At the end of 2014 I joined a Facebook group for Molly Flanagan’s Visual Storytelling class which I had taken through The Define School. The group is made up of class alumni, photographers, and mostly women, who are exploring a different way to photograph families. At the time I had been heading a more documentary direction for my photographs, recognizing that I got the most joy from playing the role of observer and documentarian in my own family’s life and particularly with my daughter. My favorite photos have always been those won by waiting and watching vs. manipulating a scene. And while I love my daughter’s cheesy grin and thousand-watt smile, I also find that my heart beats a little faster when I pull my photos into my computer and see her lost in a book, sleepy and cozy on the couch, or deep in conversation with her toys, almost unaware of the camera. She doesn’t smile all the time and, since I love her all the times, I love photos that capture those moments too.
So when a group of other students asked if anyone would like to create a group that showcases, on a weekly basis, this exact kind of photography, photography of real, imperfect, sometimes messy, family stories, I jumped at the chance to join.
Sham of the Perfect was born and, I can’t believe it, we have now reached our one year anniversary!
Staying on top of a daily or weekly project has always been hard for me. My brain and life tends to run in a thousand different directions at once and I always seem to find myself at Sunday wondering where the heck the week went. I’m really great at delivering on time for my clients but not so good at keeping to deadlines for personal projects. Having a weekly deadline to post, and a dozen other photographers counting on me to keep my commitment, was just what I needed to stick at it.
And now I have 52 photos of our 2015. A wonderful way to look back on our year.
Hands-down, this next photo is my favorite from the year. I love the perspective, the sense of movement, her hair flying in her face.
What struck me most in putting together this post was how many of these photos from 6,7,8 months ago felt like I took them just yesterday. I found myself frowning at the computer screen, thinking That can’t possibly be 6 months ago… can it? As much as photography freezes time for us, it can also serve as a stark reminder of how quickly that time actually passes.
My next step is going to be pulling these images together into a small book of our year. I’d love to have something tangible to look back on with my daughter and maybe someday her children, to spark conversations and anecdotes about memories of our life right now. I always encourage my clients to do this instead of or in addition to purchasing digital images. I can’t even begin to tell you what a time suck it is to cull and house all the digital images that I have of our family. It really makes me not want to look at them. Conversely, I loved thumbing through albums when I was a child. This year I’m going to do a better job of remembering that and living by those same standards.
I’m out of the right words to say how I feel about finally being able to share this session – and this family – with you.All the usual ones – excited, proud, honored – don’t seem to say it right or enough. So, I’m not going to try. Hopefully these paragraphs will speak for themselves.
The Butler Family won my Our Story competition last August and were chosen by me and my family to receive the complete Our Story experience for free. There were so many deserving stories that you all shared with me and it was hard to pick just one but the Butler’s stood out for so many reasons that will become clear as you watch the above video and read on.
For the last 5 years, Lisa Butler has been battling stage 4, metastatic melanoma. It began when she found a lump in her neck and progressed later to her brain and then her ovaries. (Yes, it’s news to me too that melanoma isn’t just skin cancer.) Her cancer is a-typical and fast-growing, meaning that almost every time that surgeons have gone in to remove tumors, they’ve been too late to stop its spread. Lisa has undergone multiple surgeries, gruelling cancer treatments and even more procedures to deal with the negative impacts on her body that these treatments leave behind. She’s so young, a mother of 3 children, and wife to her teenage sweetheart, Gary. She has a lot of reasons to stick around and she’s fighting hard with admirable grace despite setback after setback.
As if this wasn’t enough, the Butler family deals with Autism in their eldest, Sensory Processing Disorder in their youngest, and Gary (an Iraq war veteran) deals with PTSD after being seriously injured by an IED in combat. To top the list of things that make their life less than easy, the family also has serious gluten, dairy and peanut allergies that they have to work around every day.
And yet, they are some of the most positive, loving, joyful and just “real” people I have ever met. It sounds like a cliche, I know – grace in the face of pain and challenge – but this family live out that reality every day and in every interaction I have had with them. Before I even picked-up a camera, I met them at their home in Roseville and chatted with them for 2 hours, getting to know each of them and their story.
