My Creative Journey through Mourning and the Coronavirus

Early in the morning on March 2, the Fairfax County police banged on my door to inform me my mother had died. This began a surreal journey through sudden death and mourning, immediately followed by the global change and devastation caused by the coronavirus. This is my story, as told via my Show Me Podcast.

At first, my photography was stunted and limited, but then it quickly evolved to become an expressive device. From sadness to gloom to documentation and finally the hope of a new spring, this very personal podcast and associated photographs document my creative journey.

In addition to the above video and audio versions of the podcast, I have included a transcript of the podcast as a narrative photo essay below. I hope you find creative motivation in it! Cheers.

Transcript of Show Me Podcast Episode 2.8 My Creative Journey Through Mourning and the Coronavirus

Hey, everybody. Welcome to the coronavirus, COVID-19 edition of the Show Me podcast. Normally I do this with other people, but a series of events happened in late February, early March, that then progressed into the coronavirus, which of course prevents me from going to a studio and sitting down with folks.

I figured I would just do this.

I’m sure if you’re a photographer like me, you’ve been struggling a little bit with this whole social distancing thing. What’s the right thing to do? What’s not the right thing to do and where would you go with your photography?

I’ve been through the same thing. I figured out what to share what I’ve been through in my journey over the past six weeks. Hopefully you’ll get something out of it as well.

My Mom’s Passing

The first thing I’d like to say is my mom passed away suddenly, which kind of launched me into this vortex. I ended up having to fly out to Arizona the first week of March. It was a very sudden death. She was found after a wellness check.

It really kind of shut me down. I mean, I did have a camera. I was taking some photos. However generally speaking, they weren’t awesome. It was kind of a weird time. The coronavirus was starting to hit.

I did go to a baseball game out in Phoenix before everything got shut down. And I did do two walks in honor of my mom. My mom really liked to hike and get outside and loved nature. That’s why she loves Arizona so much. The first one was to go to the Superstition Mountains.

I got a gorgeous picture of a sunset right behind some wildflowers that were blooming. It’s monsoon season in Arizona. That was really kind of this first photo I took in the moment. It was an in-memory type of photo.

Then after I took care of her arrangements and laid her to rest and all that stuff, before I left, I drove up to the Grand Canyon. The reason why I did that was … well, first of all, it’s awesome to photograph. But beyond that, she had always wanted to go with me there.

I brought my camera and it was actually a kind of a miserable, wet, rainy, windy day, but I did get some amazing photos. It’s kind of hard not to see awesome stuff there, but it is hard to take photos there because the dynamic range is so crazy. What I ended up doing was shooting a ton of HDR up there, just shooting at three different stops each way and then just slapping them all together so I can get that dynamic range included.

This photo was my favorite that came out of there. It’s just kind of the crepuscular rays were amazing. Again, it’s hard not to be inspired at the Grand Canyon, but for me I was already kind of like slumping spiritually. By that time, the coronavirus had kicked in and people were starting to stay away from each other and everybody had a kind of a weird vibe going on.

Back to DC

I flew back to Washington DC on I guess it must’ve been March, I want to say 13th, the Sunday before the second full week or the third full week of March. The next day I went to work at my location. I’m a government contractor by day right now. They told us not to come back the next day because of the coronavirus stuff. Boom, right there, social distancing in play. I went from one crazy thing right into the next.

At first, it was getting to the point where people were like, “Just stay six feet away from each other. If you don’t need to go out, then don’t go out.” But it wasn’t this regimented stay-at-home kind of thing. One of the things I was doing at that time was arranging a thing called Monument Henge with Focus on the Story, which is a DC-based nonprofit.

We were going to photograph the sunset coming up behind the Capitol building. Obviously that got blown up because that was more than 50 people. At that time, gathering with more than 25 people were getting nixed.

I ended up just waking up early one morning, I think it was March 19th and going out to Netherlands Corrillion photographing the Equinox. That was awesome. I’ve always wanted to get this particular shot with the sun right behind the lineup of the Capitol building and the monument. That came out pretty well.

