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The Sophie Project

Lesson 35 from: Family Photography: Modern Storytelling

Kirsten Lewis

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Lesson Info

35. The Sophie Project

Lesson Info

The Sophie Project

I want to talk to you all about the sophie project uh, some of you are familiar with this if you saw me at mystic speak it mystic in connecticut uh, early this winter, you might have heard about this project uh, something I'm very passionate about, and I'm really excited that this is launching soon for me. It's a good segue way to talk about, like the julie pits and what they do and giving back and I've always been a volunteer worker like my mom said, I work for habitat really young, and I've gone to africa and it worked in cuba, and I mean, I've just really made it part of my life to volunteer and get back so, uh, I was in virginia about two weeks before the holidays last year, and I was hanging out with a friend and she started telling me about this girl that she went to college with, who was blogging about her daughter that had a brain tumor, and she was pretty sick man was sophie and I just felt compelled to reach out to her, and so I wrote her and I said, there's going to be a lit...

tle out of the blue, but my name is kirsten lewis, and I'm a documentary family photographer one of my dearest friends is sara I believe that you were both in gt a together at uva I am also very close with allison and jessica, who also went ta your year, but I'm not sure if you knew them or not. I just left out the last names you, um regardless, sarah, just share with me your story about your beautiful, strong, brave little girl and my heart is overwhelmed. I just read your latest vlog post and they just had to reach out and I didn't hear from her and I explain what I did. I sent her slide shows like I'd really love to do a day life session for you for free, and I was wondering if you would like that I knew that maybe this would make them feel upset or offended in some way it was always a possibly you never know how people are going to react in situations like this, but I knew that I'd regret it if I didn't reach out, so I didn't hear from her for maybe six days and then I finally got an e mail back and she said, thank you so much I just looked at your web sites gorgeous I'm also a photographer, but I stopped shooting after sophie got sick she's like she's really sick right now and there's no way that she could handle ah full day but if you want to come, we would love to have you in our home could you come for just right after dinner one night? Because that's, when sophie feels the best because she eats ice cream, she loves ice cream, and I said, absolutely, I'll be there, and so they lived just about forty minutes outside of richmond, so I went up there to shoot greg took me and dropped me off. He did not come with me. Uh, I knew that it had to be just me, and I was not prepared for how sick she wass and I had never experienced, um, really like not getting that trust at all because she's, so sick and so confused her tumor had grown so big that I heard that she's three so the whole weight of it, her head was slumped over, and this side of her face had swelled, and so she's very sensitive to a lot of change around her, and she doesn't feel good, she just doesn't feel good. And so first I had to go into the shoot with no emotion other than empathy and sympathy for the situation, but not, um, not anguish or devastation. Okay, so and with respect, I'm going in because I know I have to get through the chute, and like I said, you want to be emotional after the shoot that's fine, you can't do it while you're there and you can't feel pity for them because if you show that you feel pity for them that's going to change how they are with you in their space so I knew all this, but what I wasn't prepared for is how much sophie did not want me around really bothered her, um, I think because I'm a stranger uh and so I had to balance that fine line between making the pictures that I knew were important to her mother and also respecting her space considering how six she wass it's the hardest shoot I've ever done but not because it was emotionally it was just challenging for me uh, because I had to make these pictures I had to I could not give up. If I let my fear take over, I would have stopped shooting altogether because once I saw that she was upset, I would've just I would have just freaked out and said, no, no so I had to remember these are for her mother these air for her brother, these air for her dad, I have to make these pictures so I just there were times where I had to just step away and then slowly get back into the space and then step away um and not let her crying or putting her hand in front of my face and please go bother me because I didn't take it personally it wasn't anything about me okay so I'm going to share with you the slide show wait wait wait wait no wait wait wait ah wait I took those pictures on a saturday I got this email seven days later so if you passed away yesterday if you have just one image from our photo session you did for us that you could send to me it would bring us some comfort what you do matters I don't know what it wass that told me it had to do this I don't know I'm not religious magno stick I don't know what I believe at all but I believe that there was a reason why I had that conversation with my friend that made me reach out that got me there before she died because when I was there they were going to start new treatment so they thought she was at least had some more time. So I am starting the sophie project uh I'm working with ross at flow sites he has given me a free flow themes for now to start we'll see how big it gets but uh it is for any photographer in the world that wants to be a part of this resource for parents whose children are dying of some sort of terminal disease and they can have a free lifestyle ordained life session depending on how the child feels it's meant to be documentary it's not meant to be portrait ce it's meant to be free sessions to preserve the relationships between these family members and if you notice I treated this is a family