Defining Success But Not Myself

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My personal definition of creative success for the last three years has been devotion. It’s both objective and subjective, rigid enough for accountability but expandable enough to accommodate the seasons of life. The level of devotion I can accomplish while my children are young is different than in retirement when I will forsake my husband except for dinner and spend my days creating in an uninterrupted chain of timeless, silent hours (do not challenge me on this). Devotion depends only on me, which is nice. But this year I’ve expanded my definition to include two circles around my practice: intimate impact and friendship.

Intimate Impact

A traditional definition of success includes acclaim, fame, recognition, competition, prestige, etc. which all connote a large number of people. Eyes on the work is great, but simpatico eyes on the work feels better. “Attract and repel” is a good phrase. As I prepare my exhibition for next year, I realize that being pleased with the work depends on the relationships I make within and around it, and having a small, intimate impact on those who view it.

Someone asked recently if I would sell prints at the reception. I plan to give prints out for free. To me, putting my work in the hands of people who want it feels like one best things I could do with my time and money. I plan to start doing giveaways on my IG toward the same end. It’s not automatic that we must move as artists within the current channels for giving and receiving, which were often created to make a living. I strive to make what I do behind a camera as autonomous as possible.

From time to time I have a fantasy that I’m giving an artist talk at the local museum because my work is being featured there (and lauded duh). In the fantasy I end up talking with the interviewer about their childhood instead of the work. I ask questions of the audience instead of them of me; our relatedness becomes what is memorable. The work begins as a personal and private but when shared becomes a meeting of experiences common to all.

I recently brought some prints to my therapist for her to view. Like showing her pictures of my children, I wanted to share what I love. She reviewed them one by one, pausing at one that moved her. She had a subtle gasp of joy and said, “Oh. This one.” It was not my favorite in the pile. And I thought — nothing can replace this moment. No accolade can confirm me like that small, transported smile. The image brought her somewhere only she knows. It is enough.

Creative Friendship

This year I developed a new creative friendship with fellow writer/photographer, home educator, creative-writing-degree-holder, East Coast dweller and hater of Christmas Rachel Weaver. In our ongoing Instagram DM she recently said she felt I was a good candidate to journey alongside her work because I seem “unashamedly honest and also not at all jealous of success — the kind of friend who would celebrate with you.” Put that on my grave. I would say I tend to take a more Fiona-Apple-90’s-VMA’s-acceptance-speech-approach to success: “remember, this world is bullshit.”

Doing Teethkiss the class this fall I saw vividly the fulfillment creative friendship brings. Not only do we validate the compulsion to create for each other, but in calling attention to an aspect of being through our art we enter a conversation. Artist communes have been common throughout history for a reason. It’s possible to imagine our artwork having a profound, sustained impact on viewers, but visual art seems to temporarily inject a lifted sense of connection to being before the viewer moves on. But the artist-viewer hears your message in it’s original tongue and is able to interpret and respond to it in their own medium. As time moves on this conversation fills more of my mindspace than the idea of work for an anonymous public.

Immersion

In Mark Nepo’s interview with Oprah, he discusses how he sought the label of poet as an ultimate goal until he realized it was too narrow to contain his calling and work. He says, “When young, I worked earnestly with the hope of creating a great poem or two. Then, during my cancer journey, I needed to discover true poems that would help me live. Now, blessed to still be here, I want to be the poem.”

I’ve found this to be true of definitions of success as well — too narrow. Helpful as a form of self-presentation and marketing but of little aid in the actual creative process except to stunt and dam. When I name myself I tend right away to squirm out from the boundaries I’ve set. When I throw off conventional notions of success and strive instead toward immersion I’m free to dance like a child.

Giving Attention

Before photography became about moving an audience, for many of us taking pictures was a simple act of noticing. Timeless, non-judgmental perception of being. When asked by my therapist if I ever contemplated suicide, I replied no. Despite losses of attachment and traumas of body and mind, the witness of being was enough in my case to prevent despair. Existence was supportive enough — nor did it seem obvious that ending the body would end my life. Although my photography practice this year has worked in projects with a clear (though intuitive) statement, underneath every picture is the testimony that something is.


Inspiration for this post:

Shooting Film the Easy Way

Canon Sure Shot & Portra 400

In addition to documenting my creative process, the content I write for the blog generally comes from two sources: things I wish I would have known and responses to ideas I encounter. Today’s topic comes from both! Before I started shooting film I was under the impression that it was a hard thing to do. I would have to learn a new vocabulary of numbers. I would have to buy workshops and search forums and watch 20 minute YouTube videos. I would need to carry a handheld light meter and put it under people’s chins (this was a huge deterrent for me). After trying each of those things I instead developed my own method based on the easiest possible principle: I shoot in automatic.

