Last night while scrolling Instagram, I noticed several local photographers sharing a post by Tara McMullen Photography: the graphic she created, being re-shared in peoples’ stories, reads “You are not allowed to verbally abuse your vendors”.

It was one of the first things I saw this morning and when I saw it again I cried. I cried because I’m exhausted: the last two and a half years as a self employed service provider have depleted my reserves of persistence, resilience, and tenacity. I cried because I am feeling the weight of client frustration about services I no longer offer. For years I have been dodging and weaving my way around a sensitive topic and I finally feel ready to talk about it.

“Why don’t you offer extended family photography sessions?”

Despite a checkbox on our contact page that requires people to acknowledge their understanding that we don’t offer extended family photo sessions, the requests for these sessions have been coming at us at a fast and furious pace since the Summer of 2021 as families re-united after being apart as a result of Covid.

The entire team has felt the pressure of addressing the issue as to why I don’t offer these sessions as there has been a lot of frustration coming our way from clients and potential clients who don’t understand why they can’t book an extended family session.

I used to offer these sessions to anyone who wanted to book one. Then I started only offering them to previous clients. Five years ago I stopped offering them to anyone, including previous clients. Three years ago we nervously re-introduced Generations of Love Sessions as an add-on for my long term clients who book Front of the Lens package sessions throughout the year. Did you catch the word “nervously”?

Our team is always gathering data on sessions and client experiences. Throughout the year we review what is working, what isn’t working, and how we can adapt sessions and client experiences to ensure the absolute best possible results. When I tell you we restructured our extended family session processes and sessions no less than 30 times over the past 8 years, that is a conservative estimate. We tried and failed over and over again to figure out a way to offer sessions to meet clients’ needs and ensure we had a safe and enjoyable work environment.

I am a full time photographer who has been working in this industry for 11 years. This is how I make my living and it’s how my team supports their families. If I’m turning away business, please understand it’s for valid reasons.

My worst experiences as a photographer have been at extended family sessions

I don’t offer these sessions because I need to feel safe at work. I need my team to feel safe at sessions and while doing their administrative work from home.

I have been yelled at

I have been sworn at

I have been touched without consent

I have witnessed abuse

I have been intimidated

I have been threatened

The worst part for me is not that these things happened, it’s then when I try to talk about it people don’t believe me. That’s why I’ve been silent: it’s why I don’t talk about what’s happened and it’s why I haven’t explained to people the reasons I don’t offer these sessions.

I am no stranger to trauma and navigating family relationships. I have a Masters degree in Counselling and used to work as a crisis counsellor with families who survived traumatic incidents including catastrophic workplace incidents and motor vehicle accidents. I am well equipped to navigate complicated family dynamics but as a photographer, I choose not to.

Our team are masters of organization, planning, and preparing for sessions. We are experienced professionals who can prepare people of all ages and expectations for photo sessions yet despite our best efforts, extended family sessions more often than not result in an immense amount of stress, troubleshooting, and frantic last minute efforts as we help families navigate complicated family dynamics and different expectations. Our team bears the brunt of anger, grief, frustration, and irritation with professionalism and grace but there comes a point when we have to ask ourselves, why do we keep exposing ourselves to situations that cause so much distress?

What’s the big deal, isn’t it just a family session with more people?

When a session involves multiple households and generations, here are some of the issues we navigate:

  • accommodating work and travel schedules for multiple adults
  • choosing a date and back up date that everyone can attend
  • choosing a time of day for multiple ages of family members that doesn’t interfere with naps and meals
  • communicating with multiple families at the same time
  • choosing a location that appeals to multiple households
  • completing contracts and questionnaires with multiple households
  • collaborating with multiple households to choose outfits that everyone likes
  • navigating preferences for photos as everyone has a different vision (candid, posed, full body, close up etc)
  • communicating our session processes which are different than other photographers
  • problem solving during sessions when there is conflict between family members
  • support people who struggle with their body image, who don’t like being in photos, or who haven’t been photographed in many years
  • supporting kids who are excited and overwhelmed to be with family members and are struggling to regulate their emotions
  • editing photos while respecting that each family has different preferences for the level of editing (e.g., skin retouching etc).
  • extensive editing including swapping heads, eyes, parts of peoples faces and combining different images

Why can’t you just book extended family sessions with clients you know?

Over the years we have lost several long term clients after events that transpired at their extended family session. I hate the thought of losing long term clients because of issues beyond their control.

We promise we are super relaxed and everyone is laid back: can we book a session?

No one books an extended family session expecting it to unfold negatively but the weight of expectations, the distance (physical and otherwise) between family members coming together for the first time in a long time, and complicated travel and scheduling arrangements often make these sessions a powder keg of strong emotions. Our clients are often just as surprised as we are when situations unfold before, during and after sessions.

Why can’t you make an exception for us?

Every day we receive requests from clients and potential clients asking for exceptions to session policies, session prices and packages, session offerings, and other accommodations. Making exceptions impacts our ability to deliver the best customer service to our clients, which is why we are transparent about what we can and cannot offer clients.

When we make an exception for one client, we are then put in the difficult position of explaining why we can’t make the same exception to their family and friends.

Isn’t it just part of being a photographer that you have to deal with these situations?

No, it’s not. As a business owner I can choose the sessions and services I offer as well as the expectations I set for how myself and my team are treated.

Why do people have to book more than one photo session a year if they want an extended family session? Why can’t you just do all the photos at once?

One of the main reasons people are disappointed after extended family sessions is that their individual family photos aren’t what they expected because by the time those photos are taken, kids are tired and no longer engaged with the process.

We offer Front of the Lens packages, which are multi-session packages for families to have photos taken several times a year. Our Generations of Love Sessions (extended family sessions) are add-ons to these packages. Our only goal at Generations of Love Sessions is to take photos of cousins, grandparents, and aunts and uncles together. We don’t combine regular family sessions with photos of multiple families together because it’s too much to expect kids to focus, participate, and engage for the time required for many, many combinations of family members.

Why are multi family sessions so expensive?

Because the planning process is different when it includes extended family members. With other adults participating in the session we then have to do the entire session planning process, including contracts and questionnaires, with multiple adults to avoid confusion over what is going to happen during the session, with the posing, editing, and with the final images, etc.   

Those processes are to avoid disappointment when other family members have expectations of our services and the session as they haven’t worked with us before. Our sessions are structured based on our previous experiences working with extended family members.  The additional cost reflects the significant investment of time our team makes to ensure the session runs smoothly and that everyone is satisfied with the process and final images.   

Why can’t we just quickly add in a few extra family members at the end of our regular session?

Simply put, there is no such thing as “just a few quick photos”. I have been in business for over 11 years and want to be in business for at least another 11 years. In order to stay in business, my sessions, and the prices for those different sessions, reflect my professional expertise as well as the time and effort required of our team.

We love what we do. We love working with families. We love creating beautiful memories.

We are grateful to clients who understand why our schedule is limited to immediate family members. We are grateful when clients respect the boundaries we’ve put in place for our team. We are grateful to clients who return multiple times a year, and year after year trusting us with the memories of their families.