Offset artist Carrie Yuan’s life as a documentary photographer is intertwined with her life as a mother. She’s been what she calls “the family historian” since her eldest daughter was born. Her first DSLR camera was actually the gift she gave herself when she reached her breastfeeding goal. As her three kids have grown, Yuan’s Seattle home has become filled with the sounds of laughing, singing, and “small feet running,” and the children, now seven and four, have moved from subjects to collaborators.
Raising children is full of what Yuan calls “Hey, no one told me about this!” moments: raw and unedited scenes that play out in almost every household but hardly any glossy magazines. The expectations and the reality of parenthood, she says, often contradict each other, and instead of getting frustrated, she’s jumped into it head first. She’s embraced the humor that comes with being a mom.
Looking back on her own childhood, Yuan admits most of the family pictures were made on holidays, birthdays, and vacations. Perhaps that’s why she’s devoted so much to chronicling her kids’ regular lives and the ordinary days in between the special occasions.
For Yuan, even the hard stuff– like the crying– is worth cherishing and remembering. “When they were having tantrums regularly, part of my coping mechanism as a mom was to pick up my camera,” she says. “The kids actually find those photos funny later, and it gives us an opportunity to talk about their feelings and normalize emotions when they’re calm.”
All three kids love looking at their mom’s pictures, and over time, they’ve been able to take on a more active role in her work. They’re getting older, and Yuan has realized that they’re more sensitive now about the camera, especially during intense emotional moments. If they ask her not to take a picture, she doesn’t take a picture, and she’s okay with that.
“I think I will always photograph my children as long as they’re around me, and as long as they allow me to,” the artist admits. “I love the idea of creating a visual diary for them when they are grown, when they have families of their own, and when I’m gone one day. I hope they find a connection to their childhood where their memory may have failed them. I hope they see that we embraced imperfection, that we had messy rooms and messy faces, lots of laughter, and even some tears. But most of all, what I hope rises up from the hundreds (thousands?) of photographs is unequivocal visual evidence that they are loved beyond measure. ”
We asked Yuan to share some of her poignant and hilarious photos of her children. Below, you’ll also find her five top tips for photographing your kids and documenting family life.
“This was during the early potty training days with the twins. I love their connection in this photograph.”
“My twins are getting ready for a bath here. We used to bathe them together when they were smaller, but we don’t do that so much now. I love my son’s big belly in this photo! He doesn’t have that anymore.”
Embrace the imperfection. One of the big hurdles I had to overcome when I started photographing our everyday life was, “Do I really want to show people the inside of our house in its usual condition?” We don’t live within the pages of a Pottery Barn catalog, so why should we feel like we need to make photos that look like that? It was pretty freeing to embrace the reality and then figure out how to work within those conditions to create strong yet honest photographs.
“My younger daughter was at the dentist for a check-up. I have unusual access here because their father is the dentist.”
“My husband held my 4-year-old, who had just received one of her routine immunizations, and the nurse placed a band-aid on the site.”
“My 7-year-old lost lots of teeth this year, but the two front teeth felt like particularly important milestones.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to find ways to engage your children in the picture-making process. This could mean soliciting ideas from them or occasionally allowing them to art direct a shoot.
“My daughter picked out this swim cap among other choices of more “cutesy” and feminine designs. The shark cap 100% fits her fierce personality more than the other cute options, so I always chuckle to myself when she wears it.”
“My oldest daughter and my son are both very affectionate kids, so this type of scene is pretty common for them. Here, they’re enjoying some sweet sibling cuddles one morning while on vacation.”
“This photo just makes me laugh! The twins were trying to drink water from this fountain, but they’re too short to reach the stream of water, so they’re trying to pull up on the bowl and opening their mouths wide. Meanwhile, I’m turning the water on with my left hand and shooting with my right hand.”
Photos of your everyday life grow more valuable over time. What seems like a “meh” photo today will be so much more valuable a year from now. I’ve found many gems in my archives that I initially overlooked. But as I stumble across them months or even years later, they bring me back to something I’d completely forgotten and to a time that has come and gone: a sagging diaper, the texture of my child’s hair as a baby. So I suppose I’d say don’t be so quick to delete them. Storage is cheap!
“My son is a thumb-sucker, and this is his beloved lovey, a giraffe that he’s named Buvee. I got several identical spares, but he rejects them all due to their newness. He can pick out Buvee from the other imposter lovies with his eyes closed based on texture and smell!”
“My husband gives our son his regular haircuts, and on this day the light in the bathroom was particularly dramatic.”
“The Ballard Locks and salmon fish ladder in Seattle is one of our regular places for outings. This was late summer/early fall, when adult salmon can be seen swimming up the fish ladder to return to their streams of birth to spawn.”
If you want to have a long photographic life that includes your children, keep it a positive experience for them. That means respecting their requests for no photos, negotiating sometimes, and definitely putting down the camera and at times being content to just record memories in your mind and not in pixels.
“The twins love helping with laundry. They’ll help load the machine, pour the soap, press the buttons, then sit in front of the washer and watch the water and spinning laundry. It’s almost as if they’re being hypnotized. I try to keep it fun and enlist their help so they’ll always enjoy this task!”
“I made this self-portrait when the twins were 11 weeks old as a way to document my stretch marks that remained from a twin pregnancy. I couldn’t tell at the time, but it also coincidentally perfectly depicts their different personalities: my daughter wailing, and my son just content. I picture him saying to his sister in his head, “Dude, chill.””
Daily or near-daily shooting makes a big difference in how photographically tuned in I am to light, composition, and framing. It makes a difference in my ability to anticipate and see moments, not to mention the technical aspects of operating my camera. I am at my best when I am devoted to the regular practice of my craft.