Agfa Jsoly Junior & Ilford HP5

Yep! That’s it. That’s the easy way to shoot film. Learning what kind to buy, how to load it, wind it and where to to get it developed (I go here) is the only learning curve I rode. This suits my intuitive style. I don’t think when I shoot, I perceive. I’m attuned to the decisive moment of action and when I see it I click. This process is interrupted for me when I have to check on settings, remember rules and fret about outcomes. It’s no surprise that most of my cameras are point and shoots. If I need more quality I use a $10 SLR that my mom bought me at a garage sale. Polaroid is a good match for the same reasons. I use a refurbished SX-70 from Rare Medium. It’s my favorite camera.

Polaroid SX-70 & SX-70 Color

In my experience most cameras perform surprisingly well in automatic mode. Every film photo on this site and my Instagram was shot in automatic. I don’t think I’ll ever learn another method. I just don’t care! I’ve been able to achieve the results I’m looking for using automation. When I invest in a medium format camera, it will have autofocus as well. I shoot instinctually and fast. Automation enables my vision. I consider it my assistant. We make a good team.

Holga 120N & Portra 400

I scan my polaroids on an Epson V600. I get my film developed and scanned locally. I don’t give them instructions other than to cut and sleeve it (instead of leaving it in a roll). They’ve never given me options for sizes; the scans are big enough for the prints I make. They have a 3 day turnaround time. The techs know my girls by name. That’s my process! Shooting film the easy way.

Films I use:
Ilford HP5
Ilford Delta 100
Portra 400
Fuji 200
Polaroid SX-70
Instax Mini

Rules for Photographing Children

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Interested in making work of children? Here are some core themes to consider: value, collaboration, choice and reciprocity. Since my work is exclusively of children I’ve seen up close how averse human nature is to unpaid labor (rightly so!) In some cases photography is inherently exploitive as in the case of the street genre: I access my subject without permission or payment in order to achieve my end. Because there is a social contract that what is public is generally open (generally), payment isn’t expected or required. Yet in the case of a portrait, the person’s likeness, time and willingness to participate becomes valuable. If they are being asked to perform work, they should be awarded with the symbol of acknowledgement for that value — payment in one form or another.

Bribery or reward are often used with children as a substitute for payment of work. Work assumes they have the capacity to both participate and add unique value.

In the genre of family photography, the client pays the photographer. This rightly morphs the maker from artist to business. They must deliver the product as the client understands it to be promised. Creators in this genre almost universally bemoan the compromise of their autonomy and/or integrity in these conditions. They want to make art, but the direction of currency ensures that their focus (again, rightly) is to provide a service. If we reverse the direction of that currency from artist to subject, artists often discover a newfound malleability and willingness in their portrait sitters (even down to toddler age) as well as an increase in personal courage. This is distinct from bribery or reward which are often used with children as a substitute for payment of work. Work assumes they have the capacity to both participate and add unique value.

Collaboration, Reciprocity & Choice

I’ve heard mothers who photograph their children wonder how they can get them to cooperate, especially in their expression. One solution is to be hands off and capture them as a fly on the wall (this is the approach I use to document my family). But if you desire to make works of great beauty that express themes you have in mind (ie. art) one solution is to creatively collaborate. Why are they souring when you point their lens at them? Have they been prepared? Explain your vision with specificity. Sit down at eye-level with them and explain the emotions that interest you. Purchase them an inexpensive (or not) digital or polaroid camera to join your project. Create a container — a photo book of the works or a set of prints that they sign. There must be reciprocity in the subject/photographer working relationship; it is often overlooked that this includes children.

Two close adults have reciprocity automatically being social equals. When my husband takes out his camera to photograph me I’m flattered and I understand it as an act of love. It’s “for him” but also for us, and his seeing me is a delight. Our children don’t always respond this way (depends on the child). They sense your attention dividing; mom is now doing her thing. Is there another way to approach being behind the lens that invites them in? Let them touch your camera. Give them a choice. Explain with words and then explain again. If you’re asking them to do certain actions for you, pay in currency that is valuable to them: cash, treats, dates, release of chores, etc. Give a reward for 1 roll of film or one shoot; a reward for every photo is gratuitous. Don’t interrupt them in order to make a photograph even though they are in great light, or be understanding of frustration if you do. Give them the same courtesy as you would an adult. Don’t expect them to work for you if they’re not being paid.

Consent, Vision & Tangible Thanks

When I ask to photograph a friend’s child, I offer to pay them in a family photography session. This has great value for families! I explain my vision to both parents in detailed words, asking for explicit consent to make art, not documentary, showing examples. I explain that I’m looking to use the symbol of childhood to express universal themes. All images will be cleared by them and any image they’d like to keep private is 100% their choice. Because my art is not transgressive I’ve never had anyone ask for a photo to remain unseen. But I enlist them in my vision; I tell them we will be doing something beautiful. I explain how I believe that art is redemptive.

