I’ve been taking pictures since Polaroids were a thing.
The whole “Smile! Flash! Shake!” was a pivotal part of my childhood, as I’d set up neighborhood “photo booths” charging kids a quarter for a “Glamour Shot” (in my defense, I had an impressive collection of Disney Princess inspired boas). Eventually, my early photographic style evolved into one that could be classified as more “photojournalistic”; however, that’s not how my neighbors saw it when I climbed over their fence and “documented” their family BBQ from the bushes.
In high school, I had the opportunity to take a few photography classes, but we amateur photographers were still processing film, as the digital option were priced well above my “after school job” budget. Taking photos got real expensive, real quick, so I had to limit the hobby to special occasions, shooting film only a few times a year.
College rolled around and I discussed pursuing a career in photojournalism; however, such pursuits were met with immense criticism by my school advisers, citing low earnings and poor job outlook (what wasn’t in the middle of the Great Recession?). Unfortunately, I listened to them, and pursued a more “responsible” career path – science and business – rationalizing that we all can’t be Ansel Adams, right?
The next few years were all kind of a blur, courtesy of the Global War on Terror. My passion for photography was pushed to the side, as wartime military life turned my family upside down. Deployments, casualties, and the postwar hell the military dismissively terms “reintegration”, left little room for hobbies or passions or even work. The time of my life that was supposed to be characterized by new life and naïve optimism was rudely rattled with military funerals and suicide bombers. As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, the majority of my twenties were spent staring a yet another VA hospital waiting room wall, or filing appeal after appeal into the military’s archaic medical retirement system. In summation, life wasn’t “happy”, and I found myself in a very dark, depressive place.
During a period of immense loss – loss of my home, my job, and most devastational, the loss of several loved ones – I knew something had to change. Sitting under an ancient oak at FT Leavenworth National Cemetery, mourning those lost in the war, I was so moved by the serene scene that was unfolding across the graveyard that I grabbed my phone and took a picture. Was it “good”? Who cares – it was “good” to me, and in that moment, I realized that something beautiful can be found even in a world shadowed by death and destruction.
So, I dusted off my old DSLR, a prewar gift from my husband, and made it a goal to capture one beautiful thing each day. Some days were harder than others (there’s not much “beautiful about the inside of a VA Neurology Wing), but I persisted. My daily capture may not have been more than an adventurous ladybug or a mellow song bird, but I took the pictures all the same. Other days, I’d venture out, going to a garden or park with the intent of photographing spring blossoms or meandering creeks.
Within a few weeks’ time, I had quite the collection of images strewn across the blue quilt in my spare bedroom. Reviewing them, I’d recall the immense pain some days had brought (you rarely get “good news” when it comes to Traumatic Brain Injury) and be amazed at how even in the darkest days, there was something beautiful in my life – a dewy iris, a spunky horse, or a rusty windmill interjected amidst another brilliant Kansas sunset. By taking these photos, even on the days I didn’t want to be here, I was able to gain a new perspective on life and the future. While death and loss have been unfortunate themes throughout my twenties, life and hope are also very present. Like many within the OEF and OIF veteran community, I still have more bad days than I’d like to admit; but thanks to photography, I’m able to change my perspective (or lens) to include something worth living for.