Usually, I think it's a good idea to not mix personal life and business, but I received news yesterday that greatly impacts the foundation of my business. I'd be remiss to not address it in a public way. A month ago, I was working on a personal project to tell the stories of Burmese refugees. A friend, John Sharp, came in and helped with the project, volunteered his time, and laughed with us. I didn't know John very well, but he was a very magnetic and energetic guy. A hard worker with a bright smile. I got the news yesterday that he was in an accident and died.
I sat in the coffee shop where I read the news and I deeply wanted it to NOT be reality. I was sad, then frustrated, then angry, then sad again. A young guy, just graduated college, ready to take on the world - and it's over. Just like that.
Unfortunately, it often takes tragic situations to cause me and you to stop. To stop and breathe and take a minute to evaluate. To evaluate what life is about, to evaluate what is important, to refocus and step outside of the whirlwind of life and look at it for what it is. It's fleeting, it's not guaranteed, it's unpredictable. It's life. But what do I, what do we do with that? How does it change the way that I live? How does it change the way that I do business? How does it change and shape my perspective of what I want my entire life to look like? More than that, how does it shape each second that I live?
As I started to think about John, I came back to the sobering reality that the only thing really worth any value in life is relationships and the people you have them with. As a photographer, I have a huge responsibility - to capture and tell the stories of people and human relationship. That's it. For me, if I die with a Pulitzer photo prize or photo published on the cover Time (though, it would be cool), but don't care about and value people, I would feel like a huge failure.
A few years back, I photographed a wedding in the fall. I always try to capture the joyful guests that attend weddings and think it's great for couples to have photos of their friends and family that attend. When I received an email from that client that her best friend had tragically passed away and the photo that I took of them together was the last, I was truly honored. She said that I captured her late friend's personality and joy so perfectly. It took me days to respond to that email.
Last February I was in Swaziland. I've been there several times and developed some significant friendships there. It's starting to feel like home. One of my good friends that lives there informed me that his mother had been sick with HIV for a number of years and asked that we go and visit her. I'd met her before. She had those eyes that you look into and can only begin to imagine the life that she's seen and taken in. The sort of eyes that are kind and communicate compassion. She didn't even say anything. A few weeks after I saw her, HIV/AIDS took her life. The photos and images that I took of her are something that my friend and I will hold on to. They are the memories, of a relationship so valuable, that it can never have a price tag attached to it. Experiences like that continue to shape me as an artist and change my approach.
Earlier this year, my good friend Nick lost his father to cancer. When I went to the memorial service, the main photos displayed were from a family portrait session I had done before he died. They were invaluable because they were the paper and ink that captured the most important thing to the family - their relationship to each other and the person they loved and will always miss.
I really like old people. The super old people. When I was 12, my mom worked at a nursing home and I used to go to work with her for the entire shift and hang out with the old folks. Not too typical for a 12-year-old girl who probably should have been calling boys and putting on make up. But I remember this old lady named Bessie Reel. She was 104 and the oldest person I knew. I remember sitting for hours and talking to her. Though she was old, she was sharp. I remember one day asking her what she regretted about life. She told me three things: That she didn't love more, that she didn't risk more, and that she didn't soak up every moment. Those things stuck with me. It was then that I promised myself that I refuse to spend an ounce of energy in my life chasing the mirages of what life is 'supposed' to be like and chase what I know is real and fulfilling.
So. I'm going to have to get on a soapbox for a minute. Life is way too precious and too short to chase after things that don't have value. Things that, in the end, won't fulfill the human soul. Marketing and Hollywood have done a great job lying to us and simulating value. Telling us that we have to have this type of house, this type of car, this type of hair, this type of job, go to this school, have ______ to be fulfilled. Then one's whole life is wasted chasing those things, only to find out it's a mirage - sort of like capturing a rainbow. The rainbow can't be captured. One can chase after it, but not get to it. Some of the saddest people I've ever met are the closest to 'capturing the rainbow'.
We live in a culture that doesn't slow down. That doesn't meditate, that doesn't evaluate, that doesn't create space for us to get to know ourselves and understand the deepest desires of the human heart. Our culture doesn't naturally lend itself to constructing an approach towards life that leads to fulfillment and value rather than compelling us to chase rainbows.
Let's not live lives that we will regret. Let's vow to not chase mirages of things that don't have value. Thank you John for your beautiful life and the beautiful reminder of what's real and what's a vapor that can't be captured.