When we think of the most significant, life-changing moments, we usually think of big events (like having a child) or big decisions, (like moving across country for a new job.) But sometimes a life-changing moment can be small and fierce and quiet, and we may not realize just how important that moment was until we look back on it from a distance.
In late 2004, a woman named Sarah hired me to conduct a boudoir photo session for her. (This form of photography requires a great deal of courage and vulnerability on the part of my clients as they express their sensual essence on camera.) But the night before Sarah and I were supposed to have our photo session, I received an email from her.
SUBJECT: I NEED TO ASK YOU SOMETHING
I’m a breast cancer survivor. I’ve had a double mastectomy, and I don’t feel like a woman anymore.
Do you still want to do this?
I’d love to tell you that I didn’t hesitate, but the fact of the matter is, I did hesitate. I stopped and I asked myself…
“Do you still want to do this?”
“Can you still do this?”
Two years prior to this, my mother had a double mastectomy. She did not survive. It’s difficult to describe the jumble of thoughts that poured into my brain at that moment. It was an avalanche of questions that my mind couldn’t make sense of.
But one thought did crystallize. I realized that if I responded and said, “No, I don’t want to do this anymore,” I would have been confirming for Sarah that she was no longer a woman.
I knew that this was not true.
Was my mother any less of a woman from the time of her double mastectomy until the time of her death?
And so I said, “Yes, I will see you tomorrow…”
From the moment I clicked SEND on that email until the moment I knocked on that hotel room door, I was terrified. I wasn’t afraid of Sarah. I was afraid of what she was asking of me. I was afraid because she wasn’t asking me for what I knew I could provide—gorgeous photos. She was asking me for something much larger than that. It was right there in her email…
“…and I don’t feel like a woman anymore. Do you still want to do this?”
She was asking me if I thought I could make her feel whole again.
I sat in my car outside of that hotel just before the session, feeling the weight of that question as time shrank and squeezed around me until there just wasn’t any more of it.
I knocked on the door and went in.
When I raised my camera to my eye and began photographing Sarah, I realized that something magical was happening; I was seeing her—witnessing her—through a new lens.
This was a lens of non-judgment.
This was a lens of deep, deep compassion.
This was the Lens of Love.
When I showed the photos to Sarah, she truly saw herself.
She saw herself as sexy.
She saw herself as whole.
She saw herself as a woman.
I didn’t fully comprehend it at that moment, but I had just found the purpose not simply of my work, but of my life.
To heal. To make whole.
In my mind, the purpose of a photographer is not to “make beautiful” but to reveal the inherent beauty that exists within every person.
Nowadays, I have a sort of ritual that I go through before every photo session. Through a simple meditation, I let go of all expectations connected to the photo session. I trust myself—guided by the divine—to find what has been lost, to witness what has been hidden, and to reveal that inherent beauty. Unknowingly, I had begun developing this routine as I sat in the parking lot wondering how I was going to answer that call for Sarah.
And now—over a decade later—I look back and realize that this is my reason for standing on this planet with a camera in my hand; to witness the survivor, and to share the incredible, healing power of Being Seen.