A Lesson in Taking Your Breath Away

There may be a handful of times, in your entire career, where you see the impact of your work — if you’re lucky.

According to one of my favorite authors, Sue Monk Kidd, a person should do at least one thing in their life that takes their own breath away. And by ‘do,’ she means to create. She took her breath away with her latest novel, “The Book of Longings.” She took a lot of people’s breath away with that book.

It’s really hard to take our own breath away with our creations. It’s kind of like our inability to smell our own breath. Or our inability to see ourselves the way others see us. But there was this one time, that I took my own breath away with a photo that I made. It was not immediate. In fact, it took over five years.

I was photographing the wedding of my dear friends, Nikki and James. The commute to this event was literally walking across the street and knocking on their front door.

Theirs was a secret wedding. Lanny and I were the only people in the universe who knew it was happening. Not even their kids, Heather, Finlay, and Otis, knew. Otis was too young to know, and Heather and Finlay were under the impression that I was coming over to do a day-in-the-life session.

After spending the morning documenting tower-toppling, diaper changes, breakfast routine, bored kids and plenty of smiles (a typical Saturday morning in their house), they sat the kids down on the carpet of the living room floor. The couches remained empty. Sitting across from Heather and Finlay, they told the kids they were getting married. That very afternoon.

Heather disappeared to her room. When she returned, she was holding something in her hand. I couldn’t quite see what it was. She had tears streaming down her face, “I miss Mommy.”

Nikki wrapped her in her arms and held her tight, expressing all the love she could. Then Finlay disappeared. He also came back with tears in his eyes, something small, and unrecognizable clutched in his fists. They all hugged and cried on the living room carpet, celebrating incredible joy and feeling incredible sadness, all at the same time.

It was the moment that Heather and Finlay opened their clenched fists that my breath was taken away. Held tight within their grip was a locket that their mother Elaine had given them before she died. In that locket were two photos (one on each side) that I had taken of their family the day after Elaine was diagnosed.

To any other human, these photos were nothing special. They were fairly typical family photos. Nothing too eye-catching. Certainly, nothing that would do well on Instagram. But to these children these photos allowed their mother to be with them on their wedding day. These tiny photos, measuring less than two centimeters across, took my breath away.

It’s hard to remember, that as artists, our rewards (even if they’re sad like this one) are most often delayed. Sometimes by days, sometimes by years. Most of the time we never get to witness the rewards at all. I was lucky enough to witness this one, and it took my breath away.

You can see all of Nikki & James’ photos here.

Love, Erika

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