I’ve been procrastinating writing an about me for my website for too long. I confess, the About Me page has read “Coming soon, stay tuned:)” for months. Why has it taken me so long? Because its something I wanted to be serious about and getting myself to take off my goofball hat and get down to brass tacks can be a real challenge. For those of you who know me well as the goofy, lighthearted girl I am, forgive me for breaking it down and getting serious for a moment. I promise to return you to your regular scheduled programming soon enough. I was blessed with a way with words, but I’d rather use that talent to make a person laugh than make them feel introspective. I hope the words I write here do both.
This is more than an about me. It’s a mission statement. It‘s a love letter to my clients (past and future). It’s a statement of purpose. It’s a thesis. It’s a history. It’s an explanation of why I do what I do, why I bear witness.
I want to answer the questions I’m asked so often about how I got started doing this and also the questions I don’t get asked often enough about WHY I do this. I fell into this career by accident. I started attending the University of Michigan with every intention of coming out a psychologist who either worked in private practice or worked addressing the intersections of homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse through research and comprehensive housing shelters. I realize this doesn’t sound like the most exciting career, but it was exciting to me. What it didn’t, do, however, was force me to live in the moment. It didn’t make me feel alive. Being behind a camera did that. For that reason, I’m glad this career fell into my lap, and, for the time being, I’ll leave saving the world to someone else.
The first pictures I took were at age 12. They were poorly composed pictures of trees and rocks and leaves that I took with a camera I had won for selling the most summer sausage in a school fundraiser. I’m not actually sure if it was summer sausage, but it was something stupid and fundraiser-y like that. I took these photos and I pasted them into a book with, what I thought at the time, were beautiful poetic words about the beauty they showed. My sister found it and teased me about it. I kept taking the pictures, but I listened to her chastisements and left the words behind. She doesn’t know it, but her teasing set me free and made me work harder. I couldn’t rely on my cheesy words anymore. I needed to say what I wanted to say with the photographs themselves. She pushed the middle school me to be better, I’ve never told her this, but knowing her, she’ll read this and smile. Thank you Stacey. You were the first step in making me what I am today.
High school came. I continued taking photos with that crappy fundraiser camera. This time, snaps of my friends and little things I found important. These photos are all filed away in drawers somewhere. I find them every now and then and smile. I look at my 15-year-old self: The pony tail, the lack of any care about anything fashion wise, the absence of a single dress in her closet, and the crappy fundraiser camera. I love that girl. I love that she is a part of my story. Would that girl recognize who she was to become in 9 years? I’m writing this at age 24. I’m wearing a skirt from anthropologie, chartreuse tights, a push up bra, and my bangs are perfectly coiffed. I’m so far from her in some ways, but I still see her. She’s in here. She’s the one telling me “Who cares what they say or think or do? You are who you are. You are who you are. You are who you are and don’t ever forget it.” Thanks 15-year-old me. I need to hear that every now and then.
High school was full of highs and lows, heartache and unsurpassable joy. I lost a close friend to a tragic death my freshman year, my heart broke for the first time., I also fell in love for the first time. I was shaped. I was forged. I was made. I won “Most Changed Since 9th Grade” at prom, and you know what? They were right. I was changed, but not in the way my peers thought I was. They saw the outward transformation from the girl with the pony tail to the girl who shopped at express, from the girl who was quiet and kept to herself to the girl who starred in the musical and sat with the cool kids and was nominated for homecoming court for Christ’s sake (thank God I didn’t win. My family would have never let me live that down). What they didn’t see was the girl who was changing on the inside. Or maybe they did? Maybe I’m not giving them enough credit? I’ll have to ask them all at the 10 year reunion.
One Christmas, during high school, I received a digital camera from my Dad and Stepmom. Thanks Dad and Liz. You were the second step. I think they realized they were spending enough money at drug store photo labs developing the film I took with that crappy fundraiser camera that it would be a better investment to buy me a digital. They were right. I took that camera with me everywhere. It came to two NYC field trips with me. It came to watch countless local bands perform with me. It took photos that, to this day, can make me laugh, can transport me, and can make me both miss and feel closer to the people I left behind when I moved to Michigan. Before I knew it, I was that girl: the one with the camera, the one bands would message on myspace to ask to use my photos on their pages. I was that girl, the one that bears witness.