Lisa and Gary say things like “I wouldn’t change anything, not even the cancer, because it has brought us closer together.” And “Because of the cancer, Gary has become a better father and I have learned to enjoy the little, simple moments more.” And you can tell that they mean them with every fiber of their being when they say it. Their laughter is whole-hearted and full-bodied. Lisa, especially, has this amazing chuckle that consumes her whole face and that goes on and on until you have no choice but to join her. As a family, they find humor in even the toughest conversations. Talking about deceased pets and cancer and autism, the tone is positive and interlaced with self-deprecating jokes. I’m certain there are many moments when darker emotions take over but their attitude to the tough stuff is humbling at the least.
Theirs is a love story that began when Gary saw Lisa walking across a deserted church courtyard when he was just 17. He was too shy to talk. She was too shy to even assume his interest. He wrote her poems instead. But even then it took Gary months to pluck up the courage to speak to her and even longer to get a date. But all the time Gary was certain she was the woman he was going to marry. When he asked Lisa’s parents for her hand in marriage, her father agreed but her mother outlined a list of 7 hurdles he had to jump over before she would give her blessing, figuring the young couple would drift apart in the time between. Gary went away in earnest and conquered every single one of them, joining the army to provide financial stability for his bride-to-be, and then returning to claim her hand in marriage finally. It’s truly a beautiful story that I don’t have the time or space to do justice here; this is only a vastly oversimplified snippet. Needless to say, Gary and Lisa are deeply in love in a way that is inspiring to see and experience.
After 6 months of working on their project, I finally got to present their full image gallery and 35 page leather album to them last night. My family and I hosted them at our home and I cooked an allergy-free mea for them while their kids and my little one raced around our back yard. The squeals of joy even caught the attention of some children in the yard behind who were visiting their grandparents, and before we knew it they were climbing over the back fence to join in. My husband and I shook our heads with the absurdity of it all. Our neighborhood is almost always deathly quiet but on this evening it was alive with the sound of children laughing and playing. It reminded me that when you invite love and joy in, it’s contagious.
It was wonderful to be beside Lisa and Gary as they watched an extended version of the above video on my TV set, to see Lisa’s tears of happiness at the moments I captured, and to hear her gratitude for the little details that even I hadn’t realized I’d immortalized but that meant so much to her. Details like her daughter’s messy hair, tangled from her devoted cat Po who sleeps in it every night; her youngest’s precious pillow pressed against his cheek lovingly and the way he wears his shirts with one collar up; and her eldest’s hands, long fingers so interesting, wrapped around the spine of a book. These are the things seen only through a parent’s eyes. To the rest of us they go almost unnoticed or dismissed as accident or commonplace but, to mom and dad, they are the small pieces of each child that add-up to make them each remarkable, beautiful and theirs.
The sad conclusion to the night was a conversation I had with Lisa when she gave me an update on her progress. She’s not been tolerating the most recent treatments well and so they’re changing-up her drugs this coming week. But more worrying is a recent scan that showed 2-3mm nodules in her lungs. They could be from an immune response from the treatment she’s been on, a chest cold, or could be melanoma tumors growing in her lungs. She’ll find out in around 6 weeks when she returns for a follow-up scan. If it is the latter, the prognosis is not good.
Despite her positivity – she refuses to give into worry or anxiety in case it robs her of any quality time she has left – I could sense the weariness underneath the determination, the heaviness that wasn’t there when I met them first last October. She has already been through so much and having to gear-up for another potential fight when the last one has not yet been properly announced as won, is a daunting prospect.
If you would like to follow Lisa’s progress, she has a journal on the Caringbridge.com site. You need to have an account to join but it’s free to sign-up. You can also donate to the Butler family and, if you are financially able, I would love it if you could show your support by doing so. Not only are Lisa’s cancer treatments physically difficult, they force the family to max-out their annual deductible every year, and then there is the strain of trying to manage a family of 5 on one income while one parent is often too sick to participate. To donate, click here.
