The Soldier and the Squirrel introduces children to the Purple Heart

through a loving story of a friendship between a newly wounded soldier

and Rocky the squirrel with his backyard friends. This story began as a

blog during my first year in bed after my incident. With much

encouragement, it is now a book and has been placed in the

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum. Please watch the video

on the About page to learn for the Soldier & Rocky are changing children's






Glorious Rejoice Dots Glitter





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Angelino Magazine

We are so grateful at The Iraq Star Foundation for this coverage 
by Angeleno Magazine of our Night of Honour event! 

Bensko's First 48

The First 48 is my baby....

Fresh for Spring, and ready to rock and roll.


Finding Purpose in a Glass Bowl

A hard cover edition of Time’s Haiti Tragedy & Hope sits on my desk as I type this, a woman’s silhouette bathed in devastation graces the cover. The tragedy has been covered by more photojournalists than anyone could imagine, the images searing. In Port-au-Prince, a child stands by the hospital bed of a dying father, a young boy stares into his future with a bandage embracing his scalp. A dump truck drives by carrying hundreds of bodies on their way to a mass grave. The captions are not simply descriptions of the images, but also reflections by the photographers themselves. This publication affected me not only as a photographer, but as a mother, wife, and fellow human being, forcing me to reflect upon the enigma that is life's purpose.

This blog is not only about the people of Haiti, but about fourteen children in particular of the Ettienne family. When the first earthquake hit, their house was still standing, but fractured. The parents, each brothers and sisters themselves, decided it was safer for the family to sleep outside on the grass until they could repair the home. It is because of this decision that the children are alive today. You see, when the second earthquake hit, the house collapsed. The children and mothers survived, however each of the men, the breadwinners of the family were at work, and have never been found.

I was introduced to the Ettienne's situation by my friend of twenty years, Dr. Wendy Walsh.

A few weeks ago Wendy went to the supermarket, a woman was bagging her groceries. The same woman who had greeted her for years, but that day there was no smile. She looked down as she bagged, sad and introverted. Wendy, concerned, reached out grabbing an unexpected moment and asked what was wrong. The woman’s name was Jennette Ettienne. She was from Haiti. Those 14 children were her nieces and nephews, and she had just learned that not only were all of the children ages two and up now living in an open park, but that they had not even a tent over their heads.

Within days I received a Facebook invite from Wendy asking her friends to please come to her house that Saturday night for pasta, to meet Jennette and her brother Robert, and to contribute whatever they could to her family. (Both Jennette and Robert moved to the states from Haiti ten years ago, working in Los Angeles at eight dollars an hour and living together in order to send the monies home which support their three siblings, fourteen children, as well as their seventy-five year old mother.

Many responses to the invitation were regretting their inability to attend. I had had a very difficult week myself, as my childhood friend had died a few days prior. My initial response to Wendy’s invitation was also a regret. Then I spoke to Wendy on the phone, and life shifted. Wendy’s passion for the Ettiennes was intoxicating Suddenly, in my own selfish moments of darkness from losing my friend, a match was lit.

My teenage daughter, Macky, and I arrived at Wendy’s home, to a lovely crowd of people, pasta and dishes she'd started preparing at 3:30 that morning, and a glass bowl. In a matter of thirty minutes my daughter turned to me after speaking with Robert, and said her life was changed forever. That night I learned a great deal about Haiti. Prior to the earthquake in Haiti the unemployment rate was 85%. Why is it important to give where there seems to be little hope or future? Why put forth efforts in a region where for decades the government has been operated by individuals who have obsconded with international aid before and purchased mansions, keeping the wealth from the people of Haiti? The industry of agriculture used to be fruitful, however due to poor educational systems and lack of regulations the land of over-processed and soils are now unfit for crops. The industry of tourism which at one time saved many residents by creating jobs, became a wild circus of again unregulated chaos and the cruise ships stopped visiting, Americans became concerned regarding safety and health issues. With tourism, the population in Port-au-Prince exploded from 500,000 to now over 3 million people. Now, 1 million of those people are living in parks. Many of these people do not own even a tent, and the tents that were for sale at $300 a piece in town, are now sold out. The cost of charging a cell phone is $25. In essence, cash is now king in Haiti. The ability to wire fund allows the recipients to purchase most necessities available in Port-au-Prince if you have the means. Yes, there is aid, food and water trucks visit tent camps, but getting to the trucks is a risk of physical and emotional health. Lines are hours long, sometimes a full day to receive  rations needed. Most women are now sole caregivers of children in their care, with no men to assist. Most men had jobs were at work at the time of the quake and have never been recovered.

That night, Wendy's glass-bowl-gathering placed a total of $1000 in that bowl. The Ettiennes could now obtain the tents they needed. The next day, Jennette and Robert purchased the tents and they were shipped. But this was just the beginning…

Last weekend my husband and I were fortunate enough to introduce Wendy, Jennette and Robert, to our friends in our own home.  We copied Wendy and put out pasta and wine, and a glass bowl. We set the glass bowl on the coffee table as our loved ones greeted one another with laughter and hugs, embracing Robert and Jennette and for a moment, hopefully reminding them of some sense of hope. Jennette and Robert shared their family’s story. At the end of the evening the bowl was gifted with $700 and handed directly to the Ettiennes. Their warmth, their humble gratitude, the love experienced at this gathering was more grand than any dinner party or five star evening out. Lives were changed that night, not because we had all met someone famous, or because someone won the lottery. It was simply because we all were grounded in a tangible reality that we were helping specific individuals, friends, who will benefit from our union.

There was another moment that evening which rests in my heart. Prior to the Ettienne’s arrival at our gathering I had a flash, an idea. Wendy texted me the names of the children on their way to our house. We pulled out fourteen tea lights and set them above the fireplace, one for each child. As the evening commenced, each candle was lit as we spoke the children’s names, and these children were forever seared into my heart.

There now lies in the core of my being a longing to meet them, to know them, to truly understand them. I feel a pull to visit Haiti, to photograph, capture the hope left in their eyes, to sleep in the tents we have raised for them, to be cold at night and hot during the day, to be hungry and thirst. Time will tell if I will be able to sit with the Ettienne family in person, but in the meantime there is work to be done, more glass- bowl-gatherings to procure. The next one is coming up and this time Robert is going to prepare a cultural evening with a fully Haitian buffet including Ox Tail…and I will devour every morsel as I listen for the slight reverberation of the glass bowl as it receives another gift.

The question many ask is why should we help this one family, when millions are in the same situation…how can this truly make a difference? We were created as individuals made to connect with others on an individual level

l. When man first set foot on this planet we didn’t have mass communication, television, CNN, newpapers, or book stores. Amazon….that was just a jungle. It’s a time for us to reconnect with the core of our being and remember the importance of connecting with fellow human beings on an intimate and authentic level, beginning one relationship at a time.

This is our chance to make a difference in the lives of fourteen children who we are connected to, who have mothers who love them no less than we love our own. Fourteen children who still see  hope in the world. This is why we should help, because we are meant to, and this is our chance to be a part of helping where there is no opportunity, where there are no jobs, where where they deeply and truly

It is my belief we are here not to become famous, or be rewarded for magnificent feats. I believe this because anyone I know who has achieved great stature whether it be celebrity or wealth, still carries burdens, many of which were birthed by their perceived blessings. Although I sit here the hypocrite with hopes that someday I too might achieve a certain level of success where I can make a difference in this world on a grander scale, it was simply these children which secured my belief that one's purpose in life need not be something aggrandized by others to have an impact, or have meaning, but can actually begin in one’s living room...with a glass bowl...

If you too would like to donate to the Ettienne family,

kindly make payment to Jennette Ettienne. Mail payments to:

Dr. Wendy Walsh

171 Pier Ave. Suite 393

Santa Monica, California


The Fourteen Ettiennes: Melline, Chrisner, Roodiery, Rosedaline, Chrisson, Claude, Nickenson, Wisly, Wislene, Valencia, Fitho, Joiner, Jouveline, Wilbelline


As I arrived at one of my very first weddings, the bride glowed, a long radiant gown and train befitting a formal ceremony. Her father stood with chiseled features absorbing every pore in her face as memories of her childhood danced on her face. She swept through the courtyard, her dress flowing in the breeze as I captured black and white imagery of her leaning over and whispering in her grandfather's ear. This was going to be the most amazing wedding ever. The stage was set, the characters were in place, the guests had arrived, and suddenly in the depth of my soul I felt the odd vibration of the theme from Jaws reverberating in my spine. I turned around, he stood tall, basketball player tall. He was big, his groomsmen towered over me like Soprano henchman in bowties. Although startled, I smiled and held out my hand as this was the groom, the precious enigma which had eluded me for 6 months, the knight in shining armor who had swept this beautiful girl off her Cinderella heels. My Groomzilla had arrived...

My outstretched hand waited, his eyes glared an absent gaze as though his soul had drifted into the middle realm until this unfamiliar exercise in manhood recoiled at midnight and he could then come out to play. He turned to the grunts of his fellow Neanderthals, pointed forward toward the lair which housed his maiden of sacrifice, and left, leaving my hand as a receptacle for fly waste. In that moment, my heart imploded, my ID deflated, and everything I thought I knew about human beings flew into the apse of that cathedral. It was at that moment I realized that not only will there be clients you don’t connect with, there will be some who could care less if you even exist. You see, I had never met the groom, only the bride, and the last thing he cared about was photography.

As far as he was concerned, I was a gnat to be ignored or swiped at if I came within the parameters of his bubble. He had a very thick bubble, one with walls of selective hearing, as though only the bride could hear me speak and she had to translate my directives to him in Neanderthal.

I picked up the pieces of my psyche and slinked into the cathedral, my assistant by my side staring at me, waiting for my affirmation that all was still right in the world. My second shooter stood firm in the upper balcony blissfully unaware of my emotional crux. I smiled, all was fine. I was a professional dressed in a lovely black dress appropriate for such an affair. I could have actually been a guest had I not been schlepping lenses and batteries or had a 2-inch blister on my shooting hand from last week’s mitzvah. The groom was simply nervous, he didn’t really understand that I was that photographer his fiancé had been speaking about for months, who’s images she adored, and wanted to name their first born after….OK, I digress…

It must have been a simple misunderstanding, I was sure. Had to get my head back in the game, the same game these Soprano henchmen were in. I lifted my chin, got out the long lens, readied myself as the groom stood at the alter, the organ began to fill the stained glass with shards of deliverance. As the doors to the cathedral opened and the light poured in behind her, I grab her figure in the center of my glass and then out of nowhere, like the antichrist whispering in my ear I hear, “my dear, whatever you do, do NOT use flash and do NOT cross the aisle”. I whip my head around to see the nun in piano key garb flit through the side door, returning my gaze rapidly to the money shot about to go down the tubes. Once again my nerves rattled, I regrouped, my second shooter still in the balcony. The bride walked down the aisle with a beaming father, but this time each step this bride took ebbed to the soundtrack of the single woman’s death march. Her lilting expression quivered like a child learning to ride her bike, her daddy attempting to steady the handlebars, and at the end of the aisle he let go. She smiled at him to comfort his broken heart, protecting him all the while knowing that she was the one who needed saving. Don’t let go of the bike, Daddy, stay just a minute longer. The guests won’t go anywhere, don’t let go, don’t let go…..And yet just as is scripted, in every wedding she’s imagined and played over in her dreams since she steadied those handle bars, just as she had planned for 6 long months, he let go...

She turned to her groom, his face pocked with fossils of adolescent acne and eyes demanding her gaze, and in that moment became the very woman she knew her parents wanted her to become. She knew now that she had the perfect union, the perfect future, the perfect life…with my Groomzilla.

The ceremony came and went. Now it was time for the portraits. Portrait time with the hearing impaired, I mean the groomsmen. As I attempted to raise the level of my voice to garner the attention of the bridal party, the groomsmen meandered through the lawn like elephants swinging their tusks, whipping nibbles from the bridesmaids’ bouquets and lapping their tongues in the air as they guffawed their many tenors. It was then the groom leaned into the same ear blessed by the antichrist and said, “if you don’t control this crowd, no one will…” He turned, and returned to his herd. Instead of being the true gentleman and husband of his new bride, and simply directing his pride to the portrait location, he waited for me to assert myself, to earn my right to life, to pass this test of credibility. I succumbed, I channeled the town cryer, announcing each shot. The suggestion to move in close to one another was met with questioning jeers from the henchmen as though I were speaking in Swahili with a French accent. We proceeded to the sand...a dream of the bride. The bridesmaids were amazing, gleefully flitting off their heels and running into the sand, leaving in their wake the bevy of buffalos snorting at the sea of sand as though each grain were from the planet krypton threatening the demise of their people upon contact. They stopped, a frozen breed, one by one their heads cocked in my direction, eyebrows inverted and palms to the sky…..the leader of this pack….my Groomzilla.

I love my job. I truly love my job, but everyone has that one day in their career when they stop and say to themselves, "Someday we'll look back and laugh at this". This writing is my laughter. As a matter of fact I'm absolutely gaffawing inside.

We finished a perfectly executed portrait session. They huffed and puffed and blew my heart down. I swore, if I lived through that day, that hour, that reception, I would never eat anything unhealthy again….I would become a saint and build homes for children in Malawi…..

The band played on. The moments of the bride trying to talk her groom into certain poses, her playfulness ignored, his cool hand luke now baring the golden ring he obtained through the grace of gods, were dissolving into misty ocean fog parading by the windows. To all in attendance, this was the most magnificent wedding they had ever seen. I turned around the images in a matter of a week with each and every image catered to as I would the most blissful of shoots. To top it all off, the images of this wedding were published in a major magazine. But the accolades were bitter sweet. This entire experience could have been completely different.

You see, the groom is the leader of the groomsmen. His energy will dictate their energy. He will lead and they will follow. It’s up to you to learn beforehand what makes your client tick, who he is as a person. I may have seethed a touch of sarcasm during my telling of this tale, but truly everything that happened was ultimately my fault. I’m the captain of the ship. I needed to know who I was working with so I could better understand how to direct. How can you conduct music without knowing the instruments in the orchestra? You can’t promise a quartet and then have a trombone show up and expect to create soothing music. I was so thrown off by this seemingly illogical and antisocial groom, that I immediately overcompensated in trying to make the bride especially happy that I ended up a puppy chasing its own tail hoping I’d catch it and that my owner would notice.

In the end, even with the images published in a magazine and their wedding a featured article……I received a call from the groom. Hoping for a moment of gratitude I puffed for a lovely conversation, only to sense a slight hesitation……,”Micaela, we love your work, but we were hoping there would be more close-up images like you see in the magazines…”

If life is about lessons, I learned a lot that day. I learned that even the worst of days breeds herds of knowledge for me to pull from, bits of experience hopefully not lost in the Swahilian translation. But most of all, I learned that it's essential not only for my client to like me, but for me to understand my client. I must have a solid grasp of who they both are. It's OK if photography isn't his thing, but if I had taken the time to meet with him as well, I could have garnered this jewel of information and chiseled it as armor for the big day. I have encountered but one Groomzilla in my career so far. I understand there are others out there, captured in fumbling shadows, lurking amidst the herds...I stand ready in wait with my cross-hairs, I mean my camera, loaded...

Depth of Field is Not Just the Number of Cowpies You Are Standing In

What the heck is depth of field? Photographers hear it all the time…shallow depth of field, greater depth of field. Now that Aperture and Shutterspeed are clearly cemented in your brain, let’s look at why they are so important.

A shallow depth of field is when the part of the image closest to the lens is in focus, and everything behind it is more out of focus. The extent to which this occurs is dependant upon how wide you open your Aperture, or how small your f-stop number is, as well as the focal length and distance the subject is from the camera.  The smaller the f-stop number (ie: f/2.8) the sharper the immediate subject and the more blurry the background therefore providing you with an image with a shallow depth of field. This is a technique popular with portrait photography where the family or individual is crisp but the background has a blur or a haze. This is because the photographer set the f-stop to provide a shallow depth of field.

My colleague Rick Rosen explains Depth of Field with the following:
Depth of Field is a factor of:
1. The focal length of the lens. The longer the lens the less the depth of field at any given aperture and focus point when compared to a lens of shorter focal length.
2. The aperture. The more the lens is closed down to a smaller aperture (larger f/number) the more the depth of field will be at any focus point.
3. The distance from the camera position to the subject. The closer the focus the less the depth of field will be at any focus point. The farther away the greater the depth of field will be at any aperture.
4. Depth of field extends 1/3 in front of and 2/3 behind the focus point. This is the relationship at infinity focus but as you focus closer that ratio changes to eventually become 1/2 in front of and 1/2 behind the subject.

From my personal experience, be careful when shooting groups. Upon photographing more than one person in a group, make sure each person is within 12 inches of each other in reference to their distance from the camera. Everyone should be no more than 12 inches behind or in front of their friend or family member is when you are choosing an extremely shallow depth of field such as 2.8 (or in some cases lenses can run as wide as a 1.2 or 1.4. Be careful when using a small f-stop like this as one person will be in focus and the rest will look like they are in a drug induced haze...) Distancing yourself from the subjects can create a greater depth of field eliminating this issue, also allowing you to shoot at a larger f-stop. Also, using a longer focal length and smaller f-stop can trip you up if you are shooting a single individual as if you are shooting at 1.4 and focus on their nose, their eyes will be out of focus.

You achieve a greater depth of field when you set a larger f-stop number such as f/3.5 up to f/22 etc and distance yourself from the subject(s). In this case, you would be more likely to be shooting a sports event or landscapes. Remember, the smaller the opening (larger the f-stop) the less light is allowed in, so you will need to consider upping your ISO and possibly slowing your Shutterspeed if you are not using a tri-pod. This is why many landscape photographers use tri-pods. They most commonly shoot at dawn or dusk, in low light situation. In order to photograph a crisp landscape with a greater depth of field, and with an ISO of 100 to allow for low noise, they need absolute stillness as they will need to set the shutter open longer, sometimes for a minute for more at a time.

So there you go! Let the barn door open and set the cattle free! OH and don't forget to wear your boots...

The Three Scoops of Photography

Just because one has an instinct for taking pictures, does not mean he/she intuitively understands the basics of photography. Like a teenager placing the cherry on his much coveted dessert, he knows it tasted great, but it’s not until he’s an adult when he will stop and ask what made that sundae so good…

The three scoops of photography are the Aperture, Shutterspeed, & the ISO. Understanding the dance how Aperture, Shutterspeed and ISO work together, is key to obtaining properly exposed images and achieving the aesthetic you see in your mind’s eye, no matter if you are an aspiring shutterbug or one rockin’ the town. You’d be surprised how many people make a living in this industry without grasping this essential concept of how these three scoops of photography work together.

One photographer of note started his business without even knowing what Aperture and Shutterspeed really were and took a course at her local community college in Photography 101. After that, she took out a loan for $20,000, bought a full-page ad in a national bridal magazine and started charging 10g a wedding. My goal is not to create monsters here, it’s simply stating that even though some photographers do have the confidence to break out like Godzilla at Legoland, sustaining a career which offers you true fulfillment or legitimacy will not be possible without truly understanding the basic elements of photography.

First of all, the goal here is get you out of Automatic Mode on your camera. The only way to do that is to actually understand Aperture, Shutterspeed and ISO. Oh goody! Isn’t this fun? Here’s some nitty gritty for your photo kitty….

In regard to Aperture, think of your eye. The Aperture is essentially the pupil of the camera. When the pupil dilates, it opens up, letting in more light. The confusing part of the Aperture is the numbering system. In photo speak, the smaller the

Aperture, the larger the opening. This does make sense if you think about it though, as the Aperture is considered one “whole”. If an aperture could open all the way to be a wide as possible it would be at 1. Most lenses open up to 3.5, a really solid pro lens opens to 2.8 and my favorite is my 1.4. The benefits to having a lens with a “wide” Aperture capability is that when it is opened wide, it lets in more light, allowing you shoot in lower light situations without using flash. Now, the smaller the opening, the less light allowed in, and the number goes up, ie: 16, 22. Etc. These numbers are called f‐stops or the f/number. That’s why in photo books you will see them referred to as f/2.8, f/3.5, etc.

Shutterspeed is the amount of time that the shutter is open. In the days of film, it was the time the scene was exposed. In digital photography shutter speed is the length of time that your image sensor ’sees’ the scene. Think of yourself driving in a car watching the scenery fly by. The faster you go, you get quick sharp glimpses of what is outside the window. The slower you go, you capture more detail information in your mind. When you want to photograph someone or something that is moving or jumping, it’s ideal to “up” your Shutterspeed to capture your subject, usually to around 125-250.

Remember, the larger the Aperture, the smaller the f-stop number!

The Smaller the Aperture, the larger the f-stop number, isn’t this FUN?!

In fancy speak, stay with me here cuz this hurts my brain…. ISO is actually “the speed of photographic negative materials” (formerly known in the film world as ASA).

