My grandfather passed away in November 2016. The last time I got to see him in person (rather than Skype) was in June 2015, during our first trip to France with our 3-months-old daughter.
Here is one of the very last photographs I took of him, along with my grandmother and my daughter. Look at this small touch of his finger. First great-grandchild and first baby in the family in more than eighteen years. Beautiful.
During that trip, I made sure to capture every little bit of connection between my daughter and my family members. She was the attraction so there was A LOT to shoot. I know she will be thankful for those photographs one day and I am grateful he was able to meet her at least once.
This being said, I often think of all the photographs I wish I took of him when it was still time. Photographs of him by himself. In his house. In his bee suit. In his beloved vegetable garden. Him in his office, or leaving to go wild boar hunting.
There is no way to go back in time, so there is no point torturing myself about it, but the lesson I learnt from it drives me to make photographs of the other grandparents in my life while I still can. Meaningful photographs that go beyond the surface and the “let’s all look at the camera and smile” portraits.
I also hope this lesson will serve YOU to make similar photographs while you can.
Including grandpa and grandma in photographs doesn’t always come naturally, and I want to help you with it.
Note: this is a taster of a much more detailed eBook I’m currently writing so if at any point during the article you get an “ahah moment”, make sure to sign up to my newsletter at the end of this post so I can let you know when it’s ready. I also send similar tips once a month or so.
Before the “How” there is the “Why”
Nowadays, pretty much everyone owns a camera, whether it’s on their phone or a more advanced DSLR. It’s amazing to be able to document our lives and share our favourite pictures with those we love.
However, because of how easy it has become, we don’t stop to THINK about it anymore. We snap, snap, snap, without intent and end up with thousands of images that will often remain on our hard drives (or die with our phones).
It’s time to become more aware of why we even take photographs in the first place, what kind of photographs we will most cherish 5-10 years from now (or our children in 20), and making sure they are printed and enjoyed. If all of this makes sense to you, make sure to sign up to my newsletter at the end of this post.
Why are grandparents mostly absent from our photos?
When we have children, they become the centre of our lives and fill up our memory cards.
There is nothing wrong with this, BUT I’d like you to pause for a moment and think about the other people in your lives. How many times do you pick up your phone to take a photograph of your parents? Your grandparents? Uncle, aunts and cousins?
Those photographs will become SO precious one day, not only to you but to your children too. If you’ve read my story, you know this is fairly important to me.
This year, I encourage you to start taking photos of the adults too. This article concentrates on the grandparents (your grandparents and your children’s grandparents if they are still around), but all of this can be applied to aunts & uncles and family friends or anyone else that’s a big part of your/their life.
1. Photographs that say something about who they are.
Slow down and observe. Think of things or moments you associate with GrandPa/GrandMa.
Are they always cooking? Making tea? Watching the weather forecast? Reading the newspaper? Knitting? Making something in their workshop? It’s going to be something different for everyone, and only you know what it is.
One of my Facebook group’s member, who goes back to Germany every year for Christmas, took an amazing photo last year of her grandmother in the kitchen, stirring something in one of her red pots. This photo, captured quickly on a phone, encapsulates so much about who her grandma is and what Christmas feels like to her.
The thing is, it wasn’t that obvious for her to take that photograph (I’m proud to say one of my posts gave her the inspiration). And it wasn’t that easy either. We don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. We can’t tell them “Look, I’m not sure you’ll still be here next year, so I want to capture this moment while I can.”
(Or can we?)
Even if it feels a little weird taking photographs of the adults in our lives, when they’re not all dressed up and posing for the camera, it is SO important. Because one day, GrandMa will be too tired to host Christmas dinner, and there is no going back to get that photograph.
Be mindful of little moments that really tell who they are. Things they love. Habits.
If no particular moments come to mind, think of details: objects, jewellery, favourite cup, slippers… you name it!
2. Photographs of them looking like… themselves.
No smile or awkward posing required.