Finally, I’ll sign off with a last-but-not-least shout-out to singer/songwriter Elizabeth Ann Mall who answered my Craigslist ad for someone to write a love song for my clients for free. Her song, Deep in Love, is the second song on the video and I am so grateful for her time, her generosity and her talent. I love the song and I love that we were able to give Gary and Lisa something truly unique, something inspired-by and for them only. Please visit Elizabeth’s website to learn more about her and/or Like her Facebook page. While you’re there, let her know I sent you. She’s incredibly talented and I’m lucky to have found her: elizabethannemall.com and facebook.com/elizabethannemall
Please watch the above video to see some of the images from our session and to hear Elizabeth’s song. Below are a couple of photos of the leather album I created for the family too.
Thank you for listening and please keep Lisa, Gary and their children in your prayers.
A year ago I photographed my very first Our Story session. Stacy’s story is an emotional tale of infertility, surrogacy, adoption, loss, and perseverance. Unfortunately, due to laws protecting the identity of a child before an adoption is finalized, I have been unable to share it with you until now.
I’m happy to say that that Stacy is now officially the mom of not only one but two beautiful little girls. One of which, Eliana, is adopted and her second daughter born six months later by surrogate.
I share Stacy’s story with her permission here, interspersed with some of my favorite images captured at her home, celebrating the arrival of much-wanted and eagerly-anticipated Eliana.
This post is dedicated to every woman who has ever had to deal with the grief of infertility and miscarriage, including many of my own friends. My wish is that you read about Stacy’s struggle and realize that, at the very least, you are not alone.
The story begins more than 8 years ago now as Stacy was feeling her biological clock tick. She was in a relationship but not one where she envisioned marriage and babies featuring in the future. Even so, her partner agreed to father a child with her and enter into a co-parenting arrangement. She wanted no financial or practical help in the long term, just someone to be the biological father.
Stacy got pregnant right away. “I was over the moon and thought that the sun was shining for the first time,” she recalls. And then, at 9 weeks, she miscarried.
That was just the beginning of a painful road of barriers and obstacles on her journey to motherhood.
There were many more miscarriages and many specialists. During the course of trying to conceive she found out that she had fibroids, elevated lupus antibodies, a clotting disorder, and finally adenomyosis (a uterine disease that necessitated a hysterectomy.) At one point, she calculated that she had spent the majority of three years of her life pregnant, counting all the weeks she was miscarrying and waiting for her hormones to get back to normal.
Feeling at the end of the road in trying to carry her own child, she decided to explore surrogacy, first beginning by finding a traditional surrogate – a pregnancy where the surrogate is also the egg donor and biological mother. They found a woman who was willing to carry Stacy’s child and Stacy’s partner was the sperm donor.
3 days after Stacy’s triumphant baby shower, the surrogate messaged her to say that she was keeping the baby. She then left town and saddled Stacy’s partner with child support.
Although they had a contract, it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to enforce in court and would have taken two or more years to resolve. By then the baby would have already bonded with the surrogate mom. Even if she had the money (which she did not) Stacy didn’t feel it was right to place the baby in the middle of a legal tug-of war.
“Starting back from square one was difficult,” she says.
Stacy decided to finally have her hysterectomy. The removal of her fibroids meant the specialists could view her ovaries more clearly. This gave her the opportunity to undergo two rounds of IVF retrieval, the results of which were 20 fertilized and frozen embryos. (After the legal mess with the traditional surrogate, she was using a sperm bank instead of her former partner at this point.) All of which put her back on the path of surrogacy, this time pursuing gestational surrogacy with her own, frozen embryos.
After finding surrogate number two, she hired a lawyer to produce an iron-right contract, having been burned so badly before. They did three transfers together, the first of which miscarried and the other two did not take. After the third, the surrogate mom’s health deteriorated and Stacy’s doctor recommended they part ways.
Not for the first time, Stacy saw her dreams of motherhood crushed. And she almost gave up, financially and emotionally depleted.
But the universe had another plan. During her break she received a call from a friend who knew someone who was pregnant and considering adoption. Did she want to consider adopting the baby? Adoption wasn’t a road Stacy had explored yet but, at this point, she was open to anything. She involved an agency, financially supported the mom through the pregnancy and then… 3 days before the mom delivered, she backed out.
“I felt so burned!” Stacy recalls. “Both times I had finally felt brave enough to declare names. Both of them were girls and, at the urging of friends, I had shared the names at the baby shower.”
