Tell us about yourself

I’m a mother of two, wife and documentary family photographer based in Carshalton, South London. I came to photography relatively late in life, after my second child came along, and as I’ve developed as a photographer, I’ve come to realise the importance of capturing life with an honest lens. Family life isn’t perfect – it’s often messy and complicated and certainly not reflected in the posed family portraits we see all over social media. I believe we should fully embrace the reality of our everyday lives by celebrating who we are and letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be. This is why I’m passionate about documentary family photography. No pretending, nothing staged for the camera – just real life in all its mess and glory!

You can follow Michaela’s work on her website at or on Instagram @michaela_strivens.

You had a successful family lifestyle photography business, what made you decide to change directions and move to documentary family photography? 

Lifestyle was a good entry point for me, but after a while, a real mis-match developed between the images I was trying to create of my own family, and those I was producing for clients. When I thought about the type of photographer I would book for myself, and the images that I found exciting, lifestyle really didn’t feature! I also started to feel uncomfortable that my client work was fuelling an obsession with only ever presenting the pretty and polished side of family life. The pandemic gave me some time to reflect, and I realised that I couldn’t continue in a state of cognitive dissonance. I’m pretty sure my husband had had enough of my moaning too! The Turning Chaos into Art mentorship came along at exactly the right time for me, and diving into it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

How has it changed the way you approach working with and interacting clients behind the scenes and on shoots?

So much has changed. No more what-to-wear guides or suggesting pretty outdoor locations! All my interactions with clients are geared towards educating families about the documentary approach and building trust. When I’m on a shoot, it’s all about helping families feel comfortable having me around, and providing reassurance that it’s fine to just get on with things and be themselves. I love how this frees me up to just concentrate on what’s actually happening and how best to tell the story.

What is your favourite camera/lens set up for documentary work and why, has this changed from your lifestyle set up?

I switched to mirrorless about a year ago – the Canon R6 – which was bit of a game changer for me. As I’m no longer relying on flash to help with tricky light situations, the camera’s high ISO capability is very helpful for documentary work. The pull-out touch screen is pretty cool too, and really useful for changing up my angles to give me more interesting compositions. I love my 35mm prime but I often use my 24-70 to access the shorter focal lengths. Since moving away from lifestyle, my 135mm doesn’t see the light of day too much, unless I’m photographing something involving a flying ball and I don’t want to get hit!

What do you find the most challenging about documentary family photography?

My reaction to situations is becoming a bit more intuitive but trusting those instincts can be hard when they’re still in the early stages of development! I feel more confident photographing quieter, slower moments where I have more time to play with my composition. Making sense of chaotic and unpredictable scenes that move along at a mile a minute is much harder. I’m trying not let my reaction to these situations be driven by fear and hopefully it will get easier with time and practice.

How has your work evolved over time? What do you love to photograph?

When I started out it was all about blurry backgrounds and flattering light, but as I’ve developed as a photographer, and maybe even as a human, I’ve found this approach to be really limiting. I have note on my fridge right now reminding me to consider my ‘why’ before I get the camera out. I’m trying to take photographs that are ‘about’ something rather than just photographs ‘of’ something and I hope that comes across in my more recent work.

I’ve worked hard to embrace less than ideal conditions, like artificial light for example. I’m really proud of this photograph of my youngest daughter and her best friend enjoying their first sleep over together. In the past, I would have dug out the speed lite in an effort to rid the frame of harsh shadows but I think the in this case, the fact that it’s artificial light is important to the story. The image made the finals of the Documentary Family Awards (Joy category), and although it went no further, I was really encouraged that the image resonated with at least one of the judges!

Are there any personal projects you’re currently working on or recently completed? 

As part of the Turning Chaos into Art mentorship, I completed a project exploring the presence of our family dog in the home. I’ve done a couple of 365 projects, which were great for developing my camera skills, but this was the first time I’d really been pushed to explore different documentary techniques to create a meaningful sequence of photographs. 

I have a couple of ideas brewing for future projects which I’m hoping to pursue in the coming months. My eldest daughter will be starting secondary school this September, and so I’m looking for a way to tell a story about that transition.

What would be your top tips for people that are interested / getting started in documentary family photography?

I guess it depends on your background but you may have a bit of ‘un-learning’ to do so investing in photography education, or re-education, is hugely important and worthwhile. Practice as much as you can with your own family, where there’s not that pressure to produce photos for a paying client, and take every opportunity to get feedback on your work from trusted and experienced mentors.

Keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, embrace imperfection and be resilient. The worst that can happen is that you’re going to make a lot of really crappy photos but it’s all part of the learning and the fun!

About Alumni Spotlight

Alumni Spotlight is an interview series showcasing documentary family photographers who have completed a mentoring programme with Made for Documentary. Our students talk about what makes them tick, showcase their favourite images and share advice for those wanting to dive into the world of documentary family photography.

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