When we moved into our new house last year, I pondered what to hang on the walls. Our old photo canvases and prints were still in storage. I thought back on all of our professional family photos and realized that I had also avoided hanging those at our old house; they sat for years in a pile on our bedroom floor. When I looked at those pictures, I always remembered how I’d felt during the shoot, and it felt heavy. I remembered how much Gracie hated the scratchy dress I told her she had to wear, how Donny and I argued on the way there. I saw the antique props that I purchased the day before to look like they had character and stories. But the stories were not ours.
And, over the years as a photographer, with each client session that I photographed, I began to cringe whenever the parents quietly begged their children to behave, and bribes were on hand to help hide away the tears. When the sun finally set, and I said “finished,” it was common that the parents would allow their shoulders to finally relax; the children would kick off their shoes; and that’s when the authentic beauty would shine the brightest. But by then the daylight had already faded, and my camera was put away.
As an artist, it tortured me.
This past year, Donny and I worked through a lot of heavy stuff. In the years leading up to our move, we were going in fast motion, and we didn’t take the time we needed to nurture our marriage. After years of continually feeling exhausted and unfulfilled, we got fed up, sold our home and all of our belongings, traveled the country looking for a place that felt like home, then put down roots on a farm in Washington state. Once we settled into a simpler lifestyle, we found the time we needed to work through our pain. We faced hard truths. We let go of years of bitterness. We learned how to anchor our respect for one another. And we found a wellspring of hope in the midst of our healing.
This growth in my personal life stirred up something in me as an artist.
I had stopped taking pictures of our daily life with my big camera around mid-winter, soon after we moved into our new home, and I didn’t start up again until just recently. Vulnerability takes a serious amount of bravery, and I was afraid. I didn’t want to look back on photos of this time and be reminded of all our pain.
I closed my eyes one night and thought about what I would want my children to remember when looking back on photographs from this time. I saw the photographs all shot as gritty black and whites. They would be super grainy; because I get up early with the little girls, before the sun has a chance to rise; and also because grainy film feels raw and unkempt, exactly how I would describe this current chapter of our life.
Clementine curled up in a ball beside me, her special quilt trailing off the side of the bed and onto the floor. The photo would be taken straight from above, as I sing softly to her trying to soothe her back to sleep.
We’d tiptoe in the darkness towards Mabel’s room, with only a strip of light coming from the bathroom at the end of the hall. Clem would hold my hand, dressed in an oversized t-shirt hanging down over one shoulder, bare feet, and her messy hair backlit just enough for me to see the paint in her bangs from the project we did the night before.
One perfect ringlet curl twisting down at the nape of Mabel’s neck, her face messy from the yogurt that she just pulled out of the fridge. In the dark kitchen, we’d glow by the light of the fridge, accidentally left wide open. Instead of closing it, I would join my girls on the floor and sing. And, sometimes, there would be bittersweet tears. The photos would be dramatic and honest.
When I imagined this, I felt a healing begin within me. It struck me that, perhaps, this kind of photography could also be healing to others.
I saw the potential for so much beauty in a photo session that focused on the pursuit of hope.
When I quiet my mind to take notice of the details in my day, with no other reason except to pursue being grateful, I am always drawn to the bright spots. God speaks to me in the stillness. When I close my mouth to my own discouraging thoughts and take my lens cap off, I allow myself to listen. Sometimes what I hear isn’t what I had hoped for, but that only pushes me harder through the darkness to find the light.
That is what photographs have always been for me: stepping stones out of grief into a place of clarity.
Over the years I have photographed a wide variety of themed photo sessions, and each was a beautiful expression of that current season for myself and for my client. The most enjoyable part for me has always been getting to know the small, unique details about a family to figure out what makes them truly come alive; and then brainstorming how to tell their personal story through photographs in the most creative, authentic way, while doing justice to the beautiful story entrusted to me.
People have asked me, at times, to create fantasy type sessions for them that they have seen on Pinterest or in magazines. In digging deeper, I’ve uncovered a better story in my subjects, one that is authentically their own. It surprises my clients when I tell them the most magical and life-giving stories are happening in the quiet moments of their very own home. Where he proposed to her on the living room floor. Where they opened their wedding presents, and then, years later, where they brought their babies home from the hospital. And where they fold laundry and tell bedtime stories and prepare food to nourish their family. And where they cling to one another at the end of a long day, instead of to someone else’s idea of perfection.
I began to think of when I had felt the most alive in my career as a photographer, and realized it was during the documentation of birth. There is no room for perfection or cleanliness or forced expressions at a birth. There is also no time limit. I am allowed to be present, but I do not intercede. I am a fly on the wall during one of the most intimate, painful and spiritual experiences of another’s life. I ached for that same level of depth in my family portraiture.
