Philosophy & Reflections Photos & Projects

The Mother and The Photographer – By Ailbíona McLochlainn

March 30, 2022

Having a child later in life has its benefits.

By the time I met my daughter at the age of 40, I had transformed into a mellow and patient adult, liberated from the angsty inner struggles that defined my earlier decades. I had managed to explore life’s possibilities, to experience romance, to establish myself in a fulfilling career, and – perhaps most importantly – to develop a stable sense of identity.

Photography has always been a big part of that identity. Known locally as ‘that girl who rides a bike with a camera across her back,’ I transitioned seamlessly into ‘that pregnant girl who rides a bike with a camera across her back’ …And granted, the use of the term ‘girl’ here is amusing. But such is the local parlance, that even 80-year-olds are referred to as  ‘girls’ and ‘boys’, so I shall leave the semantics of this aside for now!

We live in a close-knit rural community. When seeing me on the road, people would often stop to chat and ask how I was keeping. As part of the usual small talk, they would inevitably point to my midsection and exclaim: ‘I bet that will be The Most Photographed Baby in the World!’

While I didn’t venture quite that far into hyperbole, admittedly I harboured grand photographic aspirations toward my future offspring. Instead of browsing through catalogues of prams and high chairs, I pored over photos by Sally Mann, Gertrude Käsebier, and Julia Margaret Cameron. Instead of daydreaming about nursery decor, I inspected our house for suitably photogenic locations to set up backdrops for the glorious, cherubic scenes of infanthood I would capture – followed later by the equally evocative scenes of  fierce toddler-esque determination…

My daughter turned two and a half this month, and she is indeed a thoroughly photographed child.  Just like any other new parents these days, my husband and I have amassed a hard drive’s worth of phone images documenting her many adventures. To a  lesser extent, we also have some ‘real’ camera shots captured digitally and on film. The pictures are numerous, fun, and deeply special to our family. They are also photographically unremarkable. Few, if any, are Photographs of the type I had envisioned taking of my daughter – images which stand up on their own merit as photos and reflect the qualities I strive for in my work. It is as if as soon as I point a camera at my child, all my artistic vision, imagination and skill deteriorate.

I am not generally prone to feelings of guilt when it comes to motherhood. When unable to produce enough breastmilk, I supplemented with formula. I abandoned my intent to baby-cary when my back proved not up to the task. When my daughter was one and a half, I enrolled her in daycare in order to work longer hours. None of these actions made me feel like a bad mother. But, oddly, I feel as if I have failed by not managing to capture my child photographically in the manner I’d hoped to. I have taken striking and noteworthy portraits of other people – including strangers – since my daughter was born; so it isn’t as if I have lost my touch. Why, then, have I been so profoundly inept at photographing her?

At the start of this year I decided to explore this predicament. I set a task for myself to photograph my daughter in a way that would yield creatively satisfying results. I approached the situation with the same rational determination, as I would with a work-related project – first reviewing my images to identify what exactly was wrong.

It was clear that some of the difficulties were technical. While using manual-focus equipment never posed a problem for me previously, with a creature who never kept still things became more challenging. My ratio of in-focus vs out-of-focus images was uncharacteristically low.

Lighting and composition were also problematic. Because my daughter refused  to remain where I placed her, or to keep her face turned in the direction of the light, I found it next to impossible to light her in the manner I wanted or even to decently compose the shot. I could set the scene as picturesquely as I liked, but in the time it took me to adjust the focus and release the shutter, she would be in a different location and pose entirely. Chasing her around the house or garden with a camera whilst adjusting the settings back and forth manically has provided me with many a workout!

Although the world of babies and children was entirely foreign to me until I had my daughter, I did  know well enough to understand  she was not a doll and could not be expected to behave like one. So I don’t mean to imply that I expected her to pose for formal portraits or tableaux images! What I mean is, that even in natural uncontrived settings, she moved faster and more unpredictably than what my skills could handle. In the past, I have photographed both weddings and bicycle races using all-manual equipment with no issues. But capturing a  my daughter proved more challenging!

