It's true. When it comes to photographing your family, you are the best photographer.
Photography is more about connection and story than it is about technique. Surely, knowing a thing or 27 about light and camera settings makes a difference. It is far more important, however, to illicit a response from a photograph. It's much more important to be able to lead someone to an emotion.
You can do that better than I because you have intimacy with your family I do not.
I've been teaching and mentoring more than I've been the sole photographer for families, and it feels right. Being able to sit down with a family in the hospital over coffee, tea, and a tray from the cafeteria to talk about how they can tell their stories - their individual stories and their family's story - is a wonderful thing. We talk about basics. We talk about creativity. We talk about storytelling. They create with me alongside them while I encourage and ask questions.
Teaching in this way is more about proposing a concept and exploring different paths rather than saying "this is how to do this."
What I see in these families is confidence. It's respite from worry and fear. It's joy, love, and lightheartedness. It's curiosity.
And when they see what they have created, it's stunning. They make striking images because they have so much to say. Because it's hard to find the words, sometimes it feels like the message or the story isn't worthy.
It's there. All it needs is a way out. It needs a tool. Photography can do that. You can hold a camera and release a shutter.
This image was created by a nine-year-old boy who was an inpatient at the children's hospital. His family had brought several items from home to help his room feel personal. He photographed every little thing he could find. He also photographed the collection of shoes from his parents and siblings. They kept changes of shoes in his room so they could be comfortable when they visited.
What story do you have to tell and when will you begin? I'll have an online course as well as an in-person workshop coming soon to help you document your remarkable, exceptional family.
These are the last cookies my grandmother made.
She always had a container of cookies in her freezer. Always. In college I would visit her once a month or so and one of the first things she did was pull out cookies from the freezer. Then she wanted to fix a plate of food and start my laundry.
I remember making cookies with her in her galley kitchen, standing on a stepstool to reach the counter.
Every occasion had a cookie to match. The really special occasions also included pie. This container held so many dozens of cookies in the freezer over the years.
Last week, my mother and one of my aunts pulled this container out of the freezer for the last time. The cookies sat on the counter, next to the small bag of peanut butter cups that became the last "food" my grandmother could stand to eat.
Her legacy is so much more than cookies. Oh, she was a strong woman. She was thoughtful and forthright. Gentle and firm. Gracious. Supportive. A miracle worker with plants.
She was the keystone. She didn't want to be the center of anything, and yet she was the center of everything in her quiet way. The kitchen was the center of her home. How appropriate that this humble container of cookies would move me.
Family gathered here for birthdays, anniversaries, and just because. They spilled out onto the covered porch, children running in and out while adults shared stories over beer. There were cookies every time. Cookies and Grandma.
This kitchen, this container, this countertop, and these cookies contain so many memories of her. I'm so glad I get to keep those, no matter where I am.
Yes, you read that right.
It struck me when I was in the shower, that sacred thinking time when enlightenment visits. As I rinsed my hair I recalled the many conversations I had with others about my short career in professional wrestling. Most of them involved the other person assuredly telling me that professional wrestling wasn’t real and therefore didn’t count.
It didn’t count? On what scorecard?
This may be the time you’d like me to back up and fill in the gaping hole about how a professional wrestler became a grief photographer. That would take a while, so I’ll say that I had the opportunity to do something I’d always wanted to do and believed was out of my reach. I didn’t want to wonder what it would have been like if I had the courage to try. I did it and I loved, and I learned a lot about myself.
I learned, for example, that my Greco Roman (the “real” wrestling in the Olympics and on smelly high school and university mats worldwide) experience didn’t help me as much as I thought it would. I learned that the “fake” wrestling required strength, stamina, partnership, and agility in ways I didn’t anticipate. The outcomes of matches were planned, sure. The punches aren’t like they are in boxing, and yet they aren’t totally benign. Picking up and tossing a person of any size is a big task. Being tossed hurts.
I know that because I've been there. I’ve nursed the injuries.
Grief is a lot like that. The outcome in one case is certain. Both involve grappling. Both require strength and training. Both demand athleticism and flexibility.
It is human to apply the experience we have to what we take in. When someone we love grieves, we apply the grief filter we know. The trouble is that my grief filter and your grief filter are different. Mine may be fake and yours real, or vice versa.
How many times has someone said, “I know how you feel” as a response to your grief? How many times have you been treated to a story about how the other person’s experience was much more severe, mournful, overwhelming, devastating, or whatever else than yours? How many times have you heard that maybe it’s time to move on and get over your loss?
While I don’t want to advocate for being stuck and not asking for, or recognizing the need for, help, I can see how the world sorts grief into Greco Roman and fake (or professional) wrestling. Greco Roman, the real stuff, is what people experience themselves. That’s where we feel like we have experience. That’s where compassion and empathy live.
Professional wrestling is grief other people experience. It’s somehow not as pure or as worthy. It’s not that people question that it is “real” grief; it’s that they are quick to dismiss it when it doesn’t fit within their own experience. They dismiss it if they don’t have the capability to practice empathy or compassion. They don’t understand, and they don’t need to.
I gave up defending my professional wrestling experience as legitimate, demanding work. Anyone who knew me during that time watched me accumulate nasty bruises and put on a lot of muscle; they could see behind the scenes. Those people are the same ones I call on now when I need support during grief. They know my wrestling, my grief, is real.
The people who dismiss my experience right away aren’t people with whom I concern myself. It took many years for me to see that I can’t make anyone see my point of view, nor should I focus on that. My grief is for me, and it’s unique because my attachment and relationship are different.
That fake wrestling adventure was for me, too.
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?
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.