Three years ago, I was ill, but not in the same way I am now. I was working full time as a surgical assistant at a breast cancer reconstruction center and I loved my job. I was studying to be a surgical nurse. I was performing regularly as an actress. We were hosting game nights frequently, and playing with the puppies at the park. I had autonomy over my own life.
Abruptly, my life as I knew it came to an end. My illness, which had always been poorly defined as a crazy mystery illness, finally took its toll. In the blink of an eye, I had to quit my job, drop out of nursing school, stop performing, stop socializing, stop getting out of bed entirely. Surgeries were needed. More medication than I could imagine was about to come my way. And then finally in the early months of 2012, we had our answer: neuro-endocrine cancer. Slow growing cancer that had been affecting me in small ways, then larger ways, since I was 18 years old. The merry go round finally stopped. By the time that diagnosis came, I'd already both stopped living my life as I knew it and had a rebirth as a photographer.
My "rebirth" as I just called it was due entirely to the love of my husband, who came home with a camera and gave it to me as I lay in bed crying for yet another day. He reminded me that I loved photography, had always loved taking photos of people, and that I could learn to use a real camera. It was just to give me something to do other than feel sorry for myself, but what happened that day was nothing short of a miracle.
I've never been a technical person: I'm lucky if I can turn the tv on. Working Netflix on the Wii was a huge accomplishment. But through Brian's love and patience, my wonderful friends on Facebook who would post me daily challenges and encouragement, and my own need to do something other than feel like my life was over at 32 years old...it happened. Becoming a photographer helped me find the art and beauty in life again. It gave me purpose. I had a reason to wake up in the morning. And as the months passed, and I got better and better, I found that people wanted me to take their picture.
In October 2011, I launched Gilded Lily Photography. I had people actually willing to pay me to do what I loved. I couldn't believe it. It was my greatest dream at that point to one day have four clients a month. Well, here we are nearly two years later, and I see anywhere from 8-12 clients a month, so I guess my dream happened after all. :) Oh, and in case you missed it, I renamed the business after myself. Mainly because I found clients could often remember my weird Irish name, but would forget the business name entirely. :)
But now that we have all that out of the way, this isn't the story of how my business began. It's more about the struggle to be in business while battling a serious illness, why I am the person that I am, and why I take things to heart so often.
I went from being a vivacious, active, happy woman who didn't have a minute to spare in her calendar to someone who, in spite of a thriving business, spends approximately five days a week in bed. I edit during that time, sure, and do my best to make art, but I also hurt, worry, cry, and fall asleep. I went from being an extremely social, vital person who made helping others the center of her life to someone who sees only Brian and the puppies for 80% of that life. Granted, they are some beautiful, fantastic sights and I wouldn't trade them for the world...but it's not always enough.
Many of you have wondered how I am so full of energy when you see me at the weekend shoots. I have to prepare very carefully for them. In order to be able to be at my best, and in fact, remain upright...I have to adjust all my medications very carefully. I take extra doses of certain things and have to make darned sure I pay attention to everything that my body is feeling so that I can make a quick save if needed. When I get home, I'm almost incoherent with pain and withdrawal from those medications. On Facebook, you see my goofy, friendly side, always online, always posting photos. What you don't see is me here after those sessions, packed in ice and heat, medicated to the gills, sometimes unable to bear the physical pain. It's not the best thing for me to do, physically speaking, but I am pretty certain that my mental & emotional health would be in the toilet if I gave it up. So I consider the toll absolutely 100% worth it. There are those few people who make me question those decisions every once in a while, wondering why I cast pearls before swine, but they are truly in the minority. I've said it before but I can never say it enough...the people who DO support me, the ones who keep coming back to the page all the time to show their support, the ones who keep hiring me...you guys are the best. There aren't words that can actually properly express my level of gratitude. You're all just phenomenal.
