Why I’m Ditching the Label of “Documentary” Photographer

Lesbian couple in a blue halo of light is surrounded by beautiful glowing bokeh balls in artistic edgy wedding portrait

I’m a little afraid to say this… but I’m not sure I can really call myself a “documentary photographer” anymore. It’s a label I’ve clung to ever since I started taking pictures more seriously, but I think it may be time to give it the boot!

Why do I call myself a “documentary” photographer?

When I call myself a “documentary” photographer, I hope I’m conveying something about my philosophy and approach to making pictures. What I’m trying to say is:

  • I’m going to tell your story with authenticity.
  • I’m going to capture the real feelings and moments of the day – tears, belly laughs, wild dance moves, all of it!
  • I freaking love candid moments. (Literally, thirty times during your wedding, I will look at the back of my camera and crack up at a weird moment that I caught.)
  • My highest priority is that you get to be present and really live inside your precious moments.
  • It is my great privilege to bear witness to those moments and to help you breathe into them a little deeper.
  • Sometimes you may forget I’m even there. (Except when I’m tearing it up on the dance floor!)

And even though I’m considering ditching the “documentary” label, all of these things are still true!

Blonde bride with an updo stands behind a glass window, looking at herself in a mirror as she gets ready for a New England manor wedding

So… what does being a “documentary photographer” even mean?

Here’s what “documentary” means to me:

When I capture your photo, and there’s a shot I want to make or a mood I want to portray, I’m always going to change myself, not you. I might change my camera lens or my camera settings. I might kneel in a patch of mud. In a bold move, I might even turn off a lamp in the hotel room where you’re getting ready. (Gasp!)

And you? You don’t have to do anything but get ready, get married, and dance your ass off.

It sounds pretty good, right? I used to think so…

But practically, that’s not the way to get the best, or even the most authentic photos.

Engaged couple in winter coats nuzzles in the snow in front of the Boston Skyline near the Charles River

But doesn’t “authentic” mean, like… real?

As I’ve studied other artists and played with my own style, I’ve realized something:

I don’t want to stop at pictures that just show what happened. I’m going to work (in whatever way I can) to make pictures that capture an authentic feelingYour feeling on your day!

And sometimes the picture that captures that feeling needs a little bit more than just turning off a lamp. Sometimes it needs you to turn your face toward the warm sunlight, to capture a little bit more of that (very real) golden glow. Maybe it needs you to step into an intimate nook because you’re actually hella romantic and the tourists passing by in their Juicy sweatpants are taking a little something away from that vibe. Maybe it means grabbing each others’ hands, pulling up your dresses, and running towards me, because to me, your elopement feel like motion and wildness and splashing mud and pure joy and I want allll of that to come through in the shot.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to interfere, but sometimes I have to if I want to capture something that’s even more real and even more vivid than the lamp-lit reality.

Engaged couple in bright colors walks down a lamp-lined path at the JFK Library in BostonExample time:

You two feel awkward in front of the camera at your engagement session because you’re not influencers and you don’t really pose for pictures together that often.

If I was a pure documentary photographer, I might spend an hour capturing that awkward-in-front-of-the-camera feeling. But it’s my job to get you to laugh or stare into each others eyes or feel something real – to cultivate a moment that reflects who you really are together, how you actually make each other feel.

For me, making your picture means getting to know and understand you. It means helping create the visuals to match that. Honestly, that’s what I’ve been aiming for all along.

Engaged couple surrounded by yellow fall leaves nuzzles under a gazebo at the Larz Anderson Park in Boston

I’m after the best version of the real you.

Let me be clear here: I’m not going to edit out your freckles or your curves. More likely, I’m going to fall in love with them. And then I’ll remind you how awesome you look, and that will help you relax or smile or laugh. And that is how I’m going to make you look fabulous!

As I said before, I don’t want to pull you out of the moment. I want you to help you relax and sink into it even more. During your portraits, that might mean I ask you to pull each other a little closer or stare into each others’ eyes. And maybe while you’re staring, I’m trying some weird experiment with prisms or colored lights.

And one or two of those experiments will work. And when you see the photos, you’ll realize that your wedding actually did feel like the twinkle lights and rainbows you see in these photos. So that’s exactly how you’ll get to remember it.

Lesbian couple in a purple halo of light snuggles in and artistic edgy engagement portrait

Should I ditch the label?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m still probably about 85% a “documentary” photographer. I still want you to revel in the moment. I’ll still stay out of your way most of the time. Especially during the ceremony and the eating and the dancing… (Some moments need to be all yours.)

But every once in a while, something will catch my eye. I’ll tap you on the shoulder and tell you to hold exactly where you are so I can capture it. And whatever time you give me for portraits, whatever instructions you want to take, whatever lights I can set up or tweaks I can make or jokes I can tell or experiments I can run… basically, whatever we decide do with that other non-documentary 15%?

Well that’s going to be pure magic.