Resilience and the Appreciation of Slow Photography
In The Slow Approach, we share individual perspectives on what it means to slow down, and how doing so can have a positive effect on our experiences as well as the images we capture.
I always struggle to respond coherently when people ask: “when did you first realize you wanted to become a photographer?” I struggle equally when people ask me the same question about architecture. Unlike a lot of folks, I didn’t envision either pursuit in my youth; both came about by natural progression, born of a lonely childhood, intertwined in a journey of seeking order out of chaos, making sense of turmoil, creating art that soothed my soul, and a search for neat categorization.
Within that lonely childhood, one of the brightest lights was my aunt, a guiding beacon in my young life and into adulthood, who I loved as my own mother. Sadly, the steady decline of her health increasingly prohibited her from venturing out into the natural world she so loved, the same chaotic world I was only beginning to make sense of through my increasing commitment to photography. She longed to see twinkling stars, blooming flowers, majestic mountains, running streams, and vast oceans; all I could do was offer her my images, through text message, through email, and eventually, through social media. Through this exchange though, I began to realize how powerful images of nature could be to someone with little mobility or freedom, to someone living in a vessel of discomfort and declining health.
That realization led to a framework, a guiding principle to my photography, and I began creating images for healthcare settings: acute care hospitals, clinics, senior care facilities, infusion centers, and psychiatric facilities. I immersed myself in learning about evidence based design principles in nature photography, to capture images specific to healing, comfort, positive distraction, hope, and renewal. Photography had progressed from a hobby to a calling with a higher purpose. At that time, I couldn’t have been any happier, achieving some level of fulfillment through my work.
It wasn’t long after the sad loss of my aunt, that I realized I was overdue for a routine health screening myself – being surrounded by cutesy pink ribbons as we all are each October during Breast Cancer Awareness month. What I expected to be an unremarkable, routine mammogram, revealed the presence of an early stage, yet aggressive form of breast cancer, just days after my 46thbirthday. It’s difficult to describe the upheaval a cancer diagnosis has, not just for the patient, but also for their family, friends, and loved ones. After the initial shock, I was more concerned about the care others were giving me than I was for myself; I felt particularly horrible putting my significant other in a position to be my primary caretaker. I thought I had cultivated some control over life’s chaos, so the slowly dawning realization that I hadn’t, was a tough pill to swallow. I can only describe it like walking to the edge of a diving board, and having to conjure the courage to surrender and just dive into the unknown.
It wasn’t until several weeks after my diagnosis, arriving at an appointment for genetic testing and counseling (again, my quest to seek answers and order from chaos!), that I saw one of my images hanging in the wall of the waiting room. I was literally smacked over the head with the laughable irony of the situation: the healthcare photographer becomes the patient. I couldn’t help but laugh at my own ego! But maybe it was also a sign that all would eventually be okay. I smiled, shook my head at my previously unrealized high opinion of myself, and walked into my appointment (only to come away with the realization that this diagnosis was a random role of the dice).
Like countless others, I went through a trifecta of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Like countless others, I was literally knocked on my ass from a weakness and fatigue I’ve never experienced. It was at that low point, when I was too exhausted to get out of bed, take a car ride or even a short walk, that I truly began to appreciate my health and my ability to get out and take photographs. Lying in bed, I began visualizing compositions and scenes I hoped to someday get. In that downtime, I found the motivation I needed to commit fully to my health and get out in nature again.
It wasn’t until writing this article, and reviewing my Lightroom catalog from that time, that I realized the very last shot I took before my diagnosis was a sunrise image of Hot Creek Geological Site, in the Owens River Valley, during a fall color road trip through the eastern Sierra Nevada. Months later, lying in bed, I visualized the same scene, only this time of a snow-capped Sierra, with steam rising from the geologically active, 200-degree Mammoth River, a scene not possible to capture in California’s typically dry autumn. I began to fixate on capturing that image, and gave me something positive to focus on. The following spring, a light dusting of snow still on the mountains, my boyfriend and I were finally able to spend a weekend in Bishop. On our drive back home through Mammoth Lakes, the sunrise lent a pink glow to the snowcapped peaks as the steam rose from the magma-heated river, and the moon set behind the peaks. Though sick and weak, after a short walk from the car to a scene of wild beauty, I felt reinvigorated.
There are so many silver linings to that period of adversity: one of which was the warmth of response and support I received from the local photography community. An unfortunate, but not uncommon, side effect of going through treatment is being “ghosted” by friends and even family members. In my case though, support and new friendships emerged from like-minded photographers, some of whom had endured similar health issues.
After cancer, you are never the same. You never go back to being the exact same person you were before. Your body is radically different, your psyche is radically different, and you have a profound awareness of your own mortality - a constant, lingering fear of recurrence that ebbs and flows in your consciousness. But I’ve also found a tremendous sense of gratitude, for my health, for my mobility, and for my ability to capture images that celebrate nature and wellness - two elements at the core of my photographic journey. Being forced to slow down during this brief period of infirmity helped me to appreciate small details, caused me to “see” more and “look” less, all through a lens of deeper empathy and inspiration. It wasn’t until I undertook a slow approach that I truly began to connect with my audience on a deeper level and to appreciate my own resilience, and the incredible resilience of those around me. I’m fortunate to have a second chance at continual improvement and learning, as the journey of improving your compositional and technical skills never ends. And my boyfriend who was my caretaker? We got married atop Glacier Point in Yosemite overlooking Half Dome this past autumn, and continue to venture out with our cameras in nature, together seeking beauty.