Stacy’s losses only compelled her to keep trying, going back to gestational surrogacy with another woman. At the time when I interviewed her, she had successfully conceived with that new surrogate, who was 12 weeks pregnant.
But the story doesn’t end there.
“Very shortly after I found out that my surrogate was pregnant, I got a call from a different friend of a friend saying that she was pregnant and considering adoption,” she says. “The caveat was that she was already 28 weeks pregnant and had only just realized. I told her that yes, I would take the baby!”
But Stacy wasn’t given as much time to prepare for motherhood as she had thought. The mom was later told she was in fact already 36 weeks along. Stacy went from years of trying with no success, to being a mom with just 3 weeks’ notice.
Baby Eliana was born by C-section with Stacy suited-up and in attendance. “I went from excited to terrified,” she recalls of the time leading up to the birth. “I was so afraid that she was going to change her mind. By the time they wrapped me in the surgical gown and put me in the delivery room with the big, bright lights, I was so stressed out that I was dripping with sweat, shaking and hyperventilating.”
Eliana was delivered safely and Stacy invited to watch as her new daughter was checked-out by the doctors. “The nurses were laughing and proclaiming ‘You’re a mom now!’ and I was just stoic, in shock. Then when they handed her to me, I just started bawling. The flood gates opened. I took her outside and they asked me if I had a name for her. At this point I was uncontrollably crying. I couldn’t say her name because I was so afraid. 8 years of trying, of heartbreak, of wanting, all flooding out of me at once.”
Looking back, Stacy sees her path to motherhood with a clearer perspective. “I think in the beginning, the pursuit to become a parent is like an exercise in vanity. You want to see a little you. One of the things that changed over the journey for me is that I had to challenge myself and understand why I was driven to become a mom and why it is important to me. Do I want to be a mother because I want to see a little version of myself? Can I truly love a child that isn’t my own? Is it pregnancy? A biological connection? I spent years chipping away at that. But I wasn’t raised by my own mother and so I think there is a significant portion of this experience that is about healing the child in me by being on the mothering end.”
Understandably, this experience changed Stacy profoundly. She says it has made her a better person, more empathetic and brave when it comes to talking to other people going through something painful. But it has also galvanized her into action. She now volunteers as a first responder for women who have experienced neonatal death. Drawing on her own losses, Stacy helps them get access to services and support they need.
Stacy’s experiences have also made her a huge advocate for women like herself to share their stories. When she initially began dealing with infertility she admits to hunkering down and withdrawing from her social life, so full of grief and so exhausted. But then she joined support groups and found that talking to other women like herself really kept her sane. “I believe that reproduction is not a private issue,” she says. “and women should not go through it alone. Just because it comes from our bodies, does not mean it’s not a collective issue. I don’t think we should be silent about it.”
When Stacy and I talked early last year, she was still in the early stages of trying to find her groove as a new mother. Unfortunately, at the same time, she also got hit by a nasty stomach bug, leaving her relying on the help of friends and family to care for Eliana. “Yesterday I spent a significant time in bed but last night I was well enough to tend to her for a few hours,” Stacy told me. “She was crying so I picked her up and she looked up at me. She’s just starting to focus a little bit more now, starting to actually see something. And I saw recognition on her face. It’s just the most ridiculously heartwarming thing I’ve had happen to me. For her to look up at me and recognize me as her mom and to be content in my arms, it was like coming home.”
I hesitate to say anything from my own heart about Stacy’s story as I really want to make this post about her and not me. But, having spent more than five hours talking with and photographing her, I have to say that I was awestruck by her determination in the face of obstacles that would have made most of us give up. Her strength is ridiculous! But I am certain that there are many other stories out there from women whose infertility struggles and grief remains too painful to share openly.
Stacy has already declared her intention to remain very open with Eliana about her adoption and I can only imagine how incredible it will be for her to know someday just how much her mom went through to have her, how much she was wanted.
If you or someone you knows is dealing with infertility or neonatal loss and needs support, here are some resources Stacy recommends:
The Butler Family won my Our Story session back in September. I met and photographed them in October and, well, it’s been a busy Fall. October turned into November turned into December and I’m just now getting to edit their session and listen to the 90 minutes of audio from our family meeting.
