Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Dancers Among Us Photograph I Feared Taking, and the Pain that Followed

"Your images are so happy, but life isn't always joyful. We need photos that show people's struggles and hardships as well."

I was speaking with Susan Bolotin, editor-in-chief at Workman Publishing, and the rest of the design team. We were discussing the photos I should attempt in Chicago. I understood exactly what she meant, but I didn't want to hear it.

I knew what I had to do. I had to say goodbye to my mother.

Four months ago, my mother died suddenly. Just as suddenly, my career exploded. Since she died, I was filmed for a television feature that aired throughout Europe; I shot the 2012 promotional campaign for the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the 2012 calendar for the Olympic Women's Crew Team; I agreed to a book deal with Workman, and brought Dancers Among Us to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, Stanford, Princeton, Boston, Indiana, Westchester and Baltimore. I shot over 150 headshots and comp cards.

It was a busy summer. I never gave myself a moment to grieve. I just put my head down and hit the accelerator.

"Maybe a graveyard. There's usually a beautiful one in every city...." Now everyone at the table was discussing the merits of a mourning photo. I smiled and nodded my head. Inside I was filled with dread.

When I arrived in Chicago, I asked the innkeeper for some good locations to shoot. He gave me one- Graceland Cemetery.


I met dancer Chloe Crade at Graceland on a sunny afternoon. I asked her to bring flowers. We sat on the expansive grounds and discussed loss. A friend of hers had recently died, and she was feeling raw and vulnerable as well. We wanted to honor our memories with dignity- to create a simple image with resonance.

As I photographed Chloe draped across a gravestone, I felt exhilarated by the creative process- photography has been my protective blanket. When I looked at the image later that evening, alone and undistracted in my hotel room, I broke down and cried uncontrollably.

This photograph is the beginning, not the end, of my grieving process.

Today is my birthday, and Saturday I will be shooting Dancers Among Us in Philadelphia, where my mother spent many years of her life. The confluence of these two events will likely be another step in this process of grieving, and I approach it with similar apprehension.

I'm not ready to say goodbye.