Families in Frame
Photographer Carrie Yuan and the power of documentary family photography.
Seattle-based photographer Carrie Yuan knows a thing or two about juggling. Not only does Carrie work part-time as a clinical pharmacist and manage her photography business, Yi Li Photography, she is also a mother of three. While she leads a bustling life, she’s committed to creating art with her chaos.
Carrie’s evolution as a photographer is tied closely to her experiences as a mother. Like many new parents, after her daughter was born, Carrie was constantly snapping photos in an attempt to capture every moment. What started as an earnest desire to memorialize each milestone in her daughter’s life eventually developed into a full-blown passion, and then a business.
“After photographing my first-born daughter’s first year of life with a little . . . point-and-shoot digital camera and feeling mostly underwhelmed with the results, I purchased my first DSLR as a reward to myself for meeting my breastfeeding goal of one year,” Carrie says. “I immediately set out to learn the technical aspects of operating the camera, and more slowly over time I’ve been able to hone the artistic side of taking a photograph.”
As Carrie developed her style as a photographer, she experimented with different approaches to documenting her family’s life. “I began photographing my family in an unposed and undirected manner and found the resulting photographs so much more interesting and meaningful to me as a mother and as an artist than anything I could have constructed,” she says. This realization served as a catalyst in Carrie’s creative evolution, ultimately leading her to focus on family documentary photography and family photojournalism.
Ditching the poses for candid moments
Photography is typically associated with capturing the present moment, but Carrie’s work is just as mindful of the future. “I think about the ‘now,’ but I’m also thinking about the future — making photos for the adults these children will become [someday], and their future children,” she says.
While Carrie understands her journalistic approach is not for everyone, and that there is value in all types of family photography, she believes there’s something special to treasure about photos that document what life was truly like “at home on a regular Sunday morning.” “My hope is that families see their own gritty reality of doing life together complete with imperfection and mess, but hopefully what rises up is overwhelming love,” she says.
Carrie also approaches her photography with an awareness of the disconnect between her own experience of motherhood and the way it is typically depicted in media. The societal narrative of motherhood, as communicated through the standard family photoshoot, often conjures up images of mothers with curled hair, clean outfits, and perfectly peaceful children, inevitably backlit by an ethereal glow.
As a result, Carrie had unrealistic expectations for early motherhood and found the transition jarring. “[Motherhood] was not the blissful experience I had envisioned . . . I did not expect the complete exhaustion, uncertainty, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy,” she says.
Since the difficult aspects of motherhood are rarely depicted in photography, Carrie hopes her work helps mothers let go of perfection and move toward greater authenticity and connection. “As I began to photograph the unglamorous and hard parts of parenting (hello, toddler temper tantrum), I discovered that the hard stuff resonates with mothers even more than the happy stuff.”
This ability to create images that resonate with others is exactly what Carrie loves most about photography. “[What] makes photography really meaningful for me is the human connections created in and through photographs.” Through her documentary approach, Carrie hopes families find beauty in every moment of their lives, and not just their curated, cleaned-up highlight reels.
Motherhood as a source of creative strength and inspiration
As a family photographer, Carrie draws deeply on her experiences as a mother. Practically speaking, she innately understands how to interact with families and children — she gets it. However, being a mother also informs Carrie’s artistic perspective. “I . . . have an intimate understanding of the love between a parent and child, which is so different from any other human relationship, and I aim to convey that in my photographs.” This deep, personal understanding of the emotions she is trying to capture helps her create images that other parents will love to have.
For Carrie, life as a mother isn’t separate from her life as a creative; she encourages creative mothers to “draw inspiration from your thoughts, emotions, and experiences of motherhood.” Being a mom has brought life to her work, imbuing it with her particular perspective on the portrayal of families. There is, she points out, a lack of photographic work that challenges the gender norms that surround motherhood; for example, moms are rarely shown as primary breadwinners and secondary caregivers. Mothers may have yet to be fully represented, but the gap can be bridged — especially via visual mediums. Carrie urges aspiring family photographers to “dig deep to find the unique voice you bring to photographing families.”
Creating and coping during COVID-19
Of course, the flow of creative work has changed greatly during the global coronavirus pandemic. While a few minutes on Instagram may give the impression that everyone is baking banana bread, sourdough bread… really any and all types of bread, the truth is many are struggling to find the time and space they need to create as they normally might. When it comes to life as a creative mom, Carrie says, “One of the biggest challenges for me is carving out large enough chunks of time that are distraction-free and allow me to get into a deep place of concentration.” Understandably, Carrie admits that COVID-19 has made this even more challenging, not only because kids are now home all day, but because of the struggle to be productive in the midst of so much uncertainty.
True to the spirit of her work, however, Carrie says, “I’ve been really trying to let go of all these thoughts of what I ‘should’ be doing ([photographing] every day! Documenting this time with my kids at home! Creating a compelling personal project!) and be happy with doing what I can to take care of myself.”
In other words, she’s putting her photography philosophy into practice — embracing life as it is, and celebrating the good in each day.