I was still really kind of uninspired. After the sun came up, this was a Friday, I drove down to the cherry blossoms, but not to the Tidal Basin because it was already pretty crazy and that would have been breaking the coronavirus rules. I did go down to Haines Point and I captured this.

That was kind of a weird moment too because this is a cool street shot, but it’s not that epic landscape you normally get with cherry blossoms. But already people were coming close to me within three feet of me. It didn’t feel good.

Stay at Home Orders

That weekend, the Tidal Basin was so packed that they shut it down. That Monday the guidelines came out to not be out, stay at home for Virginia and not to be around people in groups of larger than 10. That was pretty hard.

I didn’t really know what to do for my photography. I bet you’re probably in the same boat. I bet some people are just stuck period. I won’t lie, I definitely still have to be very creative in thinking about the different things that I’ve been doing.

But before that began, I did have one great fun shoot with my friend Holly in social isolation. We both stayed six feet away from each other. This is a model named Holly Ahrens. You can find her on Instagram. But we kind of took a playful early spring photo of her in social isolation in Huntley Meadows. Huntley Meadows is now closed.

After this photo, I basically couldn’t do what I do. I have a kid at home. I’m the primary bread earner from our family. I basically cannot put the family at risk. I mean I could, but I feel like that would be the wrong thing to do. It’d be pretty selfish. Now I know some people are still out there going out and shooting down in DC doing their photojournalism or their street photography, but for me, I’ve decided to observe the rules for the obvious reasons.

I really kind of struggled. One of the things that I did like everybody else is I’d get outside for physical exercise and I’d just bring my camera with me. I started to get some really cool shots. The first one was a late winter hike in Dyke Marsh. I think this was on March 19th, right before I shot Holly.

There already you see the masks starting to appear in the Virginia area. Now if you go out, you see them all over the place. I imagine when we get let out of our houses, we’ll all see them everywhere and we’ll be wearing them too. This photo will become a lot more commonplace, but it was still unusual at that time.

You can see the trees are still dead. They haven’t come to life fully yet, the leaves aren’t out. It was definitely an interesting photo. I didn’t know whether she was sick and had the virus or she’s just being protective. It was a little bit scary.

But I think that the starkness, the lack of color, the grayness really kind of spoke to me. I’m finding that with a lot of these photos that there’s a dark element to them. It may be because of my mom’s passing or the time, but it’s just not a great time I feel like.

Shooting What I Feel

Some people really want creative juju and juice and excitement with their photographs. They want to be taken somewhere else and there are some of those here. But at the same time, I definitely feel like that I have a responsibility to photograph what I feel. I’m not a photojournalist. I don’t pretend to be, but I do interpret through the camera. I make no apologies for doing that.

The next photo I want to show you is this a bridge walk at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Now I know the 14th Street Bridge and the Memorial Street Bridge that are closed in large part because I have biked up there since this has all started, but the Wilson Bridge is still open and people use the pathway on the side for a walking. Our family went out right before sunset. On our way back, the sun had set.

This is early dusk, lots of rainbow lights coming out of the side there. You can see there’s nobody there except for this couple walking. I feel like this really kind of captures almost the dead streets that we have right now where there’s just nobody. It feels weird, but I thought it was cute that they were together.

For many of us, this is family time as well. That could be good or bad depending on your situation. For us it could be good or bad, generally it’s been pretty good. It was nice to see these two together enjoying each other

This next photo is very stark. It’s a mother and child at the Wilson Bridge, again, underneath of it. They’re walking in the sliver of sunlight that occurs between both spans. The way the photo is processed and the way I shot it was underexposed intentionally to bring out that kind of dramatic black and white look. I just thought the photo really spoke to me about the time.

The scene spoke to me about the time that we’re in. I felt that this exposition again showed social distance but also the fear, right? Here’s this mother walking this child in this narrow sliver of light, the path to the good life, but on both sides there’s darkness. I feel like that’s very much kind of like what a lot of us feel right now.

Spring Brings Beauty

At the same time, one of the things that happens during this time of year is spring. I think to ignore the beauty that’s out there is to ignore reality in some ways. I think to not be present would be a mistake. I’ve been cognizant of the beauty around me. I’ve definitely taken some nature shots.

