“To get the curled up sleepy photographs the baby needs to be warm and fed. We turn the heating up and get mum to feed them into a sleepy state” Photographer Charlotte Emily Gray on photographing newborns, her camera-shy kids and the old work/life balance…
This interview was originally published in March 2016. At the time, Charlotte was 33 and living in Hackney, east London, with her husband, Matt, and their daughters: Iris, four and Vivi, two. She has since left London, and had another baby. She works as a photographer, offering newborn photography, as well as family portraits and professional headshots.
What time are you usually up in the morning?
As late as I can get away with. I am not a morning person….
What wakes you up?
I have a daylight alarm clock that comes on. I would like to say that it gently wakes me, but nothing gently wakes me (I sleep through my husband’s alarm and have been known to sleep through a brick being thrown through a window in the house I grew up in). So I’m usually woken by the sound of the back up alarm or by a small child.
How do you feel first thing?
Like I’ve been hit by a sledgehammer – dazed. Like I should drink three cups of coffee, except I don’t drink coffee. Maybe I should start.
What do you first do upon waking?
I roll over, snuggle back under the covers and immediately go back to sleep. Once getting up is really necessary I have a glass of water in an attempt to wake myself up and then I check my emails quickly whilst listening to my husband and the kids having their breakfast. He has to leave early so gets up with the kids, which means in total I usually manage to sneak an extra 30 minutes in bed in the morning (thank you Matt!)
As a freelance photographer, you work in various locations. Do you have a studio too?
I don’t have a studio. I like to photograph in people’s homes and in locations that are local to them – a favourite park for example. I find that children are more relaxed and it makes for a more interesting and varied shoot.
When it comes to newborn photo shoots I think it’s much easier on the new parents to shoot at their home. I bring everything I need and tidy up at the end so they can even stay in their pjs if they want to.
When did you first become interested in photography?
When I started my art foundation course after my A Levels. I had set out wanting to be a graphic designer and then took the photography module and was hooked. It led to me doing my BA and MA in photography.
You specialise in photographing newborns, children and families – was this the aim from the outset, or did you settle into this area later?
I settled in to this after having my first daughter. It was a way for me to keep working and be around for her. I was meeting lots of new parents and the family shoots were three hours – a manageable amount of time to leave her and do a job. I thought it would be a temporary thing, which is why I decided to work under my middle name and keep it separate from other work I did. I didn’t expect it to grow as much as it has!
How do you get children to sit still during a shoot?
I don’t! I run around with them a lot of the time. When the time does come for them to sit still they’ve usually run out of steam. It also helps to have a new face in the room. They are far more likely to sit still for me than they are for their mum or dad.
What’s the youngest baby you’ve photographed?
I photographed twins at five days old. They were born at 37 weeks old so they were definitely the youngest.
It’s such a nice idea – having a collection of professional photos taken of your newborn baby. What’s most important when photographing a newborn?
I love photographing newborns – it is such a privilege to be invited into someone’s home to photograph this new life. It gets me every single time.
The most important thing is to create the right conditions for the baby. To get the curled up sleepy photographs the baby needs to be warm and fed. We turn the heating up and get mum to feed them into a sleepy state.
It’s equally important that the parents are also looked after. I remember feeling quite vulnerable when I’d just had my babies and you need to remember how they might be feeling. I think it helps hugely that I’ve had two babies myself relatively recently. In fact a lot of my newborn shoots turn into massive chats with the mum.
Your own children, as muses
Are your own children your muses, and do they mind being photographed by you?
I don’t take enough photos of my kids and when I do I don’t edit them. They tolerate the camera but they don’t co-operate if I ever want them to do something. It really is easier to photograph other people’s children!
Do you like seeing photographs of yourself, or do you prefer to be behind the camera?
I definitely prefer to be behind the camera. I don’t think we ever look in photographs how we think we do in our heads. But I’m less bothered by that now and I do try to make sure I’m in pictures with my children. Those are the photos they will want to see when they’re older.
What’s the secret to a brilliant photograph?
Good light and strong composition.
How are you finding it working as a freelance photographer and raising children; how do you manage your time?
It’s not easy but I don’t think anyone’s set up is. It’s great because I’m doing something I enjoy and get to be around for them. They go to nursery three days a week and I take them at 9am and pick them up at 3pm. We don’t have to rush in the morning and they still have time to play at home in the afternoon. I can eat dinner with them every evening and we have two whole weekdays to spend together.
The downsides are I often feel like I’m not doing either of my two ‘jobs’ well enough. I can be distracted, as I can’t fit all of my work into the 18 hours of childcare plus evenings, so it inevitably spills over into my time with them. A client might call or need some images sending out to press and I have to stop what I’m doing with them and switch to work mode.
I’ve had times when I’ve taken them on commercial shoots with me (I have some very understanding and amazing clients) and although it has worked I feel crap that I’ve had to drag them along. I also work late into the night on my editing, which means I pretty tired (and explains my morning state).
Saying all that, I don’t think many people can find a perfect balance and there are so many positives to the way I am working. I just wish we could sort something out for my husband too. He currently commutes for the best part of four hours a day!
What’s the dream, career-wise?
I can’t remember the last time I thought about what the dream is. In the more immediate future I’d like to continue to grow the business, look at getting an agent and also perhaps someone to help with the editing.
And in your personal life?
One more baby (!) and to move to a bigger place. That will mean moving out of London, so we’ll see what happens and where that takes us!
If you could wake up anywhere tomorrow, where would it be?
On a beach in Thailand at the start of a three week holiday, with Matt and the girls. I can dream, right?
Did you (or would you) pay to have professional photos taken of your newborn, to capture those early days?