Her nose wrinkles and she pulls back slightly. The corners of her mouth tuck themselves tightly, refusing to express any emotion.
It’s a lot of emotion. It is a mix of disgust, fear, and discomfort.
This woman just asked me about what I do and I told her. Now she doesn’t know how to respond, so she asks, “What do you love so much about death, anyway?”
It is mortality that I love, not death.
The knowledge and awareness of my limited time provide the ultimate freedom. When I have sight of that limitation, what is important to me rises to the surface effortlessly. I don’t waste time dissecting the behavior of others, getting stuck in harmful patterns, or questioning my decisions. I put my effort into relationships and experiences. I let go of things and achievements.
When I have sight of that limitation.
I consider myself fortunate to be among people who are also keenly aware of mortality. They live with a life-changing medical condition or are caring for someone with one. They work on legacy projects in hospice. They plan services and write eulogies for beloved family and friends. They focus on connection. They embody their values. They move into fear, because they want to remove the possibility of regret. They favor what is good enough and finished over ideal plans.
Being with these wholehearted humans nearly every day keeps mortality under my nose. That intimacy encourages me to keep my focus on what matters most.
I see their faces twitch in the early stages of holding back tears. I see the bags under their eyes that tell the story of how few hours of rest they gain as a caregiver. I see their fingers fidget, spinning rings and cracking knuckles, when they don’t know what to say. I see their shoulders drop and roll forward in a heaviness of sorrow that words do not touch. I see them express lifetimes of love while humbly lifting a spoon to gently feed. I see them collapse into salty oceans of raging sobs. I see them crack and immediately spackle over those spots to make it through the days. I see them caress hands and faces as though they were the most priceless gems. I see them unable to speak.
My work is to see all of this and reflect it in a beautiful way. I condense what is already saturated with emotion and intensity and tell a moving, sweeping story.
How could I not love mortality? It is the stuff of life.
This makes for awkward conversation at parties and networking events. My enthusiasm for mortality is more than most people are willing to process during casual conversation.
When people ask questions about my work, they want to know how I can do this. Then they want to know why.
I write about both both of those elsewhere. What I’ve come to love about my story and journey is how so many things that don’t seem connected have come together. It reminds me of a gigantic drawstring running through the casual waistband of life - it touches every part of the full circle and when I pull it a bit all of those things snug against each other.
It comes down to a formula for me.
intention + connection = wonder
That formula is the foundation of every photography class, every art class, I teach. It started as just a formula about my approach to telling a story.
It has become the formula of my life. It applies to everything.
When I need to find myself, I discern my intention and then connect. In relationships with others, I figure out what kind of partner I want to be in the duo and seek connection that supports that. When I plan a day or a week, I consider what I want to accomplish and then focus on connecting with the people, places, and things that make it happen.
These two factors come together, they pull like that comfy drawstring, to cinch everything.
When mortality becomes a friend, these are the two elements of life that rise to importance. I’ve seen it hundreds of times in the past five years. When they come together, and that requires wholeheartedness, wonder happens. Comfort happens. Peace happens. Joy happens.
Any misguided efforts of past decades in chasing achievements or acquiring things fall away. Intention matters. Connection matters.
Who do I want to be in this moment? How do I want to show up?
What kind of connection to do I want to have here? How do I establish that?
It is simple and oh, so complicated. It changes everything for me.
When people talk about end of life experiences and health scares and how they push them to shift perspective, I think it comes down to these two things. These two pieces, both together and separately, are essential for a life full of all of those most desirable things we imagine. This is the stuff of dreams, and it can be real life.
In Disaster Falls: A Family Story, Stéphane Gerson frankly shared his experience as a bereaved parent.
There is never an ordinary death of a child, and except in the cases of illness it’s rarely anticipated. This death, Owen’s death, happened during vacation while white water rafting. Owen and his father, Mr. Gerson, fell out of their water craft in a spot known as Disaster Falls. Owen was eight years old.