session not just about sophie, but about the whole family. If you are interested in being a member of the sophie project, you need to email me and please just put in the heading the sophie project because I'm gonna file that away and give all that information or ross or I'll fill it out we'll see what happens. So for now, it's just going to be a resource it's goingto be information about thes shoots if anyone out there has done a shoot for a terminally ill family and you want to donate some photos for the site, please also include those or a link to those um this is really important. I'll be meeting with, uh, I've already made contact with some head people at the denver children's hospital and to reach out to families, and I have a really big meeting with the head of the major children's hospital, washington d c to get this going, but, uh, this shoot changed my life and it's weird, because as soon as it should happened, I started seeing sick kids everywhere on facebook and I just reach out right away, um and I really anyone that wants to be part of it it's going to be it's an amazing gift that you can give I will say you have to be the right person to do these shoots I think you have to be able to go in there knowing that you're doing something that's really important for them but that you can stay on emotional about it because you have he'll get through the shoot there going through enough the last thing they need to worry about is in somebody else coming in and like breaking down because it's everything the mom khun due to just keep it together you know what I mean? So a huge thank you to ross and his entire team for helping knew this what does all of this mean anyway? Everything I've been talking about why am I so passionate about document? Clearly photography this this is my favorite picture if my house is burning down there's no way I'm leaving it without this help with this picture um it's not great it's not perfect but it's a moment and that is my cousin chris and me and my brother brett in ten years ago august first my brother passed away he was in a paragliding accident in tahoe and he was an amazing man. He was one of my favorite people in my whole life if and because I always felt like was the black sheep, he was one of the on ly people in my life that I felt like understood me. He was a free spirit. He liked to eat mushrooms. He loved the grateful dead, he had the biggest heart. He was a great musician in his job was an e m t on the mountains in lake tahoe to rescue people, and the reason why that dog picture at the casket really speaks to me is because my brother, when he died, was training his golden because rescue people on the mountain, they have golden retrievers, it's interesting, they teach him not to fetch because they have to use dynamite, tow, start avalanches, they don't accidentally go. And so bella was nine months old when britt died, and these when these dogs air training, they're very attached their owners it's unlike any other training, and when he died and I went to the funeral, which was actually a very joyous event, it was very representational of his spirit for his life, bella and nine month old golden did not sit up the entire day she laid on the ground, and I didn't make a picture of it, no one did, and I was a photographer, so I thought to myself, really, how important is documentary feeling photography or family photography in general, you can't be the most important type of photography out there, so I just sent out a blanket question what's your favorite picture? If you could only have one for the rest of your life, what would it be? I've had over a hundred submissions and only four were not family photos. I didn't say anything about family photography. I did not lead anyone in any way to submit where I thought I wanted when I was telling people about this project, I didn't even say, you know, family, you know? Well, I'm teaching this family class, I just left it as that matt mendelssohn responded, if you don't know him he's, a really well known photographer, a photo journalist in d c he was the first one to respond, and I have I hope it works. I have his voice reading his letter, so hopefully you guys them back in and turn it up. I've been a professional photographer for twenty nine years. I've covered the white house, a couple of wars and professional sports for both the oldest wire service around the largest newspaper in america, I photographed five hundred wedding since nineteen ninety nine I've been alone in hotel rooms with jennifer aniston and the coal, kidman and lots of celebrities. But if you ask me what's the on ly good picture out of a million that I've taken that I'd want to keep with me on a desert island it would be this one why? Because for a photographer but now makes his living taking pictures of other people's children people who could be very nice don't get me wrong but people who can also drive me up a wall this is my daughter captured at a time that I never ever want to forget and no offense to my clients but my daughter trumps their kids any day of the week I also love this picture because it was taken on a hassle blot on black and white film back in a time when photographs actually were representations of what was happening not photoshopped recreations of what was happening so this would be the one matt mendelssohn swore not me very private he's a lead sooner for a band named carbon leaf if you're not familiar so really well known ban he's also a very good friend of mine I asked him what's your favorite picture because he's my good friend I knew that he had lost his mother last year I was jude I've been working on a documentary project about them and he found out that she got sick during the time that I was working with them and I did not tell him what I thought he should send but this was his letter okay, I don't know if I would classify it as my most favorite photo of all time per se, but this one is significant to me more than most of the moment in terms of a picture having a riel resident value and good example of time and place. This was taken on july twenty ninth last year by my sister on her iphone as I was helping my mom back to the house from the pier we did not