Back in May I participated in PDX Squared. It was a birthday present to myself: to dedicate 24 hours to pure, creative photography. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a really neat event in the city that anyone can participate in. This year there were 100 photographers (professionals and hobbyists) and everyone was randomly assigned a “square” within city limits. Mine was a several blocks around the N. Williams Avenue corridor. We had 24 hours to shoot any kind of images we wished. After 24 hours the images were submitted into five different categories and then judged before a live audience.
Going into the contest I had very low expectations. I wanted to participate for the sake of art and photography. I saw it as an opportunity to grow a little bit as an artist, to challenge myself to create images for the sake of creating images. It felt a bit like a fun art school exercise and I was excited just to see how it worked and to be a part of something bigger than myself in the local photography community.
When I was shooting for my project, She Inspires 365, I got really good at street photography. Before I had children I had the time and creative energy to walk around the city, or wherever I was traveling, and approach people who I thought looked interesting and might have a powerful story to share. I worked through my fears of talking with strangers and being vulnerable about my work. It built confidence in myself and my photography. Taking pictures has always felt like an intuitive activity for me but apparently, it’s easy to get out of practice in certain aspects of it. It’s hard to take photography of people because you need to have some relationship with the person to take a good portrait (at least that’s my opinion about that). And walking around that day of the contest I just couldn’t bring myself to approach anyone about what I was doing. So I walked the streets and took photos of bees, bicycles and urban landscapes. Then I found the Wishing Tree.
The Wishing Tree is on N. Williams in someone’s front yard. But there’s a clear invitation to come onto their property, write a wish and hang it on the tree. There are thousands of wishes written on little manila slips of paper blowing in the breeze. There was a little boy and his parents there and I snapped a few photos. But I wanted more. So the next morning my husband and I piled the kids in the car and drove back to the tree. I took pictures of my own children making their wishes. That is my current comfort zone: telling a story through pictures. I thought it was really sweet. Then of course my daughter wanted to nurse so we sat down and had “milky”. I have been snapping photos of us breastfeeding since she was born so I decided to shoot a few more. The lighting was lovely and the colors were all complimentary with our clothes and the flowers in the background. These are the kinds of images I’ve been taking for the past few years since becoming a mom: family photography, breastfeeding in public, documentary style portraits of children and motherhood.
Afterwards we bought the kids cookies for helping mom with her contest and then went home for nap and quiet time. I had a couple hours left before the end of the contest so I went back out by myself. I really wanted to see if I could find something “more powerful” to submit. I came across an event at a church near the Wishing Tree — women were sharing their stories of addiction at an AA meeting and it was open to the public. The stories were amazing, the women’s voices powerful and authentic. I wanted so badly to photograph them and share their stories. This was the kind of work I used to do — traveling around the country documenting the stories of women living on reservations, women who were battling addiction and mental illness, women who were survivors of rape and domestic violence. But for several reasons I couldn’t do it. I felt like I would be taking advantage of them for my own benefit. And I had no confidence in myself to think they would be interested in what I was doing. It seemed so small in comparison to the kind of pain and struggle they were sharing.
So I left feeling empty handed and went to the judging feeling a little like a failure. I submitted the sweet photos of my kids and one of me breastfeeding. This is how much my confidence has been worn down these past few years. I have come to think of my work as “less than” because it has to do with motherhood. It’s not powerful National Geographic-type work, or high fashion or commercial. It’s just me and my family and my camera.
The judging began and it was so exciting and intense. Having my work up on a big screen in front of hundreds of people and having three professionals who I greatly respected talking about it was really thrilling and nerve wracking. When they got to the series category the photos of my kids at the Wishing Tree immediately went through to the final round. It went up against a beautiful series of people holding polaroid portraits of themselves and a wacky set of images of a woman and a person in a rabbit costume. In the end my photos won the category and I was blown away. I won some prizes and took some deep breathes. I thought I was going to leave early (this thing was going way past my bedtime) but with that win I decided to stay and support the photographers participating in the other categories. My goal of feeling like part of a community was met.
Then the portrait category was judged. There were beautiful portraits of people fencing, fashion photography, street photography and I thought there was no way my selfie would make the cut. But it won! I could not believe it. In that moment I learned something so important and remembered something I had totally forgotten — motherhood is the most powerful and important job on the planet. Why was I minimizing the connection between a mother and her child? Probably because it was me, for sure. If it wasn’t me I probably would have had more confidence in the image. But anyway, it was such an important experience for me.
I need to remember to value myself and my work. I may not have as many clients as I want right now but I have something more important: two wild little humans who look up to me and who love me. And I have time with them during the young years of their life. I have a family. And one day soon they will both be in school and I’ll have the time and energy to grow my business back up and to hopefully help support my family with my work again. But for now I can keep taking photos of what matters most and allow myself to grow as a photographer through that intimate and personal experience.
I’m grateful to PDX Squared and the judges for reminding me to believe in myself and to not undervalue the power of motherhood and the importance of children making wishes.