I discovered photography around four years ago…or perhaps it is photography that found me.
It all started with some very severe sleep deprivation. Some might even say I was delirious at the time. I’d recently had my fourth baby, and to say he didn’t like to sleep is an understatement. Not. A. Wink. It was sheer torture, day after day, month after month, and it seemed endless. But it was during this bleary-eyed haziness that I felt something explode inside of me. I remember it so clearly, almost tangibly (and believe me, I do not remember much from that time). Creativity started pouring out of me, like lava from a volcano. I began painting and making collages, almost manically. Silly little works to me, as I certainly did not perceive myself as an artist. Creating something – anything – gave the sleeplessness some worthy purpose.
As a child I’d been very creative, enjoying reading, writing and painting. I longed to study fine art after high school, but my art teacher laughed at me and said I was more suited to studying psychology. I was mortified, deeply embarrassed. I’ll never forget the humiliation. How could I have got it so wrong? How could I have dared to imagine that I could be an artist? I decided to study literature at University (I took some psychology classes too – ha!). I went on to work as a children’s book editor, a job I loved. I thought I’d found my calling, helping others tell their stories, working behind the scenes.
All along, though, there were stories that I needed to tell too. On a whim during this sleep-deprived-but-creative phase, I found myself buying a used DSLR – a Canon 30D. Looking back now, I don’t really know why I did this, but I can only guess it was another effort to save myself from the sinking ship I was on. I started researching like crazy, learning everything I could about photography. I enrolled in online courses, watched tutorial after tutorial till all hours of the night. I was utterly exhausted, but at the same time completely energised by this newfound obsession. Making images – expressing myself in a visual way – made me feel alive. It was like being reunited with a long-lost friend.
At first I was simply documenting our family life. I was happy just to be able to capture light, to produce an image that matched what I envisaged in my mind. But soon I began to get a niggling feeling that producing a “pretty picture” wasn’t quite enough. There had to be something more. I started reading about contemplative photography as a way of producing more meaningful images. This mindful approach really struck a chord with me and I began to put some of its techniques into practice.
One day, about two years into my photography journey (and sleeping much better by now!), I made a startling discovery. I was browsing my Lightroom library, when it suddenly hit me. Images jumped out at me, like embers from a fire. I was shocked to see that what I was really photographing was not just my children – it was me. I could see my own childhood, my own pain, my own emotions in the images. I could see how my creativity had been buried beneath my insecurities and, dare I say it, shame. At first this revelation was somewhat disturbing. It was a bit like being given a new pair of glasses, looking in the mirror and suddenly seeing all the ugly imperfections that you never knew were there. I remember at one point thinking I might not be able to pick up a camera again – it was too painful to face myself in that way. I could hear that old storyline echoing in my mind – “you’re not cut out for this”. But despite myself, I started feeling incredible healing taking place.
Since that moment, I’ve looked at photography in a completely different way. I’ve stopped striving to “take” good photos; rather I feel excited to see what images I will be given. My images have taken on a new meaning. They continue to tell me stories about myself, revealing secrets I didn’t even know I was keeping. Often it’s in the little in-between moments, in the photos I would otherwise reject as “mistakes”. Other times it’s in the gems. Furthermore, an image may reveal something to me today, and months later it may reveal something new. It’s almost as if each image has an endless number of stories in it.
These days I photograph with a Canon 5D and an iPhone 6. Since joining Instagram a few months ago, I have been moved and inspired to find a whole community of people courageously sharing their stories with me. In the process, I have been encouraged to learn that others find meaning in my images too. This has been a most rewarding and humbling experience.
Dorothea Lange once said, “A photographer’s files are, in a sense, his autobiography”, and I don’t think she was necessarily referring to documentary photography, which was her genre. I think there are stories being revealed in all photographers’ work. I encourage you to look more closely at yours. You never know what secrets you will find.