Reclaiming the embodiment of Momtographer with Sony
By Kerry Cheah
“Never work with children and animals” — so the old showbiz trope goes.
As a mother of two out-of-control little boys (or ‘active kids’, as tactful friends may have you believe), this saying is something that I should have internalised by now. After all, escaping children is half the reason people go to work, surely?
And yet, here I am: Chalking up almost nine years of photographing my own children, and entering my sixth year as a professional photographer for children.
This is considered a short period in most careers. But taking into account the extended periods of obsessive social media surfing and navel-gazing while hiding from my children at home, I believe I have experienced most of the ups and downs that befall the common, yet…I daresay, isolated breed of photographer – the ‘momtographer’.
Alpha 7R II | FE 35mm 2.8 ZA | 35mm | 1/125sec | F2.8 | ISO 800
What is a momtographer?
Informally, a momtographer is a mother who comes into possession of a ‘proper’ camera. She takes lots of photos of her kid(s), and then starts charging other parents for photographing their children.
In other words, someone who develops a passion for a skill, which they hone through personal projects before gradually building a business off of it. An admirable goal truly. However, in the photography industry, momtographers are blamed for lowering standards and prices, and sometimes even viewed as hacks who think that a fancy camera and free time are the only prerequisites for setting up a photography business. This then begs the question: Which mother has lots of free time?!
Alpha 7 III | FE 35mm 1.4 ZA | 35mm | 1/800sec | F1.8 | ISO 640
Debunking the misconception of momtographers
In all seriousness though, I believe such views reflect subtle biases against stay-at-home mothers and to a degree, the genre of family photography.
Stay-at-home mothers are seen as having their identities and self-worth tied entirely to their offspring, without active participation in the ‘real world’ beyond the roles they play in their families. Hence, photography can only ever be associated as a hobby with them, and not as a true profession.
Similarly, family photography is sometimes viewed as not being ‘serious’ as opposed to commercial photography or social documentary photography. The assumption is that this family-oriented genre does not require much technical skill, and has little, if anything, to contribute to meaningful public discourse.
Alpha 7 III | FE 35mm 1.4 ZA | 35mm | 1/200sec | F2.0 | ISO 2500
Finding my voice
I remember starting out with all the giddiness and lack of objectivity of a new relationship - seeing the world through my first 50mm F1.8 lens, swooning over close-ups of baby toes against bokeh, chasing sunflare and starburst, alternating between pumping up colours and contrast in Lightroom, and playing with vintage-inspired presets to evoke the nostalgia of childhood.
While I did not have a classroom education in photography, I had an infinite appetite for trawling the Internet, and was drawn quickly to other momtographers’ images of daily life. I sought out babies in diapers rather than in knitted hats, children in their homes than in studios or backlit fields. I practised with my kids and took classes on the Internet.
The market gap was apparent during my search for a professional who could capture my family in this unique photography style. As it turned out, I could not find one in Singapore. I pounced upon this opportunity and launched Red Bus Photography.
Alpha 7 III | FE 35mm 1.4 ZA | 35mm | 1/1600sec | F1.8 | ISO 125
The trials of a momtographer
I still can recall the feeling of disbelief and excitement after a photography assignment with the first client I snagged outside of my own personal network. (She is now also a friend and a very accomplished momtographer in South Africa). I cherished that high and arrogantly convinced myself that I had somehow found a shortcut to success.
However, all that fell away soon enough, and I began doubting myself especially as I tracked the successes of other momtographers on Instagram and Facebook photography groups, wondering if my personal taste in photography was too niche or – horrors – if I simply was not that good.
Alpha 7 III | FE 35mm 1.4 ZA | 35mm | 1/250sec | F2.8 | ISO 1600
Photography can be a lonely business, and loneliness can lead to overthinking. I hardly met, or much less worked with, other photographers in ‘real life’. Furthermore, children dominated both my personal and professional lives. I craved something more from the world of grown-ups, some sort of recognition or reassurance that my work had significance.
I remembered feeling both pride and envy from following the works of female Singaporean photojournalists Sim Chiyin and Wong Maye-E. I was convinced that my time had passed. I had young children and not enough drive to spend long periods of time away from them in order to put in the necessary groundwork. Boredom compounded my self-doubt, and I wondered if maybe beautiful staged pictures were enough for most families, while simultaneously feeling unwarranted disdain for how such pictures were not real, unlike photojournalism which was ‘serious’ and ‘meaningful’ photography.
Alpha 7 III | FE 35mm 1.4 ZA | 35mm | 1/320sec | F3.2 | ISO 100
Rising from the rut
What has kept me going since then?
Meeting more like-minded clients and fellow photographers across different genres, and simply working my way through what I have come to recognise as a natural cycle of dissatisfaction and discovery that besets most artists.
I treasure the access that families granted me to their homes and their lives; I repay this trust by prioritising them as my audience. Their reaction to my images is what gives my work meaning. I define my work not by a particular demographic or a specific aesthetic, but by the characterisation of relationships in each of my frames. My best work happens when people are unguarded, when they relate freely to each other through a look or a touch, or to their environments through their actions and postures.
I have been well-trained for this by my own children. Their unwillingness to pose for photographs has grown with time, as has their impatience with their mother, and in turn I have learnt to observe and anticipate. Juggling a momtographer’s dual roles as parent and documentarian means that I have to participate in activities while constantly scanning for interesting happenings to photograph, and making creative compositions on the fly to do justice to these moments.
Alpha 7 III | FE 55mm 1.8 ZA | 55mm | 1/8000sec | F2.0 | ISO 125
I now believe that being a mother of two unruly, independent-minded children has played a large role in shaping my approach to photography.
Where others see chaos, I see pieces of a jigsaw. Where others see models to direct, I see unpredictable subjects that I need to tailor my responses to. Being a momtographer means bringing the full weight of my own parenting experiences to bear on how I relate to my subjects.
If parenting has taught me anything, it is that people blossom most when they are allowed simply to be.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Sony Singapore.