Documenting Life’s Transitions
October 25th, 2016 by David LaBelle

Kent State’s Eric Lauer is embraced by his father, Rick, and cheered by family and friends moments after being drafted in the first round by the San Diego Padres.

A chick pecks through a shell and emerges from its protective egg. A butterfly wrestles free from a cocoon and flies away. A college baseball player takes the mound for the last time in his career. A parent’s eyes are moist as they put their child on a plane for the first time.

There is no “second” first time, nor is there a “second” last time with life transitions.

The second time is never the same in anything. It can be better or worse, but it can never be first again. Therein is the beauty of the authentic transitional moment.

Life transitions are places where our senses are heightened and our heart beats fast, when every emotion feels twice its size, where we step away from the safe and comfortable to the unknown and unfamiliar.

They are bridges we cross that cannot be crossed again.

So it is with documentary photography. You cannot ask someone to do something again for the camera and expect the photograph to contain the same emotion.

The composition and the lighting can be better, but the moment can never hold the excitement of the first time.

True documentary photographers witness and record life as it unfolds—in all of its raw beauty and awkwardness.

In honest journalism, there are no “do overs.”

In a publishing world where image is shaped, manipulated, protected and growing increasingly more controlled, I am drawn to authentic moments, the life transitions that speak about our beautiful humanness and imperfection.

I adore real pictures, even if difficult to view. I find them more attractive and compelling than the plethora of choreographed, even faked pictures that proliferate our publishing and advertising world.

Just as I would rather hear someone sing off key from the heart than listen to a rehearsed choir, I will take an imperfect composition—alive with unrehearsed emotion—over a perfect arrangement void of emotion.

I am reminded of a story the late Galen Rowell told of a picture he made of climbers after descending Mount Everest. Seeing the photograph, a client asked Rowell to reshoot the picture and went to great expense in hopes of recreating the scene—making it better.

But the authentic relief and profound joy captured in the original could not be imitated.

Authenticity cannot be replicated.

Photographing real, spontaneous, not performed emotion is a fragile art that sometimes requires walking an ethical tightrope.

Because I want to be close enough to witness and record, but not so close as to interfere or alter the magical beauty of the moment, I often use telephoto lenses—especially during emotional transitions.

Honest moments between people are too pure, too special to be interrupted.

The last thing I want to do is pollute important and beautiful exchanges.

The older I get, the more I appreciate this.


David LaBelledaveL_mug_2011 is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit