While attending a conference for creatives a few years ago, I was asked by three women to photograph them together. None of us knew what to expect when we were setting up for the shoot, but it quickly became apparent that something magical was happening. That shoot impacted all of us and sent ripples out in to the world that are still being felt.
These three women were survivors of breast cancer. All three were post mastectomy. One had chosen reconstruction, one had chosen to stay flat, and one had the reconstruction, but after ten years, was facing another surgery.
Our session started with a simple group shot. By the time it was over, they had all posed nude, both individually and together. It was one of the most powerful and meaningful moments any of us had ever experienced.
That was the beginning.
Since that day, I have been asked to photograph many thrivers - with cancer, of disfiguring surguries, of poor self image. Somehow, all of them found their way to my studio, not really knowing what to expect. Every single of them one left with a newly found strength. The experience of being there... being photographed... it changed them. It changed us both.
When Ren and I started incorporating the body paint, people began coming to us to become living works of art. The process of being painted allowed them to see themselves differently. Some saw beauty. Some saw strength. Some seemed to see their inner selves for the very first time. The photography became even more powerful. I found myself creating talismans of their experience... a physical manifestation of the change... something tangible that could draw them back in, to remeber their experience for years after.
Despite all of the overwhelming evidence, it still took me a while to realize the power of what was happening. It took a client messaging me after a photo session, describing how healing the process had been, and how much he appreciated me taking the time to photograph his scars.
In that moment, I realized the the true power of this work. In that moment, I knew I had to take a step into a bigger world.
Photography. Body paint. Artistic nudes. Humans in water. Whatever opened the door. I wanted to remind people that they are still people... not defined by their disease. I wanted people to know they are loved and appreciated for who they are, not just what they are going through. I wanted people to see their beauty.
The Serenity Project was born. It is about healing. Acceptance. Embracing what is. Finding beauty in the moment. It is about the healing power of art. Holding a sacred space. About really listening.
It is about hope.
It is about being seen.
And it is about telling our stories.
Yesterday, I got to go diving again.
It wasn't the Caribbean or Tahiti or anything. In fact, I dived in what remains of the old Gray quarry just 20 minutes from my house. At first glance, it didn't look like much. The water had lots of leaves in it, and from the surface, at least, it was smaller than I expected.
The visibility is surprisingly good - not like the Keys or a freshly cleaned pool - but in broad daylight, as long as no one stirs up the silt, visibility is 30 ft or more. The local dive clubs that maintain the place, have cleaned it out, added an aeration system, and even dropped in attractions of sorts.
There is a school bus, a vintage fire engine, lots of statues, a jet ski, a motor boat, and a fair amount of brim, bass, and even a couple of Koi fish.
This was my deepest dive to date - 66 ft. I have been hesitant to go to that kind of depth for several reasons. The biggest is responsibility. At that depth, there are serious consequences for making a mistake or not paying attention. I am well trained in every possible scenario - and how to deal with it - but until I am faced with those things in real life, I never really KNOW how I will react.
Another is that I am, first and foremost, an artist. Light doesn't travel too well in water, and things at that depth are generally dull - unless you add sophisticated external lighting. Add to that the fact that you can dive nearly 3 times as long on a tank in shallower water, and the entire thing lacks the appeal of a shallow water dive.
There is also the fact that I am not one of those people who do a thing just because I can. (See? Movies like Jurassic Park can provide teachable moments.)
So... what was it like? In a word? Awesome.
The first thing I noticed was that it didn't feel any different than diving in 25 ft of water. My body, movements, breathing, sensations - all felt remarkably similar. Had I not looked at my gauges, I would have had no concept of how deep I was.
Until I looked up.
It is hard to describe. Keep in mind that 65 ft is roughly as deep as a 7 story building is tall.
Normally, when looking up in a pool or even on a shallow reef in the Keys, you see the sky. You can make out clouds, birds flying over, the bottom of your dive boat... At 65 feet, all you see is your bubbles, and a faint light. Exhale, and the bubbles march topside and disappear from your field of vision before they break the surface.
And then there is the mental side of things. You know - I mean KNOW - that the only air you have is what is in your tank. Heading to the surface is a methodical process, with multi minute stops along the way. Feel a little claustrophobic? Get water in your nose? Start choking? Dive light go out? Feel a panic attack coming on? Tough toenails. A rapid trip to the surface ends up with you in the hospital, or dead. It is a total head trip.
Then there are the other divers. Diving is, at its core, a group sport. You dive with a buddy at the very least, and often with a group. Being the person that causes the entire dive group to have to surface is rather intimidating - and is sometimes the reason people wait until it is too late before they make their discomfort known to the others.
I did have an episode on my second dive. I was swimming along on the bottom and out of nowhere, I felt like I couldn't breath out fast enough. At first, I didn't panic. I just... noticed. After a minute or two, I felt a slight panic. Again, nothing major, but it gave me pause. I have heard stories of seasoned divers with advanced training having panic attacks out of nowhere. I closed my eyes, concentrated on breathing slowly and deliberately, and the feeling eventually passed. It was unnerving, but I am glad it happened. I now know something about myself that I didn't before.
Overall, I was pretty pleased with how things went. I made some new friends, heard interesting stories, got to hang out with an old friend I had not seen in quite some time, and even tried chocolate covered black licorice 🙂
I am sure I will dive here again, and I will likely end up on deeper ocean dives. If nothing else, by doing it here, I now know that I CAN.
Life is like that, sometimes <3
I have just officially set dates for the summer class schedule at KDS! So incredibly excited! If you have been wanting to kick your photo skills up a notch, or just want to come expand your horizons a bit, I would love to be part of the process. The photography basics is three hours, and is being offered four times late May and early June. Come visit the studio, learn something, share your interests, and connect with other photo enthusiasts.
Looking forward to seeing you there!