If I do a project with a child not my own, I try to make prints for them of the photos in a short timeframe as a thank you. I say, “Look what we made together!” and things like, “Remember when you laid in the grass? I had you close your eyes because that made me think about dreaming. I like this one.” I want them to feel that they created — I want them to be pleased. During the shoot I ask if they would like to take any specific pictures and if they do, I print those. I say, “Let’s do some shots of your favorite things! Show me where they are!” Seeing what they love helps form the artist-subject bond that creates comfort in front of your lens.

Saying Yes, Releasing the Outcome & Leading by Example

Now for some tips and tricks after you’ve addressed basic components such as value, payment, inclusion, consent and reciprocity. There are more! This is a primer. Here are some ways to get children to embody your aims outside of using words. Have them run from far away into your frame. Play freeze dance. Play Simon Says: jump, twirl, sit, fly, swim. Ask them to enact feelings: “What would your face look like if you saw a shooting star? What would your face look like if your tummy hurt?” Experiment. Use the question as a dialectical tool. Take copious breaks! Make sure they’re fed well throughout. Have them photograph you to balance power and emphasize your trust in their maturity. See how fast they can do something you want them to do. Do a speed round of moods: happy, sad, mad, surprised, screaming, silly, laughing! Click away. Bring extra film. Invest. Make a conscious effort to reduce your anxiety about waste — wasting film, time, opportunities. Working with kids is hit and miss, with more miss. Release the outcome.

Lead by example — you must show in your words and demeanor, “we are doing something worthwhile. Art is very meaningful!” Becoming a clown is not the only option, though it can work. I stay away from it. Play music. A great album is called A Celebration of the Seasons: Goodnight Songs. Emphasize action: “Can you climb to the top of the playhouse?” Bring examples: “Here’s a facial expression I really like! She looks hopeful. Can you make that face?” Encourage, praise, high-five, and say YES. If they ask you to photograph something, the asking shows trust forming. It shows that they believe they are a collaborator, which they should. Don’t pretend; actually press the shutter on their ideas. Affirm their taste. Allow the dominant child to dominate for 5 minute spurts, completely letting go of the wheel. Give the shy child reassurance that you’re pleased and they are doing a great job. Allow the physical child to go berzerk. Allow the cat-lover to pet the cat until she’s done. Smile often. Don’t just pay — pay well!

Expectations, Choice and the Nature of Things

Children are my favorite subject. I created @childhoodonfilm to showcase and collect images that speak to my heart. When I photograph my children on film for a project, they know what to expect. We are making art together; we are accomplices. They have a say. When I’m just snapping pics on my iPhone or SLR the same rules don’t exactly apply because they need not apply. They know I’m just being their mom and nothing is required from them. But I still ask permission. In our home they always have a choice even if it breaks my heart. I have overridden their desires in the past and regretted it.

These are the digital cameras my girls (ages 3 and 5) have and love. They are a little hokey but take surprisingly crisp images! Beware of obnoxious chirping sound in lieu of actual shutter. Both of my daughters use the Instax Mini often, which is a tool that teaches both restraint and gratification. Photography is transactional by nature; there is taking. Make space for subjects to willingly give. Know the nature of the things with which you’re dancing: photography itself, human nature and children’s wondrous, powerful wills. Good luck!

Four Days in New York

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What can I say? I love you Daddy, even though you still work 60 hours a week as a truck driver at age 75. I flew across the country to eat your cooking. I love you New York, and I’ll never stop loving you or forget what we had and what we could have had and what we do have now, although infrequent. And to my cousins who feel like siblings, talking about our Oma (now passed) on the way back from the city taught me everything I needed to know about family. That we share experience is our rich inheritance; that our stories are bound up in each other. I travel because I have to, and this having to is a cover for wanting to but still needing a cover to act on my desires even though I’m a grown woman. I come back from travel a better person, more solid on the inside and one day science will tell me why. How the amount of textures one experiences is related directly to moral aptitude. How hearing the dialect and accent of my teachers and coaches and mom’s friends growing up acts as my anti-depressant.

Remember when I dove arms outstretched into the Hawthorne pool, a thousand million times each summer? That feeling mid-air, no thoughts, just familiar humidity and the smell of chlorine-on-bathing-suits. That’s the feeling I need want, the one that I atrophy without. To be in the car with my dad where I spent a quarter of my life; where it smells like shoe polish. You know those stories of when an organ transplant doesn’t take? I sometimes feel that way; I moved to the southwest, and I like it enough. But it didn’t take, and that rejection has to be managed. Snow on leaves, fireplaces in restaurants, stone homes from the 1600s, bookstores where the titles above the radiator are warm, authentic ramen, mall arcades, people who say what they think, midtown markets selling macaroons, the best art in the universe. You are my friends and home. So very good to see you.