Mr. Gerson began writing “because there were no words.” He wanted to understand how people find themselves in catastrophes. He wrote to “dispel the notion no one, not even us, could imagine what we were going through.” He wrote because disasters are about the dead and the living. He wrote to give rise to the idea that something other than “horror stories and bottomless vacuity” could represent disasters.
When the complexity of emotion is beyond grasp, writing can help to draw meaning from the experience. Mr. Gerson graciously invited readers to come along as he tackled big questions. He described what it was like to see his son in the water, just out of reach. He described his experience looking for him on land, hopeful he had come to shore, and then his thoughts when he first saw his son’s body. He detailed the discussions about the safety of a ducky on the whitewater and his uneasiness with his son’s decision. He talked about being with the other families the night of the accident, alongside the river that killed his son, and yet feeling isolated. He talked about his subsequent research of Disaster Falls and the court case that followed. He talked about his relationships with his father, wife, and older son.
He laid it all out. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a letter, card, or conversation after Owen’s death.
What was Owen’s favorite thing to do?
Just to know, I feel really sorry for you and Owen was a great kid.
Was the water deep?
Was Owen eight turning nine or nine turning ten?
I know how it feels to lose someone because I lost my grandmother.
This is not an easy memoir. It is brutal in places. It is unspeakably heartbreaking and traumatic. Mr. Gerson included the beautiful aspects of his life with Owen and without him, as well; it just that this isn’t the lilting kind of memoir where I came away feeling vital and connected. I felt bruised and raw - just the tiniest fraction of what Mr. Gerson has experienced.
If you are a bereaved parent, grandparent, or sibling, this memoir is going to feel different. You may feel relieved by Mr. Gerson’s frankness and courage to say things other people do not. It may feel like too much.
If you are close to a drowning incident, this book is full of triggers.
If you want want an honest, vulnerable view of mourning and grief from a father’s perspective, I can’t recommend this enough.
Sometimes people wrinkle their noses and pull back a bit when they learn I am primarily a film photographer. Other people lean in with widening eyes and want to know more about this archaic method of photography.
I grew up with a film camera. Several, actually. I had one of those 120 cameras that was long and thin, like a big ice cream sandwich. You know, the kind with a mount for a flash cube. Am I dating myself?
My first digital camera was a gift in 2002. Through 2016, I created more images on a memory card than I did on film. In 2017 that balance tipped, and for the past seven months 85% of my work has been with film.
Film looks different. To me it looks softer around the edges and yet has more natural contrast. I describe film as having humanity.
I could absolutely create something like the image above, which is my son, by the way, with digital media. I could apply a film preset and deepen the contrast. I could get really close to this.
The difference between black and white here is astonishing, and yet it's not harsh. It's not sharp. The vulnerability of fatigue receives a gentler treatment through film that it might digitally.
This goes for color, too.
Here is The Boy again, framed by colors he loves. Nothing is oversaturated. There are no hard edges or super duper sharpening. His skin looks just like it does in life with no processing that adds haze, flare, or whatever else is popular. This looks natural to me, and because I want to represent real life, that's an important quality.
Film deepens my intention. Knowing that every frame costs money between the film itself and the processing makes a difference. Digital film also costs money, but because it's money that's already been invested we tend to think of it as free - it doesn't cost any more to fire 1,000 frames, so why not be totally sure?
When I put film into a camera, I consider my intention. I focus to develop connection with my subject. I treat film as a resource of greater scarcity, and because of that it feels more precious to me. I believe I am a better photographer with film because of that. No matter how much I intend to adopt that mindset with a digital camera, in the back of my mind I know I can shoot until the 32GB card is full and then pull out another. On film it's 36 frames at a time, and maybe I have just five rolls with me.
My clients deserve the best of me as a photographer, and film does that. My clients also want to preserve legacies, and film is archival (technically digital files are archival if they are properly maintained every three to five years and there are no hardware failures).
