“’There is no death, daughter. People die only when we forget them,’ my mother explained shortly before she left me. ‘If you can remember me, I will be with you always.’” ~ Isabel Allende
There are as many reasons that people come to me for portraits as there are people who want them. Usually, it’s to commemorate a celebratory event or to mark a watershed moment in their lives. Happiness, confidence and satisfaction are often the key themes, sometimes combining all three at once. It’s common to incorporate a touch of fantasy in most portraits as we capture the moments more as people want to remember them, rather than how they are exactly.
And then Lesley came to my studio.
An engineer by trade, Lesley described herself as logical, practical and pensive. She hasn’t had much need nor want for portraits most of her life. She’d always had a mixed opinion on imagery – favouring creative portraiture with dramatic lighting, baffled by the “run-of-the-mill portraits of smiling women in fields with flowers in their hair”, and never saw herself as the subject of any of them, personally. When she contacted me, she wasn’t quite sure what she was looking for, except that she knew she needed … something. That’s really where her story begins …
She met Mike at the very end of 2010. They instantly clicked, the way that only two people who were meant to be together ever could. Both fiercely private people, they opened up to each other as if it were second nature. In every way, they complimented each other perfectly. Within three weeks, they were inseparable. As Lesley put it “January 18, 2011, is the day our hearts were married”. Little did they know then that they would be saying their final goodbyes only 1356 days later.
On October 4, 2014, Mike passed away from organ failure.
They only had one picture of themselves together and it was from that same day. Neither had been fond of having their pictures taken, always living in the moment privately. Even before Mike came into her life, Lesley shied away from the camera as she never felt that the images captured ever showed who she really was. As many of us do out of habit, the smiles we put on in the moment before the shutter clicks are forced or awkward or simply a mask, something expected of us rather than anything genuine from us. The absence of any other pictures from their short time together was as hard for Lesley to come to terms with as was Mike’s death. She came to realise that “those pictures are for the people you leave behind”. So, she came to me.
We talked a good long time in that first meeting. We talked about her experience, her feelings, sometimes about nothing specific at all, but eventually we discovered what she needed: some way to confront what she was carrying, what she hadn’t fully dealt with and to do so in front of the camera. She could let it all out and capture it, preserving those feelings not unlike an ancient mosquito preserved in amber. She’d be able to take look at those images and know that the feelings were real without having to carry them with her daily. It wouldn’t heal the scars but it would help to start healing her heart, something she hadn’t really been able to do in the past eighteen months. She brought Mike’s pillow, something she hasn’t been able to part with, so that a piece of his spirit would be captured as well.
Looking at the frames after her session, Lesley came to realise that she has an amazingly expressive face – something she’d never seen before. As the images scrolled past in sequence, the full range of emotion being played out frame by frame, it was physically possible to see how memory gave way to grief, grief to pain, and, eventually, pain to a kind of peace. Her silence was only broken when she said “This is exactly what I wanted. Thank you”.
In return, all I can say is ‘you’re welcome’. That and thank you for letting me be a part of your journey. I didn’t have a chance to know Mike myself but, through you, I believe that he was very much worth knowing.
Peace be with you both.