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Not every shoot I’ve done is full of lollipop promises, cute matching (but not too matching) outfits, and happy families throwing their kids up into a perfect blue sky with puffy cloud dreams. In fact, typically the ones that didn’t, are among the most important pictures I have ever taken. The ones that there are no road maps for, no instructions, and no cheat sheets. Several years ago I photographed a beautiful wedding of a young couple deeply in love on a perfect July day. I shot the wedding, went home, and put those images at the bottom of my “waiting to be edited” stack. Which is where they stayed until I got a random call that the groom, a police officer, had gone missing in an attempt to save a young girl who had almost drowned in a fast moving river. For three days rescue teams searched for him, until they found his body a day shy of his and his new bride’s first month anniversary.
I Googled everything I could think of in an attempt to edit the images, perfectly and quickly with poise and professionalism, as I knew that they would now would hold a gravity beyond what I could have ever imagined when I shot them. I found nothing—no road map, no instructions, no guide for this massive task I had ahead of me. Instead I holed up in my office for a weekend with a bottle of scotch and a case of tissues, emerging in time for them to be delivered to his bride at his memorial service. Those images are now locked in a vault of sorts for me professionally, and I can only hope that by now they perhaps bring an amazing and strong woman great comfort and lovely memories of a beautiful day in her life.
Photography is a very powerful thing. And having the ability to do it is an incredible gift. Not all tough to photograph events will be dire, but do photography even just as a hobby for long enough and you will find yourself in situation beautiful in it’s complexity and the images you take poignant beyond words.
This is a picture of my dear friend, her son, and her son’s birth mom. It’s out of focus and isn’t properly exposed. The kid is wearing a Captain America costume and was feeling especially “spirited” on this day. It is all of the makings of disaster. Yet it is one of my favorite images and incredibly important to both myself and the people in it. A picture doesn’t have to be technically perfect to be amazing. Sometimes it’s just you being in the right place at the right time, hauling a camera in tow. Sometimes it’s a matter of you being invited to something very special because you have been trusted to document it. What a beautiful responsibility that is. Sometimes it’s not about the where and the how you do it; it’s about that you showed up and did it. The pictures you take may turn out perfect. They may not. Either way, they will be treasured as great gifts.
Every once in a while I get asked to photograph someone (or a pet) who is gravely ill, or a funeral or memorial service. I have never been in a situation personally to want a photographer at something like this, but I am always honored when asked to do something so significant. This is one of those situations where if you have any reservations at all, you should politely decline. It’s a heavy task, one that can only be done with complete focus and presence. The first thing I do if I’ve been asked to photograph something like this is make absolutely certain that the immediate family members are all in agreement in wanting my services and what exactly that means to them. While I have personal guidelines, I want to be sure that what they are wanting works with these, and also something I will be able to do with great compassion. Each time I’ve photographed this type of situation I have come across someone that didn’t feel I should be there or was confused by my presence and camera. My best advice is to reply very simply and quietly: “I was asked to be here today” and move on. Not everyone will understand why a photographer was requested. Often I don’t understand myself. But I know that I am doing something important as part of a healing process for another and that’s reason enough.
Sometimes the occasion is joyful and wonderful and still requiring of great tact and compassion. Homecomings, be them military or adoption or just long awaited, fall into this category. If you have been invited to something like this, take a moment to be a bit proud of yourself. Go on—I’ll wait. This means that you have been asked to be part of a moment so delicate and special that your abilities are obvious and you are trustworthy beyond measure. Your camera may have been your golden ticket in the door, but your skills is what will get the job done. This is one of the few times I stay completely out of the way and ask nothing of anyone. I am there only to document, not set-up moments or force poses and smiles. The event will happen so naturally and beautifully on it’s own that you need only to trust in yourself, stay alert and in the moment, and know that the most intense moments will happen very, very quickly.
In my humble opinion, there is no greater honor than being trusted to photograph someone. Making the honor of being asked to photograph a human coming into this world the highest of the high. If you ever get the chance the witness life start, I highly recommend it. Most of this is going to be common sense, but in this case, don’t shoot for the moon. You are documenting something so special, so amazing, there is no need to force a specific shot. In a perfect world, you’ll be allowed to stand near the mother, at the top of the bed (or similar), lessening the chances of angles that no one will want pictures of, and increasing the chances of being able to stay out of the way. Photographing a birth is one of the only times I truly have to use everything I have to hold it together and do my job. But it turns out you can focus (literally and figuratively) through a layer of tears pretty easily if you need to. Much like birth itself, this is pure adrenaline; nothing to plan, no way of knowing what shots you are going to get. I do like to always ask if there is something special that is hoped for—perhaps the first bath or a picture of the baby getting weighed. Things like that are usually possible and of importance for some. Photographing births is a game of hurry up and wait and only a couple of things are certain: good glass, a high ISO (no one wants a flash here and the room is often dark), and impeccable manners.
These type of images may not end up being part of your portfolio, they may not be technically perfect in any way, but likely to someone they will mean everything.