Embrace emotion. I think we look for emotion in our photos, but I think in the professional world, being emotional is often discouraged, which I think is really unfortunate because on a daily basis, we all experience a range of an emotions. And it's in this vulnerability of sharing these emotions that we truly connect with people. So I think as a photographer, it's important to feel it, but I also feel like it's important to observe it and also to feel it. If I'm not able to feel it, how can I articulate that message to the viewer? And so this is one of the more popular photos I took during my time at the White House. And if you look at this photo, and maybe even forget who they are, for the moment, if you can. And focus on the emotion. Isn't that how we all wanna feel when we're in love? This was at a graduation ceremony in Chicago, and I was in tears behind my camera as I heard Mrs. Obama and the intensity of her heartfelt words as she addressed a class of graduating seniors, and one...
young woman wasn't able to be there 'cause she was an innocent victim of gun violence. And as a mother, this image especially resonates with me. I feel like it's an image of joy, and empowerment, and representative of the special connection between a parent and a child. And I think that's the thing is that our photos create connections. We're hoping that they're a bridge, our photos are a bridge. But we create those connections too. Every time we decide to listen, to want to learn, and sometimes that's putting down your camera and learning from each other and growing together. So in your work, have you ever been in the presence of a moment that was especially emotional or sensitive, maybe a moment where you felt uncomfortable to take the picture? I can share that that's happened to me quite a few times in my career, especially because of the kind of work that I focus on. Sometimes I ask myself, I don't know, should I be taking a picture right now? It feels very private. Or very sad. But those are the moments, especially as a documentarian that's especially important to press the shudder. When you're documenting history, when you're documenting an issue that you wanna bring awareness to, it's important to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. So if we do have that, if we are uncomfortable, how can we soften in that? How can we soften? So for me it was like, I'm really here to do service to this project and this is what I'm, I need to fine strength in my purpose to be able to have the strength to take the picture. One time that was especially sensitive when I was covering Charlie and her, going through the process of her terminal illness, there was a very sensitive moment that I took a photo and I took it and I went outside for a walk and I was like, oh my gosh, I cannot believe that, that I documented such a private and sensitive moment. And then I spoke with Charlie later, and she said, I'm so glad that you had the courage to be in the room when that happened. Thank you. And I was like, (sighs) this wave of knowing that people understand that that's the purpose of you being there. Does anyone wanna share something for this? Yeah, go ahead.
I traveled to Zambia two years ago to document an organization that serves kids with special needs. And they had just that morning, well sorry, one of the services they provide is funerals for kids with special needs because they're often not seen as valued so they don't receive that same respect. And so in the two weeks that I was there it happened to be that one morning one of their clients lost their baby that had down syndrome and they asked, they said, we have our videographer here, can we bring her along to the memorial? And so, I was there, I'd never done this, I don't speak the language, I don't know the culture, but they had asked permission before I came, so I came with my camera and I was recording and we're sitting in their little hut and they're having a conversation with the mom and people are crying and there's this moment, and my camera is on, and I felt like I was taking something from that moment even though it still felt respectful and we had received permission, but then I didn't do anything with it afterwards because it felt very personal and very private but it also felt important. I felt like that was an important moment to capture and to share with people, that everybody has value and everybody should be respected in life and in death, and so I don't know, there's these ethics questions of when do you shoot and when do you put your camera down? And how do you make those decisions in the moment that I find really difficult because I work with a lot of vulnerable populations, generally that that's something that I run into really often. So I don't know how to make those decisions right in the moment--
Well you did.
Or prepare myself mentally to be able to make those quick decisions, I guess.
Well you did in the moment, you did what you felt was right and you documented it. And then in the editing process you decided that you weren't gonna use it, so you decided twice. But if you never shot it the first time, you wouldn't have been able to make the decision and you might have decided later that was essential to raise awareness about this issue, to highlight that, that specific part. So you did, you did it twice. So I think it's trusting those instincts and knowing that the communities that you're working with, they want their stories to be told. But obviously having the sensitivity and the personality to be able to go into those communities and be very respectful and not be shooting 100 pictures. Being very decisive in your moment. That's important too. People feel that. Thank you.
