Documenting Childhood with Sony
By Kerry Cheah
“Nobody said it was easy, No one ever said it would be this hard” – ‘The Scientist’ by Coldplay.
Lately, the above refrain has been popping up in my head as I wrangle my children through a daily battle of wills.
A movie of our lives now would not be filled with cool yet sun-drenched scenes of us laughing carefree in the park, or perfectly arranged on a coach doing nothing but soaking up each other’s company. Instead, a peek into our daily lives is getting through mealtimes with as little mess as possible, playing board games until a losing child has a meltdown, and reading books while I try to steal cuddles. Furthermore, my husband and I are constantly trying not to lose our heads as our children one-up each other in the parental annoyance stakes.
As a mother of two rambunctious boys, I have always found the sentiment of ‘the days are long but the years are short’ to be wholly unhelpful as a piece of advice. I know the years are short. My eight year old already refuses to embrace me within 50 m of the school gate lest we run into his friends. This is cold comfort for the moments when he is busy leaving bits and bobs around the house while teasing his brother for having a ‘girlfriend’ in order to wind him up into a screaming, sobbing mess.
Even taking photographs of my boys has become more difficult as they grow older. For many years, I have adhered to the principle of photographing my family ‘as is’. I photograph ordinary, daily moments because I know that I am personally unable to appreciate these moments to their fullest right now. I photograph them because my children, conversely, are living entirely for the moment, and I want them to have something to look back on to remember these carefree days. Something that can stir a familiar feeling – I am loved, in the smallest of ways, everyday.
I fell into my style of photographing my family easily, because I have always been more comfortable observing than directing. No forced smiling for the camera, no victory signs or awkward posing. I firmly believe that documenting the genuine essence of our time together, albeit challenging, is the best way to honour our relationships. No need for artifice, no need to smoothen out the edges by dressing better or behaving better. There is great value in our children being able to look back at photographs and see us all for who we really are.
This has also become the core of my approach to client work. However, this documentary-based approach does not preclude using different photography techniques to create more aesthetically pleasing images, or to create a ‘feel’ that communicates the significance that I see in a particular interaction.
In order to illustrate my approach, I will share a few favourite images and explain the creative process behind each image.
Alpha 7 III | Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA | 35 mm | 1/200 sec | F1.8 | ISO 1000
Some photographers love clean and minimalist images that convey a single, striking message. I am on the other end of the spectrum.
I love complexity and layering, cramming different elements of a story into a single frame. Both these images were taken at newborn shoots, but there is more going in each frame besides the baby. In my experience, older siblings command the lion’s share of attention as everyone is concerned about not making them feel neglected. I love showing this in my images while making it clear that this is a newborn shoot.
Alpha 7 III | Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA | 35 mm | 1/250 sec | F2.8 | ISO 1600
The first image shows how dad and mum are both focused on the older brother. Even though you cannot see any of the parents’ faces clearly, you can guess from the body language that dad has just asked him a question or said something reassuring to him. When I positioned myself for the shot, I chose to train my lens downwards to show the physical connection between the siblings, while waiting for the older brother to turn towards his dad.
In the second image, mum was trying to get her newborn to nap while other members of the family were hamming it up to keep the older sister entertained. I moved around the room to find an angle where I could get both sets of interactions in the same frame while making it look like they were all together. Once again I waited for a physical connection to happen before I took my shot.
Alpha 7 III | Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA | 35 mm | 1/640 sec | F2.0 | ISO 400
Similar to layering, I like to create tension in my images by setting up contrasting interactions, activities or movements in the same frame.
For the first image, I knew that I wanted to make images of the children running around as the mum had told me that this was a favourite family activity. The little girl had also just started walking and I wanted to document this milestone. I lowered myself to her level and noticed that her mother and brother were running up from behind her. I decided to try and get the contrast of her toddling and her brother running, and moved slightly to my right to wait for the right moment. In hindsight, I would have loved to capture a companion image with the focus on her in the foreground.
Alpha 7 III | Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA | 35 mm | 1/640 sec | F2.0 | ISO 100
For the second image, I was initially drawn to the little boy pushing the doll on the swing. I moved in a semi-circle to try and find the best angle – e.g. straight on to his face – and noticed that his dad had just taken a call in the background. As I moved to line them both up, mum stole a quick peck on the cheek and I had my shot.
Alpha 7 III | Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA | 35 mm | 1/200 sec | F1.4 | ISO 1000
Moving very close to your subject immediately creates a sense of intimacy. Furthermore, choosing the right detail to focus on can convey a story and trigger a memory without the need to see faces or the wider context.
In this shot, the mum was breastfeeding her child when I noticed that he was playing with her hair. While I had taken wider images to document the room and the expressions on mum and baby’s faces, I wanted to zoom in on his little hand twisting his mother’s hair, to remind them both of this habit and the special moment that they shared.
Alpha 7 III | Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA | 35 mm | 1/200 sec | F1.8 | ISO 800
Hair and hands were also the focus of my second image, this time of mum braiding her daughter’s hair – another moment special to just the two of them, and a marker of the little girl’s growing up.
Alpha 7 III | Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA | 35 mm | 1/15 sec | F6.3 | ISO 100
Conveying a sense of motion is one of my favourite ways to add ‘life’ to an image.
In this shot, the kids were having a grand old time playing in the living room, while mum and dad sat back and simply enjoyed watching them. I wanted to shoot straight on to capture the whole family in the frame, and decided to try and shoot the little girl running as motion blur in contrast to her parents relaxing, rather than freezing her motion by using a higher shutter speed. This shot took several tries so that I can compose the shot with the little girl as the central focus, while at the same time catching her brother in the midst of climbing.
Alpha 7 III | Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA | 35 mm | 1/250 sec | F2.8 | ISO 320
While I prioritise documentary-style images, I enjoy shooting portraits especially if I can position my subjects in dramatic light. My eye is naturally drawn to strong contrast between light and shadow, and I particularly love shadows that form interesting shapes.
In this shot, I noticed that the hard afternoon light coming through the grille windows was creating a grid on the wall of the room, and asked the family to sit on the ground facing the window. The boy’s hand action was a response to the bright light, which created the dynamism in contrast to his sister’s pensiveness. I exposed for the highlights and recovered some of the shadows in post-processing.
Alpha 7 III | Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA | 35 mm | 1/2500 sec | F2.8 | ISO 200
I love quirky images that make viewers do a double take, and take a moment to figure out how the image was taken or why the image seems to subvert our sense of normalcy.
I was following this family around their condominium playground and noticed that they were lined up on one side of the bridge-like structure. I positioned myself on the other side in anticipation of the child climbing up to walk across or crawling through the hole. When I lowered myself to ground level – a position I often take to be able to see the surroundings from a child’s height – I noticed that dad’s head and most of mum’s lower body was obscured by the structure. I waited for the child to walk forward sufficiently to have his head completely obscured before I took my shot.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Sony Singapore.