good is the ego?
I think that the ego is indeed needed for documentary style family photography. The ego is what might give a photograph the signature look that allows it to be seen as someone's work, the look that sets it apart. The ego may want to push the boundaries a bit to make sure the image adheres to the standards set by the photographer's brand. The ego may have a driver's seat as the business mind.
The ego is important. But I think it' s important to keep the ego in check during a session if you're wanting a documentary feel, and if you're wanting your clients to feel their images are authentic, genuine and personal.
We don't want the ego running the show if we're wanting truly authentic, perfect as they are, stories to unfold. We may receive input from the Ego, which will help us craft, frame, and polish the image. But we want to keep the trust, openness and connection with what is in front of us.
The way I do this is by noticing when my ego shows up, and listening to what it has to say. Is it scared? I listen to those fears. Is it chasing a wild idea that could be massively cool? I listen to that idea, and table it. Or, depending on the arrangement I have with my clients, I might suggest it and see if it resonates with them. Is it feeling doubt? I offer reassurance.
So much of taming the ego, for me, has to do with trust.
Documentary style sessions, much like life itself, are unpredictable. We are dealing with humans. Oftentimes, tiny humans :) I bring trust to my session. I trust that unfolds is exactly what needs to unfold. I trust that I can do the job in front of me. I trust that surprises are gifts. I trust that not having control is indeed safe.
I see sessions as a conversation between the ego and the self. And when I approach them this way, I have an overall more positive experience. I'm less fearful, less controlling, and more trusting of the decisions I make.
I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this! How do you see the Ego's role in documentary photography? Does mindfulness or meditation practice help you with your work?
Feel free to email me or share! I'd love to hear your take.