Photographer focuses on hidden beauty of family
As a child, Amber Griggs didn’t think much about it – about her dad, a photojournalist for KJRH in Tulsa, Oklahoma, handing over a camera to her that probably was worth more than the family’s monthly mortgage.
Amber was the eldest of Kristine and Gary Griggs’ 11 children – five girls and six boys (“The boys won”) – and since her Catholic parents always allowed her to invite her friends over, the term “full house” went far beyond poker.
On weekend sleepovers, Amber would pull out her dad’s camera, and her friends pulled the sheets off her bed to hang on the wall and moved lamps into the craziest of angles, creating a primitive photo studio, where the girls, in their abundant makeup, were girls.
“My dad would develop the film, and he’d say to me, ‘You keep taking these silly pictures,’” Amber said. “We would never pay for ‘Glamour Shots.’”
Amber is 29 now, and her shared experience of living out her Catholic faith in a family of 13 and a lifetime of taking candid photos led to an artistically and theologically inspired project called “The Hidden Beauty of the Domestic Church.”
Over a week last summer, Amber spent a full day with each of five Catholic families, four of them from the Diocese of Lake Charles. Her goal was to blend into the woodwork and capture the shining but usually unrecorded beauty of the domestic church, where sacrifice, tenderness and patience are on display in the midst of spilled milk and scraped knees.
As a kid, Amber was shaped by her family’s open-door policy. One night when she returned home on break from the University of Dallas, she walked into her unlocked house and ran into a kid she’d never seen before.
“Make yourself at home,” the boy told her nonchalantly.
“Who are you?” Amber asked.
“Oh, I’m from up the street.”
“He had never seen me because I was always away at college, but he was just so comfortable telling a random person walking into the house to make herself at home,” Amber said. “It just really struck me that there was something beautiful here at work.
“Years later, friends have come up to me and casually mentioned how coming to our house made such a huge impact on them. They told me they always used our family as a model. I guess there is so much heartbreak out there that just inviting people over to your house for dinner and keeping the door unlocked makes an impact.”
The rule every photographer knows, especially when taking pictures of children, is that you have to wait for the moment when you become invisible.
“You have to be there for awhile to fade out so they’re not paying attention to you, almost like a fly on the wall,” Amber said.
Then, the beauty begins. Of the more than 2,000 photos she took of the five families, 20 made the final cut for the exhibit. Among her favorites is a snapshot of Lisa, the daughter of Alana and Rickard Newman, wearing fairy-winged pajamas and jumping into her father’s arms after a long day at work.
“I really love that picture in particular because artistically it’s a beautiful picture, but you also really get a sense of place with the Louisiana colors and because the moment was so pure,” Amber said. “Rickard had gotten home from work and Lisa was getting ready for bed, and she was a typical little girl trying to show off for dad, who was exhausted but watching Lisa do her thing.”
One picture she would have liked to have taken but couldn’t – because the house was almost dark around 6 a.m. – was a young family saying the rosary, spread out all over the den.”
“They had just had a new baby – probably two or three weeks old – and I was struck by how you could tell prayer was central to their life,” Amber said. “Their tradition was to wake up, and the husband and wife would say the rosary at 6:30. They were in their pajamas, a mom was nursing her newborn, and dad was on the couch using a huge, giant rosary. Their 2-year-old came to him holding his blanket. It was such a beautiful way to start the day.”
David Dawson Jr., director of the archdiocesan Family Life Apostolate, hopes the 20-image exhibit, complete with scriptural captions, can be used by parishes or schools “to learn how God operates through our interactions with one another. It’s the family that provides us with the way we learn about God. It’s a way of communicating the image of God through beauty.”
Amber said all families can spread and enjoy God’s love if they simply open the front door.
“I would encourage people to stretch themselves and invite people over,” she said. “We’ve become such a tech-friendly culture that we’re emphasizing connection over conversation and over quality time. It doesn’t have to be fancy; it doesn’t even have to be well thought-out. But the heart of the matter is we need to spend time with our family and with others.”