This next photo which is a sunrise at Dyke’s Marsh, which you saw earlier with the woman with the mask. It was taken actually on my smartphone. I was walking the dog. It was beautiful out. I live three quarters of a mile from the scene right here. The trees were just starting to bud. It was really, really just so beautiful, great sunrise. I’ve seen this so many times I don’t even bring my camera anymore. I paid for it, but I still kind could capture and I’m grateful for that.

Then the next shot was the full moon, which happened I think a week and a half ago, at least when I recorded this podcast. You can see the evolution of the tree line here. This is what I just called this one Moonlight. But it’s kind of interesting to see the difference between the sky and the light, but they still look the same, right? The smallness of the sun, the smallness of the moon, but you can see the foliage is advancing, spring is moving forward. It was just a really, really pretty, beautiful scene.

Then the next photo is, of course, the moon itself and the beautiful color it had. This was shot the night before the moonlight one. This is the actual full moon. But along with the arrival of spring is the arrival of wildlife. We are seeing the leaves come and the flowers, like those cherry blossoms earlier come.

When I shot the full moon photo, right in front of me was a nest for osprey. This bird here in the shot was just looking right at me. I was looking right at him. He was maybe about 40 yards away from me. I took his portrait. I think it’s really beautiful.

It really actually reminds me of an autumn scene, but because it was shot right before sunset, you can see that there was lots of gold light and the trees aren’t all the way out. You have I guess some maples of the distance and some of those red buds that are on the trees, which created this look. If you had told me that this was shot in I guess it was early, early April, I would laugh at you. I would say, “No way. That’s October on the way.”

But just to show you that not all these are green, this next shot, which is a sunrise through some maple trees was actually shot in my backyard because there’s a maple tree back there. It’s just so pretty out right now. It’s so nice to see the world come alive again, especially during this time. It lifts my spirits. I can’t speak for you, but it makes the coronavirus and the COVID-19 scare a lot better.

I’ve also taken shots of eagles and flowers and all sorts of stuff. I’m pretty much unapologetic about my wide range of shooting right now. I think we have to see creativity and find creativity and inspiration where we can. Right now where we can is right in front of us. In some ways that’s very limiting, but in some ways that’s very much a nice challenge to take on. By breathing and being present and just taking a moment to look around me, I can often find things to photograph.

Practicing in the Home Studio

I do photograph people quite a lot, that’s for work. I photograph models just to practice. Often I’m probably photographing people at least once, probably more likely two or three times a week. One of the things I’m making myself do, I’m setting up a photoshoot, usually a self-portrait. It’s a little bit hard during the week because I still am working remotely, but most weekends I seem to do something.

The first shoot I did was me as a fraudster. I was just kind of playing on the whole coronavirus outfit that everybody wears. I got to wear gloves, I got to wear a face covering. I work in a cybersecurity group. I just laughed.  Everybody’s got to wear bandit’s mask now, wear gloves and show up to the store like you’re like a little gangster or a fraudster.

If you walked into a bank or a store dressed like this two months ago, you’d be in so much trouble. But now it’s like, “Please don’t come in unless you’re wearing this.” I just think it’s one of those crazy things that is noteworthy from a photography standpoint.

Now, a lot of photojournalists are just going out there and capturing those images. I kind of like making fun of them a little bit. That’s just my sense of humor as a photographer.

This next one takes it a little further, which is me with a skull mask on. Wearing a skull, I guess a gaiter. I get them at I found them when I was in Patagonia 11 years ago. You could see the skull is making a smile on my face, but it’s really kind of creepy, almost a Day of the Dead shoot. I don’t know, just having fun with it. That’s just my sense of humor.

This next picture is me with some dramatic light (this photo was Explored on Flickr). You wouldn’t know it from the background, but it’s actually still the same red background in all three of these photos, changing to blue this weekend. But with this particular photo, I found myself wanting to get some drama and really kind of take a half portrait.

It reminds me of my mom a little bit because she was an astrologer. I’m a Gemini so she’d always explained everything to me from the Gemini standpoint. “Well, it’s because you have this Gemini point of view that you see the world like this and you also see it like that.”