Film feels like a more accurate reflect of life to me. It has greater gravitas. It feels more special to my clients. I think they trust me a bit more because they know I don't need to shoot 1,000 frames to deliver 20 they'll love - I can do that in three rolls of film.
What do you love about film?
Teva Harrison shared her journey with cancer in this memoir, In-Between Days. Whether you are living with cancer, caring for someone who is, or simply want a different perspective, this book is worth your time.
It is different from other memoirs I’ve read in three notable ways.
1. It’s short. The page count is 163, because not every page is packed with text, it is an easy read. Easy in the sense that I didn’t have to reread passages because I couldn’t understand what she was saying - I did reread many passages because they were jaw-droppingly poignant.
Teva wrote this as though she were talking to a friend. It’s warm, intimate, and vulnerable.
2. It’s illustrated. Every other page is a drawing that depicts an aspect of Teva’s life with cancer. This drew me into her story ever further.
3. At the end of the book, Teva is alive. There is no epilogue that explains when she died and what the process of completing the book for the publisher was like.
I dont want want to take away anything from the experience of reading this, so I’ll share just a few things I found most valuable.
Teva’s diagnosis happened when she was 37. She lives with advanced metastatic breast cancer, which is currently incurable. In the preface she explained how beneficial it was for her to write and draw about her experience; her hope is that sharing it may lead to conversations that have been too difficult to begin.
The ability to start hard conversations is one of the things I prize most about photography.
Teva presented the book in three parts. The first part is diagnosis, treatment, and side effects. The second part is marriage, family, and society. The third part is hopes, fears, and dreams.
She wrote about how metastatic cancer is a lot like playing Whac-A-Mole. She wrote about managing her pain, and not. She wrote about her granny’s legacy and influence in her life. She wrote about how wearing a seatbelt in a car was an act of hope.
I have witnessed many of these conversations in other families and yet this book broke me open. Teva’s rawness invited my own. The amount of vulnerability and trust in her pages caught me off guard, and I’m so glad it did. It started at the beginning, in the prologue.
Now that I have cancer, I exist entirely in the in-between spaces /
So few words and so much meaning. She ended the prologue thusly.
And so I take the spaces nobody claims and I occupy them in the best way I know how: living life with a sense of wonder and delight.
Becoming acquainted with mortality has certainly taught me how to live. Teva graciously shared her experience with exactly that. It is heartbreaking and hopeful, crushing and uplifting, maddening and humorous.
Just like life. Just like illness. Just like grief.
It's time to reveal the most impactful photograph of the year for 2017.
I won't show you the photograph, and that may seem strange. I won't share it because I want to preserve this family's privacy. That is one of the elements of this work that is most important to me, and families tell me it is one of the reasons they ask me to be with them. They know their worst day won't show up in social media unless that's what they want.
So I'll tell you the story behind this photograph, and I'll share something else from my time with this family instead. Do you have tissues? I'm grabbing mine, because reliving this moment is emotional for me. I know nothing of the pain this family lives with on a daily basis.
She was four months old when I met her. She smiled and wiggled, and she made that adorable gurgling laugh when she was pleased. Her parents had learned that her life expectancy was about 18 months due to a rare genetic disorder that attacked her nervous system. I saw her every other month or so until just after her third birthday. That was my last visit with her family before her funeral.
That was the day her parents elected to withdraw life support.
One month earlier she experienced difficulty breathing and had been receiving assistance since then. During that month, her parents talked about her life, shared stories, laughed, cried, sang to her, held her, and made peace.
"The length of her life was never tied to her impact. Even one day, one hour, would have changed us forever," her father told me.
Her mother called me and whispered into the phone that it was time. While I couldn't make out all of her words, which were few, I knew what was happening. We had talked about this. I promised I would be there if they asked.
