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Documentary Photography: 10 Reasons Why Your Mess is the Best Thing in Your Pictures

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I am not the best housekeeper.  With six children, that can hardly be a surprise.  Heck, I have a hard time cleaning up after myself, let alone an army of minions who leave a tornado in their wake.  The mess used to bother me (some days it still does), but over the years I’ve learned that while my family’s mess isn’t the best thing about us, it’s certainly not the worst.  And as a photographer, I can tell you that your mess can be a powerful storytelling tool, and you certainly shouldn’t wait to document your family’s memories because of it.

Why Your Photographer Loves the Mess


One of the my favorite things to do when I am photographing a family is to find interesting ways to frame my subjects.  I love a clean and well composed picture free of distracting elements, but after a while it can get a little boring.  I like to use things in my environment isolate my subject and break up the monotony of certain pictures.

In this image, my daughter was lounging on the messy couch.  I crouched down and waited for a picture worthy moment.  While not technically a “mess” my son ran over to his dad and got right in my frame.  This kid was in the way!  Instead of telling him to move his behind out of my picture, I moved my own behind and framed Alice in the little “window” my son had made with his arm and leg.


A bit of clutter can allow us to focus on the details of a family.  Things aren’t out simply because they don’t have anywhere else to go.  These items are beloved treasures that are used on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis.  Allowing the items themselves to be the subject shows what tangibles are important.  Does your child have a favorite toy or blanket they take with them everywhere?  It’s part of their personality, don’t hide it.  Celebrate it!


Let’s be real for a second.  As a documentary photographer, I am not there to photograph the perfect generic family from heaven.  I’m there to photograph YOUR family.  Your family is not perfect, but it is beautiful in ways that you don’t see.  I don’t want you stressing about whether or not your house is pristine.  I want you to be enjoying your family and making memories.  That’s the whole reason I am there!

Why Your Family Love the Mess


Nothing ruins a photo session more than reluctant family members.  I’ve been there.  My kids start acting like themselves (aka like little monsters), and my pasted smile gets more and more strained as my embarrassment grows.

No one wants to spend their afternoon like that.  In my family, I am the only one who cares about the mess.  Do you know what the rest of them care about?  Having a happy mom.  When I lighten up, everyone is happier.  My clients often say that in spite of the longer length of documentary family sessions, it is easily the least stressful session they have ever experienced.

Little kids love the camera, but they don’t love being hindered by expectations of perfection.  I would much rather have a picture with a happy child and a mess, than have the clutter cleared away and child who wishes I weren’t there.

Dads especially love documentary photo sessions.  There are so many opportunities to document the special relationship between fathers and their children when they are allowed to relax and play.


So many beautiful moments have be ruined by a hovering parent who insists on perfection.  Immediately the children tense up and lose any enjoyment they may have had going into the session.  But when Mom is calm about the inevitable mess, everyone relaxes and starts to play.  Genuine expressions and personalities are much easier to catch because everyone is enjoying themselves.


In my own family, nothing that can prevent the mess once I get involved in the play (after all, no one is left to hold the house together).  But the joy that comes from actually getting my hands dirty with my kids, rather than watching from the outside, makes it worth the clean-up.  And if possible, my kids have even more fun than I do.  And I like being a fun mom once in a while.

Why You Love the Mess


It is not easy to get husbands on board for family pictures.  If your guy is anything like mine, he loves the idea of having a family picture on the wall, but he does not love the process.  He doesn’t want to have to sit, say cheese, and wrestle with unruly children (or deal with me when I’m stressed).  And he really doesn’t want to spend three days cleaning the house before the photographer comes over.  I can embrace a certain amount of mess in order to make my husband happy and actually get the pictures we both want.


What is the easiest way to look stunning in a picture?  Be happy.  How do you do that?  Surround yourself with people you love, do something you love, and just be yourself!  You will be much happier when you forget about the mess and enjoy your family.


In 10 years when you look at your family photo album, are you going to look at the mess?  No!  You are going to see how small your sweet children used to be.  You will remember the idiosincrqocies and they used to have and wish you could go back for just a minute.  You’ll think, I remember that day!  It was so much fun. You’ll close your eyes and remember the colors of the legos all over, the smell of the Christmas cookies, and your child’s face when you taught them how to make applesauce.  You will not be thinking, look at how sticky the counters are!  I really regret having a picture of this moment.  You have all the time in the world to have a pristine home after your kids aren’t little anymore.


Being a mom is hard.  Like, really hard.  Years ago, I remember my husband coming home and asking why the house was still a mess.  After all, I had all day to clean up.  Yes, the house was messy, but it was not still a mess.  It was a mess again.  The mess he came home to in the afternoon was always a very different mess than when he left in the morning.  I worked all day long and made almost no visible progress.  But you know what?  My kids were happy, they were healthy, and when I look back on those pictures, I don’t see the mess, I remember how hard it was and how strong I am.  Those pictures of a little boy covered in fluff may not be technically perfect (it might not even be technically adequate), but it’s a real picture of my real life.

Some days I handle my real life really well.  And some days I make an emergency run to the store for some Ben and Jerry’s and put the kids to bed at 6pm.  But I’m doing it.  Day after day I’m doing it and I’m not giving up.  I keep moving forward.

This is ultimately the biggest reason why I love messy photos.  More than anything else, I love pictures that paint an accurate reflection of my family and life.  And my life is anything but tidy.

One Bonus reason


This is a little known secret, but the harder your photographer has to work to make good pictures for your family, the better the pictures end up being.  As a documentary photographer, I don’t have the ability to control my environment way many photographers do.  Some families make it really easy for me to make good pictures.  The house is clean, the walls are white, the lighting is great, everyone is happy and enjoying themselves.  Those are the times in which I have to do very little work to make a good picture.  I’m pretty much guaranteed a ton of images that are Pinterest worthy.

But when the house wasn’t ripped out of a Better Homes and Gardens catalog, when the walls aren’t white, when the lighting is less than ideal, and people are a little bored of my continued presence, I have to work really hard.  Every photographic choice is calculated and deliberate.   Any negligence will turn my potential piece of art into a snapshot that anyone could have taken.  So when I get home after working in less than ideal settings and upload my SD card to my computer, I am very invested in every image on that card, and those are what Art is made of.  And when I find gold, I know it the instant I see it.  I worked for those pictures and I am proud of them.

As a photographer I love challenge of working in “less than ideal circumstance” because it makes me a better artist.  It’s freaking hard, but so worth it.

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