The Gift of Photography

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By Joe McNally

Is one that is given, or accepted, freely. As a shooter, you can be the recipient of many gifts over the years: The grace of someone’s time, the whimsy of their expression, the fleeting emotion of their eyes the lens traps, forever.

Behind the lens, you are a gift giver as well. You honor someone’s humanity, beauty, or spirit. You wordlessly transact, and that transaction, fixed in pixels, becomes the stuff of memory. Nobility can be enhanced, or conferred, upon someone who has never been so recognized. If done properly, at least occasionally, what transpires within the mundane mechanics of a shutter clicking or a light flashing becomes a certain kind of poetry, the legend of both the subject and the shooter. When the house is burning down, and all the people and the pets are out safely, what does someone often save? The photo album.

I met the young lady at the top of the blog, Milk Cruz Mendoza, earlier this year in the Philippines. She was, at first, a typical, unabashedly enthusiastic young photog, eager to learn, eager to accelerate skills, ready to wade into the visual cacophony of the digital world and make people notice her pictures.

Then I saw her tattoos, covering her forearms. They were images from a couple of books I wrote, one called The Moment It Clicks, of the cover, and one from the interior pages of another tome on lighting, called Hot Shoe Diaries. Significantly, the cover is a woman’s hand, holding a jagged shard of a mirror, reflecting her eyes, against the sky. Milk’s words below…..

It was nearing my birthday 3 years ago when I was heavily emotionally in pain and I saw that photo online which immediately made an impact on me. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw that photo is that the gesture of the lady staring on that piece of mirror was the same gesture I saw a few days back. A girl staring and holding a broken mirror with swollen eyes, unruly hair, wind-chapped lips, slightly bleeding nose—just not beautiful, scared and insecure. Only her arm was bleeding too. That was me. And upon seeing the photo I felt the need to know something about it. There must be a story behind it. Then that’s when I ended up knowing you. Eventually that’s when it hit me too that maybe I can express myself through something more productive and way less painful. I wasn’t really successful with painting but maybe in photographs. And maybe, I can also reach out to some random girl or guy whom my photos can make some connection too! I don’t know. But, I know I’m about to take a big step towards making myself better. So, I struggled trying to get my own camera.”

Milk was in an incredibly difficult place in her life, and she expressed her pain, and her feelings about her lack of worth, through cutting herself. The picture she tattooed on her forearm covers the scars.

When I met her, and she began to tell me things about the struggles of her young life, I became quite inarticulate, not an unusual event for me. I did two things—I hired her immediately for a shoot we were doing on the streets of Manila with Kris-Belle Paclibar, of Ballet Philippines. Milk became an assistant, and our documentarian.

And, I asked if I could make her picture. I’ve said before, as photographers, we often can’t find the words, but we can find a way to make a picture, and let that speak for all concerned.

Again, her words…..”I am a nurse but not practicing in any setting because I preferred to take care of my son and the elders at home. I have an asthmatic son, a diabetic father, an 87 year old grandfather recovering from stroke and an 84 year old grandmother with progressive dementia. I’d accept any type of temporary work…..in 10 months I was able to save and buy myself a consumer entry DSLR. Eventually, a friend invited me to go with him on a basic photography workshop. I saved up again and enrolled myself in it. It is the best 3,500 pesos I’ve ever spent. The months of yearning on how to use it and make good photos out of it is finally paying off.

 She followed with another workshop with Laya Gerlock, a fellow Filipino photog, who graciously discounted the class and gave her extra time. She is on her way, finding subjects in her local community, making portraits, and the beginnings of a bit of money.

 Her other arm is dedicated to the K-Man, a good friend, fellow photog, and lover of fedoras.

“The other tattoo on my forearm which is a man wearing a fedora hat, lighting a cigarette is simply a symbol of the man who challenged me physically, emotionally and mentally to become better and make some positive changes for myself each day. That man would occasionally use fedora hats and never missed lighting one cigarette in his life since 12 years old.”

 Mark was also very moved by her story, and stunned to find his image imprinted on someone like Milk. He writes of it in his blog, Jersey Style Photography, tomorrow. Worth a visit there.

Milk has a page on Facebook……

She wrote: “I am truly deeply thankful and blessed to learn from you, spend time with you and witness how you do things photographically….the photo that’s covering my scars on my forearm which was the lady staring at a broken piece of mirror was the most significant because it prompted my career in photography and a stop to my self-infliction habit.”

Your stay here was such a remarkable experience for me because I did not, even in my dreams, have I ever expected these things to happen. Not a single bit of it. I have never imagined that I’d be able to go with you on a photo shoot and let me use the things that you use on a set. That I’d hear you first hand how you plan and organize a photo shoot and learn from it. Then, one unexpected thing after another. You asked me to do a portrait which to me was so surreal. I felt so beautiful and special at that time. You even hired a make-up artist for me and waited. Your patience with me and your effort for me is priceless. I can never ever repay that.”

I think the equation is reversed, actually. I can never repay her, anymore than I can repay any subject who stands in front of the camera and offers a courageous gift. I have doubts that any of my pictures deserve the display Milk has offered them, but I do know that our photographic intersection made a difference, and I feel enriched having placed my camera in front of her. Some of it just might have to do with the fact that I’m a father of two girls, Caitlin and Claire, both of whom are Milk’s age or older, and know the path to adulthood for young women can, at least sometimes, be a tough one.

And I also know that photography, that facile, flip, irreverent, ubiquitous, quickie thing we all have access to via the phone/internet in our pocket, always has the potential to make a difference, as it did for Milk–a new beginning, a departure from a painful path, and an open door to a future hopefully as full of promise as she is.

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