I just had a realization that made me audibly say, “oh shit” to which my husband from the other room replied, “what?” I was taught from a young age to miss a place. My dad is still ever-missing and ever-moving back to Greece forty years later. I was shown how to pine for home, prefer it, exalt its superiority and visit but never move back. I understand now - the pining isn’t to be overcome but rather is tradition, heritage, DNA. And as Dad’s head hits the pillow tonight with Greek radio playing softly, I click my lamp in the desert suburbs next to an iPad playing ambient noise, two tracks at once: rain and the city.



Starting Over

“A crisis takes place when the old has not died and the new has still not been born.” — Bertolt Brecht

Before every therapy appointment I decide I’ve squeezed this lemon to it’s fullest, rehearse my departing speech and set off to deliver it. My therapist asks, “So. How are things?” and I take 90 minutes to respond, peaking with agitation around the middle and quieting with resolution toward the end. I leave feeling light and inspired like Amelie Poulain after returning the tin full of childhood objects to Dominique Bretodaux. I go to Starbucks to journal; oldies are playing and I forgive life for it’s ills thinking, “Okay life, you’re alright. You can stay.” And I pencil in my next appointment, forgetting why I wanted to stop. Like the meandering thicket of creative life, I find the sessions about 90:1 in thicket-to-gem ratio, but the gems make me return to the task. At my last appointment my therapist said of a certain family-of-origin-slash-marital-dynamic-that-shall-not-be-named: “that’s the entrance to the country of chaos for you.” Damnit Sharon. (Side note: The Country of Chaos, a new memoir by Anastasia Pagonas Campos?)

If I had to name my current chapter in that book it would be Kill Your Darlings And Other Things I Heard in College That Make Sense Now. It’s a phrase I first heard in my Personal and Exploratory Writing class with the brilliant Lois Roma-Deeley. It was my first semester of school and I signed up for the course on the premise of taking “only fun classes” (the others were drawing, art history and philosophy… come to think of it that was the best semester of my life and it’s been all downhill from there).

“Kill your darlings.”

She said it as she said most things: like we already knew the answers and she was the emissary sent only to wake us from our slumber. Of course, it means excise the mediocre, regardless and especially because of your feelings about it. Delete the chapter you spent three years perfecting. Toss the photo you climbed Montu Picchu to take. Put your childhood dog down. It’s what’s needed, it’s for the best, but it will kill a small, thriving, important part of you. Because although it’s time has passed, you love it.

Oh art, usher of many deaths. This quote has been attributed to everyone from Ginsberg to Faulkner. I can relate: such was the case with family photography for me. In no way could I (with integrity) jam that work to fit my creative bent. Unless I paid the families instead of the other way around, which I considered. No, all of those photographs were a good thing for the form they inhabited, they got credit in the school of Something Good Christian Girls Do, but were not created with the voice to which I feel bound. It was a lot of time (ten years) for a precious few insights, but it produced the singular realization I needed to discover my body of work: that the only reason I photographed families was to photograph children. Time to start over.

I’ve seen other artists do this and watched on with respect, knowing the bravery it takes to walk away. Not just from a business but from a public brand that says, “this is who I am. This is my work.” Remember when Mumford and Sons released their electric album and we were all like YOU’RE DEAD TO ME. We really like when artists stay in their lane and keep giving us what they’ve mastered. Especially with Instagram where we get it all-but-intravenously.

Lucky for the world artists have a perennial discontent with our work. Except for the first few moments of creation when we’re like, “Bow to me Ansel!!!” we tend to crawl back into our lowly position of not-yet-there; ever-moving toward the thing that seems to better-capture the impulse within. I’ve read how many artists in their 60’s circle back to the work they made as a child. The thing that arose spontaneously before awareness of self, what Annie Dillard called the “dark object I could not ignore”. If that is the case I may have a career of collages made from war photography books in my retired future. When I look back at my early works, I see the seeds; the premonitions of what would become my lifetime callings to explore. It feels like lost time until I think of it as a necessary overcorrection unto the final, personal, permanent clearance I gave myself in 2017. Go forward, make art.

I’ve been inching up to this confession (grab your smelling salts): I deleted all of my Instagram. And it feels like a $100 haircut. After Eleanor was born I set out to use the space as a mini-blog; chronicling creative experience and my journey learning 35mm. I wrote and wrote and wrote, often exceeding the character count and revising to fit the limitation. It was fun. I did it with one hand while nursing. I learned the fundamentals of film. I functioned like a photography influencer (a thing?) talking about creating while I documented my children, my world and my thoughts.