know at the time, but this picture would end up capturing my mom's very last time spent outdoors and perhaps more poignantly, her last walk ever with me or with anyone from this moment in time, we walked another twenty paces or so to the couch so she could lay down to rest, and from there later that night, and suddenly too weak to walk, she needed to be carried upstairs into her bed, where she would remain until passing five days later at dawn on a sunday morning. This photo belies its dark subtext because we all were expecting several more months with mom, but after this last walk up the stairs, things turn unexpectedly and rapidly, and as it were a race to the grave, the photo was taken spontaneously from someone looking back and realizing a moment and is one that breaks my heart. Though I consider lucky to have of a son with his mother as she's seen giving up every last remaining bit of bit to her children, this is buffy she's, a really good friend of mine she's also photographer in canada this was a really unexpected picture, actually that she sent me I just married the boy I've been with for almost fourteen years were old to be taking the step, and although we've both told people for years we don't need to get married and what does a piece of paper mean anyways, we're really excited now that we've done him, we actually get all giddy in the morning when we put our rings on this was so good for us, this totally obvious step of getting married this photo is probably twelve years old and we're completely different people now we've gone through a lot the illness and death of a parent, family problems, various relationship issues we grew up and changed and did stuff, and we're completely different people today. This relationship has lots of scratches like this negative that my friend found discarded at the bottom of a box, but mike's still looks like that when I smooches cheek in our wedding photos fourteen years later a little camera shy, a little awkward but happy the scratches air perfect, I guess that's love this is my producers photo kathy from creative life here's my contribution to the important picks you were asking for it is one of the very few kid picks I have of me and my dad each year he gets older it becomes more of a treasure to me someone that just sent in she lives in south korea this photo sums up my three year old a tornado of activities that leaves behind a trail do destruction but my isn't she lovely when she sleeps this photo is so personal to me because exposes one of my greatest mommy and securities with my messy home but as a photographer I think it's my current personal best and mark's a huge swift and how I want to document document my life and family I took this about two weeks ago my everyday chaos seems so much lovelier in monochrome don't you think from lauren a teacher in new jersey into this picture the night lola was born about two hours after he captured her very first smile on camera this picture and caps capsule eights how happy a baby little girl she's been since the night she was born we're screwed who with this next one so if you do this again next year it will be a picture of a screaming child or screaming parents in the background isn't my best friend elizabeth lloyd I think her photo is my favorite one just in terms of being a picture I love it she's incredible street photographer his picture reminds me that we have our personalities so young I was a tough little cookie even at four or however I will however old I was then it also reminds me of so many things when I see it I grew up with all boys on my street and surrounding neighbourhood. I remember when my mom pulled me aside and told me that I need to start wearing a shirt. I was such a tomboy and that stayed with me in a lot of ways. My parents had a long commute to work, so they were gone from about seven in the morning till seven at night we had to fend for ourselves a lot and saw a little bit more than children or age should be seeing this photo says it all to me monica riggs she's a nurse it is of leave at levi and a I the day he was one and he wasn't even a day all this was the best day of my life. Until this day I thought I would never know what love felt like then I experienced a feeling that was so strong it brought tears to my eyes for a week straight to me this is the most beautiful photo I have ever seen one last one from ana kuperberg she is by far probably my favorite family photographer that's working I love everything about her and I really love this photo and it I think it's perfect that david murray took this and he is, I think, the reason why I am the photographer I am so I'm glad that I started out this talk with him and then carried you through my journey since having him as my mentor, and then I'm closing with a photo that means so much to somebody that he took, david murray took this one of me and my dad. So this is my favorite photo right now, there's so many though I love my dad and were really great friends, he is just like me, if you can imagine me is a seventy three year old guy, we're exactly alike. I believe moment photography of a family members is actually the most important type of photography that there is, and at the end of the day, if you think about even those iconic photos that I shared, they were powerful to somebody's families. So what we do is important, and we should take our job seriously and treasure that we're able to give this to other people, and I hope that I have inspired you guys and other people here and people out there to see it differently into kind of embrace the idea of if capturing what love is to be loved, end to love. I'm gonna keep working on this project, and I'm going to dio a short movie. I'm gonna have a lot more people interview and read their stories. And I want it to go viral so that we can start teaching people about how important this is kind of change society. What they think. Because I guess I was right on, like I had this theory, that people were going to send in family photos and it's pretty much exactly what they did. But the only reason I thought that because I knew what mine wass and I know that I'm not alone. And I know what inspires me to be a family photographer.

