This past October, my family and I were evacuated from our home as fires raged through Sonoma County, California. We filled our car with everything that matters most to us. As we gathered these items, I passed by my favorite shoes I’d splurged on, the dress I thought I couldn’t live without, the teal Le Creuset pot I use almost daily, my custom Italian dishes, mementos from our international trips, and furniture we’d spent weeks picking out. So many things that I treasure, yet when this horrific fire threatened to destroy them all, they were nowhere near as valuable to us as the things that made it into our vehicle.
What we drove off with included our important documents, computers, camera and a small overnight bag, but 85 percent of our what-matters-most items were our family photographs. As we drove to a safer location for the night, I was at peace in knowing that if I lost everything, we would be OK. At the same time, though, I felt a sense of guilt and sorrow for the thousands of families who had no time to gather their matters-most possessions.
When all that we love is threatened, our memories matter most
My thoughts drifted back 4 years earlier to November 2013, and my first experience with total devastation in a natural disaster. A tornado had torn through Washington, Illinois, just seven blocks from my photography studio, and demolished more than 1,000 homes. I remember pacing back and forth in my own home, miles from ground zero, feeling completely helpless as I watched the devastation on television. In my state of shock, I was startled when my phone rang within a couple of hours after the tornado touched down. It was a client. He said, “Julia, my family and I are here and safe, but we lost everything. Can you help me comfort my wife by telling her you will be able to replace our wall portraits and albums?” I emphatically reassured him that yes, I had their negatives and files and would be able to remake them right away. Many more calls like this came in over the next few hours.
Before calling the insurance company to gain a sense of financial security, before calling a builder or real estate agent to ensure a safe shelter for their family in the near future, and even before buying more than the clothes they had on their back, these families called their photographer! Each of them knew it was their photographs that would be the most crucial element in their finding a sense of belonging and normalcy.
These clients hadn’t had the opportunity to gather what they valued most before escaping the tornado’s devastation, but their photographs were the first thing they thought about in its wake. My family and I had a few days to consider the threat of the fires moving through our county, and then several hours notice of the high winds that could have pushed the fires into our neighborhood and down our street. With the time to think clearly, the first possessions we began piling up by the front door in preparation for possible evacuation were our photographs.
In both situations, when every material possession was taken or threatened, photographs were what mattered most. Think about that — photographs, images printed on paper or canvas! Trying to describe the power of a photograph is like trying to explain what love is. Language falls short, but this is what I can say:
Portraits hang in our home as daily reminders of what we love most. Our wedding albums become a yearly pilgrimage back to the day our family history began. Baby books are nearly memorized by our children, who are full of wonder and questions about their early years. Pictures of family vacations represent happy times together and bring smiles to our faces for years to come. Boxes of snapshots become hours of entertainment and connection when the family goes through them together. Photographs frame our lives. Many of our photographs are clearly etched in our mind forever, yet the ability to touch them and see them hanging in our home brings us a sense of foundation, security, and connection that is priceless.
Photographs teach, promote, change, and transport us at a glance, and you and I get the honor and privilege of being among the world’s professional photographers, paid to create these powerful and priceless moments in our clients’ histories. As one National Geographic photographer said, “A photograph is never taken, but always given” (as quoted by Robert Draper in “The Power of Photography,” National Geographic, October 2013 issue).
What we have the power to give the world is something extremely significant to consider. Each time we pick up our camera, we embrace an opportunity to capture what could become a priceless matters-most possession.
I invite you to soak that in today in a new and powerful way.