Truth be told I did not choose photography as a vocation because I saw a lot of value in photographs. Although Ben and I have many portraits of ourselves as children, we have not invested in the same for our own kids. Even in a world where affordable mini sessions abound, we still chose not to spend our money on photographs. I did choose to take up photography after randomly watching a few classes taught by women who use their skill behind the camera to empower other women. The opportunity to help my fellow woman appealed to me immensely. But I digress. That’s a post for another time.
I write this post to share my recent experience with loss, and how it has taught me, through painful regret, the true impact of photographs.
A little over a week ago my 87 year old grandmother passed away. She is the first loved one I have ever lost. During her brief downward spiral, I felt awful that I live too far away (100 miles) to support my own mother as she took my grandmother into her home and cared for her every need. Desperate to be helpful in some way, I proposed the idea of a slideshow for her memorial service. On our last visit to say goodbye, I drove to my grandmother’s house and collected every photo album I could find, a lifetime of memories. As I poured over the images she’d collected over the decades, I saw her in a new way. The strength, perseverance, and tribulation of a single mother of nine children were made new to me. As a mother I am in awe of her tenacity and work ethic.
I was very proud to be able to include in the slideshow a portrait I took just a few months prior. Ben and I drove down one Sunday afternoon to take pictures of my mom, my aunt, and my grandmother so I could practice posing groups (and of course to create some great keepsake images, since Grandmama was in fact 87).
I love the images we captured. I know my mother and aunt will treasure them, and they were proudly displayed in Grandmama's house when I went to gather the photo albums. I quickly realized that I never stepped in front of the camera the day we took these portraits. I’m there for lighting tests at the beginning (I didn’t even look horrible. I think I dried my hair that day, so there were no excuses). But I never took a picture with my grandmother. I even remember someone encouraging me, "Lauren, why don't you get in this shot too?" My kids were also there, and I missed the opportunity to photograph them with her. None of this occurred to me until I went back through the images from that day. Now she is gone. The only picture I have is a blurry iPhone photo of me in a raincoat, choking back the tears and kneeling beside her wheelchair just days before she died. The sting of regret is intense.
Tears have streamed down my face as I heard other photographers tell heartbreaking stories of loss from clients. The most difficult story was an email from a mother who almost booked a portrait session for her daughter’s 21st birthday, but recoiled upon receiving the prices, and chose another, less expensive gift. A year later the mother contacted the photographer to say that her daughter was recently killed in a car accident. All this mother was left with were drunken photos from the daughter’s college years. I sobbed as I read this woman’s apology to the photographer for failure to see the value in her portraits. She concluded by saying she would give every penny she had for beautiful portraits of her daughter, but it was of course too late. She told the photographer never to underestimate her value, and that a price could not be put on memories.
Now you may think I am writing all of this to drum up business, but I read that story as a mother, and I experienced the death of my grandmother as a granddaughter who has never lost anyone. After wrestling with my own feelings about existing in photographs, and fully realizing that at some (often unknown) point there will be no more opportunities to photograph or be photographed with someone you love, I have a much greater sense of meaning and purpose about what I do. Time stands still in photographs. They are the best way to remember someone. I don’t just do my best to help women see their true inner and outer beauty. I create portraits that are timeless, that will be passed down to future generations and hopefully, will be used to remember and cherish a life.
I am heartbroken that I can’t drive to Charleston tomorrow and take a picture with my grandmother, but I can channel my sadness into a beautiful portrait of myself with my own children and my mother. Life is short. Make memories. Exist in photographs.
In loving memory of my awesome grandmother, who always proudly won the Mother's Day prize at church for having the most children, and who always loved "makin' pictures". 1928-2015