Three minutes into the conversation, I knew this was going to be one of the most memorable sessions I would ever do. What I didn’t expect were the lessons this experience would teach me and how they would unfold over the years.
They were a family of four with a new baby boy, and they wanted to capture this precious moment. On the phone, the mom told me how she and her husband had struggled to conceive a second time. Unfortunately, they got the good news they were expecting at about the same time they got the bad news that their five-year-old daughter, Olivia, had been diagnosed with leukemia.
Olivia was overjoyed to have a baby brother. When the family arrived for their session that winter, she wanted to be in every portrait, asking questions about my equipment and props. She was an old soul, wise and serene for her age, yet she filled her diaries with rainbows and unicorns. She had deep brown eyes and a bright smile framed by golden hair. Originally booked as a newborn session, it turned into so much more: a family session, a sibling session, the celebration of a girl becoming a big sister, of a new member arriving to the family, of parents taking in all the happy moments. They knew they had a difficult journey ahead, but for now they were basking in the love of their family of four, the family they’d longed to have.
And there I was, doing my best to hold time still.
Olivia started her treatments shortly after our session. One day that spring my phone rang and I saw the call was from Olivia’s mom. My heart skipped a beat, not knowing what I was going to hear. After three long months of treatment, Olivia was scheduled to be discharged from the hospital. Although it would be a very different kind of session than I typically do, the family wanted me to capture this moment. I couldn’t say no. It was an honor, and I was overjoyed.
This session was the opposite of my typical process: It was documentary, with natural light, in a hospital. But I was excited about capturing the moment. Seeing her again was a blessing. Her front teeth were gone and so was her hair, but she still had that warmth that pulled you into her soul. Her room was an ode to unicorns and rainbows. Her extended family was there, cheering for her, happy that she would finally have a chance to be a girl who goes to school, who runs, who takes trips, and who dreams beyond hospital walls.
The hospital wall bears a plaque with this inscription: “Ring this bell three times well, its toll to clearly say, My treatment’s done, this course is run, and I am on my way!” She pronounced the words and rang the bell. There was not a dry eye around. This girl was something else. She was a unicorn because the impossible was real and there she was, her toothless smile as big as the sky, ready to leave those walls and chase the rainbows in her life.
What a lesson this was. I realized that being a photographer goes beyond capturing moments. The memories of people, of families, are in our hands. It’s our responsibility to tell these stories and keep them alive. We’re doing more than painting with light, than being creative, than nailing composition. We’re creating the one thing that remains when everything else is gone. When someone calls and asks us to do that, we must give our all. Maybe it will be one of hundreds of happy memories for that person. Or maybe it is the last one.
Olivia passed away that fall. She relapsed, and her cancer returned. The last time I spoke with her mom before Olivia’s death, they’d been at the hospital for three weeks. And then there was silence, a difficult silence. As photographers we feel somewhat linked to families we’ve worked with. We’re emotionally connected through what we created together. On the other hand, we’re just the photographer, not a family member, not a friend. We are outsiders who are invited to share a brief moment with our clients. We lend our talent and our heart.
I learned that Olivia had passed away almost two months after the fact. In those two months I dreamed about her constantly. Concepts of images showing her strength and her journey would come to mind. I felt an urgency to contact her mom and pitch portrait ideas. But something stopped me. I was scared of what I might learn. A friend I have in common with Olivia’s mother relayed the news, not knowing I had met and photographed Olivia. My heart broke.
And then I understood. During those two months, this cheerful soul was trying to tell me to contact her mom, to offer her all the portraits I had, the ones she didn’t purchase after our sessions. Writing that letter to mom and dad was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. What do you say to bereaved parents? What words could possibly bring solace?
I heard back from Olivia’s mom a few weeks later. We agreed to meet so I could deliver the images in a beautiful box I’d designed. Honestly, I needed a hug, too. I was just the photographer, but I was grieving. I wanted to talk about Olivia, to hear if her summer wishes came true. Selfishly, I needed closure. But COVID-19 social distancing and the quarantine started, forcing us to cancel our meeting for the foreseeable future. I waited a couple of months before mailing Olivia’s portraits to her mom and dad. They received them and said they were a ray of sunshine in very dark days.
Today, more than a year after that beautiful girl left this world, it still hurts to realize she’s not here. I think of her often. I think of her baby brother and how young he was when she passed—too young to remember how excited his big sister was to hold him, how many times she kissed him at his newborn session.
Never had it occurred to me that a person you barely knew could leave such a lasting mark on your life. My few hours with Olivia will always be in my heart. She’s ever-present in my mind and in my work. I see her when I’m getting caught up in the technicalities of my job. She reminds me to focus on the soul, on what matters, on what abides. I’m blessed to have met her, and I’m blessed to have been invited to capture two of her happiest moments.
As photographers, let’s never forget why we do what we do. We’re trusted by strangers, invited briefly into their lives to bring their souls forward and capture their most meaningful relationships. We’re trusted with what scares them and what brings them joy. We’re telling their story for future generations. If we lose sight of this north star, then we should reconsider why we’re in this profession at all.
Marcela Limon, CPP, of Lemonshoots, is based in the San Francisco Bay area.