One of the realest truths that your parents every told you when you were a kid is that life is not fair. This is brutally obvious when you encounter a child like Joaquin, when you meet a mother like Sara Aluffi.
A friend contacted me through social media to make me aware of a charity event being organized as a benefit to fund the research to find a cure for Duchenne’s disease, a form of Muscular Dystrophy. I contacted the organizer and agreed to get some photos of the event. I have a busy schedule, so I didn’t have much time to research in advance of the event, but I figured I would show up get a couple dozen great photos for them and call it a day.
Another truth that many of us have experienced is that there is no love fiercer than a mother’s. What I discovered on Sunday is that there may be a stronger love; a community’s love for a family.
When I showed up to the parking area I started to see how big this event was going to be. Entire fields were full of cars with parking attendants directing traffic to the few remaining spots. A shuttle took us up to the house where the party took place. I was completely blown away by the turnout. Extra Large was playing, people were dancing, drinks were flowing and the mood was high. I started to photograph guests and everyone was happy to pose for the camera wanting to give anything and everything they could to the event. This was a community showing love to the fullest.
I saw so many great people as I walked around and it had the feel of a huge happy family reunion. Kids were running wild, getting their faces painted, playing on a bounce house, drinking lemonade and the adults were eating BBQ and enjoying a few cold ones in the shade. It was as good as parties get.
As I walked around I kept asking if anyone had seen Joaquin. I figured that the day might be a little overwhelming for him, so I didn’t want to force anything, but I wanted to get a photo of him for his mom. Everyone I asked said they hadn’t seen him. At one point during the day, I stopped and looked at an educational poster describing the disease. It is a genetic disorder that makes muscles break down over time and causes problems with the heart. Without a cure this leads children with this condition to rely upon a wheelchair by the time they are teenagers and most don’t survive their mid-20s.
As I read this poster, my heart sunk. I didn’t know Sara before this event, but I had seen glimpses of how much work it was and it made me tired just seeing her stories on Instagram. As I realized what was fueling her passion I froze in my tracks. Life is not fair. I looked around at the amazing smiling people and now I saw their hearts behind their happiness. These were families and anyone who has a child they love more than life itself understands in the core of their being what this means. Life is not fair.
I stayed till the end of the party getting as many good photos as I could and finally took the shuttle back down to the parking lot. I asked on the way down, one final time, if anyone had seen Joaquin.
“Yeah I saw him. He was playing up by the bounce house.”
I had to go back. I took the shuttle back up and re-entered the party looking for Joaquin. I asked a woman who was organizing some paperwork from the day.
“He’s right there!”
She turned around and there he was on the dance floor getting his groove on. I walked up to him and asked if he wanted a picture. Pizza on his face and shirt, a tired smile on his face, he stopped, looked at me and said “cheese!” I snapped a few frames and left him to return to his blissful dance. Right there, looking into that beautiful boy’s face I had an epiphany. The party was overwhelming to me. There were so many people and so much energy that it was exhausting, and here was this sweet five year old wearing a plastic firefighter’s hat two stepping to a reggae song.
Life is not fair, but it’s also a great mystery. There’s so much we don’t know about it. I’ll tell you this, though, when you have a child you love it connects you to the entire history of the human race and when you meet a boy like Joaquin it can inspire you to believe in angels. Life is not fair, but it’s beautiful, and what we don’t know may save us.
I want to make sure that I express myself clearly. I love collaborations. They are important, and feedback is necessary to get something published with someone else. I want to do more writing with other brands, and I have become really good at working through the process of receiving notes.
I just wanted to mention how it also has reminded me that the best writing I do is when I do it alone. The thing is, the blogs I’m writing for other businesses serve more purposes than just for the sake of good writing. They are helping the search engines find them, they are providing valuable content to potential customers, and they are representing the character and mission of that business.
Obviously, I could never do that on my own. I see it as an interesting challenge: to work in collaboration with people who know a ton more about their business and field of expertise.
I also realized that I want to do more writing that is just my own, because it feels good to have that kind of creative control. It helps to keep you sharp. When it comes to art there is nothing more important. And everyone can publish their own work, make their own art. So we are responsible for our own level of enthusiasm and skill in our work.
Portraiture is another kind of collaboration. When you photograph another person, even if it is for the sole intention of making art, you are doing a dance with that person. You have to be careful to lead with confidence, to stay connected through eye contact, and to make sure not to step on their toes.
