It’s a cliché but it’s true: everything changes the moment you become a parent. There’s the stuff they tell you about—the crying, the nappies, the many, many sleepless nights—and then there are the changes that are much more profound. For me, that latter type of change was the loss of time to devote to my photography. Adjusting to life as a parent with less time to undertake creative pursuits has been really difficult—and continues to be even after 6 years.
On the one hand, photographing your own child is one of the most important gigs you’ll ever have. On the other, the unyielding responsibilities of parenting make it difficult to do anything but take pictures of your kids. However, I’m here to tell you it can be done!
And this advice isn’t just for parents, it’s for any photographer who has ever found themselves in a creative funk. Given the 2020 and 2021 many of us have endured, our collective creative spark has probably come close to extinguishing. But there are some steps you can take to fulfill your creative goals.
After two kids, six years and 284 rolls of film, here’s how I’ve managed to remain relatively sane and keep my film photography going.
Parenting is hands-on—literally! I might need a hand spare to help my kids up the stairs, hold their hands or pull them back from certain doom. This makes shooting fully manual 1960s rangefinder or unwieldy Hasselblad a difficult—and potentially dangerous—proposition.
As a result, I usually opt to leave my Leica M4 at home when going out with the kids and instead take my modest Olympus µ[mju:]-II (every time I do this, an engineer in Wetzlar keels over from a Herzstillstand—tut mir leid!). I know there are as many opinions on the µ[mju:]-II as there are stars in the sky, but as a parent and film photographer, it is the best camera I’ve ever owned.Your compact camera of choice doesn’t have to be a µ[mju:]-II of course (I picked mine up a decade ago for about $50, not the sky-high sums they’re going for today), but go with something that has autofocus, autoexposure, is pocketable and useable with one hand. For all the endless whinging about the µ[mju:]-II being too expensive or overrated, I think it ticks these boxes better than almost any other 35mm camera available. Save the Leica and the Hasselblad on more planned outings where you can carry a backpack and tripod without also having to push a pram.
Have an (achievable) project or two
Having kids irrevocably alters how you spend your time. I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but if your grand photographic project is a large format review of every heritage fire station in rural Madagascar, you will be waiting a while to complete it. On the other hand, if you find the architecture on the way to your child’s kindergarten is worthy of a photograph or six, you might have an achievable project on your hands.
Those who work in the coaching space say ‘SMART’ goals are the key to success: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. While I’d normally cut off my left arm before borrowing from the vernacular of self-help shysters, they’ve got a point on this one.
So I try to create a photo project that fits within the limitations of my everyday life. It might be the aforementioned residential architecture, or it could be street photography on my lunch break or the forest on one of my many long walks with the kids. Something incidental to my day that doesn’t require huge chunks of time will always be more achievable in my life as a parent. For instance, I keep on adding photos to my gallery of shopping trolleys. It ain’t Gursky, but it’s something.
I always have a notebook close to hand that I jot photographic ideas down in. My notes range from a single dot point that the passage of time has rendered as inscrutable as an Ancient Greek cipher, to detailed sketches of potential compositions with thematic ideas. Some of them I’ve even achieved! Taking notes also makes me feel like I’m doing something, even when I can’t get out with the camera.
The purpose of putting these ideas down is twofold: 1) to help you get into the habit of thinking about your photography beyond this moment; and 2) to have something to work on once you get some time back (yes, it does happen eventually). Notetaking is also just darn good for you. I find putting ideas and concepts down on paper helps me to refine them better, remember them for longer and generally improves my creativity.
Build a photobook library
I consider myself a photobook addict—both in the purchasing and the creation. I make at least one annual photobook and try to make a handful of others throughout the year. It’s very satisfying and is achievable in the limited free time I have. Best of all, I don’t have to take new photos to make a new book. One of my most recent efforts, Berlin: Natur und Umwelt is made up of photos from my archive. I seriously spent more time on typeface selection (hello Berlin Type!) than on the photos.
There are also some really inspiring photobooks out there that have inspired me. One is Photographers’ Sketchbooks by Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals. This book emphasises how much of the creative process takes place long before the shutter is released. The authors take a look at the notebooks of notable photographers including Trent Parke, Alec Soth and Emily Shur and provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how they realise their visions. You might even adopt some of their notebook techniques as your own!
Another book, Family Photography Now, also by Stephen McLaren and his Street Photography Now co-author Sophie Howarth, looks at how leading photographers approach the subject of ‘family life’. Some are artists capturing their own families, others are commissions, but all are fascinating. For us parents, it’s interesting and instructive seeing how pro photographers capture their own families, weaving some real creativity into what would otherwise be banal familial records. They did so to scratch that same creative itch you have while juggling the same responsibilities. Highly recommended.
Learn home development (it’s easy)
I’ve shot more than 150 rolls of black and white film since having kids and I doubt I would have shot a quarter of that had I not developed it myself. Home development is easy to do. It saves money and, most importantly as a parent, it saves time. Learning how to develop at home was something I put off for a long time, but after the initial (small) outlay on a Paterson Universal Developing Tank and chemicals, I’ve saved thousands of dollars on development costs and been able to shoot more film as a result.
Be kind to yourself
I went from shooting 245 rolls of film in the year immediately prior to my first son being born, to barely shooting that number in the six years following. There were a few reasons for that—not just kids—but it’s still easy to beat yourself up about it. Avoid that temptation. Parenting is probably the hardest thing you’ll do and you’ll have enough issues to contend with that aren’t related to your creative photographic output.
Make photos when you can but don’t stress about it when you can’t. And at the risk of this article turning into a relationship advice column, talk to your partner about making time for your creative pursuits amidst the mayhem of parenthood—it’ll do everyone good!
I’m a copywriter by day and the one piece of advice any writer will give you is to keep writing. Don’t worry about how good or bad it is, just get the words down and edit it later on. Photography is not dissimilar. Keep your camera loaded, keep it close and take it with you. You won’t find the keepers if you don’t shoot! And regardless of whether you’re a parent or not, going out and shooting is one of the best things you can do if you’re in a creative funk.
Family is everything
There’s a quote from Magnum photographer Trent Parke in Family Photography Now that I keep coming back to: “Events and mundane daily occurrences that seemed completely unimportant at the time can suddenly become crucial pieces of the puzzle years down the track.”
Whenever I’m in a photographic funk, this line keeps me going. I might not value the photos I am taking right now, but there’s a good chance I—or someone I love—will do so months, years or decades from now.
And film, of course, is the best medium to do any of this on. I’m very proud of the fact that my kids are amongst a global minority that knows what those little grey-topped plastic canisters are for. My two-year-old loves helping to unload finished rolls from my F100 and watches with interest as I compose with my Hasselblad. Unlike most of their cohort, my kids’ memories are indelibly fixed onto a gelatin emulsion as opposed to existing solely in someone’s ephemeral cloud. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has revelled in the literal shoebox of prints and negatives our parents and grandparents have shared with us and wondered what we are leaving our kids.
I’m not just making photos for myself, I’m making memories for my family and that, I’m sure you’ll agree, is one of the greatest motivators of all.