What really matters in a photograph?

I want to talk to you about a photograph.

This photo is all about what really matters in life and has been a bit of a pivotal moment in my wedding photography career.

At this time of year many photographers will now be posting on Instagram, Facebook and indeed their website profiles the very best of their 2016 work, and I can tell you there is some seriously jaw dropping work out there. I don’t know whether I am going to be able to find the time to do this myself, but I shall try.

Instead I want to reflect on a dawning realisation I have been having for a little while now that thankfully now the mad rush of the wedding season is winding down for me, and it’s all about this photograph. I need to put you in my frame of mind and this may be quite personal…

The past two years for my family and specifically my parents have been very tough. My mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in summer 2014 and I spent along with my dad and brothers a lot of time caring for her during this time. Barely a month after my mum was given the all clear after a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and everything else between, my dad was then diagnosed with prostate cancer. The carer roles swapped and the focus turned to looking after my dad. Thankfully may dad too has been given the all clear. In between all of this was continuing to work photographing weddings.

In between this has been my own ambitions, building my own wedding photography career rapidly, aspiring to travel further and further afield, and indeed this has been an amazing and exciting year. In this year alone I have travelled all over the UK, Italy three times, Paris as well. It has been something of a ride. But something was beginning to hit me. I hadn’t really fully taken breath from my parents having gotten over their illnesses and I was still rushing around, packing in as much as I could, not stopping to draw breath, and becoming more and more stressed.

Bizarrely one of the good things if I can even begin to describe it in that way is whilst either of them were unwell washaving to make time for them to look after them, to help. And I wanted to help as well. I wanted to care. It was sadly prompted by the most awful of circumstances. It’s reminded me of what really matters to me, and it’s not all about getting an amazing wedding where the couple want to trek the mountains and get amazing photos from the top (although I wouldn’t say no if it came my way.)

There was something about spending an hour with my mum in the morning with her feeling very ill from the chemotherapy, or our conversations in the car as she revealed more about her relationship with her mum as we went to Exeter for another radiotherapy session. A wash of warmth comes over me as I remember  walking around Dunelm before an appointment at the hospital having coffee together. And I remember doing the shopping and cooking, trying to make things as easy as possible that was somehow quite affirming being able to sit with my mum as she tried to eat some soup, or making her ginger tea…

…but life took over. And now two years later I am talking about a photograph.

The above leads on to something I feel extremely deeply with all my heart. I think some of my priorities have been wrong the past year, or rather the emphasis has been wrong. I have spent too much time working, saying family matters, that friends matter, and then not had the time to show emphatically they really do matter. In working hard I have pushed my career so hard that it has provided me with some truly awesome experiences, but at what sacrifice?

I’ll tell you what sacrifice – I almost lost my parents within the space of two years barely into their sixties and I was carrying on in many respects as if this was all going to be just fine. My parents lost their parents when they were young and I know from how they talk, and the things they don’t say but suggest in their anxieties, their memories, their fears, and their stories of how much they miss them still even after all these years. (My maternal grandmother passed away when I was 2 in 1985, and my paternal grandfather when I was 1 in 1984, they are pictured below with me as a baby.)

My career is not worth sacrificing too much time for, I want to spend more time with family and will be from 2017. I am cutting down how much I work. I want to slow down, to realise that when I’ve been stressed I’ve not had the patience my mum has sometimes deserved from me, and I don’t ever want to have memories of me being stressed and lacking patience for my mother. The world needs more kindness, more warmth radiating from our hearts, and that starts now with me here. I want to spend more time talking to my dad, to hear more about his stories. I want my memories to be of peaceful loving ones with them, where I had the patience for them both, where we sit in cafés with red gingham table cloths as the sun streams in drinking hot mugs of tea in the winter in Sidmouth. The food isn’t complicated, it is perfectly them and sweet.

And that photograph I want to talk about…

When I deliver the photos to my couples, I am genuinely always overwhelmed with how much they love their photos. I will always have my favourites but what I quite often find is my favourites don’t match up with what my couple’s favourites are. Sure they love the ones I have as my favourites (it could be a portrait of the couple on coast, or a beautiful backlit bouquet shot, something artsy and typically ‘me’) but their favourites will be one where the bride is holding their mum’s hand at the wedding breakfast, or a groom may love the one of his dad giving him a damn good hug after the marriage and vows have been exchanged.

The parents will often have very different favourites. It could be one of their sons and daughters cutting the cake, a straight forward holding the knife, arm around the shoulder, the couple beaming as they pose for the camera photo… For me as a photographer, I will always take that photo as beautifully as I can but I perhaps I haven’t in all honesty seen the real value of that photo. And now I sit here tapping away imagining the proud parents holding that photo, looking at their son, or their daughter and feeling very proud, and that makes me well up thinking about that possibility.

Because that’s what matters! It’s not a word, a thing, it’s not a sentence or a specific visual image, it’s not an adornment or a damned trend. It’s a feeling, photographs have meaning because they evoke feelings in ways I don’t always anticipate and that is what matters. Not how amazing the cake looks, or how beautiful the flowers are, feelings are what matters.

I felt that perhaps I was beginning to loose sight of this as this year went on. I had some amazing weddings and worked with amazing couples and really felt everything but I could see how my direction was beginning to shift little bit by little bit to how to produce the aesthetically wonderful photo and just perhaps I would start missing the moments that really matter if I was too busy trying to perfect a certain static image, or chase locations that would look awesomely jaw dropping to my peers and publications looking for the next viral social media hit. I could see that perhaps I was on the cusp of starting to prioritise something else other than the feeling. Instead, I want to prioritise the cutting of the cake photo.

And so, this photograph I want to talk to you about.

Don’t you realise I’ve been talking about that photograph the whole time you’ve been reading this? This photo isn’t just a specific image, this photo could be anything you want to imagine, it can mean whatever you want it to mean, but it has to mean something to you. This photo could be the most incidental, unpolished moment in time but what it contains is the perfect feeling. Of patience, tenderness, kindness and love.

I’ll tell you about the photograph I now have in my mind, I want a photograph of my parents now that their hair is grey, holding on to each other, still as in love with each other as the day they married. In the corner of the photos in the incidental unintended shadows are the slightly uncoordinated bits of furniture that hold their life together, and comfort them when they relax. Little china nick-nacks sit on the shelves, bought on holidays or coach trips they took together, and slightly faded photographs hang and sit in amongst background shadows revealing glimpses of their past and of their history of which I am part of. I want to see how in that photo as they hold on to each other forever, their fingers in that photo for that moment ran warm with life and their eyes softly radiated their soul, and that all of life lead to that one moment and was photographed. That photograph will always live on, their hair will not become more grey, their feet will never tire, the nicknacks won’t need dusting, and that photograph of them will never leave me feeling alone in this world…

Left to right: My maternal nan and me, My mum and me, My paternal granddad and me (1983) 

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