Featured Documentary Photographer: Erika Kao

I am SO excited for this inaugural post in this series! Since finding my heart in family documentary photography, I've had the great fortune of meeting and connecting with other photographers across the United States - and across the world! These artists have inspired me with their heart, their photography, and their incredible storytelling skills. Come back to see more photographers featured in this series!  - Alex

Meet the amazing Erika Kao! 

1. We know you're a photographer - tell us a little about yourself outside of that. 

Hello! My name is Erika Kao and I live and work in and around Bergen County, New Jersey. (Geographical note: It’s about as far north as you can go in New Jersey without crossing the state line to New York.) I share a home with my husband and two daughters, ages 6 and 3. Before becoming a mom and a photographer, I was a social worker. And I believe in old-fashioned note writing and book reading, in kindness and integrity, and in surrounding ourselves with people who lift us up, no matter where we’re hoping to go.

2. How long have you been shooting? 

I’ve been shooting in one form or another since high school. I took a class in high school and several film photography classes in college, but I had no real interest in the darkroom, so I let all that I learned lapse. I’ve been shooting professionally for four years now. I’ve always enjoyed photography as an art, but it was becoming a mom that really pushed me forward. Today, it’s my daughters that keep me going. I want them to see me making a life out of doing something that I love and of bringing joy to other people. I want to be proof to them, professionally and personally, that we can create our own happiness, and that we can gain happiness by giving to others.

3. In a nutshell, why do you offer documentary photography? 

When I became a mom, I found it very easy to dive back into photography. I don’t have a ton of photos from my own childhood, and so I never wanted my daughters to lack photos of their childhood. But, like most people, I fell victim to the philosophy that everyone was supposed to look at a camera and smile, and so my earliest photos of my daughters were in that vein. But that got very boring very quickly, and I just started photographing them on the sly, capturing them doing what made them happy, whether they were looking at me or not. I absolutely loved the photos that resulted, so you can imagine my delight when I discovered this was actually a real niche! I felt like I’d found my calling, and I started offering a more documentary approach to photographing clients.

4. What do you wish more people knew about documentary photography? 

Documentary photography is a testament to the realities of life. To the sticky and the sweet. To what fills our hearts and what challenges us. It’s like a yin-yang thing. We can’t have sunshine without rain. We wouldn’t be who we are if we didn’t embrace all that life brings us, and I believe so strongly that our family photos should reflect that. My goal as a documentary photographer is to photograph your life, your home, and your love, as it exists, however it exists in any given moment.

This is true for people with children of any age, and it’s even true for couples without children. Life is beautiful, no matter what it looks like, and all of it is worthy of saving and savoring.

5. In your opinion, what makes a good documentary picture? 

Documentary photography tells a story. Documentary family photography tells the story of a family. A good documentary photo is one that is not only accurate, but that evokes a feeling, and the photographer can do that in a number of ways. In composition and in editing. In her relationship to the scene and the subjects, as well as in her proximity to them. In how she presents the photo as a part of a larger story. I feel like if a documentary family photo is a representation of what actually occurred and if it evokes an emotion in the viewer, then it’s a good photo.

Documentary photography documents. It tells a story. And what’s brilliant is that even though sessions usually take place at home, every family is so unique so no two stories are alike; no two sessions are alike. It’s really a most amazing genre.

6. How would you describe your style?

My personal style? I feel like my style is very much alive. I have moments where I’m colorful but I have moments where I might take a quieter turn. I love laughter and I love hugs and physical connections, but I also some alone time. And my style, how I shoot and the photos I produce, are very much an extension of who I am.

7. What's in your camera bag - what's your go-to gear?

I shoot with a Canon 6D and my go-to lens is a Canon 24mm f/1.4. I also shoot with a Canon 40mm, a Canon 50mm f/1.4, a Canon 85 f/1.8, and a Canon 24-70 f/2.8. I’m a prime shooter, though, and the lens most often found on my camera is the 24. I also shoot with a mirrorless camera, a Fujifilm x100s.

8. What are your favorite resources to learn more or level-up your photography knowledge? 

I just finished my second class at Illuminate, which was absolutely amazing. I learned so much, not just from the instructor but from the other students in the class. I felt so much like I was part of a community. I’ve also taken a few Creative Live courses. I’m a big believer that in order to grow, we have to challenge ourselves and face what comes out of those challenges. And in order to do that, we have to stretch out of our comfort zone. Whatever opportunities we are able to find that allow us to grow and develop ways are all good.

9. What inspires your photography?

Life. Real life. The fingerprints on the windows, the toys on the floor, the books in a heap at the bedside. Dishes in the sink, laundry in a basket, waiting to be put away. Tears and hugs. Frowns and smiles. All of it. Every lovely, messy, perfect, sticky little detail.

10. What's your absolute favorite photograph you've taken recently and why is it your favorite?

Ah! Probably one of my daughters. I was upstairs, and they were downstairs. One was sharing a lollipop with the other, and as they were trying to unwrap it, I snapped a photo of them from above.

11. What would be your dream session and why?

My dream session is actually the session people most often ask me to shoot: their lives, at home, as they are. It doesn’t get any better than this.

12. Along the same lines - what are your favorite things to capture within your typical sessions? 

I see myself as a vehicle, if you will, to help families document their stories.. Maybe it’s the story of breakfast, or the story of a school project. Maybe it’s the trip to the supermarket or to Target. Maybe it’s the story of lunch at a favorite restaurant, or maybe the story of the bath and bedtime routine. I don’t have any one thing that I like to capture, though I will say I really love shooting into other rooms and through things. As if I really were a voyeur just peeking in.

13. Who is a photographer who inspires you? 

I want to say that everyone inspires me. Sometimes it’a a famous photographer, like Diane Arbus or Vivian Maier or Sally Mann. Their photographs are of real people in real moments. They’re real. They’re raw. They didn’t try to tidy up their subjects or ask them to put on airs of happiness; they captured their lives and their circumstances, because they wanted their stories to be told authentically. That philosophy inspires me daily. To capture what is, whatever it is, without trying to change it. I’m also inspired by the photography community I’ve found on social media. Everyone has a vision; everyone sees the world uniquely because of who we are and how we were raised. All of it is amazing and all of it can be inspirational if we are open to it.

14. What is one thing you wish you knew when you started your photography journey? 

That it’s important to embrace what and who inspires you and release the rest. Surround yourself with people and things that lift you up, love you, and inspire you. Let the rest go.

15. What is one other creative medium you work with beyond your camera? 

I garden! We have a huge garden in our backyard. My husband turns seeds into plants and I keep them growing and producing fruit. It’s wonderfully cathartic to have something that you can get totally lost in, and there’s never a shortage of weeds that need to be mindlessly plucked.

16. Getting to know you – lightning round!

  1. Friday night or Saturday morning?  Saturday morning.
  2. Coffee or tea?   Coffee.
  3. What word describes you best?   Independent. (Probably to a fault.)
  4. Pets or no pets?   No pets.
  5. Test message or call?   Either, but I’m lousy at both.
  6. Being too warm or too cold?   I’d way rather be too warm.
  7. Breakfast or dinner?   Yes.

You can connect with Erika in a variety of places - be sure to follow along on her amazing shoots! 

Website: www.erikakaophotography.com

Instagram: www.instagram.com/erikakaophoto

Facebook: www.facebook.com/erikakaophoto

Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/erikakaophoto