Ever show up to make documentary work of your clients, but they can’t seem to grasp the concept that you’re not there to direct? Or, they’re so stuck on the outcome of their pictures that the honesty of the story is lost?
I’ve totally been there! In 2013, my client work was very trial & error as I pursued documenting clients just like I documented my own life.
Lots and lots of error.
Questionnaires became my BFF for a couple reasons that I’m excited to share with you – and I’d still use them today. Before we get into it, you need to know that I believe you can make amazing documentary pictures, with paying clients, WITHOUT questionnaires. No argument there.
There’s another side of the coin where questionnaires are GOLD… having nothing to do with your ability to make great pictures.
Questionnaires are a simple way to:
(if you’re thinking #2 sounds like a shot checklist, I can assure you, it is not)
Our clients don’t have a “role” to fulfill during our time together, but in my experience, some clients (new to documentary family photography especially) often feel a need to understand what they’re “supposed” to be doing.
(which is nothing, as we know, but it’s like they need this permission slip to simply BE)
However, when I’ve let them “be,” I’ve had clients accidentally self-sabbatage our work. They’ve tried to control the outcome of the pictures – a reflection of their comfort level in being purely documented and photos being shared (fear of being judged), I think.
They want to make sure they’re gonna be happy with what they’re paying for, who can blame ’em, right?!
When I was first starting out, I’d say things like:
“I want to photograph organic moments in an environment that’s meaningful to you and give you photos that reflect what that looks like. I’m not posing/directing. You just need to be you, doing whatever as if I wasn’t there. “
In my experience (more so with couples than families), they totally behave differently. It’s like they feel like they need to “entertain you” rather than feel free to go about their day (meaning, treat you with hospitality as a guest in their home).
Some clients are super confident and freely open (dreamies), but not all. We have to communicate differently – deeper – with those clients who don’t give us access so freely.
For example, this one couple wanted to be at his parent’s house, because all summer they spend every weekend there on a boat. I’m like YESSSS this sounds exactly like what I want to preserve for them. But nope. She had her damn hair curled and a cocktail dress on when I got there!
(idk about you, but my boat attire is more like a bathing suit, cover-up, and messy bun)
The whole time, they’d glance at me like, “what are we supposed to do?”
I’d put the camera down and they’d re-engage with each other, but I wanted better. I wanted organic truth.
I wanted to fully document their boat day, dammit!
Soon after more similar experiences, I created the questionnaires.
EVERYTHING CHANGED after that. Honestly.
The questionnaires help clients to look at their authentic life, allowing what’s important to surface, and naturally help them feel more comfortable being THEM.
(no dress up show for the camera needed)
They could feel free to do chores or sit around doing nothing as it’s truthful to them (as opposed to NOT doing those things out of feeling like they need to perform for the camera, which is what was happening).
They could feel free to NOT be all kissy/huggy, when they realized that living their life organically + the partnership they share speaks volumes to affection too
(that’s been an issue I’ve had with clients: over-affectionate to control what their photos look like, when I knew they aren’t like that in real life)
They could feel like they DON’T need a cutesy activity for the camera and be 100% them.
Here’s an analogy:
You know the classic storyline in the movies when a couple plans a wedding and before you know it, the wedding becomes about THE WEDDING, not the MARRIAGE? There’s usually some kind of major event that tears the couple apart (think Sex and the City), but then they reconnect with why they’re having a wedding to begin with? #happyending
Similarly, I’ve found that some clients hire a documentary photographer to record this season in life, because they value what that looks like so much that they want to preserve it (the marriage).
Shortly after booking, they get a bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) from other types of photos they’ve seen mixed with a desire to show their wonderful life to their friends and family (and afraid of what honesty might look like).
They get so focused and attached to the outcome (the wedding), that they try to create a scenario that yields a certain standard and expectation to their pictures (they dress different, behave different, etc.).
Clients give themselves permission to do what’s truthful to their normal, because of taking the time to SEE it.
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The other part to questionnaires is like a life value check-in with their point of view.
I’m not a fan of making pictures of everyday moments / family life / whatever I see happen in the 2, 4, 8 hours, etc. that we’re together. I want to deliver a gallery that’s mind-blowingly connected to their most valued experiences and living memories with a documentary approach.
The only way I can tap into that is to have more information.
Asking clients to look at their life helps determine the best time I should spend time with them as well as which location. For example, if you were offering a Day in the Life and I saw all your family after family, in-home after in-home work, then I’d likely follow suit and hire you to do a day in the life in my home.
But you know what would mean so much more to me?
The thing is, before I learned about the value of documentary photography for myself, I couldn’t think outside the box from other photography I saw. Therefore, I’d never in a million years think to hire you to come up to the family cabin or to cover one of our riverfront family dinners.
I’d never allow the honest, vivid image in my mind of my David possibly happen when you’re around, because we’d assume a FAMILY documentary session meant we needed to spend our time together as a family.
(True story, because when we had a photographer over, we were slightly dressy and even though no moments were orchestrated, they were not an honest reflection of our life… not even close)
Clients have told me how much fun filling out the questionnaire was – like a trip down memory lane – and I get the benefit of possibilities to anticipate during our time together to make more meaningful pictures from THEIR point of view.
(which is important to me)
Moral of the story, questionnaires were how my clients could give themselves permission NOT to dress up / act like this is a photo shoot (because me telling them to not do that wasn’t cutting it) + opened their eyes to all the abundance they have in their lives.
Reviewing their responses and allowing clients to understand what kinds of things I’ll be looking for (NOT promising them, clear distinction) – specific to their lives – helps them calm + reconnect to why they want pictures to begin with. Working with clients free from their own judgements of how they need to be / what they need to do in front of the camera allows us to do better work.
We can make amazing images without a questionnaire just by being there. There’s no question there. But with just a little more information about our clients, we can deliver more intimacy.
People can feel like their everyday life isn’t quite “good enough” to be on camera and fear what the end result could look like.
• “What would you get of us?” in a “yikes” kind of way
• “Am I going to be yelling at my kids in these “moments?””
• “Is our house gonna look awful?”
• “Am I gonna look like a grumpy B if I’m not looking a certain way for the camera?”
• “Am I going to look overweight in my everyday wear?”
One may argue if you hear these concerns, “well those aren’t my clients, I want the people who will be totally and confidently raw,” but if we worked in that mindset, we’d have a much smaller market. Instead, ask questions. You can bring their attention back to their values through your marketing communication.
Additionally, with more information, you have more reasons to reach out an offer an aligning session. Cover a part of their life (that they told you they value, thank you questionnaire) that you didn’t document the first time around.
Sorry for the length, just trying to explain a question that comes up a lot!
And if you’re wondering the million dollar question: “Is this still documentary?” here’s my thought:
While not pure documentary by traditional standards, I’m 100% documenting our time together and questionnaires avoid “mock” scenarios that are anything but the truth of their lives.
At the end of the day, photograph freely – your lens, your way.
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