This photo kind of shows the two sides of a person that’s a Gemini. It definitely made me think of her after I saw it in camera. I crunched it up pretty tightly. You can see that with all the detail [and clarity] on the forehead. I made sure that there were some extra clarity and sharpness for those of you that are editing fans.

Time with Soleil

I mentioned earlier that family and the people we’re with right now are some of the most important things to photograph. It’s funny because my photoshoot this weekend is going to be a family portrait with me, myself and my wife Caitlin and my daughter, Soleil.

One of the amazing things that’s been happening over the past four weeks has been the ability to hang out with my daughter Solei and to see her grow a little more closely. She grows so quickly still even though she’s nine and a half.

This next photo is her with a friend, Blake. Blake is one of her besties, if not her bestie. We decided after communicating with Blake and her family in particular that we would agree to get together and social distance together. They hadn’t been in contact with anybody for several weeks. We hadn’t been in contact with anybody for several weeks outside of the usual get the groceries kind of thing.

We took the risk. This was 10 days ago, nobody got sick. But the reason we did it was so that my daughter can learn how to ride a bicycle. She had fallen down when she was almost five and a half, almost six, and went head over the bike and really scraped herself up and refused to get back on. Now she wants to start riding. Blake was also a late learner and had some tips and a couple of trainer bikes.

Soleil did learn how to ride, but more than anything, just the two of them together again, seeing each other. The poor kids that can’t hang out and play with each other right now. It’s so hard, right?

They were like two peas in a pod. You can see they climbed the shed and were hanging out up there away from the adults. They had a great time. You could see that in this photo, the joy of reunion. I think that to miss moments like this [would be] a mistake.

Soleil’s friend’s dad, Reid, is a guy who also has a government job, but is a metal worker. He was firing away in the backyard. I asked him if I could take some pics of him doing some of his work. Sure enough, here’s Reid doing some metalwork.

I love this photograph. Not just because of the dramatic light coming out of the torch, but actually because of the dramatic light. Not just the sparks, but crepuscular rays coming out of the torch, just amazing and bouncing back against his mask. You can see how bright it is because of how dark the rest of the image is. I mean, that’s broad daylight. It was pretty cool to see Reid do his thing. It was nice of him to let me take a shot of him, because again I love photographing people.

Then there’s a photo of the girl biking. Again, that same light that the mother and daughter were in photographed a little differently to obviously make it more playful and then still the lights a little bit blue. It’s moving towards dusk pretty quickly. There was a lot of clouds in the air. What are you going to do, right?

Finally, there is another photo of Soleil on a cloudy day (above), but in a field of wild violets. She just happened to be wearing a purple shirt. It just was a great photograph and really fun to, again, spend so much time with my daughter right now. I guess that’s really the silver lining of the coronavirus era.

The Road Back to Creativity

I was thinking how this started with my mom and her passing away. We’re seeing a lot of death right now, but there’s also a lot of life around us. We can choose to suffer, to be miserable or we can choose to enjoy those moments around us.

There are many, many great moments to be had. I can mourn or I could choose to be with the living. I do a little bit of both right now, but I’m really grateful for the stuff that’s alive and awesome and wild.

With that, I’ll show you one more photo, which is this image of an old Thunderbird ’55 toy car. I shot this underneath the Wilson Bridge. I kind of set it up so there’d be some nice leading lines to the car. I just love this photograph.

It’s so much fun. It’s got that vibrant pink and the vibrant kind of blue sky in the background. It reminds me of Cuba and the time I went down there with the Focus on the Story guys, but I completely came up with this. I had that cast iron toy for like a year to do a photograph like this. I never seemed to have the time. Now I can, so I did.

I have another cast iron car. I’m sure you’ll see that one at some point too. More than anything, this is a time to get creative, get out of the box, do things that we’ve always wanted to do or maybe thought about doing, but never did do with our photography.

My friends, don’t let the coronavirus or COVID-19 stop you. Enjoy yourself, have fun and keep shooting. I can’t wait to see your stuff online. Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Show Me podcast.