The past few years have seen a rise of interest in family documentary photography. Gqeberha-based photographer Leonette Bower has been on the forefront of this, turning her keen eye on her family (and others) to tell wonderful stories of the everyday. She tells us more about her love for documentary work, tips on photographing your family, and “creating something beautiful in all the Covid chaos”.

When did you realise that you want to take on photography as a full-time career?

I grew up in a creative home with an artist mom and a journalist dad, who are both also very keen amateur photographers. So I have always been exposed to the creative process of pictures and stories. When I finished high school, I went to study Photography at the PE Technikon. But, in retrospect, I was totally clueless about the industry and what I really wanted to do with my skills and qualification.

For some time I thought of going into advertising or food photography, and these were also the fields that I chose to focus on in my third year of studies. It only happened many years down the line that I (re)discovered my love for the documentary genre, and for the first time ever I felt ‘at home’ as a photographer.

You are no stranger to documentary work, with your #Storyofmylife project combining both images and text in a unique way. Tell us more.

#Storyofmylife was a wonderful opportunity that I was presented with in 2015 when I was asked to document the lives of students within the #Feesmustfall context. My aim was to tell their stories in a way that would offer a glimpse into their lived experience, while focussing on the “access” theme – students who were confronted with and negotiated various challenges in accessing the university.

It was important to me to involve them in the process, and each of the eight students that formed part of the project, provided their own handwritten notes to accompany the images. They were also actively involved in choosing the settings in which they were photographed – spaces that captured the essence of the various facets of their daily lives.

This project had been very humbling and rewarding, and greatly influenced my current approach to photography.

While documentary style photography can seem easy, it’s difficult to get right in an engaging fashion. What do you believe is important when shooting family documentary work?

I think one of the most important aspects of documentary family photography is TRUST. If I want the families that I’m photographing to open up to me and reveal their true selves, they need to be comfortable with me and trust me to portray them in an honest and respectful way.

The other important factor for me is TIME. It takes time for most people to relax with a camera pointed at them. I have found that I often only start getting really good photos after about an hour with a family. By that time they have usually started to let their guard down and I become part of the family for the day, giving me plenty of opportunity to get close to the action without drawing attention to myself.

For this reason, I don’t offer short one or two-hour photo sessions, and my shortest family session is half a day. That’s when the good stuff happens!

Do you have a couple of tips for photographers looking to document their family?

Documenting your own family can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Since the start of lockdown in March last year, I have made a conscious decision to photograph my family during our very ordinary days at home. Besides it being a creative outlet for me, it has also proved to be a way in which I could be fully present – creating something beautiful in all the Covid chaos.

A good way to start is to force yourself to slow down and start noticing the things around you. Watch the way the light falls in your home at different times of the day. Be aware of the little things your family does that are quirky or unique. Always have your camera close by, so that you can grab it when you notice a moment worth capturing. And for parents with young children: don’t be afraid of a messy house! Embrace the chaos! It will not last forever.

From time to time, I actually offer an online course on documentary family photography, where I share valuable information and tips and also provide constructive feedback on participants’ photos. Anyone who might be interested can contact me, and I will let them know when registration for the next course opens.

As a full-time photographer, plus shooting after hours, how do you prevent getting tired of photography?

My documentary family work has never felt like work to me! It is my way of expressing myself and how I make sense of the world around me. I don’t see myself getting tired of it anytime soon.

How did switching to Fujifilm improve your family documentary work?

Switching to Fujifilm brought about a complete change to the way I shoot. It made me fall in love with the medium all over again. The smaller size camera means it’s not a cumbersome activity for me anymore. I particularly love how unobtrusive it is when using it for documentary work.

I also use the tilt-screen a lot. I find that when I lift a camera up to my face when photographing young kids especially, they would often react by striking a pose or pulling a face at the camera. But with the tilt screen, I can mostly maintain eye contact or have a conversation with them while taking their photo, which results in more authentic expressions.

Do you have a must-have item for travel or documentary work?

My 35mm f2 lives on my camera! It’s a beautiful, tiny, pin-sharp lens that yields stunning results. I take it with me wherever I go.

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