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Making Portraits That Capture a Life

How a photographer creates a picture worthy of remembrance.

Donavan Freberg had seen it a bunch of times before: a family reunion, a candid group photo, and a mom or grandmother refusing to get in the shot. It’s a common scenario across countless families, with Mom feeling so self-conscious about her appearance that she ducks away as soon as the camera comes out.

“I just had this happen,” says Freberg, a California photographer who specializes in portraits, and who recently found himself shooting a gathering of fiftysomething sisters and cousins while an older woman stood quietly behind him. “Once I realized that was their mom, I just never stopped taking pictures of her all night,” he says. “And she hated it at first. She said, ‘Oh, I don’t have my picture taken. I don’t like having my pictures.’ I said, ‘These aren’t for you, honey. These are for your daughter, because this is what you’ll leave her.’


“And she started to cry, and she hugged me, and she said, ‘Thank you.’”

With just a few words, Freberg had done something remarkable: He gently, kindly, made it okay for the woman to acknowledge her own human mortality as a natural matter of fact. That’s something people are often scared to do. But photographers understand one very powerful thing in a way that most of us rarely consider: The camera is a tool that turns fleeting, mortal moments into tangible remembrances that can live forever.

Freberg discovered this first hand after he lost his own parents. “As I was going through what was left for me,” he says, “I realized that, while I’d aimed my camera at just about everything you can imagine, I hadn’t really taken that many photographs with my mom and dad.”

That new understanding changed the way he thought about the way we all go about creating pictures—not only professional photographers like himself, but all of us walking around with smartphone camera in our pockets. What if we remembered with every snapshot and selfie that this image might be what remains after we’re gone?

“Every photograph I make of a person,” Freberg says, “if their family sees it, I want them to say, ‘That is Jerry to a T.’ Or, ‘The photo you took of Laura, that’s her. Like, you got her.’ So, in a way, I am always thinking to myself—though not in a morbid way—‘I hope this photograph is good enough to outlive them.’”

To accomplish that, Freberg strives to find whatever it is that his subject can’t think about without feeling an honest, meaningful emotion. “Maybe that’s the day their first child was born, or the day they found out that they were accepted to medical school,” he says. In any case, “I ask them to think about something that made them feel real, authentic joy. Then I get very quiet with them, and then l wait, and I watch. And then I photograph them.”

In cultivating that practice, though, Freberg has discovered that happiness isn’t necessarily the only feeling that leads to an unforgettable, timeless portrait. “Some people come in,” he says, “and they go, ‘I’m really not in the mood to have my picture taken. I do not want to smile.’ And I will always say, ‘I don’t care about you smiling—that’s meaningless today. What I want is for you to be authentic. So if you’re having a rough day, and you want to just show that in the photos, that’s totally fine. But I want you to be real.”

It’s that realness, he says, that’s the key to creating a picture our loved ones will cherish forever when we’re not there for them in the flesh anymore.

“I honestly believe everybody deserves to have a photograph of them that looks like they’re a star,” Freberg says, “because you are the star of your own life. And you’re certainly the star of your children’s life—or your parent’s life, your brother’s, your sister’s, your wife’s or husband’s or partner’s. You’re the star of that person’s life, and so when you’re gone, that person’s going to want to have real photographs of you, and real stories.”

He pauses before adding one more important truth: “Pictures are stories.”

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