As I was talking with a friend one day about my desire to hire a nanny she said affirmingly, “You’re making time for you.” I grimaced. I’m making time for the work, I thought. But then I thought, what work? Taking flat lays of my cameras and films and writing five clapping emojis? In short: I have a body of work within that I haven’t yet started. When a tech at my lab saw my name on my negatives and said, “I know your Instagram! I love your work!” it was a bit surreal (and my ego smiled) but I recoiled. No, no, no, wait! That’s not my work, that’s just — stuff! A journal! And I realized: the photographers I admire use Instagram as a portfolio. I’ve been slow to realize I’d like to do the same.

So where am I headed? Conceptual work. Instead of documenting my daughters in the river, hiring a friend’s daughter to stand in the same river and execute some visual ideas that have haunted and hunted me for years. Paying her as a model, in gummy snacks and flowers. As for personal documentary work? Chronicling of travel and life? Always. But not any more at the expense of the greater work I long to create. Work that says something bolder; a subject matter outside of the loving and protective maternal gaze through which I’ve made a lot photographs in the last ten years.

Okay mom, you’re officially caught up on my creative process. That’s where I am today — I see how writing captions on Instagram has kept me from longer essays like these and the creative fulfillment they bring. And how creating one image at a time has kept me from filling a larger creative container: the photo book, the series, the exhibition. My baby is two and two months; my body and mental real estate are ready to accommodate an expansion. Funny thing is, I made this decision months ago but have been slow to implement it. Turns out it’s hard to change while the old thing still lives. It’s hard to replace your busted dresser when it still holds clothes. Killing your darlings is hard as hell. But every time I do it, I watch a new and yet ever-known work emerge.

Photographs taken in New York City in 2007, after the semester of “only fun classes” when I decided not to go to The New School for visual art as planned. These photo were part of my goodbye. Excavated from my hard drive for a project titled Early Works — a photo book covering my street & documentary work from 2007-2017; to be self-published in spring 2019.

Clearance to Create

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I visited Charleston this summer for two reasons: to see the south with adult eyes and to spend time with my beloved aunt and uncle. Aunt Lynn and Uncle Mark were primary shapers in my life growing up and if I’m secure to any degree it’s because of them and travel soccer. My conversations with my uncle are infrequent but deep; what lacks in frequency is made up for in conversations till 3 a.m. about life, change and frankly — myself. My dad is a wonderful provider. He loves me deeply (proof here). But he would never state an insight about me or my life, sentences that might start with, “I know you, and…” or “given your history.” If you have someone in your life who can speak to your frame in this way, cherish that person. My Uncle Mark likes to tell the story about how he was the first person to see my baby butt enter this world (my dad was at work, pre-cellphones) and has felt a kinship with me ever since. So it is.

Over lunch at Magnolia we began talking about my creative journey. My hard-left into Christianity at 20 years old from a life of atheism, art, drugs, men, self-abuse, live music, boredom, anger and far too much myopic journaling. He saw that change happen. He saw me cover my back in garish tattoos at 15, then saw me get married at 21 in my proverbial bonnet and jean skirt and change my identity (and e-mail) to Mrs. Matthew Campos. Apparently he observed all of this with serene clarity, giving me the space to overcorrect. He shared how his son (my cousin) called him with concern about my art. That I would be giving up my life as an artist upon entry into this new world, which, from across the country could not be discerned between church and “new religious movement” (the secular word for cult).

We talked. I cried. And I let those god damn tears fall right in the middle of my shrimp and grits. It’s a difficult thing to face: that I gave up creating seriously for ten whole years. I was mad at myself for surrendering what had always been my sole confidant: art. Thinking that I could be functional and well without it, never mind happy. And then a diffuse anger that the gods allowed me to make such lasting personal decisions at 20 years old. And finally sad for the body of work that sits dusty in my mind. But wait! I was making a change. Here I sat. I travelled. Without my family. TO TAKE PICTURES. Progress. And Uncle Mark said something that blew me away.

“You needed that.”

Wut? He told some stories; and I remember just how deeply I lived out of the destructive, unstable inner world of the creative empath. How I had built a thicket of literature and music around me, a worldview of irreverence and self-destruction-as-rebellion. And the answer to healing was a machete. Intense people can require intense intervention. Or maybe that’s all of us. But to think those years were not wasted for my work, but needed. To prepare. To cleanse. To learn how to eat more than coffee and energy bars. To navigate the world sober for the first time. To read corny but practical Christian living books all with the title of “_____ Matters” (Holiness, Culture, Gender, take your pick). To make friends with virginal, unworldly young women and give them a chance. To conform for a while. To take a break from emotional turbulence. To attend 500 baby showers. To make some sort of peace with the brutal and bloody and incomprehensible cross — something I had alternately ignored or laughed at but which is big enough to require a ten year reckoning.