The ISO number tells you how sensitive your camera is at that moment in relation to the amount of light you are shooting in.

The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive your camera is to the available light, and the more likely you will be able to capture the image in lower light situations. In the old days, you used to have to switch the entire roll of film to a different film ASA, but nowadays, it’s simply switching the dial on your camera to alter the ISO (the ASA equivalent). The reason I explained the Aperture and Shutterspeed first, is that the ISO affects these settings in order to create a proper exposure. Now, of course it’s so easy to stop and say, but why don’t I just use flash? But what if you can’t use flash such as in a performance or at a wedding, or you simply wish to avoid that “flashy” look.

There is a trade-off however in being able to up your ISO to craziness that many camera bodies allow nowadays, like 3600….Unless you are operating with a high end body, your sensor is sensitive now not only to light, but to all elements involved…which means more information from the actual camera and sensor, which results in more digital noise in your image. For some this can be a creative choice, for others it’s an unexpected annoyance needing to be resolved with the use of noise reduction filters which can add an unrealistic element to the photograph taking out the authentic capture.

I hope this bit of rehash wasn’t too dry…sometimes it’s necessary to bite the bullet we’ve shot into our creative psyche and nosh it a bit so the metallic skin embeds in our teeth leaving the aftertaste we need to appreciate that hot fudge sundae of life that is photography…

Shooting from Body Parts

There are 3 ways to shoot. From the head, the heart, and the hip.  Learning to shoot from each of the body parts at the same time is what I like to think of as the tri-fecta of perfect capture. 

Think of the last time you prepped for a shoot. Were you too fatigued to be inspired,  or your mind was on the Superbowl and the fifty bucks now gasping in someone else's snakeskin wallet. Had you shot the same family four years in a row and  now as teenagers they want nothing less than to be in your presence that day because Lady Gaga was at the mall dressed like a snow cone on crack…

It’s days like this some shooters figure they know enough technically that  all they really have to do is get the shots and fix the lighting later in Photoshop, rather than put forth that extra bit of effort to seek it out, or inspire their client. This is called shooting from the head. Although a necessary element to photography as the head is where the information lives, the key to being successful on days when your creativity has taken a spa day, is knowing how to compensate by shooting from the hip, and the heart, as well as the head.

The key to activating all three aspects of this tri-fecta is to first accept that they exist in tandem, and never rely on just one of them to get you through a shoot. Shooting from the heart is pulling on your own personal emotional energy store, not one you've manufactured just for this shoot. I mean giving yourself the ole pep talk of why you started shooting in the first place. When you look into those children's eyes, think of your own children. When you hug your client upon arrival, remember that each parent is entrusting their memories to you, and each bride is somebody's baby. Allow yourself to feel the experience on a gut level. (I would have called it shooting from the gut, but that just sounds wrong....)

Then there's shooting from the hip. This is definitely not what it sounds like, because there is nothing casual or unscripted about this. This is about embracing the physical energy supply you must not only muster for this shoot, but have access to on a daily basis as a working photographer. For some shooters,  they fast for a couple of days prior to a wedding to clear their head and their body. If I did this I would collapse. For others it’s a yoga class prior to the event or shoot. Some people need a good night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs, others need a Vente 5-pump Chai Latte with non-fat, no water and an extra shot….(that would be me…).You’d be surprised how much your client feeds off your energy, your charisma, your ability to inspire THEM. They do not expect to simply show up for a portrait shoot and not be instructed on how to pose, or not to have their experience framed in some way. Your attitude, your joi de vivre (I've always wanted to use that in a sentence) will make or break a session. Even as a photojournalist performing a portrait shoot, there must be a sense your client has that they are not operating without a net. If it means inspiring yourself by bringing red lollipops for the children to play with, go for it! Go to the local grocery store and buy a bunch of solid colored helium balloons and watch their eyes pop as you exit your vehicle...

It’s a personal reflection as to what it will take for you to connect with your head, your heart and your hip shooter within. 

The greatest athletes in the world have to get into their headspace before a game or competition, but they don’t do this by simply replaying the rules in their head. They rev up their enthusiasm, they pray to fill their heart, they cheer on themselves and the other players involved. Every event you shoot should be looked at not only as a competition to prepare for, but an experience that will determine if there will be another shoot or event to follow. Just as in athletics, just as in the movies, you are truly only as good as your last shoot. Head, hearts & hips, unite...