The room was nearly unrecognizable without the constant pfffff of the ventilator and the beeps and peeps of the monitors. I could see her gorgeous, pale face; her cornflower eyes looked relaxed and peaceful. Mom and Dad took turns holding her, rocking her, stroking her, kissing her . . . all the things they had always done.
These were the last times. They meant everything.
After nearly an hour of being without support, she was tired. She smiled a little, looking directly into her mama's eyes, leaned her head on her shoulder, and exhaled one last time.
The instant following is the photograph of the year for me.
Mom clutched her little girl in a bear hug, grasping her left forearm with her right hand. I watched her knuckles and fingers whiten with the intensity. Her daughter sat on her lap, facing her; her little head tipped down, tucked just below Mama's chin. The small arms reached around Mama, where Dad was holding her hands. The three of them sat, nestled together, on the hospital bed that had been home for so long.
Dad's forehead dropped against his wife's left shoulder. I could see his shoulders heave with silent sobs. His legs came around either side of his wife and his knees and thighs turned in, seeking every bit of physical contact they could find with this forever changed family. His hands cradled those of his daughter, his thumbs resting lightly atop.
Mom's face is the focal point.
Her eyes squeezed shut. They crinkled and turned down while her pursed lips and taught cheeks fought against them. Tears seeped out of the corners, racing down her cheeks to dangle off her upper lip before they took their final dive down to her precious girl's lowered, forever still head. Her nostrils flared at the moment she inhaled her first breath without her daughter.
Her face was the most stunning combination of love, joy, anguish, gratitude, and uncertainty. I will never forget it.
The end of the year has come. Our trees of life carry on with adding new rings of growth.
This year I practiced more of what I so often encourage others to do.
Be gentle with yourself.
No one loves you more. No one relies on you more. No one has more riding on the relationship.
This is one of the most difficult things to realize during grief, whether it is active caregiving or mourning death. The more I see it done well, the more I realize how much I have to learn. We are all learning, right?
Facing a new year with holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and milestones that are . . . well, stagnant, for lack of a better term, is a bittersweet place. If only we could go back. If only things hadn't changed.
Trees go through rough years, too. They experience droughts, wind storms, extremes in temperature, and fires. During acute recovery those trees don't grow much. They add the absolute minimum to their trunks, and they may not produce flowers or a heavy canopy. They may lose leaves.
These trees put their energy into growing down. They expand their roots. They create anchors for themselves that are stronger and broader - roots that can outreach anything that happens above the soil. It doesn't look like they are doing much, and yet they are building safety for themselves with work that is invisible to the rest of us.
I bet you are, too.
If 2017 was a heavy year for you, maybe it's time to look at your roots. It's okay to allow yourself the space and time to expand them. Anchor yourself. Maintain your connection with your loved one and use it to grow. What good can you carry forward to create a lush tree canopy that adds to the beauty of the world?
What will your ring for 2017 say?
There is a person who approaches me at every event where I am a photographer. It's a different person each time. The intent is the same.
This person really wants to be a "real" photographer and wants to pump me for information with questions or demonstrate knowledge by quizzing me or slinging loads of jargon. The conversation almost always heads to "once I upgrade my camera my photos will be amazing."
This person arrived at my photography event yesterday. He quizzed me. He wanted to know what I thought of his gear. He told me that when he upgrades his photos will come together. He's still having a little trouble with focus and exposure - that must be the lens.
This image came from my iPhone. I did a simple B&W filter. There is nothing fancy here - I couldn't adjust much of anything. The Boy was in the right place at the right time and I couldn't let it go. I'm glad I didn't.
Amazing photographs do not come from a camera. Best-selling books do not come from a computer. Evocative paintings do not come from a brush. The cameras, computers, and brushes are tools. It's how we use them that matters.
Every person who uses a camera is a photographer in the realest sense there is. Professional photography may be out of reach for a while. We all start at the beginning, and when progression matters to us we continue. I'm not a "good" photographer because I have four camera bodies, shoot film, or use prime lenses. I keep learning about the science. I practice each day. Most importantly, I value emotional connection over technical mastery.