I sighed. I grieved. I explained how I had always planned to return to my art — at 50. After my babies were raised, as generally recommended by my church and peers. Telling this story to a person who has watched me develop from the beginning was a unique catharsis. Therapy 2.0. I have always said my art is like my neglected third child. The guilt toward not caring for it is searing and disorienting. I’m entering a space now of deep approval of this baby. Without reference to the thoughts found in any other human mind. Living out my need to create and what’s more: calling it good. Being able to see these past ten years as less of a detour and more of a natural, necessary unfolding has lifted a final barrier for me. To give myself clearance to create on the strongest possible basis: as an image-bearer. Now all that’s left is the open vista of what the work could be.

Anastasia

Uncle Mark holds my bag as we walk to lunch. Charleston, 2018.

Uncle Mark holds my bag as we walk to lunch. Charleston, 2018.


Film: Ilford HP5
Cameras: Canon Sure Shot, Canon AE-1

Self-Advocacy and Psychedelic Blues

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Confession: the word self-care makes me squirm. Not because it’s bad (it’s wonderful) but because it reads as slightly sentimental to me. To care for the self is a beautiful thing, but I feel embarrassed to phrase it with a millennial buzzword. It reminds me of when my yoga teacher has us hug ourselves at the end of the class and I’m like lady… c’mon. As the students around me embrace themselves in a cathartic sigh-hug I am think-shouting, "have you no shame people?” The dude in the corner and I give ourselves a quick, respectful tap-hug and move the hell on. Of course this says more about me than the hug.

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I’ve tried some skin routines. Various activities alone like reading at a coffee shop into the night, which is fantastic. It’s all nice. I buy myself perfume and it definitely makes me feel like I matter to myself. The woman that I am — not the mother or wife, daughter or friend. The person who picks out the lingerie, who favors red-orange lipstick over magenta hues and who took a painting class this summer because dammit I have to do something low-pressure and unnecessary every once in a while. But the dynamics around this woman have changed mightily in the past five years. Birth into motherhood will do that to ya.

So the phrase I’ve come to like and center with regard to caring for the inner woman is self-advocacy. Self-care feels like making sure I’m well cared for, which I could grow in as well. I’m a solid 50/50 in most areas, like I work out every day but struggle with the same emotional eating problem many kids-of-immigrants do: food = love. The difference between care and advocacy to me is the ability to protect my boundaries. Said another way — my values. Ensuring a seat at the family table for these has had every effect that self-care promises. Refreshment. A sense of feeling grounded. Self-respect. Pain old joy. It is a new and learned skill for me.

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Knowing what I like isn’t new. Knowing my boundaries isn’t either. But communicating calmly and clearly about it is, to my people but firstly to myself. Acceptance without feeling small and guilty. It’s a new and glorious territory and it feels like womanhood to me. An example? Opting for non-traditional holidays like a hike and takeout for Thanksgiving with a $100 bottle of wine. This feels right to me this year. I can proceed on that basis, shelving the noise that so easily fills my mind about what I’m supposed to do and be. I need to create one of those line graphs that says, “Is this noise?” If yes then ignore it and move forward. If no then listen to it and adjust. Simple enough in theory.

These photos were taken on a day trip to West Fork Trail in Flagstaff, AZ. Although we know the one and only rule for day trip success with kids (go to bed early and wake up early) we never, ever put it into practice. Instead we wake up too late, I spend an unnecessary amount of time getting ready, Matt starts a to-do list at the last minute (like clipping his nails?!) and we get out the door at about 10am, arriving in time for two hungry children to unravel. However! The magic powers of nature always transform the girls into two focused, happy nymphs capable of playing past their nap times. Oh the rocks we threw. The trails they explored on their own, unhindered. The sticks, the leaves, the dirt on wet feet. The wading in perfect-temperature streams on an 80 degree day.

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How does this relate to self-advocacy? Maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe this is the most important act of self-care (eh) I do for myself in this stage. Being outside with film camera in hand despite precarious funds and the disproportionate work it takes to achieve. A day’s full of commuting, gas-station stops, snacks ad infinitum and emotional toddler instability in exchange for about 4 hours of this. But the this! Nothing can replace it. Self-advocacy says without guilt: I recognize my need to feel the sun on my skin, hear the crunch of desert paths under my feet and be released from “the tyranny of eternal routine” as one writer put it.