Class Materials

bonus material with purchase

Family Portraits Quick Tips
Sponsor Discount Codes
Gear Guide
Family Session - HD
Newborn Session - HD

Ratings and Reviews


I cannot recommend Kirsten's course highly enough. I've tuned in to a couple of CreativeLive courses on photographing families and children, and they were both very "studio"-centric. A lot of posing, a lot of gear, etc. I don't have a studio and a lot of gear, I don't desire to, I'm uninspired by the outcomes, and I tuned out pretty quickly. I love capturing people, especially kids and families, in their moments. I love a great candid. I love "documentary photography" (as I learned to call it from this course). And loving and creating photos that tell a story or capture a genuine moment is exactly what this course taught us to do, and did a fantastic job of doing. A few things I loved about Kirsten from the get go: she is not pretentious, but intelligent and genuine; she as a person and her photography are inspiring; she knows how to teach - technical without being 'technical', knows how to explain her process, draws on her mistakes so we can all learn from them (and our own - and this is a HUGE element of teaching most people lack!), all the while packing in an enormous amount of information that could improve anyone's photography. is very accessible in her explanations and her language; she is honest: a good teacher will be critical because again, if she's not (and if we're not open to it) how will we ever learn? Although I felt sometimes her language was a bit harsh or her assessments "right or wrong" where more nuanced language could be merited - my one critique. really seemed to be teaching first and foremost to have people learn and be excellent photographers, and to enjoy the gifts photography can offer (personally and productively), which made it so much more appealing to be "in the room". Best of all, I had an awakening that I am allowed to be myself in my photography. As much as I love candids, I get caught up in the expectation to take posed pics, for those I'm taking the photos for more than for myself. No more. It makes me impatient and disappointed with the outcomes. I'm going to cultivate what I love. I also finished each day inspired to take and process photos - visiting my nieces, bringing my camera everywhere. During the class I kept going into lightroom to look at my pics while she was teaching, to compare my past photos to what she was teaching. It was such a wonderful learning experience. Thank you Kirsten for being true to yourself, going out on a limb in your approach, and sharing all of this with us!

Kathleen Petersen

I started out in photojournalism, but it was a long time ago. Back in the 70s, I would play with the little ones, in their backyards, or at their breakfast tables, to get lots of beautiful, real images. Then, over the years, with the need to earn income, and then later, the need to compete, I got side tracked. I still did photojournalistic images of my kids, and eventually, their kids, but clients were wanting specific things. I called it the line-them-up-and-shoot-them style of family photography. The creative soul within was always longing for the more natural, more real images, and I have always been able to sneak them in to any session. But my business was mostly about everything else. I shot some weddings early on, to pay my dues and my rent. But discovered that I much preferred being a second shooter and capturing the candid moments and the details. As I am now a grandmother, I have been making changes gradually in my business to get back to my roots. Taking this class has been life-changing for me. I was making these tiny little baby steps, as if I was afraid that I would fall out of favor with my current and future clients. The competition is huge here in socal, so how could I dare step away from the white shirts and khakis? I dare. I am about to completely revamp my business model to return to where I started from. I plan to march to the beat of my own drummer. It really does make one happy to follow one's passions and to be true to one's self. I don't even care if I lose any clients. I want to provide for people something that is so essential. Real images that will nail down the memories forever as they interact and love each other. This is so important. At first, I wasn't sure if I would like Kirsten. But by the end of the three days, I loved her as if she were my best friend from forever ago. I love her for her personality, the things she taught us, and her great example. Best class I have ever taken at Creative Live, and that is saying something! Thank you!

Jo Benoy

The great thing about photography is that it can be all things to all people: a hobby, an art form, a profession. As long as I can remember, cameras and pictures have been important to me - for different reasons in different seasons. I have never been particularly interested in formal photos, and I thought my preference for "catching moments" in a style three or four notches above a snapshot made me seem like some sort of slackard. Enter Kirsten Lewis. In three days, she explained, modeled and taught the sort of shooting that I've loved for as long as I can remember. She mirrors my philosophy that good photographs aren't necessarily pretty, and that if a picture is compelling or evocative, it's a good one. Lewis is not only a gifted photographer but a clear and cogent teacher, which is always a welcome combination, and as strong as her tangible skills are her confidence and dedication to her own style and voice. I've watched and bought several CreativeLive courses, but I have enjoyed none more than this one: ever since watching it, my brain has been spinning and my shutter finger has been itchy. I loved, loved, loved this workshop.

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