Photography is about images but it does not have to be about appearances.
I remembered one of my favorite photographs of my grandma, taken in the mid 1900’s. She was about the age I am now, in her backyard in upstate New York, on a ladder up under her apple tree, with her sunhat and her fruit basket. She was not posed and she was looking straight into the camera with a look of pure contentment. It makes me yearn to have known that side of her. I would have loved to have asked her how she picked the perfect apple. That photograph captured a slice of her spirit that had dimmed a bit by the time I knew her. I searched for a photo that even sensed a bit of that from her later years, but I only found posed images.
When in American history did the idea of glorified perfection in photographs take hold? Photography changed when Kodak introduced the first consumer-friendly camera. Kodak advertisements featured celebrations and joyful events. Their slogans were all an effort to sell photography with happiness; “Kodak knows no dark days”, “Save your happy moments with a Kodak.” In time, these “Kodak moments” became the new American standard for how a pleasing, “happy” photo should look.
The idea of perfection had become more important than honesty.
I did a photo session for a friend that had just been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. My task was to document the last time she would breastfeed her daughter, which occurred the day before she was going to have her head shaven. The baby girl nursed, stroking her mama’s long hair and happily nuzzled into the extra cushy skin that held her, completely safe and comforted. Our time together was heartbreaking, but so very beautiful, because of how we were all truly present in that moment.
The importance of this documentation made my job no longer a job. This was one of those soul-altering moments when I remembered the reason I wanted to pursue photography so many years ago, and why, ultimately, I had been given this gift of wanting to look a little longer for traces of gratitude in everyday life.
I saw my friend again about a year later. I barely recognized her as the chemo treatments had weakened her body so much, but her spirit was strong. She told me,
“Thank you, Joy, for those pictures. I felt so fat that day but I knew it was important that we took them. When I look at them now I see how healthy I was. I see all the beauty.”
Photographs that spread true hope are never contrived. They are the most honest of them all, the ones that take your breath away and make you want to truly live.
So, with that, friends, I urge you to take notice. Notice when life is passing you by and fight to stay present. Fight against fear when it tells you that there isn’t anything worth remembering. Because those days become years; and, before you know it, you’ve missed it. Don’t miss it. Start documenting life in your own home. Don’t worry if there is still laundry on the floor from last week. Soon your babies will outgrow those clothes, and your hands won’t be as full, and when you look back at that photograph you took so many years ago, with little muddy shirts and pants on the floor, you will feel a longing just at the sight of it.
It is worth remembering.
I spent many hours over many months in our garden this summer, and it was good for my soul. When we preserved our food, I found the sweetest jams came from the fruit allowed to ripen on the vine the longest. My sweet pea flowers had their most lovely aroma once fully in bloom. And my brussels sprouts, if picked too soon, were too bitter to taste. It was all about needing enough time to mature.
The season that is unrushed has the most beautiful harvest.
Whether the photo shoot lasts one hour or a whole day, I will always do my best to tell the most authentic story for my subjects. However, I can no longer ignore the whispering from my soul to push beyond the curtain of the golden hour…
I want more time with families.
I want to be in their homes for an entire day and night.
the tangled morning hair
the steam rising from the coffee pot
the frost on the windows
with traces of tiny fingerprints
from months of faces pressed against the glass
I want the messy.
the laundry on the couch
the scribbles on the wall
the height chart at the end of the hall with all the notches
the papers left on the counter
the muddy shoes kicked off by the front door
I want to sit on the dusty floor and listen to the sounds of the home.
the songs coming from the shower
the ice cream truck driving down the street
the humming of the fridge
the patching it all up.
I want to be there at 2am, in the quiet.
peeking in from the hallway
photographing the strip of light that falls
across the daddy rocking his baby in the moonlight,
as he cries and hopes he is doing it all right.
I want to sit at the kitchen table
and see a husband wrap his arms
around his wife’s hips
as she is making dinner at the stove.
I want to photograph
that little glimpse of hope
in the midst of the witching hour
as the toddler is melting down on the kitchen floor.
If there is sadness, I don’t want it hidden.
If there is bliss, I want dancing.
I want togetherness.
More than anything,
I want time
to allow everyone
to get comfortable enough to be honest,
whatever that looks like.
You may feel broken. You may feel imperfect. You may feel like this chapter of your story is not one worth remembering. But it is. The most beautiful chapter of life is the one that does not go unnoticed.
here you will see my documentation of 24 hours in the home of the shearer family. this is the beauty that my heart has been wandering to find.
“You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
– Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
*I will be opening up my schedule in early 2015 to travel for a limited number of these new 24 hour documentary photo sessions. They will be called HARVEST SESSIONS and you can learn more about them by clicking here.