I have the pleasure to work on portraits with a lot of wonderful people, and on Tuesday, I did a photographic series with my friend Samantha. Now Sammie is a beautiful woman, inside and out. We have done a number of shoots over the years and have developed a very trusting relationship. So, I was super excited when she agreed to have me photograph her in her bedroom. I think that a person’s environment says so much about them.
We agreed to meet up in the evening after she got home from work. The light was soft and beautiful in her bedroom and we got some beautiful shots of her reading in bed. Upon walking around her home, however, I discovered some evening light beaming through the windows on the other side of the house. I asked if she would want to shoot in that light, too.
I think that a lot of what a model experiences during a shoot depends upon the energy the photographer is emitting. When you aren’t super happy about the shots you’re getting it is easy for them to tell. When you get a frame that you know is going to be great, however, your excitement is contagious. While I had wanted to photograph her in her bedroom, it turned out the living room had much more interesting light, and it was a lot easier to direct her when I was excited about the light.
Collaborations in photography are an art, and they require being open to experimentation, but also being honest about how you feel during the process of the shoot. When you are happy about the results you’re getting, it helps the whole thing to flow.
I love writing in this Starbucks. There’s something about the corporate feel of the place that brings out my creativity. An instinctive desire for balance prompts me to dig deeper into the recesses of thought to find something gritty and grimy when I sit here. There are other coffee shops close by more brightly lit with more conventionally attractive people and lots of air plants to take selfies in front of but those places feel so uptight and to me it’s sometimes stifling. It’s a class thing, I’m certain.
That’s why I like this Starbucks; it’s more working class. It’s corporate, of course, but not exactly shiny. It’s tarnished and dirty and hosts a cast of unsavory characters, just how I like it. There’s no particular kind of denim you need to wear to fit in and nobody’s sporting an ironic t-shirt. There are people of color, people of all ages, and people with handicaps. It feels like the good kind of American to me. There are other coffee shops in town with a similar working class feel, but it’s 6:30 and they’re already closed. I can’t respect a coffee shop that closes at 6. This may not be Manhattan, but it’s no Myrtle Creek, either. This Starbucks is full to capacity and we’re only a mile away from that other blue collar shop. Being cosmopolitan or provincial has more to do with your mental space than your physical one, especially these days.
But your physical space matters, too, which is why I’m here at this Starbucks surrounded by regular people reading and writing and doing regular things. It’s a happy medium. And happiness matters. It’s a confusing time to say the least but that’s probably always been true for humans. Can you really think of a time in history when everything seemed dandy? I can’t. There’s always been injustice and uncertainty with apocalyptic possibility never far enough away to feel secure. Still, Steely Dan wrote great songs even while the Cold War raged. Because, even when we know that it all could go to hell in a flash, that there is nothing fixed but the election, that all of our efforts and dreams could be crushed in an arrogant instant, we still have to do what’s inside us to do. That’s the human condition; we are swan diving into the great unknown.
It’s in times like these that we need grace. Remember that you are human and that is a tremendous thing to be. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, to feel stressed and depressed. But, succeed or fail, it matters little from the point of view of falling. What matters is style. You have to choose how you are going to be. Are you going to be happy and peaceful, or are you going to be belligerent and grotesque? Many many things are beyond your power to choose, but you can choose this: will you be kind?
This is a kind of meditation, this practice of grace, and it is a powerful way of being human. Recently, I’ve had the chance to work with some people who embody this sense of style this presence of goodness. While I like drinking my coffee and writing among regular folk, it’s an honor to do photography with some truly beautiful souls.
The kind of beauty I’m talking about is much more than a physical appearance. It’s a disposition towards the universe. It’s an aspiration to be good, to act with a respect for others, to be helpful, to add value, to shine light in dark times, and to be human.
Meditation is so hot right now. Actually, it’s been pretty popular since sometime around the 6th century B.C.E. when Siddhartha Gautama used it to become enlightened. Subsequently, Buddhism arose and grew to become one of the world’s biggest religions spreading the practice of meditation throughout Asia and the world, growing and changing forms through time and place. The thing that remained constant despite whatever other changes transpired has been the practice of meditation.
Buddhism and meditation became popular in the United States during the 20th century through a variety of teachers and practitioners including Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac and more recently Jack Kornfield, Ken Wilber and Noah Levine among countless others. It’s been a big part of California culture especially since the 60s and the rise of the counterculture alongside the rise of psychedelics. There’s a collection of essays entitled Zig Zag Zen that explores the relationship between psychedelics and meditation. During the radical decade of the 60s and now, people in California became actively interested in finding ways to create mental breakthroughs. Certain historical periods call for this kind of change.
