A Wedding Photographer Photographs Families Documentary Style

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All images by Katie Jane Goulah. Used with permission.

“You can’t be a fly on the wall or capture great photos from afar, you kind of have to jump into the middle of the action in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily with wedding work,” said photographer Katie Jane Goulah about her most recent project–Family Documentary photography. In fact, she continues on to state that family documentary work is much different from weddings.

Katie and her family (and the cats, you can’t forget her cats) live in New York’s Upper West Side and her work has continued to evolve since becoming a full time shooter in 2008. She’s kept up with the trends in the market here as weddings have given way to elopements and engagement sessions. I’ve known her personally for years and have always been in awe of her work. But when she started to market her Family Documentary photography business, my curiosity was piqued.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Katie: I’ve had an interest and a love for photography since I was a kid. My dad bought me a camera when I was in middle school, and I was immediately hooked. I was fortunate to go to a high school that had a great photography program and a darkroom. I learned the basics at a pretty young age and my passion just continued to grow from there.

It was a serious hobby for most of my young adult life, and then in 2008, looking for a way out of my soul sucking office job, I decided to take the plunge and see if I could turn my hobby into a business.

I started photographing portraits at first, added on weddings in 2010, and shortly after that began tapping into the growing elopement photography market here in New York City.

Phoblographer: You are also a wedding, elopement and engagement photographer. So how did you get the idea of doing family documentary work?

Katie: I photographed a few families back when I started my business but once I found elopements, I decided to hone in on that market, and stopped photographing families. I honestly didn’t think I would ever go back to shooting families.

On Halloween 2014, however, I gave birth to my twin daughters and everything changed. Being a photographer, I naturally found myself photographing my girls constantly. I quickly realized the pictures that I took of them that I was most drawn to were not the staged photos of them sleeping peacefully on a blanket or the more traditional portraits I would occasionally take – the photos I most loved were the ones that were messy and real. The photos that captured our everyday reality – their hair askew, food on their faces, one laughing, one crying. So much of those early months are a blur in my memory, but I can look at these photos I took of them and am just instantly transported back to those moments.

I just suddenly had this urge to give other people these really honest photos of what their family actually looks like everyday.

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Phoblographer: The documentary style of photography is very popular amongst wedding photographers. So how does it differ from working in a couple’s home and documenting their family?

Katie: I think family documentary work is a little more intimate. You can’t be a fly on the wall or capture great photos from afar, you kind of have to jump into the middle of the action in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily with wedding work.

“I just suddenly had this urge to give other people these really honest photos of what their family actually looks like everyday.”

It’s also so much more unpredictable than a wedding. With a wedding there’s usually an order of events, and you know there are going to be specific moments you want to try to capture, but with family work, you don’t see the moments coming. So I am just shooting, shooting, shooting, looking for these little intimate interactions between family members.

Phoblographer: Let’s talk about your creative vision here. What’s your objective when you go into doing a gig like this and what are some very important moments or things that you’re looking for?

Katie: My creative vision is actually pretty similar to the vision I have for weddings: to find and tell the story of the day. The difference is that with weddings, you know the bigger story already–these two people are getting married. There are smaller stories within that, but that’s the big picture. For a family session, I don’t really know the story going in. Each family is so totally different, each kid is different.

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So the big picture that I have in my head before I start a family shoot is something like…this is a typical Sunday morning for your family in the year 2015, but within that I want to capture the unique ways each family member interacts with one another, if that makes sense. Kids change incredibly fast, and I just want my clients to be able to look at their albums years from now and think, “Oh yeah, that’s how we really were in that season of our lives… that’s how we played, that’s what we did together, that’s what my kid was like.”

Phoblographer: When many photojournalists go into a job where they need to shoot documentary work, many of them often don’t photograph for the first couple of days and instead use their people skills while keeping the camera around and getting folks comfortable with the idea of a photographer being around. What’s the approach here?

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Katie: I have a very short window to gain my clients’ trust. For longer “day in the life” shoots, I want to meet everyone a day or two beforehand and get to know everyone a little bit, so that everyone is as comfortable as possible with having me around and will be themselves when it’s time for the shoot. The great thing about kids is that they adapt quickly. Kids are so honest and real – they will forget about the camera quickly and parents tend to follow their kids’ lead. For shorter sessions, I like to start off with about 10 minutes of very relaxed portraits before we jump into documentary mode, and that is a great ice breaker. I joke around with everyone, make connections, and then everyone is very loose and real when I transition into photojournalism. I also think being a parent myself really comes in handy here, because I can connect with my clients on that level.

Phoblographer: What’s the preliminary negotiation and meeting like? I imagine it’s much different from an engagement session or a wedding.

Katie: The main difference between the preliminary contact/negotiations with documentary clients versus wedding clients is honestly just having to explain what I do and how the session works a bit more, and seeing if this is something the family really wants. Wedding clients have a specific need and they have a pretty good idea of what to expect–there will be a mix of portraits and photojournalism, we’ll follow a specific timeline, it’s fairly organized.

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Pre-wedding discussions tend to be more about pricing and packages. There is some money talk with family clients, but mostly they are more interested in understanding what to expect and how the session will work. I also really need all the adult members of the family to be on the same page, so there is a lot of trying to make sure I am really the right photographer for this particular family. If someone is expecting traditional portraits and I show up and do my documentary thing, it can be very awkward for everyone. I need everyone to be on board with the way I work before the actual session.

Phoblographer: Lots of your work is done in black and white but there are also some beautiful images in color. Why do you usually choose one aesthetic over the other?

Katie: I tend to work in a lot of mixed lighting situations in people’s homes, and I don’t want that to be a distraction or take away from the larger story I’m trying to tell, so many of those images will be in black and white. If I feel like color really adds to the story or is an important part of it, then I leave an image in color.

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Phoblographer: Talk to the us about the business model here. We’re assuming it’s like a follow-up to the wedding and engagement sessions and similar to the trend of birth and maternity shoots, right?

Katie: My thought when starting the business was to be able to follow my wedding clients into the next stage of their lives, and so far, most of my clients have been former wedding clients. They know me, they are comfortable with me, and they like my work, so it’s been an easy transition so far. My business model is print based, which is a little different from what I was doing with weddings. It’s very important to me that my work not languish on someone’s hard drive. I have a flat hourly rate for shooting sessions, which includes small web res files, and then clients can purchase albums/prints/high res files after the session.

Phoblographer: How do you think the New York City market lends itself to work like this very well?

Katie: I think New York is the perfect city for this kind of work. Your neighborhood is a part of you and the story of your family in a way that is different from many places. When I do full day sessions, one of the best parts is capturing the family going out into their neighborhood, visiting their local shops, and it’s all a part of the greater story of who your family is at this time in your lives. I was photographing a family in Carroll Gardens this past weekend, and they kept bumping into people they knew as we walked down the street, and I loved being able to capture that sense of community they have where they live.

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