One year ago, today.
We're all on borrowed time here. Regardless of your religious or philosophical beliefs, not one of us, in spite of where or when or to whom we were born, really has any say in the matter about when our time on this planet is going to start much less end. Them's just facts, folks. From time to time, like everyone else, I'm prone to stuffing my head up me arse, though. (Or sticking my head in the sand, if that offends you.) Please bear with me while I explain in the way I know best: with unapologetic verbosity.
About this time (almost to the minute) one year ago, today, I got that phonecall that brought this into my field of view more than my uncle's, my grandfather's, my father's, my grandmother's deaths ever did. After the "death wail" (which you won't know until you've either heard or made it) crept its way up from my toenails and erupted from my mouth, the only words I remember saying were "no no no no no no no no no no no no no no..." and, "You're fucking kidding me." Surrounded by my family, I crumpled on the floor. Elizabeth Stone said, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” So if your heart is walking around outside your body and it suddenly stops living, what happens to you then, Betty smarty pants?
Death is never an easy pill to swallow and I am the first to admit I don't "do death" well. Generally, all I can find the concentration to do is a) bake cookies, b) write, and c) take pictures. In that order. A few days later I will blindly choke down egg salad sandwiches in a crowded church basement or a community hall amidst the chaos and devastation that seems to hit with the same lack of consideration for our busy lives each and every time. This is true, regardless of whether it's an infant, a child, a parent, a grandparent, a friend. Death is rude and ignorant that way.
When it's all said and done, when we've heard the eulogy and the stragglers have reminisced and laughed and cried over the last of the dried-up date squares and dredges of luke-warm coffee that tastes like rocket fuel, we all go home to pick up the pieces of our lives and carry on as best as we can. We each crawl into our own headspace and insulate ourselves as best as we can while we process grief in our own personal hell, whatever that hell looks like for us.
In July of last year I was still unable to find peace, focus, and purpose. I didn't know what to do, so I followed through on a decision that I had subconsciously made in April: to do nothing. Anymore. Literally. I shut myself down, resigned from several projects I had worked on for years, and closed the doors on my photography business. While I admit I can never ever imagine the pain of a parent losing their child, J's death hit close enough to home that I began to question everything I did. What was the point? Why should I care? Who the eff cares what I do or don't do? In the end we all just frickin' die, on some clock we can't see and can't tell time on - the cancer clock, the old age clock, the Alberta "don't like the weather wait a minute" clock - so screw it. I crawled into a pit of self-pity and guilt and felt like the only solution was to drop out.
Which lasted about 5 minutes, after which I proceeded to discover new passion on what it meant to be a woman, undertake a personal project, and eventually realize a decades-old dream. By taking time off and giving me, myself, and I the time and space I needed, I figured out why. This:
I have a few mottos I am teased for repeating ad nauseum while teaching and spreading my "photographilosophy" and every one of them exists in this picture.
"It's not about the camera..." (this picture was shot with a 1970s Pentax K1000 and a 50mm lens I bought at the flea market on 111 ave for $160.)
"Learn to love the blur..." (anyone who has ever tried to take a picture of a kid on swings - or motion of any kind really - will understand without me elaborating any further...)
"Embrace the grain..." (a saying I have unabashedly adopted from an amazing colleague and beautiful momma named Brandi Arndt, but this was ISO 800 film bought specifically because the weather and subsequently the availability of natural light is sketchy in September.)
But the one I really want to talk about is this:
"Pictures are both priceless and invaluable."
This statement, in and of itself, can be taken in any number of ways. I've heard it used to both bash and justify everything from crappy pictures taken by fauxtographers to lucky shots by momtographers to spending 5-figures on wedding photos. At the heart of it is the fact that we are all here on borrowed time and when we are on the front end of a camera, what comes out in those pictures are often part of what we all realize is too small a collection of means left with which we remember those who are no longer with us. Every single picture, from the blurry, grainy iPhone self-portaits to the underexposed pics from the fauxtog to the perfectly lit but completely cheesy school or department store photos to the professionally shot modelling portfolio/wedding/real estate head shot become immediately recognized as both priceless, and invaluable. And from the time I was 8 and had a camera of my own in my possession, I understood this on some fundamental level. My philosophy, without having the words for it, has remained true since childhood: pictures are both priceless, and invaluable.
I recently attended a workshop with what I would call one of the top "rockstar" photographers out there. While there were several useful bits of information, what I took away more than anything else was to agree to disagree and know, right down to my toenails where that primal wail began one year ago today, that I was and am on the right track.
Some might say this picture, despite the beautiful lighting and exposure, is "bad" because of "that" smile. Here's what I have to say about it. This picture is a picture of what happened that day. When we are ourselves unable to take pictures, we eventually discover in spite of their technical imperfections that we love each every picture of our kids, our parents, and our friends, at every weight, in any emotional state, at every stage of their life, doing what they do best: being full of joy and life and LOVE, in all its perfectly imperfect awkward glory, embracing life with complete abandon and responding to our very grown-up demand to smile on command with "that" smile. It's a part of growing up. It's documentation. I'd rather have 10 million blurry, grainy pictures of my kids laughing and making "that" smile (and every other familiar and loved silly face they can muster) than spend the rest of my life trying to create a picture of what they would look like of only they (and you) were magazine ready every moment of their (your) lives. Knowing that the clock ticks on unknowingly behind our backs, I will lay down my own life if anyone dares to dispute that this image doesn't fall under the categories of both priceless, and invaluable. Here's my anthem about it all.
I don't picturePERFECT. I pictureLOVE. As of last weekend I got my camera back on, and I'm ready to shoot people in the all perfectly imperfect, awkward, silly, beautiful glory of their personal love stories. Me and mine are, like you and yours, perfectly imperfect. I swear like a sailor when kids are out of earshot, I lose and gain weight, I change my mind, I suffer from social retardation, I am committed, loyal, and generous to a fault. I make mistakes, I quit, and I start over when I need to. I am Hope Walls. I am not picturePERFECT, but I can pictureLOVE like nobody's business. You OK with me coming off sabbatical? Because after a year off, I sure am. More to come soon. Watch out. I'm back.