Life is messy. Our days have stains, stumbles and ragged edges. But life is worth it; there’s so much beauty and meaning in each moment, even our most difficult ones. There isn’t a day that goes by that doesn’t offer us an opportunity to photograph something spectacular. We don’t ever have to look any further than the life unfolding right in front of us to find inspiration, creative challenge and meaningful moments to capture.
When you turn your lens on your own world and allow things to tell you their story, you give yourself the gift of being witness to that which is whizzing by your life. The minute we pick up our camera, things slow down and can take on a whole new expression. The grief, boredom, sick days, hardships and even the annoyances suddenly become stunning subjects of our art. All of these moments—the messy, repetitive, sometimes painful moments that make up the bulk of our daily lives—deserve to be witnessed and documented just as much as the shinier, easier ones.
To expand your photography practice—and challenge yourself to document some of the messier, less-polished moments of life—here are a few projects to consider.
Something Very Ordinary
Years ago, a friend challenged me to pick something “ordinary” and photograph it every day for one month. I chose the tabletop.
Over the next 30 days, I captured a series of the everyday moments that took place at the table: Thanksgiving dinner, baking for a sick friend, a tea-themed birthday party, crafting with my kids, even a set of fingerprints from a police report that was compiled after someone broke into my car. Eventually, I captured the moment we sat with Father John and wrote the program for my father’s funeral.
This “tabletop series” feels like a photo diary of my family’s life. The practice of making these images has also become a regular expression of my work. To this day I will often get up on my chair and photograph the story unfolding on the table below me. It is a simple and profound way to document who and what is happening in our fast-paced life.
Your invitation: Pick something “ordinary” and photograph it every day for 30 days. It’s OK if you don’t end up doing it every single day, just commit to your subject and be intentional about capturing images regularly for the next month. After that, your project will take on a life of its own. You can choose your toothbrush. Your kitchen counter. Your children’s abandoned play. The pile of shoes near your front door. The more mundane, the better—keep it so easy, so accessible, that this way it’s likely to stick and sure to tell an authentic (and often revealing) story over time about your day-to-day world.
Life is full of in-between moments—like when I’m cooking dinner and look over and see her there happily drawing and listening to a favorite story. It’s one of the most ordinary in-between moments of our life, and yet I find it so magnificently beautiful. Or when we’re all in the midst of getting ready for the day and I walk from room to room and see the unmade beds in the morning light. The undone, the real, the tender and the truth of it all just emanates an intimacy that can’t be duplicated through posed shots. Even when working with clients, I often end up loving the in-between moments the best.
Your invitation: Watch for the in-between moments that unfold in your daily life or in your work. Them walking away from you. Her tying her shoe while you (im)patiently wait to get out the door. Him practicing guitar or a new magic trick he just learned. The not-quite sunset. The almost-sunrise. Document something that feels in-between or incomplete.
A Literal Mess
There’s a wonderful story about a chef named Massimo Bottura that’s been floating around the Internet lately. One day, at one of his restaurants, a sous chef accidentally dropped a lemon tart onto the floor. It shattered, spilling yellow goo everywhere. The chef was mortified—but Massimo thought it looked beautiful. He re-named the dessert “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart” and began serving intentionally-shattered tarts to every guest. It’s now one of his best-known dishes. It really is all in how we frame things, isn’t it?
Here’s what I know: By the time I’ve gotten home from a long, full day and still have groceries to not only unload but somehow transform into a nourishing meal, it all feels monumentally tedious and exhausting. What helps? Taking out my camera and photographing the beautiful mess of abundance sitting on my counter tops (and then occasionally and unapologetically ordering take-out).
Truly, it’s become a practice of mine when a chore or chronic mess in my home starts to make me cranky—I photograph it. This instantly slows me down and lets me see it all from a different perspective. If nothing else, I know that at some point the things I find trying now will take on a nostalgic sweetness down the road through these photos.
Your invitation: The next time you see a literal “mess,” photograph it. Maybe there’s a rainbow reflecting in the pool of oil under your car. Maybe your overturned garbage can has attracted a flock of incredible birds. Maybe your piles of sorted laundry have a certain quirky delight to them. Messes can be surprisingly beautiful. And occasionally, as with Massimo’s lemon tart, a literal “mess” can become your greatest work of art.
A Break-Up, Breakdown Or Breakthrough
Not too long ago, a client of mine went through a very difficult breakup. She was deep “in it,” filled with feelings ranging from heartbreak and tenderness to fierce confidence and liberation. She felt that this was a transformative time for her and had been a long time coming. She knew that even though her legs were shaky, she was on the rise. She told me she wanted photos to memorialize this time, photos that she could show to her future self one day—photos that reflected her strength and determination to move through a tough time and to come out the other side even stronger.
Your invitation: Document a rough patch, a bad day, or a personal roadblock. Take a portrait of someone who is going through a trying time; a relative battling an illness, a friend facing a difficult choice, or a client struggling with something who wants or maybe needs to see their strength reflected back to them.
I love the way these images show strength, grit, willpower, devotion—the exquisite power of the human spirit.
We often document exciting beginnings—the first day of school, the first kiss after “I do,” the red ribbon-snipping ceremony to herald the opening of a new business—but we rarely document endings.
Ten years ago, they said my dad had a year to live. In this last year we knew that all of the bonus time we had gotten with him was coming to a close. With his permission, I photographed his journey, all the way up to the day he passed away. His actual passing was sweet and tender and profoundly human. There was a moment only a half an hour before he died when he insisted on sitting up and giving himself his own breathing treatment—he was the same strong, determined person until the very end. My view was of him and also of my mom—hand on her heart, watching and witnessing the man she loved in his last moments.
During these final sensitive minutes, I felt unsure if I should photograph what was happening, but I also felt a powerful impulse to continue to document the journey. My iPhone felt most appropriate as it is small and can be made silent. I was subtle and didn’t attempt to get “perfect” images. I just knew that there was something important about what I was doing, and I trusted that. Creative risks can be scary, but as long as we bring integrity and sensitivity to our work, they’re almost always worth taking.
After he passed, I shared the “final moments” photos with my mom. She typically isn’t as fond of getting into the trenches of life when it comes to photography as I am. She tends to prefer a more coifed and curated set of images. As it turned out, she loved them, and to this day, she goes back to those photos and finds comfort and connection and clues to the humanity of it all. She even helped me create a collection of images of his things; it’s amazing how the objects we own tell a story of who we are.
Your invitation: Document some type of “ending.” The end of a job. Your child’s empty bedroom after they’ve left for college. The debris on the ground after all the partygoers have gone home. Perhaps an end-of-life moment. Even the very last minute of someone’s life is still part of their story, and it’s beautiful and worthy of capturing.
Documenting our lives is a truly valuable pursuit; leaving out the messes and the hard stuff means leaving out important pieces of the story. So the next time you find yourself in the midst of a tedious chore, an unfinished project, an obstacle or a bittersweet ending, I hope you’ll take out your camera and capture it.
You may discover something new and beautiful about yourself—or someone you love—in the middle of the mess.
Danielle Cohen is a photographer based in southern California and co-publisher of AMULET magazine. She gets excited about geographic romances, making a difference, big, genuine smiles where your eyes crinkle up at the corners, and the messy magic of the everyday. She believes that every love story is amazing and deserves to be captured and documented. You can check out her work—and book a photo session—at danielle-cohen.com.