There are times – for sure – that the mess is the point.
FIVE PHOTOS YOUR KIDS WILL CRAVE WHEN THEY'RE GROWN
AND HOW TO START COLLECTING THEM
They grow up fast, and when they do, they'll come searching for THESE photos of their childhood.
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Yes, often it involves mud. Or paint. But sometimes, the ordinary mess of real life is independently funny, interesting, or otherwise important. And even though it’s annoying, I often remind myself that someday I’ll miss the mess of life with kids.
Take this photo of my husband and his glorious booty shorts.
He was “organizing” the garage while the children sit in a pile of dirt and leaves reading dusty, cracked books:
This is what our garage actually looks like. All Texans know that garages are places to store the things you never want to see again, but WE have really perfected the art of tetris-ing unwanted furniture, toys, donations, and flat out junk into sky high piles.
When I first saw this scene unfolding in the yard, my heart swelled with love for this man and his neon orange shorts. Next, I grabbed my camera and considered the scene. It was the ladder and the half-visible husband that first drew me in, but in the end, it’s the mess that makes it. Totally. Within this garage, I see so many micro-stories of our life: the puddle jumpers that the children have abandoned now that they can swim. The rocking chair that rocked my husband to sleep as a babe but never did quite find an appropriate spot in our too-small home. The rug we rolled up when our elder dog started routinely pacing all night long, peeing on it just as we woke in a cloudy stupor and ran to take him out. I even see the big bottles of paint my daughter and I used to decorate a life-sized Cat Bus (see: My Neighbor Totoro) for her 4th birthday party, months before this image was made.
If I had worked some magic to avoid showing the mess in this image, we’d just have a dude up on a ladder in a garage. The guy’s got great legs, but still -- how sad would that be?
But here’s the thing: it’s usually NOT about the mess, so I’m not really photographing the mess.
I’m photographing the individuals, their personalities, their activities, their relationships. The micro stories that make their lives their own.
From time to time I encounter somebody who is hesitant to try a documentary family session because they worry their life isn’t tidy enough – their house isn’t curated enough – their mess isn’t charming enough. I tell them: but that’s not what you’ll see!
Here's a case study.
When I look at my children’s room, this is what I see:
Books oozing out of the wrong-sized bookshelf, shoes and slippers strewn about, and oh – is that another insole separated from its mama? Not pictured here are the pebbles and sand that my son brings home in his fireman boots from preschool every day and dumps on the floor by the closet, the rumpled rug that just won’t stay flat, or the clothes that never quite make it all the way into the hamper. It’s real life y’all.
But when I photograph life in their room, this is what YOU see:
The mess is still there – I rarely move anything to make a photo – but it’s not the focus. See what I mean?
Moving on. Life happens in the kitchen, right? At my house the problem with this is that the kitchen is tiny, 90 years old, and has barely any counter space. It’s almost always a disaster. Not to mention, there is a less-than-adorable side to living in a 90-year-old house with original everything.
When I think of my kitchen, this is what *I* see:
But when I photograph life in the kitchen, this is what YOU see:
Joined to my kitchen is my laundry room, whose most charming feature is its being the “drop zone” for things that need to go to the aforementioned garage / holding place for things-that-don’t-belong. This counter rarely sees the light of day (much to the chagrin of my husband, who makes valiant efforts to tidy it up).
When I think of my kitchen/laundry area, this is what I see:
And in our family, this is one space in which the mess kinda IS the point – but the mess that contains an important story is on the opposite counter: Mount Laundry. Our washing machine is a workhorse, and it’s almost always on duty. On nearly any given day, you can walk into the laundry room and find a pile of clean laundry resembling Mount St Helen, awaiting sorting and folding. It’s frustrating and oppressive and ever-present, but it’s also a part of our family. Almost like another pet. But the mess being part of the story doesn’t mean it has to make a horrid and shocking photograph.
So when I photograph life in the laundry room, this is what YOU see:
And finally, the living room. My living room is kind of a pass-through zone – we fly through it heading to other spaces in the house, rarely stopping to actually live in it. It’s awkwardly shaped, usually covered in discarded toys, and dark. SO dark.
When I think of my living room, this is what I see:
But occasionally, some magic happens in there, and – trust me – it’s rarely about the mess. Those are the moments I’m drawn to, the ones I make photographs of.
When I photograph life in the living room, this is what YOU see:
So. There you have it.
I know I can assure you six ways to Sunday that your house – your LIFE – is enough, and that I’m not making documentary photos in order to create a searing exposé of the dirty underbelly of everyday family life. But consider this: when you think of family life right now, which are the stories you’ll want to remember? What is it about this chapter that makes you wish you could hit the pause button? It’s probably not the mess for you – and it’s certainly not the mess for me, either.