There were two possible solutions to this, I figured: I could either cave in, use my camera’s auto-settings and buy an auto-focus lens. Or, I could make a concerted effort to practice and improve my reaction times and the speed of my visual decision-making.  I decided to do the latter. Remarkably, after only a month of a self-imposed phone ban {meaning, I was only allowed to photograph my daughter with a ‘proper’ camera and not with my phone}, the technical issues improved.

But ironically, improving my technique made me realise that the real problem was more fundamental. At its core, my approach to portraiture did not fit with my daughter’s personality and demeanour. There is a certain Expressive Stillness I strive for in the portraits I take, and it is the quest for this quality that drives my work. To achieve it, I need to establish a degree of non-verbal rapport with the subject,  to frame the scene in a particular manner, and to control the setting. These elements characterise my photos regardless of whether they are posed studio portraits, or  spontaneous shots taken in a natural setting. Even my candid street photos tend to look like tableaus, so tightly and carefully I manage them.

With her feral  rambunctious ways, my daughter is simply not compatible with this style of capture. She does not ‘do’ stillness. Even as an infant, she was perpetually animated, mischievous, prone to comically expressive gestures and clownish facial expressions. She also makes a tornado of a mess with impressive swiftness wherever she goes, so  ‘controlling the set’ is next to impossible.  No sooner is a beautifully lit backdrop erected, then it is covered with bits of shredded napkin, and perhaps some regurgitated pancake. Items of clothing are removed. Monkeyish faces are pulled. And manic thrashing ensues, to accompany a badly corrupted rendition of the Baby Shark theme song.

I consulted with an acquaintance who specialises in child photography. She assured me that my frustrations were not unique. In fact, many of her clients are themselves photographers, who struggle with photographing their own children. She suggested some tips and tricks used  to ‘wrangle’  young children, and I set out to implement her advice. I bribed my daughter with biscuits into sitting still and sweetly holding a toy train – when what she really wanted to do was run amok and rip up the packaging. I also tried the trick of setting her across from a screen playing cartoons at camera level, so that she would appear to be looking with interest at the camera when the photo was being taken.

Technically, these methods did work – in the sense that, for the duration of time it took her to munch the biscuit and/or get bored of Peppa Pig’s antics, she stayed still allowing me to photograph her in the manner I wanted and with the composition I had in mind. But the resulting photos looked ‘off’ and for all the effort that went into them, they did not feel artistically successful. There was a sad cynical falseness, I felt, in luring my child into a pose that wasn’t natural to her. 

It finally dawned on me, that all along I was trying to get my daughter to behave in accordance with what I wanted to photograph. Whereas perhaps what I should be doing, is accepting her own terms and changing my style to accommodate.

I began to notice another phenomenon at play in my efforts to photograph my daughter.

In the act of taking photos, I switch into a special mode of thinking, feeling, and relating to the person in front of the camera. And that mode feels incompatible with being a mother. So to treat my daughter as a photographic subject – to study and approach her in a manner guided by aesthetic considerations – feels almost painfully at odds with the very different,  protective, visceral and hyper-empathetic, way I would normally relate to her.

I suppose that when I take a snapshot with my phone, it is such a casual, incidental act; I hardly even look at what I am snapping and that allows me to stay if not entirely engaged then at least more engaged.  But a ‘real’ camera literally gets between us; it forms a physical barrier. I am not engaged with my daughter when I photograph her. I am engaged with the camera, and in that sense I separate myself from her in a way that feels physiologically wrong. I see her little face show signs of disappointment and loneliness when the camera appears; she wants to play with me, she wants my attention without an intermediary, she wants me to find her more captivating than a black {well, sometimes black and chrome} box. It is all very subtle, but it is there. And when I notice it, my heart breaks and I put the camera away. I am her mother, and no picture is worth this.

As part of this experience I have come face to face with some unexpected realisations – about my child, about our relationship, and about my relationship with photography.

In the past, I always thought the camera helped me relate to people. But now I have come to question this. Perhaps more likely, I use the camera so that I can appear to relate to people, while in fact not only keeping my distance, but creating an effective barrier between myself and others. In not allowing me to treat her this way and imploring me to be her mother instead, my daughter has made me aware of this fact.