Pulling together Our Story sessions takes a lot of time. There’s the recorded family meeting and 3-hour session itself, transcribing the meeting and culling and editing the photos, then bringing all of that together into a Storybook for the family that captures who they are at this moment in time. It’s pretty much everything I love to do in one, grand project but the reality is that you have to immerse yourself in it for days on end to really get to the core of it all. And that time hasn’t been there. But now, I’m thankful it is.
Diving into Lightroom to cull the photos, I was so overtaken with love and emotion for this family that I decided to sneak-peek some of the photos before the Holidays. This is a family that is so brimming over with love and joy and laughter, despite being presented with a series of life’s greatest challenges: cancer, autism, PTSD and food allergies. A family with 3 kids, 5 cats, a fantastic love story and a faith that gives them grace and gratitude that is beyond admirable.
They fully embraced my presence and the goal of capturing their family “as is” and I can’t wait to share their whole story soon.
Do you volunteer at a local charity where an Our Story session could help bring awareness to the cause?
Please call or email me as I am accepting a small number of pro-bono commissions for 2015.
Nominate a special family to win an Our Story session (+ you get a $50 discount on a session of your own!)
Do you know a family who really deserves to have their love, resilience and achievements celebrated with a loving, thoughtful and artistic photography session that reminds them of everything that is beautiful in their life?
Then here’s your chance to nominate them to win the ultimate photography experience, a customized, 3-hour Our Story documentary session with me!
When the idea for “Our Story” sessions came to me almost a year ago now, it was because I passionately wanted to reflect back to people the blessings and joy in their everyday life, to show them that their ordinary was, in fact, extraordinary, and absolutely beautiful. Launching Our Story recently, I wanted to give that gift to a local family in-need but didn’t want some superficial “like” contest for my business. Which is why I’m looking for your input to find that family. So, please read on…
Who to nominate…
There’s just something extra-special about them.
They’ve been through (or are going through) something together, something that has tested their mettle and made them count their blessings. That “something” can be anything – health, financial, an unfortunate turn of events, anything. Life throws all kinds of curve-balls at us.
Or maybe they are just the kind of family that is so busy giving to others – friends, family, community – that they rarely stop to nurture and appreciate themselves.
And at this particular time in their life, they need and deserve something positive and uplifting to be gifted to them; an experience that presses pause on the insanity of life, if just for a little while, and reflects back to them the blessings of this moment in time.
If you know a family like this, here’s what you do…
Send me an email with the subject line of “Our Story Nominee” to email@example.com before August 31st, telling me in no more than 500 words, about this special family – who they are, their story and why you think they deserve to win an Our Story session.
Myself and my family will review all the emails in early September and pick one family that resonates with us no later than 9/15. Yes, it’s subjective. No, we don’t have any hard-and-fast criteria. However, everyone who nominates a family and every family that is nominated will receive a $50 gift certificate for a session with me, as a thank you for sharing your stories.
Some important things to know before you send that email…
* “Family” is a loose concept that you can (re)define. This group of folks doesn’t have to have children, be coupled or even related.
* The family needs to live within a 50 mile radius of Sacramento, CA
* Yes, you CAN nominate yourself/your family.
* It goes without saying that whoever you nominate needs to be willing to tell me their story in their words and to be photographed. It would also be great if they would be willing to share some (not necessarily all) of their photos and story with the world at-large. If you’re unsure if they would be ok with this, you may want to check with them before nominating them.
* The information shared in your nomination email WILL NOT , at any time, be shared or used for any other reason other than to pick a winner.
* No purchase necessary to enter. Prize cannot be exchanged for cash value or for any other session type and the winning family have until 12/31/2014 to schedule their session.
* Nominations close at 11:59pm on August 31st, 2014. All emailed nominations must be received by then to be eligible.
Please share this post with friends and family by email or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, maybe even with local charities that you support.
Let’s work together to give one local family a beautiful gift they will never forget.
I'm Michelle and I love vampires (before they were cool), peanut butter and that deliciously off-balance feeling you get when you step off a plane in a new country. I'm also a mum, a writer and a visual storyteller.
Click here to learn more about all that.
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