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Justin Van Leeuwen: Family portraits made famous

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Justin Van Leeuwen’s family portrait. Photo by Kathleen Wilker

Kitchissippi Times photographer goes viral: Not your everyday family portraits

Story and photo by Kathleen Wilker
UPDATE: Congratulations to Justin Van Leeuwen for being named as a 2013  Top Endorsed Pro by Wescott Lighting for his stunning photography.

Photographer Justin Van Leeuwen of Laurel Avenue took up the camera as his medium because some of his friends were photographers and he admired their work. Van Leeuwen was looking for a creative outlet when he purchased his first digital SLR about seven years ago.

An off-beat sense of humour, a penchant for fun, a developing interest in professional photography and finding himself staying at home to care for his two young sons led Van Leeuwen to create Extreme Family Portraits. The genre of composite photography might be likened to Anne Geddes on steroids meets Cirque de Soleil meets real life. Because composite photography involves taking a portrait of each subject individually and then combining the individual images into a finished portrait, it’s possible to play with the viewer’s eye and create a scene showing a family’s true personality.

Instead of immaculately groomed smiling family members positioned with hands neatly folded a la Sears Portrait Studio, Van Leeuwen’s family portraits include ‘flying’ babies, mermaid daughters and the kind of general hijinks that actually take place in ordinary families. “Kids take longer to photograph, but it’s always fun to get everyone involved in the creation of the image,” says Van Leeuwen who loves living in a neighbourhood where he can frequently walk to shoots and meet up with friends, neighbours and clients along the way.

While he’s been steadily building his client base for corporate and editorial photography—including Kitchissippi Times cover shots—since he began working full-time as a photographer a year and a half ago, Van Leeuwen has also been enjoying shooting extreme family portraits for fun-loving families both in Ottawa and in Toronto.

To showcase his work, connect with other photographers and develop his portfolio, Van Leeuwen blogs about his shoots and posts frequently on Twitter and Flickr. “I like a certain level of technical achievement,” says Van Leeuwen who is quick to point out that he also enjoys meeting people and sharing their stories through the images he creates.

In early November, The Huffington Post discovered Van Leeuwen’s work. Soon the U.K.’s Daily Mail and BuzzFeed were sharing the story of this photographer and his unusual family portraits. Suddenly Van Mail Leeuwen’s blog (jvlphoto.com) and his Flickr site were getting thousands of hits.

While the interest and sudden popularity was exciting, Van Leeuwen soon had to stop himself from reading biting comments on the online sites because, as he so aptly puts it, “haters gonna hate.”

Van Leeuwen credits Twitter with connecting him with his neighbourhood. “I moved here five years ago and met a lot of people through Twitter, which enables us to get to know each other quite well quite quickly. It’s enables us to develop a kinship that would take years in real time.” Of course it helps that every time Van Leeuwen leaves his house he “always runs into at least one friend.”

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