How to Make
a Family Portrait

A photographer documents an unexpected pregnancy, and the life that came after

Photographs and words by Matt Eich

When I met my wife, we were both in college. She was eighteen and I was nineteen, and we didn’t have any plans of starting a family. I actually joked with her early on and said, “Hey, if you get pregnant, be aware that I’m going to photograph the whole thing.” It was something we kind of laughed about then. But it became a reality.

It was like I stumbled into an ambush and happened to be armed with a camera. I met Melissa in the stairwell and she wordlessly led me up to her room and showed me this pregnancy strip, and it wasn’t any ambiguous line or color, or anything like that. It just said “PREGNANT.” I think the first thing I did was laugh out loud, actually, and then we both kind of just collapsed. We sat down on the floor, and the reality was sinking in, and she made that face, and I made a photograph.

I’m looking for something that transcends the stereotypical family photograph. I have very little interest in that plastic view of reality that might beautify things that don’t need to be beautified—because life is full of flaws, and sometimes it’s ugly, but that’s what makes it interesting.

“I don’t know where I end and the baby begins.”

I had been making the photographs, thinking about them in black and white up until that point, and then when Madelyn was here I couldn’t see her or our life in black and white anymore. It was awesome, new and full of color, so I eventually transitioned away from one aesthetic and just continued documenting family life ever since then.

Your kid sometimes does something dangerous or annoying or just downright rotten, and the only thing you feel like you can do is laugh, because it’s so absurd and you can see a little bit of yourself and a little piece of humanity in what that little person just did or said.

After the photographs first came out, people I did not know sometimes would call me and be like, “So, here’s my situation: My girlfriend’s pregnant.” I don’t know what to do, as if I had some greater truth to give them. All I can really do is speak to my personal experience.

For the second pregnancy I was more aware of how quickly it was all going to go by, so I was a little more compulsive about documenting. I was also traveling a whole lot during the pregnancy, so I was very pointed about making sure I was getting these photographs in the times that I was home. Sometimes it was a sore point, and so the pictures reflect that. That was something I didn’t expect really, that it wasn’t always full of excitement and joy. There was a lot of nervousness.

I think people don’t think it’s hard any more. The truth is there is more pressure now to provide—not only monetarily, but provide stability on the home front, which is really tough to do when I’m traveling two weeks out of the month. I’m kind of on my own island, and I’m supposed to provide for my family with the only tool that I am capable of using: and that’s with a camera, and that’s just not enough.

The reason I began making photographs is my grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease and I saw what that did to her. As her memory eroded she lost her sense of who she was—so from an early age I was photographing my family, my brothers, my sisters, my parents, and never really paying attention to it.

I’m hoping my children will be able to read into these photographs some day and see it’s a way of saying “I was here for this, I love you,” because there are plenty of times that I’m gone, and I do just want to be able to be there to see what they’re doing or how they’re changing. When I’m gone these photographs are pretty good reminders of where I’d rather be, and how quickly time passes, and that hopefully I don’t waste it.

Matt Eich is a photographer living in Norfolk, Virginia.

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