I've had days where I've needed to reschedule because sometimes one just can't help the body's failing, but usually, I'm felled by the same thing that makes everyone else take a sick day or stay home in bed, like the flu or a horrible sinus infection. Mainstream, non weird cancer stuff. :)
A lot of artists care about their work. That's nothing new. I don't care about mine in quite the same way that another might, however. I don't sit back and think, I have created a masterpiece...let the accolades come. For me, when I photograph someone, it's this amazing, transcendental experience. I get to spend a few hours getting to know someone (or someone's relationship with/to another), and capturing their essence as best as I can on film. Sometimes it's a fun, laid back thing like a headshot or a casual portrait session for a family. Sometimes it's a major, high pressure event like a wedding where there are no do-overs and every shot needs to be a piece of immortality. Each time is thrilling, challenging, nerve-wracking, and astonishing. I feel on top of the world. I get to make a little magic, something that will remain even when the people are no longer physically with us. I get to make people feel good about themselves. In a sense, I get to help them in an aesthetic and emotional sense, the same way I used to pull out all the stops for my patients, to ensure that not only was I making them feel better physically, but letting them know I saw them as a human being, and that I was going to do everything in my power to ensure that this experience, however bad, had some redemption.
That's why I wanted to be a nurse so badly. I wanted to give back, to heal people from the inside out. There's still a tiny piece of me that imagines that I will recover, that I'll have my surgeries and they'll let me finish my degree. Surgical nursing is no longer a possibility, but hospice? Oncology? They are viable options. And if I'm really lucky, I'll be able to do both...be a nurse during the week and a photographer on the weekends and have the best of both worlds. Someday. :)
But for now, all I have to give is my photography. That's my gift to the world, how I'm leaving my mark. Every day I sit in front of my computer, excited about what lies ahead. I wonder how I can edit to make the most of the photo already taken, how people will feel once I post it. I want them to feel like rockstars. So good that they have a self esteem boost for days to come. So wonderful that they will be able to get out there, and audition and land a great role, or have visual proof that they married just the right prince or princess, or be able to just post a great new profile pic on FB that has all their friends thinking "Wow...you're gorgeous!" :)
As in all professions, people need validation. I used to get that validation in everything I did, from my patients, my boss, my director and castmates, my friends. Now, with all of that kept just out of my reach, I sit in this quiet room of mine while Brian is at work, talking aloud to the puppies. And waiting. Waiting breathlessly to hear if someone likes the image I've posted. Oh, every single "Like" is a balm to my soul. Every kind comment? A gift from Heaven. New fans? Better than a diamond necklace. Best thing ever? The client saying that they feel good, that they are happy with what I've done.
I like to think the best of people. It's not served me well, especially lately. Brian said that I measure everyone else by how I am, how I try to treat others, and that when they fail to live up to that, to my expectations, that I take it so personally. Too personally. And I do. I think that's my greatest failing. Because first of all, I'm not a saint, and I'm not always right or perfect, so who am I to judge others? More importantly, there are enough good people who do live up to those impossible expectations to counter those who fall.
I'm the youngest of three daughters. My father was an immigrant who came here as a teenager and worked four jobs to support his family (shortly after arriving in this country, my grandfather got cancer, and my young Dad was called upon to learn English and work to support everyone). We all inherited his work ethic (and Mom's too!)...and have always lived trying to be truly decent human beings. The one thing not tolerated in my house? Being mean to others. As the youngest, I am the peacekeeper in the family and so that means that I want everyone to get along, to feel happy, to be good people.
I open my heart up regularly. On my business Facebook page, on my Facebook profile which has clients and friends alike on it. I let people in, let the bad stuff hang out with the good stuff. I try to keep my posts about 85% positive. No one likes a sad sack, right? I've been slapped down on occasion because some think it's unprofessional to blur those lines, that I shouldn't share so much. I have been burned a few times this year by people I considered actual friends, you know, not just the ones you see on Facebook but in real life too. All because I offered my business to them and they chose to take advantage of my...stupidity, naivete, whatever you'd like to call it. I just figured...they're friends. I should give a discount. And why work with a contract? They trust me, so of course I'll trust them. Silly rabbit. I've (mostly) learned my lesson. I'm sure I'll still mess up from time to time but hey, why live life without risk, right?
Getting over slights like that have been difficult. But then again, I'm the girl who gets really, really excited over a new pair of socks and can be completely emotionally felled by a greeting card commercial. I live in a world of hurt every single day and I still believe in Santa Claus.
I wanted to take this opportunity to issue an open apology to clients, former and present, for what have been my own failings, I think more as a businesswoman than a photographer. I sincerely believed that if I kept my prices low, and offered more than others did, and worked harder to make sure that you were happy, that it would make up for some of the delays that go along with being sick, being bedridden, and most importantly, not able to drive. That's why things don't always get done in a timely fashion, because I can't do them for myself. Brian has a normal 9-5 job, and usually has to run errands for me anyway, and then his weekends are spent tending to my needs, taking me to shoots, and basically giving me 200% of his love, energy, time, and devotion. It doesn't leave a lot of room for the little details...like mailing out contracts or getting prints out. I try, but I fail.
