Over the past two years I have worked on two personal documentary projects. The first is a short “day in the life” documentary of my parents after they had moved into an assisted living apartment. It was shot over the course of 4 days as part of a photojournalism workshop. The second, a longer and even more personal story, as I followed the first four months of my husbands slow recovery from Gillian-Barre Syndrome.
Both of these projects were extremely rewarding. These images not only have special meaning to me, but from them have emerged a small set of images that each stand on their own as fine photographs. In these photographs, I had unique access to intimate and subtle moments, and it was that unique access that produced the very best of the images.
The challenge of a Personal Documentary project is to use the trust afforded by personal relationships to take your best photographs. These are not snapshots or “I was there” photographs. These images need to pull together all the components that create a great photograph – story, light, color, gesture, framing, line, position, tonal contrasts, and the relationships between objects – to tell us about something for which you have a front row seat.
I spent two weeks this past November traveling through Japan with Sam Abell, a retired National Geographic photographer and mentor of mine. Sam believes strongly in keeping a photographic diary. He uses all the same care and skill capturing images for his diary as for his assignments. He believes that there is great power in documenting your daily life and those around you.
I encourage you too to start your own personal photographic diary or personal documentary project. It is the holiday season, a time for families to get together for special occasions with special decorations and customs. There is plenty of photographic material. Did the dog knock over the tree? Did the grandchildren open other peoples presents? Did flour fly everywhere when the mixer went bizerk during your holiday cookie baking extravaganza? Did you experience your husband/wife/child/grandchild/dog/cat bathed in late afternoon window light quietly absorbed in a good book, or more likely texting on their phone?