Who couldn’t use a little enlightenment during heavy and dark times? The thing is, it’s hard to know how to practice meditation effectively. That’s why we need teachers. My grandfather was Buddhist and Quaker and practiced meditation on a daily basis. He held two Ph.D.s: one in Philosophy and one in East Asian Religion and wrote about how those worlds combined and overlapped. What meditation did for my grandfather has always inspired me. He was a seeker and learned a lot about meditation and followed it up with practice. Lots of people use meditation, today, and it has never been more important as we face monumental challenges together.
That is why I was really excited for the opportunity to meet and work with Martina Lin, a meditation specialist in Santa Cruz. During our first meeting I was seriously impressed by her presence. Just talking to her had a calming effect. I always strive to do my best when doing someone’s portrait, but I was especially excited to work with someone doing something so important.
We ended up finding a great window of time together, too. Our portrait session ended up taking place during two separate times as the first meeting was during high tide with a huge swell and that made accessing the rock formation I wanted to work on top of impossible. The second time we met, the skies were clear and the tide was low, so we had full access to the space and a great golden hour. Again, in her presence I felt calm and grounded. Some people have this special thing that you can’t quite explain but can feel, and whether it’s something she was born with or something she cultivated through practice, Martina has this quality. Check out Martina’s 7-day Meditation Challenge and book a session with her to take your meditation practice to another level or to start one if you don’t already meditate. And book a portrait session with me if you have something you are trying to promote your business, an event, or if you just want to record this moment in time.
At the time of this writing, there are approximately 7.6 billion people living on this planet according to the Worldometers website. The United States alone has more than 325 million people and we are only the third largest country behind India and China. NPR recently published an article about the United Nations study, which projects that the population will grow to 11.2 billion by the end of the century, but (good news) also that it will likely plateau at that point. That is, the population will reach and stay at 11.2 billion if we survive as a species that long.
These numbers are difficult to imagine, but they nowhere compare to estimates of how many stars there are in the universe. According to a 2013 article in The Atlantic: “There are roughly a septillion stars in the observable universe. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. Which is, for lack of a more fitting description … a lot of stars.” This article also cites a funny and entertaining science YouTube channel called Minute Physics which explains that there are only about 5,000 stars that we can see with the naked eye.
All of this is to say that stars are actually much more common than people. We just don’t always see things that way. So, we end up using the figure of the star as a metaphor to describe someone we see as being extremely rare. When, even if we reach 11.2 billion people, there would still be 892,857,142,857,143, or 893 trillion stars for each person. Maybe there are other reasons to compare people to stars, though. For one thing, stars are the main source of light in the universe, which is why they are important to photographers. No stars, no photo. Humans, as walking talking living breathing experiences of consciousness are a source of light, too.
It’s more than their light, though that makes stars and humans similar. Stars are beyond all else mysterious. Where do they come from? Why do they do what they do? What happens when they are gone? Humans are mysterious as stars and for the same reasons. As much as we might want to define people, to give them labels, to judge them according to various ethical standards at the end of it all there is something deeply unknowable about the human being. And being human is a tricky and complicated thing, to say the least.
This is partly what makes portraiture so powerful. When you really respect what it means to be human, the act of portraying a person is a profound thing to attempt. This shoot in particular was inspired by the stars which is what got me thinking these cosmic thoughts, lol. My friend Danielle is organizing a classical music concert around the theme of Starry Night with a visual art element as well as piano and singing and I’m helping her to promote the event. For this shoot, she arranged to have her hair and makeup done by the amazingly talented Nadine Michelle at Purity Salon on Soquel St. in Santa Cruz. Nadine did a fantastic job with her styling and she put on the dress she’ll be performing in and we set out to get some shots.
First, we went out to the point that divides Main Beach and Seabright Beach. This spot is great for portraits as you can stand out close to the water and have a great distance between the subject and the background. The light was soft and subtle and illuminated Danielle, her hair, and her costume beautifully. Next, we drove over to Capitola Village to take advantage of the holiday lights to create a starry bokeh effect. I think both locations created beautiful portraits and will do well to help raise awareness and sell tickets for the event, which is going to be a really interesting experience for everyone who gets to see and hear the art.
You are a star, too. In fact, you’re much more special than a star, far more rare. You should have your portrait done, too and I know just the guy to do it. In fact, Nadine and I would love to team up again to give you a look that you’ll love to share with your friends, that will help you to promote your happenings, and that will give the grandkids a kick someday. Or you could just keep taking selfies with your phone. Your choice.