Can I be both a mother, and a photographer, to the full extent of what each of those concepts entail? I do not have the answer. But I am working on evolving my method – toward something that works for both of us, not just for me. I am also working on myself, to redefine what I consider a successful portrait of my daughter. This involves relinquishing my preconceived notions of what photographing childhood entails, and welcoming the development of our own unique visual language.

___
NOTES

All images shown here taken with a digital Leica CL and the following lenses –
header image: Nikkor 50mm f1.2
second and 5th image: Leica Summicron-C 40mm f2
3rd, 4th & 6th image: Leica Summarit 75mm f2.4

Two noteworthy compilations, for anyone interested in photographers whose subjectmatter is their own children:
In Their Mothers’ Eyes: Women Photographers and Their Children, by Martina Mettner
Photographing Childhood: The Image and the Memory, by LaNola Stone

Ailbíona McLochlainn is a photographer, knitwear designer, and recovering academic, based in Ireland. For additional information and lots of pictures to look at, visit www.ailbiona.com

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-Free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you’ll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial)
Subscribe here

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

21 Comments

  • Reply
    shannon
    March 30, 2022 at 1:59 pm

    I’m another mother with a camera – but autofocus and zoom were brand new features when my first was born (unaffordable), I used a manual film camera to photograph horses and then my children. I found everything that you did, especially that the camera separated me from my subject and I had the best luck from somewhat of a remove, when I was not interacting with them and – most importantly – they were paying me no attention. Some of my favorite shots of them are as teenagers, regarding me/the camera grumpily or with disdain. Very different from their phone selfies with their peeers! I love the first shot in your post, the eternal struggle of the Self. 🙂

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      March 31, 2022 at 7:59 pm

      Oh no, the age of disdain is eventually coming up! I somehow only recently began to process that a baby is only the beginning.

  • Reply
    Bill Brown
    March 30, 2022 at 4:55 pm

    Ailbíona, your first sentence caught my attention. My wife and I were married eighteen years before our daughter was born so I wanted to see what you had to say about the subject. I must have been more relaxed about it because I just used my Canon z_115 P&S most of the time. I personally liked the date feature and I can easily remove it in PS if I desire. I was the stay at home dad since I was a freelance artist. I exhibited some of the same issues as new moms as most of my time was spent interacting with my girl. I longed for grown-up conversation and talked too much when we got around other adults.

    My mom lived far away and didn’t get to see her grand baby as often as she would have liked so I joked that she could just flip through the photo prints of her and see her grow. I made my daughter an identical camera as the Canon z-115 out of a Raisin Bran cereal box and it even had a working view finder. That camera is now in her keepsake box. I worked at making the camera part of our everyday play. One time we spent several hours posing all of her playhouse people and pets into family portraits. I used my Canon f1-n for that. I also tried to photograph her environment without her present. These images are special to me because they show distinct short lived moments in her life. All of her stuffed animals on the shelf, the playhouse figures placed around the sides of the bathtub, etc.

    As she grew up I became the event photographer for all the school activities. Medieval Feast in fourth grade, the overnight sixth grade field trip, college day in eighth grade, her first prom in tenth grade and then graduation day (and many others). I was usually the only dad on field trips so hanging and talking with the other moms just seemed normal. The teachers and parents just thought of me as the crazy dad who likes to take pictures and with a film camera! The one repeated event was for me to photograph her on the first and last day of school. I started when she was in Pre-K (age 3) and finished with her standing alone with her car in the school parking lot. Covid-19 meant her last weeks of high school were online.

    For her senior year her I hung a new photo on her bedroom door every week. The first photo was the day she was born and the last photo was from her graduation day. She now has a wonderful folio of prints of her young life. It all seemed to pass about as quickly as you’ve read this response. Don’t take it too serious, just enjoy each passing moment and let photography be as fun as playing with your daughter. Our daughter is finishing her second year at University and isn’t around for me to photograph any more. Boy, I sure do miss the playdoh, the crayons, the paints, the dolls and the dress up.

    The Dad and the photographer.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      March 31, 2022 at 8:14 pm

      Interestingly, out of my university days friendship group, I was the anomaly being a female stay at home mom while my daughter was a baby. With the others, the typical setup was that the man worked freelance/ took a sabbatical to care for the baby, while the woman had a high paced job out of the home. So most of my parenting advice has been from men! Alas, none of them photographers.

