An Approach to Photography Inspired by My Mother
My mother survived struggles only a small fraction of people can begin to understand.
As an immigrant with zero job prospects, low English fluency, and an absent husband who failed as a father, she overcame obstacles only those who have left their home country can begin to understand. She wanted her children to have a better life than her; she wanted her children to fit in.
Her struggles to get us to fit in and not let our poverty or race bring us down meant we had to rise above perfection – well coiffed hair, neat clothing, upstanding public behavior. But this perfection made me uncomfortable, as if I wasn’t enough. This discomfort influences how I see families and children today, and I’m sensitive to parents who strive for the best appearance, either in themselves or in their children.
When I photograph families, in their real life, I don’t want your kids to smile, not if they don’t want to. I want your kids to be themselves. I hope they feel comfortable enough in front of me to give me authentic, meaningful expressions, expressions they might only save for their mothers or fathers. These photographs aren’t meant to be for Facebook. They aren’t supposed to live in social media. They’re supposed to live in photo books and on your physical walls, for you (and your kids) to enjoy and reflect on every day and in the future when they’ve forgotten the nuances of childhood.
One of my favorite sessions is of my friends the Greenup family. I spent an entire morning with them, arriving on a crisp Spring morning and staying until early afternoon.
After a cup of coffee and a nursing session, Kate took her young toddler to his room to change. At three years old, he was full of energy and sass and refused to cooperate, at least not fully. At this age, he was struggling to please his parents while also finding his autonomy and independence. But Kate took it all in stride, asking him to take his pajamas off then laughing with him as he got his face stuck in his shirt. After wearing his fresh underwear as a hat for a while, Kate finally had him dressed and then wrestled him on the bed to get socks on.
What I found so liberating about being in that space with them, and with the many other families I’ve photographed in a documentary approach, is how they let their kids feel like they are enough. I love that Kate wasn’t worried about how her son looked in front of my big camera, nor was she worried about how she looked. This is a feeling I envy, and I wish it were a feeling my mom had the luxury to experience.
If I could go back in time and change one thing, if I weren’t allowed to touch her poverty or her experiences with racism, then I would focus on her outlook. It doesn’t matter what race you are or whether you are rich or poor. In the end, the most important people to a mother, a parent, is her children. And if I could reframe life for her in even the smallest way, it would be to help her see how much her children adored her and adore her still. We didn’t see our poverty and while she worried the world saw her as not providing enough, we saw her as our everything.
My photography for her would be a testament to our love and loyalty for her; the way my brothers swept the kitchen for her and the way I brought handmade gifts for her. It would be a testament of her love and loyalty for us, the way she sat by me when I had a tummy ache or rubbed medicine into my brother’s ankle after a basketball injury. I would help her see that within our unit as a family, we are enough. While the world continued to judge us and her, the love we had for each other was enough.
I cannot magically do this for her. But my hope is to do this for other families; to help them see past the stress of their day-to-day lives and see in their photos all the nuanced messages of love in their everyday. Things as simple as a pat on the back, feeding them their Gatorade during a baseball game when their hands are full of gear, carrying around a mountain of diapers and backup clothing to every outing, or the way they find the smallest most fragile flower to pick and carry for (seemingly) miles just so they can give it to you. This is everyday love. And it is better than perfect.
Margaret Albaugh is a documentary family photographer, photographing families in their day to day lives and showing them how much love, humor, and tenderness exists in the mundane chaos of an average day. With two children, three cats, a husband, and an addiction to Kon Mari'ing her house, Margaret knows all about chaos. An ideal day is a good salad, a solid episode of Queer Eye and a good set of photos to edit.