I’m going through all my photos trying to figure out what the heck to do with them, thousands of images. We all have so many images! Remember the days when you sent your film out in the mail and waited a week and the photos would come back and maybe two or three out of twenty-four didn’t suck?
I think the first camera I ever had in my hands was my dad’s. It must have been. I remember owning a small instamatic, I think they were called, and you would attach a flash cube and that freaking bulb would blind the hell out of everyone in firing range when it went off. You threw that thing, that fried, melted cube, right in the trash and started all over again with a new one. Then came the cameras with the built-in flash. The Polaroid arrived sometime before I went to college because I remember having one there with me. I learned how to use a darkroom … when I was teaching at Emma Willard, maybe. But my love affair with photography had begun many years earlier, the day I stepped into George Bolster’s studio in Saratoga to have my high school senior portrait taken.
When my brother came back from his two years in the Army, in the late 80s, he brought a big, beautiful and lightening-fast camera. It was a game changer and I borrowed it a lot; he was very patient and generous with me. And it was probably 2001 when Richard gave me a DSLR for Christmas. I took a workshop with Me Ra Koh in Tacoma, Washington a year later. I have no idea why I needed to go all the way to Tacoma to learn how to use my camera, but it was lots of fun and I came away no longer afraid to fiddle with the manual settings. I learned how to really use the thing.
I took pictures of kids and I took pictures of families. I had no idea what I was doing, but people hired me to capture their family for holiday cards, for framing, for Granny. I took lots of photos everywhere we went back then: New Mexico, California, Miami, Mustique, Bequia, New York City (not long after 9/11 I photographed the crowds there staring up in disbelief), Anguilla, Martha’s Vineyard. My camera went everywhere with me.
Along the way I fell in love with the work of the greats who came before me: Senaca Ray Stoddard, Dorothea Lang, Vivian Maier, Bill Cunningham, Diane Arbus, and those still alive: Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman. I went to museums and galleries to see their work any chance I had. I’ve always been drawn to the ones who have photographed people on the streets and in their living rooms, regular everyday moments. People who aren’t afraid to record our decay, our sorrow, the exquisite strangeness of the human condition.
I have never been much of one for Photoshop or heavy filtration. I believe that good photography captures life just as it is. That, to me, is the work and the reason why we use a camera at all: to record what happened and to share the truth of who we are as people.
At times I worried that I was missing out on actual life because I was photographing everything. Which maybe I was, but I think once you develop a photographer’s eye it’s hard to not look at the world that way. You see pictures all the time, you see light, you see moments.
I photographed weddings, which was a huge mistake, for lots of reasons. It made me hate photography. It made me hate weddings. So I drew back and took pictures of only the things I loved. That was the right thing to do. I remember once talking with my friend, Standing Deer, a Tiwa Indian, in Taos. He told me to “shoot from the heart,” which has made all the difference. It seems obvious but it wasn’t then.
Shoot from the heart.
Life took me on a wild ride away from my camera for a time. At one point I divested myself of all of my photography equipment; I wanted a break from the whole thing; my eyesight was getting really shitty and taking pictures became really frustrating.
As with most things we love with any true depth and meaning in this life, photography eventually came back around; I knew it would. I found a camera I wanted to try—a terrific little Sony, so I played with that for a while. Then I came to know two really beautiful and creative souls, Carolinne and Dylan Griffin. Dylan is a hugely talented professional photographer, using our old Abel & Lovely space in Charlotte as his studio and one day I asked him if he had any old rigs he wanted to sell. He did: a Nikon, which I bought and then added a lens. And there it all was again. Home.
Photography is different for me now, though. I use my camera as a way to introduce myself to strangers, and I am resigned to documenting, as much as I can, the honest circumstances of peoples’ lives and this world. As luck would have it, or fate or karma, late last year my friend Jean, who does a lot of volunteer humanitarian work as a doctor, asked me if I’d be interested in doing some photography for the organization she supports. Thus my great loves of photography and crisis response work begin to converge.
At the end of the month I go for training in Kansas City and then I can be deployed when they need me, anywhere in the world, to take pictures and write stories. This may actually be the dream I had for myself when I was the editor of my high school newspaper: to move toward some of the most difficult circumstances of this world and to record the truth. I am nothing in this life if not someone who will continue to try to bring your focus back to the places where your help is needed.
So this is why I’m going through my photos—to get organized and make room for the new ones coming soon.
While I was looking through the images I noticed all of these shots of me holding or hugging, loving people I have loved and do love and I realized how lucky I am, to have this life filled with all these beautiful souls. I absolutely love all the touching. This is what photography does: it holds us up, it shows us who we are in this world and in relation to others. It keeps for us a moment we might otherwise forget. I noticed how happy I look in these pictures; I noticed what a beautiful cross-section of humanity I have in my little tribe. And, too, I noticed how my hair quite frequently is a disaster.
Amen to all of it.