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Birth, Death & Taxes...

Most photographers would kill to cover a war, an election, a riot, but in reality, most of us are not ready for a photo shoot to become a life or death experience for anyone involved. The closest I’d come to that before was a mother of the bride who drank too much tequila in her Evian bottle prior to the ceremony and fell off the alter…Believe me, photojournalism is the axle which drives this girl, but ethics in capture are not only relevant to the streets of Baghdad. Just as we make choices on how to shoot, we must make choices as why to shoot...

Birth, Death, and Taxes. The three things we are sure of in this life, each affecting our existence in profound ways, but I couldn’t imagine attempting to capture the process of paying taxes on camera. I’m afraid that would take a wide angle…
Capturing birth, now that I’ve done, living at my client’s hospital waiting room, perched on the single-ottoman-excuse –for-a-chair for 22 hours, camera propped at my side, I sat jealous of the zees it croaked as I clicked the power switch on and off in an attempt to jar some life into the process of capturing the most miraculous experience God gave man (and woman). I’d had four children, yet had never been on the “other end”. Suddenly my text “bllllings”and I am notified the time has come. The team was ready for blastoff. The Zombie photographer must rise as I am summoned to the delivery room, a bathing glow of catheterized light beckons me into her lair. The hallway rumbles with muffled verbage as I near the portal of reincarnated kings, Room 208.

I was ready. Or so I thought. Her legs were spread. My eyes were wide. The husband slunk in the corner. Their children sat with their nanny in the corner coloring pictures of unicorns. She was a pop star, he was not. The doctor was famous, the nurse was not. I was exhausted, the baby….well, let’s just say we understood each other; Our senses collided in kinship, both locked in a room with people we did not know, the air being sucked out of our lungs, the lights burning our eyes, and unaware of what the next push may bring. The medication created a surreal ease to the Mom, almost a stoned like haze and benign detachment to the process, unaware that the medical bracelet she wore revealed her actual age. The doctor’s orders barked gently through the blip of the fetal monitor, push after push, like a salmon swimming upstream the baby glurbed forward, then back, then forward, then back, then….he stopped. The salmon hit a rock he could not maneuver around. The waves slapped at his back and his gills flapped against the waves. The air filled. My heart raced. The nurse moved…quickly. I shuttled to the back of the room, clicking my shutter as though nothing were wrong, as though the salmon was fine. The doctor’s hands which once held his own image in People, grappled for the forceps, the protection of competence clasping the challenged calm of his face. The not so famous nurse laid her body over the pop star’s belly, pushing with all of her Slovakian might. The king had crowned, his septar grounded in the womb and refusing to un-earth.  The father got up. The children drew unicorns. The doctor cleared his throat. The nurse was the flight attendant on the crashing plane, not a wink of alarm to concern the passengers on this journey…

I had placed myself in the unfathomable position of witnessing two of the most certain elements of life occur at one time. And no, this had nothing to do with taxes…
To what degree should we as photographers put our wellbeing not just physically, but emotionally at risk? Not much can go wrong at a funeral. The worst has already occurred. The images captured reflect the final moments of a loved one’s life. I was simply hired to capture the beginning of life. For the very first time, I realized, I am not wonder woman with a lens. Forty-eight hours without sleep, I left room 208 with images of a beautiful, recovering, healthy baby boy. The doctor’s silver strands shifted to a slightly darker shade of graphite, the siblings coo’ed over his tiny head as the father stroked his cheek. I witnessed a miracle, captured the first moments of life outside the salmon stream, but why was I so numb? My passion for my job became the energy source needed to propel me through the boot-camp of birth photography. I couldn’t help but thinking, what if I left without images of his sisters cooing to the beat of his twitching fingers stumbling across his nose.  What if …
What if I had suffered emotional damage due to the fact I had placed myself in such a precarious position? I was not a loved one there to support my family or friend. I was hired to observe and capture as beings played the eternal game of fetal roulette. The fact is, is that birth is a natural occurrence, but even natural herbs can be dangerous.  Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Just because I can be hired to cover a birth, doesn’t mean I should. Sometimes as photographers we get so used to saying yes, to accepting a job because it is something new or different, we don’t step back and weigh the potential consequences of our choice.

