There’s no one in the world who could have stared me in the eyes ten years ago and convinced me that my life would look the way it does today. Part of the beauty in getting to be a photographer, and the reason I love telling stories for a living, is the unexpectedness that comes with the process. I’m convinced that every story, in its unexpectedness, joy, and hardship, has much to offer the world— even mine.
Sometimes the way that pieces fit together is obvious; other times, despite the answer being right in front of you, those pieces seem too scattered to connect. Though I carried a camera around everywhere, I never considered being a photographer. Though I loved speaking other languages and experienced a natural ease toward learning words, I never imagined stepping outside of the classroom to use them. Though I loved traveling, I never realized it to be made for more than leisure. Though stories from across the world tugged at my heart like nothing else could, I never dared to enter into them. I’d like to say it has been easy to connect these pieces, but “formative, long, dependent, unfinished” is the more honest set of words that describe my process.
I moved into a college dorm on my eighteenth birthday, carrying endless boxes of whatchamacallits that I hoped would shape my identity—the identity I wanted to create. At first I was moved by what felt like ever-present undercurrents: fear, shyness, desires to be liked, and longings to name my life purpose. Then, however, I became carried by something, and into something, far greater. I was led into the whirlwind of connections, friendships, and perfectly-timed occurrences that set me on the path that I now walk (run, skip, crawl, and sometimes cartwheel) today.
From the first weekend of college, I melded into a community of friends that played hard, worked hard, and lived with the purpose of giving their lives away. It was through them that I learned that that life is precisely what Jesus asks of us; it was through them that I learned how to walk with the Lord to apply His purpose to my every day. Looking back, I’m aware that this college beginning is as far from “typical" as Tennessee is from Vietnam, but I’m so grateful that it was mine. It wasn’t long before this community set a valuable friendship in motion between me and a local wedding photographer. I was hired — out of the blue, from my perspective — to edit photos for her, so I hit the ground running midway through sophomore year. After she moved away less than six months later, I cried and prayed over this new dream of being a photographer more than I care to admit, but its realization felt out of my reach. I reasoned: “I don’t know enough, I’m not good enough, I’m entirely too shy, I’m unaware of how to run a business,” and on and on and on. The excuses were all true. I was incapable of controlling the outcome of my dreams, but it was this place of inability that caused for a stark, vital realization: I am loved by a God whose goodness and purpose is worth trusting and for whom nothing is impossible.
With this empowerment in mind, I coerced my best friends into modeling for me, and embraced the opportunities to take senior photos for the beautiful high school girls I knew through Young Life. By word of mouth and no strength of my own, I was able to graduate and enter “adulthood” as a full time photographer. I was constantly in awe over the fact that taking people’s photos got to be my job, but I also began to struggle with a newfound loneliness post-college.
Leaving the community I’d made my home was hard, and working alone— without friends surrounding me doing their homework — was a huge adjustment. The transition, however, drove me deeper into scripture than anything had before, and that’s when my heart for photography began to drastically change.
I began to ask questions like, “Who exactly are ‘the least of these’? What does it mean to love them? And what gifts can I use to do so?” I started dreaming of ways to combine photography with the answers to these questions, and I actually thought I came up with the idea of humanitarian photography myself—though I didn’t yet have that name for it. As it turned out, there were many others who were already working with a similar heart to share and connect stories through photography. After going to Kenya, India, and Haiti, I felt more and more confident to join the effort. God was (and still is) leading me away from the work I knew in order to embrace this world of humanitarian photography.
I am still enveloped in this journey of learning and immensely depending on God. Many days, I walk a thin line between striving— taking the pressure on myself to create results and find jobs— and trusting God’s timing, purpose and call. In the striving, it’s easy to make my dreams selfish, but in my trusting, it’s just as easy to see that chasing them wholeheartedly is the most selfless thing I can do.
My story is by no means perfect; nor is it finished. It is, if nothing else, one more story of God inviting the least qualified to offer her inability to Him. But more than anything, I’ve learned that God is good all of the time. He values people and their stories more than I ever will. I believe that knowledge bids responsibility, and I believe I’m called to use my photos to share stories and to invite people into the responsibility of responding to them in love. Until I know otherwise, I’ll keep taking steps to do just that. I am running—and I’d like to encourage you to do the same—with a full heart and eyes fixed on a dream. If you don’t know what that “calling” is for you, ask. I’m certain that God will answer.
Until then, in the words of Brennan Manning, “simply do the next thing in love.”