Once you’ve come up with one or two everyday moments that you wish to capture from each person, keep an eye out for it next time you are together. Don’t ask them to pose, smile and look at the camera, as it will break the spell. Most people become uncomfortable when asked to pose for a camera and don’t look natural as a result.
If the moment you want to capture involves a smile/laugh: be patient and wait for it.
It’s a lot easier to capture people in a candid way, but it requires a little bit of patience.
Some people are completely allergic to cameras and I wouldn’t suggest creating tensions in your family. Be creative: even a fairly anonymous photo (their back to the camera) in their environment can say a lot about someone.
Actually, the environment (the space they are in) is almost as important as the action/moment happening.
(This is a gesture my dad often repeats in the winter: checking if the fireplace fan has started to blow hot air).
If you feel awkward taking photographs in a candid way, you might want to explain where you’re coming from ahead of time. Blame it on me! Say that you started a photography project where you have to take unposed photographs of the people that are part of your children’s lives to create an album at the end of the year.
3. Photographs taken outside.
If you are using a phone to take most of your photographs, the biggest issue is the lack of available light and blurry photos, especially in Winter. Big windows are your friends, and so is your flash when nothing else works, but your photographs are likely to look better outdoors.
While I always favour candid and documentary photographs, posed portraits of the whole family together also have their place. You can set a timer even on phones nowadays and prop it up on what you have available (slide, window, wall…)
Full sun is often harder to photograph in. Look for a spot where people’s faces are evenly lit and not squinting. Bring chairs out and make it fun for the little ones.
If posing is too hard or isn’t your thing, let everyone interact naturally, play or take a walk, stand back and capture the whole scene. Why not ask grandma or grandpa to blow bubbles for the grandchildren? It’s a classic that always works!
This is a phone photo taken in June 2015 of all the grandmothers and great-grandmothers doting over my baby :)
Note: Don’t hesitate to take a lot of shots of the same scene and pick the best one later on.
4. Photographs of the grandparents-grandchildren relationship
How many photographs do you have of yourself as a child with your grandparents? Photographs that capture something you used to do together.
Every Sunday, Felicity gets to spend time with her grandparents. Every Sunday, she never fails to ask her grandmother for the box of buttons and pearls. (Did your grandmother have one of those too? I know mine did. It was an old quality street tin box.)
Every Sunday, Felicity helps her grandfather with the prep of the Sunday dinner: she helps wash the potatoes and dress the table.
Felicity will always remember the joy of sharing those simple moments with her grandparents and those photographs will likely be very precious to her someday.
I feel very passionate about gifting our children with photographs of them interacting with their grandparents. They are such a big part of their lives and should be represented in photos.
Start by observing for times when they are sharing a moment. Whether it’s playing a board game, helping in the kitchen, hold hands, read a book. Look for the little details of their love for each other. If you don’t get to capture it the first time around, you’ll be ready the next time.
5. Photographs that include the mess, if mess there is.
This is very freeing. When it comes to photographing your family in general, drop your standards. You are likely not trying to win photo competitions with your photographs, and even if you did, do you know about the Documentary Family Awards? No? Well, normal everyday family mess in photographs can get awarded. Yep, really!
The thing is, when we worry about a messy house, messy hair and stained clothes, we avoid taking photographs that could become an all-time favourite in 10 years time. Wait, I talk about it here: Let’s free ourselves from this idea of “perfection”.
What’s mess today will spark memories and nostalgia in years to come.
Look at this photograph. Should I have refrained from taking it because of the mess on the table? If I had worried about it, or tried to clean up the frame before taking the photo, I would have totally missed that moment between my grandmother and my daughter.
I actually LOVE the mess in this photograph now. It tells me a story about my family.
6. Fewer photographs, but with more intent
Encourage the grandparents to pull out the photo albums.
Photographs used to be a luxury. Even those who owned cameras didn’t point and shoot at everything. They were more careful about each photograph taken, because every single frame had a price on it.
Look at the photographs from those albums, the memories they evoke, the impact they have today. Reflect on them. You might learn as much from the prints that exist that the ones that are missing.