A question came in and I would love to talk a little bit further about this concept of like you said, being intentional with the images in those scenario. The question is from Rebecca. I'm always curious about the art of taking a photo in those scenarios, not intruding on the moment, being as invisible as possible and do you have any tips around that?
Yeah, I'll show a picture later and share a story about how that happened when I was in Liberia. But I guess knowing your intention for being there, being respectful, having that permission to be there, and being decisive. And I think that building your foundation in your craft allows you to do that with more comfort, where you don't have to feel like, at the White House, I didn't shoot as much as I did in my early career because I was more confident in when I needed to shoot. It was very intentional. Sometimes people, younger photographers say, how do I get people to trust me? And I say, be trustworthy. Work on that, work on that. How do I get to the truth? Be honest. How do I get to be in these vulnerable situations and be respectful? It's like well, arrive with the right intention. So I think these are all the very simple answers to being able to be in these spaces.
I have one more to share from Stephen who said, I've interviewed and photographed people about violence in their lives, and the interviews are very emotionally intense and overwhelming, but I almost didn't wanna continue with the photo shoot. He said, but then I realized and remembered that these people were actually there and sharing those moments with me. And so they're willing to be there and doing that, leaning in to make that image.
Yeah, and I think that's important is to know that the stories that we choose to focus on, that it's gonna bring up things in us, too. I know there's a sense of the objective observer but I have feelings, too. So something someone could say, can impact me too. We call this secondhand trauma in some situations. So someone sharing their stories about violence could bring up something that you experienced. And again, like I said, in sharing, being open to sharing, being vulnerable and sharing those actually healing, that's where healing is created. Sometimes by just allowing someone to tell their story, it's not in here anymore, it's out here. And sometimes it's an act of listening or having someone who is interested in hearing that story to allow people to start to find healing. Currently I'm working with my husband on a pilot arts program. We live in Memphis, Tennessee, and we are bringing arts and mindfulness practices into the juvenile detention center. And a lot of these children have experienced trauma in their lives, and by sharing arts practices and mindfulness practices, not only is creativity sparked, but healing starts to happen, too. But being in those spaces can also be traumatic, whether you're going into places of violence or war, and it's really important to care for yourself, too, as the observer, because you're gonna be able to tell a better story, right? 'Cause if you're kinda walled off, you're not feeling. And then your images are not showing, they're not evoking that emotion. So that's my thoughts on that.
One of the jobs that I've had was taking images of babies in the hospital, and one of the things that we were given as a project is to take images of babies that were in the NICU, that their mom was addicted to a substance. And it was a flat fee, it wasn't like the rest of the babies, but it felt like a gift to be able to go in and document something that this might be the only image that the mother had because they may be giving them up for adoption. Depending on the situation, they might be away from that baby. And it just felt like such an honor to do that, to go in and to make a beautiful image in an area that's not so beautiful, and so I think that, and a service where I'm not really making money, but it felt like something that gave back to me so much more than I could have.
And how did you feel that you softened in times of going in, that you knew would be hard? What techniques?
Well the lighting was horrible. So it definitely took a lot of time to really look at the room and find the best angles, and while, when you're taking images in that environment you have so many machines and so many IVs and such, angles are very important, and so it just would take a little extra time. We weren't supposed to spend a lot of time, so a lot of times I went a little further than what I was supposed to, but I was able to document beautiful photos but also have some that showed the IVs, that showed the environment so that they could choose, because a lot of times as photographers, we have to make a decision about what our client wants, and honestly one of the moms picked a completely different photo than I would have ever chosen, but I gave her those options, so I just, I documented it in a way that it was real.
Yeah, thank you so much for sharing that, I think that's a really important point. Thinking, not only are you acting as a photographer but sometimes as an editor, and that's important to know what it is that the client's looking for, whether it's the mother of a child, and giving those options. So thank you.