Rethinking the Family Photo and Capturing Beauty

Photo by Megan Haughery of The Penny Gray Photography Co


In the real is the beautiful. I read that line over and over again as I sat completely enamored with the photography on this photographer’s blog. Her images felt different. The images Yan Palmer took showed life in a way I had never seen — and I’ve seen a lot of photography. You see, I am a Creative Director and Prop Stylist by trade, which means I spend a lot of time crafting really pretty images. Images, that if I’m being totally honest, aren’t real at all. Take, for example, a crème blush makeup ad I did recently. To create the image we use the actual blush, plus we added in a little paint and some glycerin to achieve the perfect texture. The final images look like beautifully creamy makeup that you would definitely want to buy. But real? Yes — sort of, but with a few tweaks, of course. We live in a time where “real — sort of” has become the air we breathe. We talk often about loving authenticity and “keeping it real” on social media. But the “real” we see is often a filtered reality, similar to the makeup ads I style.

Megan Haughery of The Penny Gray Photography Co

This year, as another summer came to an end, I was faced with the annual question of “are we going to do family photos…again?” I am the mom to two beautiful girls, now 4 and 6 years old, and the wife of an incredibly supportive and wonderful man. As someone who creates photos for a living, it was surprising to my husband that my desire to take family photos had waned over the last few years. The thought of enduring the high-stress experience had felt like too much for me at times. It always began with making a mental list of all the things I needed to make it happen: a perfect fall day with the right amount of brightly colored leaves on the ground, cute outfits for our family that all coordinate, and if we were getting really into it (which I always did) pumpkins and a flannel blanket for us to sit on — to really play up the fall vibes. Next, I would begin to make a mental list of all the ways I could bribe my children to get them to stay still as they were corralled into a line, told what to wear, fidgeted with, and told to smile – really smile — no less than twenty times. My goal for our family photoshoots was to get it done before our summer glow faded into a depressed winter pale — that way, if we used the photo as our annual Christmas card, it would elicit the desired “Wow! They’re thriving!” reaction from friends and family.

The art of styling consists of staying on top of all the tiny little details to design imagery that tells a story in creative and unique ways. It is a job that requires a certain level of perfectionism — so it is no wonder when it came time to take our family photo, the perfectionism would take over and tell me that this, too, was my opportunity to create another perfectly styled photo. Perfect outfit, perfect background, perfect smiles, and perfectly behaved kids equals a perfect photo. So simple, right? The reality would look more like a stressed out mom telling her family what to wear, how to behave, to sit still and smile, and to listen to the photographer “or else,” totally unsure of where the “or else” would lead. Funny how much easier it is to control paint and glycerin than your own kids.

As I looked at the alluringly raw photos Yan Palmer had taken of families within their own homes, I realized that these are the moments I want to remember. I want to remember what my home looked like at this very point in time. I want to remember what stuffed animals my 4-year-old was playing with and what her bedroom looked like. I want to remember the things we would do together around the house. I don’t need another picture of the four of us smiling at the camera. I want to feel at ease in my space, play with my kids, and allow the photographer to capture the real moments we had with one another as we just spent time together as a family. That kind of photoshoot excited me.

Megan Haughery of The Penny Gray Photography Co

One of my best friends, Megan Haughery, is a talented family photographer. She was the one who first introduced me to Yan’s work. She and I sat on my blue Formica countertops having long talks together about the idea of shifting family photography from controlled and posed to a more freeform depiction of reality within the family. She suggested the idea that she could shoot my family in our house this year. Do something different. As I looked around at my little rancher house, still a far cry away from the hopes of a big renovation, I hesitated at the idea. It seemed like a great idea in theory, but capturing my little family in our home felt vulnerable and out of control. But I wanted to take a step to shift my own thinking, so I agreed.

Leading up to the shoot, the stylist in me wanted to change everything. Put a blanket here, a plant there. I wanted to change my curtains — just for the shoot — so the yellow wouldn’t be so “loud.” I was tempted to go prop shopping as I normally do for all my photoshoots. I had to keep reminding myself that there is beauty in the unfinished and the goal would be to remember my family and my life as they truly are.

The day came, and it was the opposite experience of what I was used to when it came to the family photo experience. We were all relaxed, barefoot, and hanging out. I wore a dress because I wanted to feel flowy and free, and my kids wore what they normally wear — my oldest always chooses the dress, and my youngest is always in some sort of cozy romper. We turned on the music, pulled out the books and paints, and laughed and played together with ease. There was no rush, there were no forced smiles. It helped that we all knew our photographer well, so there was no fear with her around. It was a good day. Not all days are good days, and I hope to capture a not-so-great day, too — so we can remember that even when it was bad, it was good.

Megan Haughery of The Penny Gray Photography Co

When it comes to family photography, many of us have fallen into thinking that the stressed-out family shoot is all there is. The goal of eliciting the “look how great they’re doing!” on the annual Christmas card has blinded us from what our hearts will long to look back on 20 years from now —and that is to remember the real moments in that one fleeting period of time in our life.

When it comes to family photos, let’s all go after the truth. Let’s take that step of vulnerability and invite a photographer into our home to capture our family doing the things we love to do together. If a meltdown happens, let it happen. I promise that when you look back on those tears, you will be brought back to that very moment in time, with all its ups and downs, and it will feel perfect. We no longer need to create a filtered sublimity of our lives because the reality is that our lives are beautiful because we are human, we are alive, and we are connected. We feel love, we feel frustration, and we go through challenges. That is the human experience. Let’s begin to capture what it really looks like and continue to remind each other and ourselves that in the real is the beautiful.

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