      The laws here about photographing children are tricky, even when events and performances are involved, so I am still navigating that. Would love to be the official Day Care/ Playground photographer!

  • Reply
    Philip Ahlquist
    March 30, 2022 at 7:57 pm

    Thanks for sharing this – it’s profound and very thought-provoking. There must be so many photographers here who primarily make images of their children, but we don’t often write about it. That’s certainly true for me. And it’s really hard to do well.
    I wonder if we all bring our own preferences and preconceptions to the task. When I get the chance, my subject of choice for photographs is seabirds, ideally in flight. So I’m used to wildly unpredictable and erratic subjects, and my digital photography set up is designed for it. Very good for children. But also – just like with birds – it can be really difficult to do any deliberate composition. That’s where my method needs to evolve. Thanks again for sharing. I think I’ll need to read this a few times more!

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      March 31, 2022 at 8:22 pm

      My sense is… there is a prevailing idea that baby/ child photography is a banal genre… with an additional vanity-project feel to it when it’s your own children you are photographing. Personally I do not agree, but despite that I kept second guessing myself as to whether it was a ‘worthy’ subjectmatter for this blog! In a way it kind of feels like forcing strangers who happened to sit next to me on a train to ‘look at these cute pictures of my baby!’ – when wallet photos were a thing!

  • Reply
    Brian Nicholls
    March 31, 2022 at 1:52 pm

    A great story with emphasis on the subject rather than equipment. I have hundreds of candids and clumsily posed snaps of my kids born in the early seventies. I used a Kodak Instamatic 155x because it was all I could afford, but these are the most valuable images I have. Like you, I was only interested in the essence of the moment and the Kodak was a fast- handling tool made in the spirit of George Eastman’s Brownie which was aimed specifically at women who wanted to get the camera out of the way and capture the memories. Within a couple of years I succumbed to GAS with all of its attendant bells and whistles, and am still suffering many decades on. Your story has stirred many happy memories, so thanks for posting.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      March 31, 2022 at 8:39 pm

      Happily, when it comes to photography I seem to be immune to GAS … which is odd, considering that I have suffered from rather severe bouts of acquisition syndrome when it comes to other activities (don’t even ask how many bicycles, how many fountain pens, and how much yarn I have!!) . I do love cameras, and have a small collection of analogue ones that I’ve accumulated over the course of 2+ decades – each with a story and of high sentimental value. But if we are talking proper gear… I function best with less and am almost entirely incurious about the latest/ greatest. Moreover, I have a bad habit of fixating on a specific lens and using it for everything, instead of changing lenses to suit the context! At the moment I seem to be in a 75mm phase… which is actually handy for capturing my daughter stealthily!

  • Reply
    doc Deutschmann
    March 31, 2022 at 2:28 pm

    Great article – illustrating, what most likely a lot of photographers (who are also parents) have been struggling with.
    Funnily I have heard both: Looking through the camera for a portrait means “connecting” to the people in front of the lens, as well as “putting a distance in between the photographer and the photographed”.
    I’ve heard of conflict photographers, who said “I could not possibly bear the pain of the people in my images, if it weren’t for the camera…” at the same time, they do connect in order to make the pain relatable to the viewer.
    Similar is true for fashion photographers – they’re not interested in the “person” in front of the lens, but in the looks -but they still need to “connect” to their models in order to get the shots they want.

    Maybe photographing our own children is different. With them it is way more difficult to do both – “connect” to them as we know them, as we see them with our hearts (not our cameras) and at the same time “put the distance” between them and us, to fulfill our expectations about the “artfulness” of our product.

    I actually doubt that it makes a difference for the “image” as a product. You may be disappointed (or at least not fully satisfied) with the outcome, but in 20 (or 30) years, the aesthetic of the image has taken a back seat, and the content is going to be WAY MORE important than any self-inflicted expectations of aesthetics.

    The images will be priceless (their “looks” will hardly matter).

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      March 31, 2022 at 8:50 pm

      Interesting you mention fashion photography. I’ve had tangential experience with the industry and found it bizarre on so many levels! I suppose photographing knitwear is somewhat related, but as I work independently it doesn’t feel like the same thing.