I found out last night that some people truly don't care what's going on in my real life. They pay you for a service, and even though you do the extra things and go above & beyond, you're still a week late with prints. Or with a flash drive. And for them, the bottom line is that I have failed them as a professional. It was a hard thing to learn, but I am trying to understand it. And the next few days will be spent on how to ensure that never happens again. I need to make changes, not excuses. I've never been in this business for the money (my accountant loves to ask if I'm running a business or a charity operation)...but I certainly value not only my reputation as a photographer, but in terms of what I owe my clients as a businesswoman.
Shutting down the headshot portion of my business, taking one more type of client out of the equation, will at least lessen the burden. Headshots are wonderful and I love doing them, and I think I do a pretty good job at taking a photo that will leap off the casting pile...but it also requires that my non artistic editing be done in a timely fashion, and that I deliver prints on time. Not doing them at all means that I can at least stop failing in one aspect as a photographer. I will truly miss shooting them, but they just aren't worth the stress and things beyond my control. I have to draw the line somewhere, and here it is. I'd rather give up that small profit than to give up doing styled shoots for creativity and advertising, or my beloved couples sessions, or my favorite feel beautiful sessions that I think make a difference for people.
I will continue to photograph people living with cancer for free. I will continue to donate shoots to worthy causes. I will continue to photograph active duty military with a full 50% off discount. I will continue to keep my prices as reasonable and flexible as I can for struggling artists, couples in love, and everyone in between.
But I have learned that I am not Superwoman, and that something's got to give. I don't want to stop editing in a unique and artistic way. I don't want to stop giving more photos to people past what I have promised. I don't want to turn people down because I'm juggling too many clients. But I DO need to prioritize better.
So why am I writing this post? Good question. :) I'm not crazy. At least not in the non artistic sense. In spite of everything, I have more incredible blessings than most people get to experience in a lifetime. I have these amazing parents, and an awesome sister & brother in law. I have Whiskey and Mr. Darcy, who give me all the companionship, loyalty, and snuggles I could ask from pets during these long, quiet days. I have supportive friends whom I've known for so long that keep me going when I feel like a failure. Most importantly, I have my husband, who is love, lover, best friend, caregiver, partner, chauffeur, court jester, and hero all wrapped into one. Without him, I'd have given up long ago.
I also have a very, very strong faith in God. I'm not sure what His plan is, but I have to have faith that it all happens for a reason, and that there's a reason I'm here. I need to believe that it's an important reason, and that before I die, I need to find out that reason so I can make it happen. I want to leave a legacy, of kindness, beauty, and most of all, Love.
I start my next round of the chemo drug on Tuesday. I'm excited. While I don't look forward to the guaranteed four hours a day, seven days a week for at least the next month or two of getting really, horribly sick, I know that at least I can schedule it around my needs, the needs of my client, etc., and that when my body finally adjusts to it, I'll be so much better and stronger. Usually I'm just sick and completely at the mercy of my stupid body. The upside here is that we keep the cancer from spreading to my liver, which is the biggest danger. If I can do that, then I have a shot at a normal life. Expand my business. Finish my nursing degree. Travel with my sweetheart. Most importantly, have a baby. I think McBrian would make some cute kids. :)
If you are able to get through this long, rambling post of mine...I hope you'll take something (or a lot of things) from it. Be kind. Work hard, play hard. Cut someone in your life some slack-they may be going through something more than you could possibly imagine. Have compassion. Have joy. Share your own struggles and let someone give you advice or take a piece of your burden for a while. Go crazy and "like" all the photos you see in your feed today. You never know who you're going to make smile with that millisecond click. :)
I realize I may lose fans over this post. Or even clients who have booked with me who might change their mind about me being the right person for their special occasion. I hope that they will come to me first so we can talk. But I'm not sorry for the post.
Thanks for listening, beautiful people. Thank you for being such devoted fans, for liking and commenting, for hiring me...and for being patient when I'm imperfect. I promise that it will get better. As long as there is breath in my body, I plan to devote myself fully to making the best lemonade ever from the lemons life has dealt to me, and that includes taking great photos and making art for as long as I can. Love, hugs, gratitude, and all that jazz. :)
P.S. If you have any questions about the post, my process, my illness, or just want to say hey...please contact me. firstname.lastname@example.org :)