Of course, if this birth had gone smoothly, if he weren’t blue and limp when he emerged, if he had been breathing right away, if the doctor weren’t awkwardly famous and fumbling, if the father hadn’t slept through half of the labor and if the children hadn’t been coloring unicorns in the face of death, I may have looked at this experience a little bit differently.  The little boy is healthy and lives a perfectly normal pop star life now, the father is still narcoleptic, and I’m afraid to ask what the siblings are drawing now, but what I have drawn from this life choice, is the ability to stop, and to think about why I am adopting a particular position as a photographer.

I left through the visitors’ gate after subconsciously attempting to exit the employee driveway, made my way to the nearest hotel room as I was too exhausted to make the 45-minute drive home. The streetlights morphed into a kaleidoscope of octogons, eyelids folding down like garage doors off their track. I was fried. Fried as an ovary over easy in the Egg McMuffin of life.

There will be times in your career to place yourself at risk. For me, I opted to create my own version of birth photography, The First 48. Entering the hospital within the first 48 hours of life, I am able to enjoy the process of welcoming a child into this world in an emotionally safe environment where I feel I am truly contributing to the joy and sharing of new life. I welcome the doctors and nurses into the room and embrace a job well done. I exit through the right gate and return home to my children a fresh and fulfilled parent. As for the emotional roulette, I’ll save that for Baghdad…

Photography in Service

Tony stood at the Alter with a halo. Not your usual halo. This one clung to his leg, the white pant fabric safety pinned around the black metal brace holding the screws to his bone. No one expected him to wear his dress Blues that day. No one expected him to be able to stand that day. Tony was back from Iraq, having been blown up by an IED for the second time. He is a marine…

I met Tony through my work with The Iraq Star Foundation, offering free reconstructive surgery to our troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. As these troops gradually became family to me, I began to understand the sacrifices couples endure while serving in the military.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Hurt Locker, that was Tony. He rendered-safe IED’s in Iraq. We met during his first dental reconstruction through our foundation. An explosion left him with a shattered jaw among other injuries. With his beautiful fiancé and fellow marine, Melissa, by his side, Tony recovered. After this first reconstruction and recuperation, he voluntarily re-deployed…only to be blown up, again.

At this point, his left leg and hand were completely shattered. He returned to Walter Reed, and the surgeries ensued. They had a civil ceremony next to his hospital bed, we ordered balloons and a cake, and our East Coast Warrior Ambassador, Rosita, made sure all of the logistics were secured, clicking away with her point and shoot like an expected parent witnessing the birth of possibilities.
Although their impromptu bedside wedding was perfect in its execution and purpose, it was not the wedding they dreamed of. You see, it was Spring, and they had set their Fall wedding date prior to his re-deployment, and by no means was Tony going to change that date. As far as he was concerned, his actual wedding date was now the carrot on the stick. His bride was going to have the wedding she had dreamed of, and he was going to walk down that aisle come hell or high water...and he did.  November 21, 2009, SSgt Tony Lino stood at the Alter with legs firmly planted in the mortar of a 19th century Palo Alto church. With his cane propped next to his side, halo on his leg , and Blues pressed by angel’s hands, his armored gaze shot down the aisle with anticipation. This was his new life, his reason for living through it all, his heart was 50 feet away and slowing walking toward him in a haze of bridled light. I crouched at his parent’s feet, stealth in my attempt to capture every moment of this reunion of purpose. There is no pay, no fee, which could ever create a greater fulfillment than I experienced at that moment. As family and friends witnessed their vows, anecdotal ghosts from the years of pain, challenge, devotion, danced across their words and set them free to fully love in face of all that was meaningful.

If shooting such a job Pro Bono is a selfless act, then I think I’m doing it wrong. Every time I experience the act of working under conditions such as this I feel selfish. The emotional quell of operating in a zone of expectations bread solely from a mutual respect and gratitude between the couple and myself is a personal treasure beyond any monetary value I could imagine.
At the end of the evening I stepped back and asked if I gave enough, because throughout the process it was me who received. The constant flow of appreciation and kindness not just from the couple, but from their guests left me feeling unworthy. Yet each new friendship developed throughout the evening was bread from the common thread of understanding and connection to two very normal souls carrying the burden of kings…

Tony & Melissa Wedding

The Iraq Star Foundation