I recently did an exercise in Diane Pool Heller’s audiobook Healing Your Attachment Wounds. Attachment is something Matt and I have studied and explored a lot over the years because frankly, we have needed it. We found this exercise illuminating for different reasons. Without transcribing it word for word, the author leads you through this hypothetical: imagine your mother while you were growing up, and imagine her dominant mood. Now imagine her surrounded by the resources she needed. Wise friends, a loving partner, faithful spiritual teachers, a thriving expression of her purpose, a strong body. She is fully supported and held, and takes responsibility for maintaining those supports. Now observe how you feel.

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I got two things from this exercise. Number one was how it gave me a deeply somatic, embodied compassion toward my mother’s anger growing up. She was dealing with an abusive, alcoholic husband and didn’t yet have the boundary-drawing skills she would later learn. She had some support, but didn’t know how to maintain or expand it. In short: she didn’t yet understand how to self-advocate. Secondly, the lesson that shined forth bright as day was this: as I advocate for myself, my daughters are released. They don’t have to fill in the gaps (small or large) where I lack fulfillment and meaning. They are free to self-advocate for themselves as they grow without having to consider whether that will untether or disorient me. Mic drop.

All of this is represents the ideal. Today they are two and four. Today they demand “mama hold you!” when they need their needs met. I teach them to care for their bodies little by little, tooth-brushing by tooth-brushing. As I learn the discipline myself, I hope to teach them how to both care and advocate. That no human relationship (spouse, pastor, parent, friend, teacher) can replace that role. I am learning how to speak for the person deep within myself like she’s my deaf and mute and deeply loved child. I can say “this is what is needed right now” because I know her nature. I am learning to say the hardest thing of all: “this is acceptable, and this is not.” I will care for you. I will advocate for you. Which is another way of saying fight. Which is another way of saying love.

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Film notes:

These photos were shot with 35mm Psychedelic Blues Film on my Canon Sure Shot point and shoot. I’ve been curious about this film for a long time! Although 99% of users seek it for it’s colors, I knew right away that I wanted to shoot then desaturate. The pre-exposed light leaks feel like a dream to me. Like remembering. It’s so hard for me to hold onto the warmth of my memories; it’s like water in my cupped hands. So I am ever-seeking mediums that allow me to capture that feeling in visual form. When I see my pictures, I remember.

Although I was feeling cocky about the Sure Shot since I got it over the summer, rolls like this remind me that this ain’t no SLR baby. I’m starting to want more control again, specifically of exposure. However nothing beats the size and shape of the compact camera. So a high-end compact has now moved from Eyeing One to Needing One. Those never-ending lists.

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We Are The Lucky Ones

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Growing up I knew exactly how many channels I could scan on the radio before he stuffed the nob with blunt force, yelling a string of Greek expletives. Country, soft rock, fine. But scan a rap song? Scan a boisterous pop anthem one too many times and now it’s time for mandolins. Or the ultimate punishment: country, his favorite because he grew up as a boy in rural Greece watching John Wayne. After a period of my prolonged sulking he’d ask from the driver’s seat, “Ah you there?”

He was here for five days and as I cared for my girls alongside him I kept thinking: he did a good job. He doesn’t know how I vote. The only time he affirmed me verbally was when I was chopping parsley really fast and I was so shocked that I cut my finger. I have no memories of him being interested in my interests other than teasing in the way men of that time and generation related to their daughters. In staccato accusations but with warm eyes. “Clicking, clicking, clicking!” he says of my picture taking.

I had two goals for my Dad’s visit this year: ask him if he has a will and tell him he was a good father.

When we moved to Arizona from New York when I was 12 he visited faithfully every year. He flew me to his one bedroom brick apartment in Hackensack and I’d spend half the time in the city and the other half in diners with him. When we are together we eat, punctuated by coffee. He gives me cash in handfuls and mutters not to spend it. He asks me seriously. “so how you makin’ up” with his brow furrowed. This is his one serious question and I give one serious answer; after that it will be business. Observing how I parked. Talking about the price of gas and how much I make an hour. Telling me of my sisters boyfriend, “he’s asshole. I no think so.”

I’d describe him as remote but kind. The kind of kind people not from New York don’t get (he screams most things and talks on the offense 100% of the time ie. “Dad, look at the sunset!” “Sunset? What sunset? Sunset here there everywhere same.”) He would absolutely die for us but isn’t capable of saying, “I’m proud of you.” Not because he doesn’t feel it but because it isn’t his first or second or third language and he doesn’t know the grammar of it. He sent all necessary parenting messages through these actions: bringing us to the arcade and disappearing behind a Greek newspaper. Standing at my soccer games with his hands behind his back. Setting down a plate of lemon rice and chicken still steaming and sprinkling parsley on top. I never feel more loved than when my husband cooks for me. I ask him to set down the plate just so.