As far away as I was from my son in this moment, I was connected with him. I felt like I was seeing him in an honest way. He allowed me to witness his life. While I may have had more options with a "real" camera, I couldn't have done much better than this.
It's not about what we have. It's about how resourceful we are and how well we use what is available. It's about how we love and listen. It's about how we connect.
The tools are secondary.
The President of the United States has been in the news this week because of a conversation he had with widow of a soldier who died in an ambush. I have no comment on politics or policies; I'd like to share what I've seen, heard, and experienced repeatedly.
Reason doesn't comfort.
There is no explanation, logical or not, that takes away even a tiny piece of the shattering heartbreak of death. There is no amount of reason that soothes mourning or grief. There are no words that have a magical "feel better" property.
Why do we say these things? Why do we try so hard to say the right thing and then fall flat?
We are uncomfortable being with people who are experiencing tragedies. We don't know what to do or say, so we say what feels right. We say what helps us to feel better, and that's often an explanation of why everything is "okay."
He's in a better place.
It was her time.
At least he's no longer suffering.
As many bereaved people have said, these well intended comments that explain away the pain of loss offer no comfort. None. It's hard to appreciate a better place when it's not here. It's hard to appreciate the right time when it means less time. And while the end of suffering for one is a wonderful thing, it's hard to be grateful for that while drowning in a different kind of suffering.
Could we change the language of grief? Could we change the beliefs about and understanding of it? Could we start talking about it with each other?
Grief isn't linear. It doesn't care about logic. It can't be explained away, just as death can't be explained away. It must be felt. When we say things that are more reason than heart, we deny the emotional connection that we need. More importantly, we deny the emotional connection and support the bereaved needs.
We can change the conversation, and the President just opened a door for us. People are listening, whether they support him or disparage him.
Let's do better. Let's make safe spaces to feel. Let's have difficult conversations.
Let's leave reason and logic out of this grief stuff.
We live in a sea of pictures. In the course of an average day, a social media user sees a steady stream of snapshots of vacations, the irritating guy on the bus, cute expressions babies and toddlers make, dinner, the sofa the dog destroyed, and lots of selfies. Social media and mobile devices have given us the ability to rapidly document and share every nuance of our lives with friends and family, and I admit I enjoy seeing images from people who are important to me.
How much is too much, though? At what point do we transition from images that connect to images that overwhelm?
InfoTrends forecasts that people will take 1.3 trillion digital photographs in 2017, and 87% of those will be captured with mobile devices (that's 79% for phones and 8% for tablets). In 2010 the total number of images was 0.35 trillion. Oh, and these numbers exclude professional photographers, by the way.
Photo technology has become so ubiquitous and simple that we've lost what is most precious about photography - connection. Digital files have become less valuable and more disposable because they lack connection. The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) reported that 67% of people stored their photographs only digitally. About 70% of people no longer create or maintain photo albums and more than half haven't printed a single photo in the past year.
When was the last time you printed photos or created an album to share? Of the last 100 pictures you've taken, how many of them are meaningful to you? How are your capturing the stories that go with those photographs?
We are in danger of losing this generation. We are losing our connections with our past and leaving behind very little that is archival. Digital storage is not archival - technology changes so rapidly that storage methods become outdated after a few decades and the devices that once read and stored those files are no longer available. Museums keep things in hard copy for good reason.
One of my favorite parts of visiting my grandmother is looking through her photographs. She displays many in her home and keeps even more in albums. It seems she remembers every little story associated with those photographs, and she is a tremendous resource for our family's history. I don't remember all the stories she tells, and I certainly don't tell them like she does.
I am on a mission to build bridges to history so families can cross to the other side together, any time they choose. These stories are important, and they are almost gone.
I see a lot of incredible moments of the human experience while being with families in love and grief. From each family I learn, and those lessons and points to ponder are what I wish to share with you here.