During the height of the Vietnam War, an airman named Jay Hess was shot down in the Northern region of Vietnam. Hess was captured by the enemy and was unable to communicate with his family for nearly two years.
Finally, while in Hanoi, his captors let him write a brief message to his family with one catch; he could only write 25 words or less. For two grueling years his family had no idea whether he was dead or alive. Not knowing if he would ever get the opportunity to communicate with them again, he had to methodically and carefully choose his words.
In his letter Hess mentioned a few things pertaining to his religious affiliation but he chose to close his letter with these words: “Press on, set goals, write history, take pictures twice a year.” Of all the things he could have said Hess told his family to “Write history and take pictures twice a year.”
This summer has made me realize the importance of his words. I never realized how important photos were until one of mine appeared in an obituary.
Like most military spouses I have a number of different roles: wife, mother, maid and lastly my professional role — photographer. Let me give a brief recap of the last six months when pertaining to my professional job — I have photographed: 50 families, 6 weddings, 56 child sessions and 13 engagement sessions. The most prominent, influential and memorable statistics from these sessions: Four of the people I took photos of in the last six months will not appear in next year’s photo or any photo from hereafter.
Last Thanksgiving as we were celebrating with family, a conversation sparked that required a call to action. My aunt announced that it had been more than a few years since she had family photos taken. Obviously, given the nature of my career, I insisted that we take a few family photos while we were visiting. The next day they went on a impromptu shopping trip for appropriate picture attire and we spent a good portion of the night taking family photos.
The session got a little outrageous when I started taking candid pictures of my cousin Taylor, who took the definition of crazy to a whole new level (in a good way). It was probably one of the most entertaining and no doubt the most memorable family sessions I have photographed.
At the tender age of 14 years old, my little sister began to be “interested,” in one of the sweetest young men I’ve ever met. Almost three years later in May of this year Zac, her boyfriend, graduated high school and enlisted in the National Guard. Of course, I was excited! I was excited for my sister to experience the same things I experienced when I was dating my husband in his early years in the National Guard: the old fashioned letter writing during basic training, seeing him in his uniform for the first time, and, as cliche as it sounds, watching a boy become a man.
On May 29, I sent MaCail a text message and asked if I could use both her and Zac for a military inspiration shoot. She told me that he hated pictures taken but she would ask him and get back to me.
On May 30 I received a call from my father. Before I answered I had the strangest and unsettling feeling. I picked up the phone and my premonition was reaffirmed. My father, who is usually firm and sure on the phone, was speaking to me in a shaky and broken voice. He had informed me that that Zac had been involved in a swimming accident and had drowned. Immediately I sobbed not only for the loss of a kind-hearted, courageous, and loving young man but also for my little sister, who had lost her best friend.
It wasn’t our average Sunday morning on July 14. My husband and I were moving, yet again, to a new house because he was now on ADOS orders at Camp Williams. I was unpacking when I noticed I had several missed calls from my mother and a text message that said, “Call me when you get this.” My first impression was to wait and call her after I had finished unpacking the box I was working on, but decided to call her back right away.
When she answered that eerie impulse struck me once again. My mom informed me that my cousin, Taylor, had been involved in an ATV accident. I can’t say that the news shocked me because this boy had fallen off cliffs, jumped off houses and broken bones on several occasions. When I asked if he was okay, her voice cracked and she sobbed; he too had passed away. I hit my knees and sobbed once again.
After one of the roughest summers of my short life I have had a number of things come into perspective. One of the most important things I have realized is how important it is to capture everyday life in the raw, and write things down. As I attended the services for both Zac and Taylor I recalled so many memories when looking at all their photos on display. It was then that I realized that those photos are now more priceless than they were before.
Unlike a memory, a picture is raw and accurate, freezing in time that person’s emotions and temperament in that moment. During Taylor’s service I stared at the picture I had taken in November that was now sitting adjacent to his casket and remembered how lively and playful he was. I remembered making him turn sideways so that I couldn’t see the scab on his nose that he gotten from falling of a cliff while canyoneering the week before his session. I remembered how unnatural his fake smile was and exactly what I said to make him smile one of his renowned smiles. I had so many memories stirred by one simple photo.
As I sit here and type on a wet keyboard, the wounds are still fresh when I address Zac’s service. I never got to take the photos I had wanted to take of Zac and MaCail. The only photo I have of them together was an accident. Zac is holding MaCail’s and my little girl’s hands walking in the background of a photo of my son. When I first edited the photo I took all of them out of the background, but immediately after his passing I zoomed in and did what I could to make sure that I could save that moment. I can’t explain how sorry I am for not snapping a photo of MaCail and Zac that day. It would have been so easy and so painless.
There is one constant in the life a military spouse and that constant is CHANGE. The place we call home today may not be the place we call home next month. The man/woman who sleeps in our bed tonight may be absent for months starting tomorrow. Lastly, the cold hard reality that we all know exits but seldom visit or talk about: The person we love most in this world might not come home someday.
It is this last issue that so blatantly sets us apart from other spouses who don’t belong to our genre. Our service members have voluntarily offered to sacrifice their own lives in defense of our country and our fundamental rights. I hope and pray that hardly any of us have to face this reality head on, but the truth is some of us will. It is so important for us military spouses especially, to remember and capture daily life.
I am a firm believer that the simple moments will be the greatest moments when we are near the end of our time on this earth and reflect on the past. It is so important that we remember those simple things by taking photos, and writing things down. Time taints memories.
If you think you will remember that time your little one said, “I love you,” for the first time a few years from now, chances are you probably won’t. Write it down! Next time your son decides to draw on himself with permanent marker, TAKE A PICTURE! It will be these moments we will look back on and find unfathomable joy.
When people talk about this time period they are going to talk about US. We are those who survived 10 plus years of war and supported those who experienced it first hand. We are they who have raised children who have known no peacetime. We are they who have established a community that has defied barriers, prejudices, and stereotypes. When future generations look back on this time period they will talk about US!
It is important that we show them who we are, what we have learned, and how we have thrived by writing things down and taking photos. Even more important is how we remember this time in our own lives. Life is constantly changing, children grow too quickly and some loved ones depart too soon. We have to capture this time so we can remember it!