Seeing Dad with my girls is a revelation that continues to surprise. His drunken smile as he watches them jump off the couch. How he handles them like glass sculptures. How he played Winnie the Pooh figurines and massively accommodates the slightest whimper. Actually I know about that last part; his going to comical lengths to lessen their discomfort like asking me to pull over on the side of the highway because Eleanor is crying. How did this person who brought no discipline and rarely said I love you develop a completely secure and happy attachment with his children?

In the back of my mind I wanted to create great portraits of him while he was here. But I lacked the initiative. To enter his space. And I was on a point and shoot kick. And my girls, my girls. I have the hardest time focusing on photographing when they’re around and my whole being is tracking their needs. But I shot a few rolls, and of course feel deeply grateful for what turned out. Dad at a restaurant, which is his most familiar if not happy place.

He stayed in my office. I bought a new air mattress even though a friend offered to lend me one. I spent the week stocking the bathroom with things he might need like 99 cent shaving cream. And also trying to anticipate any shit he might give me and head it off. I thought about the food he likes. What activities would please him, which are none. I worried about our lack of TV, which has always been the great buffer and soother of social awkwardness, but we have phones for that now.

He got in and settled into a routine: coffee and breakfast alone in the mornings, a walk to Dunkin Donuts because “Starbucks takes like a shit.” He joined us for a few kid-friendly outings (the Children’s Museum and the splash pad) but promptly headed to the car for a nap because “this is a woman’s and a children’s.” He napped when the girls did in the afternoon because he still works night shift as a truck driver at 75 years old. Then we met my sister for dinner, a relief because she babies us both and we let her.

Should I include this next part? The racism he keeps tight-lipped about around my Mexican husband and his mixed granddaughters who he loves. How we pulled up to the river and upon seeing mostly Mexican families he said, “I no think I like it,” and my sister and I knew exactly what was meant. How when we were at the food court of the mall and the girls were riding quarter-rides he showed me a picture of his girlfriend and said, “She can be a rill bitch.”

He hand-washed his clothes all week because he actually considers it less of a hassle. Eleanor watched as he hung them to dry on the patio. He told my girls deeply and openly, “I lav youuuu. I’m going to miss you!” and I stood aghast in the hallway. Maybe he said those things to me at that age! Probably. Until I became old enough to judge him. To see his eighth grade education and simplicity and hate it, which I did. To think that his accent made him less intelligent; in contrast to what waitresses and customer service representatives tend to think, he understands eons more than what he can express in English.

We ate our last meal together at True Food Kitchen, the girls becoming impatient despite lemonade refills and hanging from the table like drunk sloths. The restaurant was too loud. Too trendy. Too packed. We had the same exact thought at the same moment. He said it first: “There no diners here?” Not diners like we know. Denny’s has puffy linoleum booths but no “fat Alex”. He used to whisper to us that (fat) Alex had a toupee.

On the way to the airport I realized I hadn’t checked off my line items. So I asked him about a will point blank and he answered point blank, and that was that. And then I said, “before you go I wanted to tell you Daddy what a good father you have been to us.” And he said, “Your Uncle Jack alcoholic and his wife still stay with. Me I’m a good father, okay. But this the lucky ones.“ Which means his life did not turn out as planned. I never really knew this about him; how he views his situation with us as a Plan B that he still begrudges. Nevertheless, he picked us up at two and four years old and took us to diners by himself (an exceedingly modern thing to do!) He parked the car in front of Teterboro Airport in New Jersey so we could watch planes through smog. God how I loved those planes. Of course the planes meant nothing. We are the lucky ones.

Two New Episodes of Sometimes Pure Light

I had a half-caf latte this morning and by noon had cranked out two podcasts. My Creative Commandments and Working From Intent. These are both 15 years in the making — I do not tell a lie. I have been thinking about this stuff since I graduated high school and flung myself into the world of photography with my Canon Rebel. What are your necessary conditions needed to create art? Have you named them yet? Do you influence your subjects or take a hands off approach? Does your approach reflect a chosen philosophy an inherited one like it was for me? Join me as we dive into these questions and more on the latest episodes of Sometimes Pure Light, a capsule podcast series on creative life and calling.


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My creative commandments are the guidelines I’ve learned, been taught and discovered so far that make my creative life not only possible but flourish. Some of my favorites: center joy, work for the work and measure by devotion. I expound on these plus seven more like how I make myself an actual syllabus. These rules make creative life happen during my current season of life.


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Real. Posed. Fake. Authentic. Candid. Contrived. Us photographers use these words. It’s on our minds. In this episode I explore the meteoric shift in my work from documenting what was before me to becoming proactively hands-on with my subjects. I love capturing life, I love influencing it to my creative end. I pledge allegiance to both as each have a strong place in my work. What about you?


Thank you for listening! Drop me a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

See all episodes of Sometimes Pure Light here.