What do you like most from the photographs? What do your children seem to like most? And the grandparents? Are there photographs you wish were there? What would you love to see more of?
I’m hoping it will spark ideas for future photographs of your family.
Taking more meaningful photographs of the grandparents in your life doesn’t mean spending all your time behind the camera or on your phone. The photographs don’t have to be perfect to be precious and quality family time shouldn’t suffer from it.
7. Beyond the photographs.
Photographs are a great way to capture the essence of a person and what they mean to you and your children right now, but writing, recording and filming can help to get a more complete picture.
Christmas holidays might be the perfect time to get started with a simple question, either recorded or written down. How about “Tell us about a Christmas morning you remember as a child.” or “Do you remember a present you got for Christmas as a child?”
Then start building your own questions. Ask your children for input: they will likely come up with funny ideas and get them to ask and record. The grandparents won’t be able to say no!
8. Finally. What to do with all of this?
I believe photographs are meant to be printed. Especially when it comes to transmission to our children. I don’t believe in leaving them with thousands and thousands of images on a hard-drive or the cloud for them to sort through one day.
Thinking about how we want them to enjoy these photographs in the future is at the start of the journey. There are many options out there: photo books, small prints in photo albums, loose prints in a box. There are even companies printing small photo books automatically from your phone photos when you reach a certain amount.
All of this takes time, I know. I’m working on a guide for you (from taking photographs to getting them printed) on what I learned on this journey. Make sure to sign for the newsletter at the end of the page if you’re interested.
Thank you for reading about how to include your grandparents and beloved elders in your images. I’m excited for you to try these ideas because every button push will be a lifelong treasure in the making.
If you’d like to receive similar family photography related insights straight into your inbox (and be the first to know if I run a promotion) make sure to sign up for my email list right there. You can unsubscribe at any time (and I rarely email more than once a month).
20 Photographs Your Children Will Thank You For Twenty years from now
Download this 10 page PDF with prompts and photo examples of what your children will find really meaningful someday.
Some you may have already thought about… and some you may not :)
This is such a lovely piece! Too many people forget their elderly friends and relatives when taking pictures – but a few snaps is a great excuse to spend some time with them and brighten everyone’s day, including theirs. Some can be tricky to catch for candids but we agree they’re much nicer than those awkward over-posed ones!
My son reacts with a grimace if I ask for a photo with him, even when he us happy to take a photo with any other member of the family, or friends for that matter.
If I ask for one when everyone is taking photks like this evening while we were all together for my eldest grandson’s Winter Orchestra. I was so embarrassed when I had to even ask. I am the childfen’s grandmother. This means nothing, I am realizing. The eldest grandchild sees how his father acts when I’ve asked for a photo at special events over the years, and now acts irritated. I love to look at photos of my grandkids with me when I am home. I spend so many evenings and weekends alone, and photos of us together help me feel happy and not so alone.
My son and his beautiful family don’t see what I see…. They give me beautiful school photos of the children but if I ask for one of me with their children , I get the look, the they hurridly snap a quick photo, if I’m lucky it turns out. Sometimes my grandson is grimacing, and I cry when I get home and think, am I invisible to them? Do they not know I would give them the world if I could?
I was a single mom, never received any support from my son’s father. He never cared or wanted his son. When my son visits his dad, his sweet wife can’t wait to take photos of him with the grandchildren. But not the same enthusiasm when it comes to me. I try, but can’t understand this. I did everything when my son was a child to make sure he had what he needed to have a good healthy childhood. His father did nothing , yet when they visit him they take beautiful photos of this man with the grandchildren. They honor him and make him the center of these lovely photos.
I feel invisible to my son and his family.
Jessica, I was really touched by your comment and have been thinking about it ever since I read it. I was wondering whether you expressed your feelings to your son and/or his wife? Could you even send her the link to this article? They may not realise what they are doing. I feel for you and hope you find a way to improve this side of your relationship.