One morning in mid-August, as I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, a stunningly simple vintage-style portrait of a young boy caught my attention. The words written across the image, posted by photographer Jason Watts, read, “Bearing Witness.” That image and those words stirred my very soul. I was only two weeks away from traveling across the country to drop my firstborn off at college, and as I read Jason’s caption, the tears welled up:
In an age where we snap thousands of images of our kids to capture those moments we want to cherish later on, we seldom sit down and put our thoughts to paper on what it all means; what it feels like to watch your most precious creation grow up, experience the world and the deep love we have for them. So I thought to myself, that would be a good price for a portrait session, a simple letter from parent to child.
I knew immediately that this was exactly what I needed to document and honor this time: This bittersweet and strangely surreal transition in the life of my family. Fast-forward to the portrait session Jason did of each of my two girls. I watched as his heartfelt and mindful creative vision and my most precious creations worked together in this unassuming, poetic process of true and authentic portraiture. I couldn’t help but think that it was in this kind of photographic ritual that the term “making a portrait” rather than “taking” one was derived. The window of time we spend together was an important piece to Bearing Witness. Being a part of the portrait process from beginning to end only endeared me more to Jason, his vision and the project, not to mention my daughters. They reveled in their roles, not being able to help but feel special, each having their turn being the sole subject of focus.
I recall my conversation with Jason when he first shared his intentions. Using parenting itself as a metaphor for the photographic approach he was taking, he remarked that he didn’t want to make the project easy on himself (because, well, parenting isn’t easy!), which is why he opted not to shoot with his DSLR for fear of falling into autopilot mode. Instead, he chose to shoot everything with a 4×5 camera and a 150-year-old Petzval brass lens (which has no shutter or aperture control) using one single light source to “make things interesting.” He knew that having to be creatively mindful and skillfully heightened as he worked would be his own way to honor the process we all go through as parents raising our children. What’s more, Jason would use photographic paper as his film. Each frame of the project requires him to take a sheet of photographic paper, cut it down to size in order to fit into a holder, make the exposure, develop each sheet by hand, dry the prints, scan them into Lightroom and clean them up there. The whole process from start to finish takes about 40 minutes per image. It was clear to me that Bearing Witness was more than a conceptual photography project, it was a personal project that came from need, passion and pure heart.
It wasn’t until later that I discovered that the journey that brought him to Bearing Witness came through loss and questioning. When writing about the project, Jason reveals the backstory:
From battling depression, to losing my Grandmother, life was demanding I pay attention and refocus my perspective, both personally and creatively. In all of this, my artistic side took a backseat and waited patiently for me to regain control. Once I had time to clear my thoughts and catch my breath, that deeply spiritual desire to create and transform my experience into something positive started to rumble in my soul.
When my Grandmother passed away, I was in charge of getting a slide show put together. This involved scanning hundreds of old pictures, some of which I had never seen before. It was extremely moving to walk through the images and “watch” my Grandmother’s life unfold. The images involved stories and wonderful conversations. The photographs were like anchor points to buried treasure and that’s when it hit me. I knew the project would include some concept of childhood, but now I knew the extra component to make it something special and unique. A letter. A simple handwritten letter from parent to child, which would be married to the image. The portrait would be a photographic representation of the child and the letter would be a metaphorical portrait of the parent. I wanted to set up a project that helped facilitate meaningful and encouraging conversations. Something that both parent and child alike could revisit and reflect. That reminded children that they are worthy of love and belonging and reminded parents of the journey past.
It’s really no wonder I was drawn to participate in this project. I was at the moment in a parent’s life when everything comes to an end of sorts, and there’s nothing to do but look back at your child’s life and hope that you’ve provided anything and everything they will ever need as they fly out on their own.
As for my daughters’ breathtaking portraits? What Jason captured is iconic. And the letters I wrote to accompany those frozen moments in time are my contribution, my way of Bearing Witness. Jason is providing invaluable portraits to his clients at no monetary cost to them, as he’s only asking for a letter in return. And, I ca
n say for certain, after writing two tear-stained letters to my precious girls—words I have offered from my heart that they will have forever—it’s the best investment any parent could ever possibly make.
Jason Watts – Six Strategies For Creating More Meaningful Photography Projects With Your Children
|• Incorporate their likes and interests in the portraits or project. It’s important to make your kids feel involved, considered and valued.
• Allow them to have creative freedom in the process of creating and editing the images. They will take pride in having a hand in creating the end result.
• Create a photo book or an album of the final project to display and share. This allows kids to feel proud of their work and can be great conversation starters.
• Use words and pictures together in your project. The stories behind the images will only bring a deeper meaning to the photographs.
• Set goals as a family and follow through. It helps kids to see the purpose of setting a vision and the importance of proper planning in order to achieve the final product.
• Set up a time after the project is complete to talk about what they/you learned through the process and what they/you might do differently. This could lead into the next project you’ll do together.