Photographer Takeaways from the Documentary Family Awards

In the landscape of photography competitions, the Documentary Family Awards (DFAs) stand out with their engaging approach to their award process - a live broadcast of the final round judging. It’s become a “must watch” event for documentary photographers who work with families, and this year the DFAs introduced a series category that could draw in photographers outside the family-photo community, as it becomes more widely known. Founded by three documentary photographers, the DFAs have transformed the judging process into something that is part live critique, part seminar in composition, technical skill and storytelling style. The takeaways from watching any part of the multi-hour broadcast are inspiring and informative.

It happened that Confluence received a submission from photographer Heidi Hard, of her project documenting the life of a little girl in Colombia as she receives treatment for numerous birth defects. Confluence accepted Heidi’s submission for publication in Issue Two (coming out soon!). Heidi also submitted the project to the competition, and in the live judging, Heidi’s work was awarded third place in the Series Category.

I asked Heidi, along with several other documentary photographers, to share their takeaways from the event, and I think their answers will spark a lot of thought for all of us as we work to improve and deepen our work.

Heidi Harf

I entered 4 photo series. Three of the 4 made it to the final round, and one came in 3rd place. What I learned:

  • Each picture needs to stand on its own, as well as contribute to the entire story.

  • Captions are important. They should not “embellish” the photo but rather add a description that gives the viewer more background information of the image. 

  • What makes (your) story different than others, what is compelling about (your) story, why should the viewer be interested? 

  • For a compelling story the photographer needs to bring the viewer in; the viewer needs to feel something such  as compassion or humor for the subject. 

The two that didn’t make it past the final round:

  • The story wasn’t finished.

  • The viewer only saw pretty images - they did not communicate anything larger. 

Angela Douglas Ramsey
[The Series Cateogry] was by far my favorite category to watch.  I think partly because this is the direction my work seems to be taking me lately. I am working on various personal projects and while also trying to tell stories in multiple image frames. A few things I learned are…

  • Make sure the story is either in black and white or color. It does make a difference in which you choose.

  • Titles are important.

  • Captions, I personally feel like they should be who, what, when where and why. Only state the facts.

  • If you are photographing a story, which is different from a series, it should have characters, conflict, something to overcome and how it’s resolved shown within those images.  

[The Nothing is Better Than Real Life Category] is always a little unclear to me. I struggle with what to submit because it covers such a wide variety of subjects.   Here are a few of my takeaways…

  • When having an image with multiple layers, every layer has to have something interesting.  (Dang this is hard.)

  • Think about the edges of your frame, does this add to the image?  Context, it’s important, be mindful of it.

  • We search for humans in photos.  (Who knew?)

  • Either make your image mysterious or have an obvious subject.   

  • What is in focus is going to tell the viewer what you find most important.   

  • When thinking of single images, all of your information should be within that frame.  

  • As a mother, sometimes I will have bits of me in the frame, make sure it adds to the story.

I was blown away by [the iPhone Category].  I find myself using my phone so much more now. We carry our phones with us all the time, utilize them.   

Environmental Portrait (#notaportrait) [is] the most discussed and controversial category.  I have seen and been in so many discussions about this. I think [judge] Ryan Christopher Jones explained it perfectly - this is my number one and only takeaway for this category …

  • An EP is a photo that represents a character as a part of a larger story.  It introduces this person to where the story takes place. Think about it as a character in a movie.


Chelsea Silbereis

  1. Environmental portrait: think of it as a way to introduce a character. Reframing the idea of an environmental portrait in literary terms has been a really helpful way to think about making these types of pictures. It has helped me go back through my own pictures and better identify which pictures are successful at introducing a character and which are just a portrait in an environment. Subsequently, I’ve been talking with some photographers more about it, and I’m really thinking hard about the interplay between the subject and the environment. I’m asking whether or not the environment and the subject are informing the viewer about each other. I’m trying to see where the resulting effect of a pictures is greater than the sum of it’s two parts (environment and subject).

  2. Storytelling. The spilt milk series and the personless series were really informative to me. The spilt milk story has me going back through the pictures I’ve made and thinking about compelling small stories (I’m attaching one). I’m thinking more about a story arc. Again, framing things in a literary way has helped. I’ve been on that “make the best possible picture of a given scene” train. I’ve jumped to having an overarching theme (parenting, specifically motherhood) but not necessarily gotten to the point of working for a specific story. Keeping an arc in mind may help me when I’m shooting and it will definitely help me when I’m working on my portfolio, blog posts and other marketing. The personless story was just so compelling without people physically in the frame. It is a whole different way of seeing and it seems like the epitome of patience to me. I can’t say, practically, how I will take this into my own photography practice other than it serves as an inspiration and reminder to push my thought process beyond what I’m used to.

  3. The wide shot. The discussion of the wide shot has me excited about pushing harder to develop my ability to make a wide shot. I feel like for the past couple of years I’ve been super focused on figuring out how to make a clean shot, and now I’m inspired to work on making compelling shots that work and are wide. I think we’re all at a bit of a disadvantage in this regard, because a wide shot has to be damned good to get noticed on social media and I’m thinking about the way social media response has shaped both what I think of as “good” and what areas of my own photographer I’m working on and pushing.

Kelly Haymes

Think commercially. After you get those safe shots, think about images that strangers would put on their walls.

Step back and think about the whole story, the whole scene, the big picture, add space.

Funny or quirky will only go so far in an image, the image itself still needs to be strong. Don't give up on the shot, push it further.

We learn from our failures, and we learn something new every time we pick up the camera. That each time we put that black box in front of our eye we will see the world differently.


Thanks to Heidi, Angela, Chelsea and Kelly for sharing your insights. And thanks to Chelsea for the image in this article.

(c) Chelsea Silbereis