When I was 18, I bought my first digital SLR. These were humble beginnings, a Nikon d50 (6 years later and Nikon and I are still keeping it hot and heavy, albeit, the numbers after the D have gotten bigger). At that point, I had started to date the man I am going to marry. I love that he was with me that day. I love him. I remember, as Mike and I pulled out of that Best Buy, I was ripping at the packaging. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t have the best memory (maybe that’s one of the reasons why I do what I do). These memories, the memories of ripping at that package, are some of the most vivid I have. I remember the way Mike’s old Toyota Camry smelled. I remember what jacket he was wearing. I remember that the sky was blue with puffy white clouds spaced perfectly. I was wearing a yellow t-shirt from American Eagle, a purple hoodie from H&M, and jeans (this was before my affinity for dresses). Once I had it freed from its cardboard prison I made Mike pull over. We were somewhere in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. I snapped a few photos of him, and then, to my almost instant heartbreak, the battery died. To this day, I find it a cruel trick that they don’t package those batteries fully charged. One day, I’m going to send an angry letter to Nikon about it. Not today though, today I’m writing this. We got back to my Aunt’s house. I plugged in the charger and waited for the blinking light to bring my battery back to life. Thank you battery charger. You were the third step.
A few weeks later, I was attending a festival in Port Huron called boat night with some friends. It basically serves to celebrate sailing (which I don’t do) and drinking booze (which I also don’t do). I brought my camera, though. There would be a carnival. I could make pictures at that carnival. The lights, the colors, the laughter; I wanted to record them. At some point in the night, an older gentleman asked me if I was a photographer. Shit. Was I? I didn’t know what to say. I don’t even remember what I said. But next thing I knew he was telling me his daughter was getting married in a couple of weeks and they needed a photographer and asking me to take the pictures. Holy Hell. I was saying yes. This was happening. This shit was getting real. That was the first wedding I ever shot. I’d be embarrassed to show you the pictures today, but at the time, I was proud of them and my bride was ecstatic. Whenever people, most of them aspiring photographers, ask me how I got my first wedding, I’m honest with them. It fell in my lap. It was like a little nudge from the Creator saying, “Go this way.” Every wedding after that, I got through sweat, and tears, and frustration, and disappointment, and elation, and hard work, and practice, and practice, and practice.
I have borne witness to some amazing things in my life, both with my camera and without it. I watched my amazing Grandma Williford fight and survive cancer and a few years, later, I watched my Grandpa do the same. I watched my sister as lady Macbeth in her final year of college. I watched my little sister Grace open her eyes for the first time. I watched my Mom graduate from college. I watched my Dad marry his soul mate. I watched my nephew as he showed me what bravery meant before going into an operating room. I watched my future husband as he opened a box with a ring in it and asked me to marry him, all of these without the camera.
With the camera, I have watched mothers wipe tears away from their eyes. I have watched women transform into brides. I have watched fathers hug their daughters so tightly before giving them away. I have watched a groom hold back tears while reading his vows. I have listened to the liturgy. I have sung songs. I have tried, with every fiber of me, to capture people for who they are. I have tried to do justice to the people who allow me to do what I love to do, to bear witness.
I keep a picture of my father’s mother, my Grandma Betty, on my desk. It’s my favorite picture of her. She’s young, about my age. She’s got a smile a mile wide and her spirit is effervescent. She died when I was in Middle School, my first real brush with loss and grief. The picture was taken by my Great Uncle, a man I never got to meet. Yet I’m so grateful to him. I thank him for taking the picture that reminds me who she was. Because of him, I have never forgotten that one day, a grieving grandchild may hold the photograph I took in their hands. That, my friends, is why I do what I do.