      Very true what you say about content in 20-30 year’s time. I just hope the unprinted digital images survive that long!

  • Reply
    Cody
    March 31, 2022 at 9:41 pm

    “And when I notice it, my heart breaks and I put the camera away. I am her mother, and no picture is worth this.”
    A profound and relatable article for me as a dad photographer taking images of my first born (almost two now). I have an abundance of blurry/out of focus film shots and even more digital shots (not counting those phone snaps as well) I have a particularly difficult time with my TLR as I look through the magnifier, flip it down, and then compose from there…my son thinks he’s funny and lurches in and out of the focal plane I’ve selected and I let out a sigh and put the camera back on the shelf. Digital and autofocus is definitely preferred in most scenarios…

    The quote above struck me hard and it’s one I haven’t taken the time to think about. As parents we are so afraid of letting moments slip by that we try to capture them photographically and are left in a constant duality of living in the moment and prioritizing capturing something tangible to remember it. I think it’s at this point we separate the art from the photo because it’s the subject that is so much more valuable than the composition. Sally Mann found a way to infuse both, but at what cost.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      April 3, 2022 at 10:59 am

      I never thought of Sally Man in terms of ‘at what cost.’ Thank you for putting that into perspective.

  • Reply
    Matthias
    March 31, 2022 at 10:38 pm

    Thanks a lot for your thoughtful article and your wonderful images of your daughter. These are great children portraits that really touch my heart and absolutly not “just snaps”.
    I have three children (now 12, 9 and 2 years old) and I have taken a lot of images of them.
    And although I used for a great part of these image modern modern autofocus gear (and almost no mobil phones for my older childeren) there are very very few images that are more than just snaps. Surprisingly some the better ones came from my manual focus Minolta or Yashica SLRs.

    I also know the topic very well, that a camera get’s between me and my family. I never feel like this, but my wife does many times, arguing that I’m not really present at familiy trips. This may be true.

    My older children now are in an age where I have to ask their permission to photograph them, which I rarely get. So game over for better images of them. But there is still my little daughter. She’ll be the child with the best photos I hope.

    Regards and all the best for your family
    Matthias

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      April 3, 2022 at 10:54 am

      With my husband also being a photographer, I never get pushback about photographing all the time… which is perhaps not a good thing! We both try to stay present on family trips, but it can be so hard to put down the camera and just experience that perfect moment rather than attempting to capture it.

  • Reply
    Mike
    April 1, 2022 at 10:55 pm

    This is a beautiful and inspiring story and the pictures are amazing.

    Thank you.

  • Reply
    Johan
    April 3, 2022 at 4:14 am

    From another dad… great pictures! Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Tim Bradshaw
    April 4, 2022 at 10:16 pm

    This is the most interesting article I’ve read on 35mmc. Which is not to say that many articles on 35mmc are not interesting: they are. I have not had small children (and will never have) but the whole question about whether you should force your subject into making the photograph you want to make or whether you should make the photograph they want to make is very conplicated and I think has no easy answer and perhaps no answer at all. At one extreme is bullying, at the other is not having anything to say (or being too afraid to say what you want to say). I think your article is particularly good because it does claim to have an answer: because,probably, there is no answer.

    Except, of course, you do have an answer, just in in photographs not in words.

  • Reply
    Peter
    April 6, 2022 at 7:53 pm

    The last one is a great timeless shot…

    • Reply
      Leonardo Mosquera
      April 20, 2022 at 2:55 am

      This article moved me to tears. I am not a parent, but this paragraph in particular:

      > In the past, I always thought the camera helped me relate to people. But now I have come to question this. Perhaps more likely, I use the camera so that I can appear to relate to people, while in fact not only keeping my distance, but creating an effective barrier between myself and others. In not allowing me to treat her this way and imploring me to be her mother instead, my daughter has made me aware of this fact.

      contains timeless wisdom about the tripartite relation between oneself, the camera and others, and by extension, between oneself and others.

      Thank you for this disarmingly honest and heartfelt description of motherhood <3

Leave a Reply

This site uses User Verification plugin to reduce spam. See how your comment data is processed.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-Free Experience -Click here to find out more
+