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The Gift of Photography

Jul 15

In Stories, Thanks at 6:17am


Is one that is given, or accepted, freely. As a shooter, you can be the recipient of many gifts over the years: The grace of someone’s time, the whimsy of their expression, the fleeting emotion of their eyes the lens traps, forever.

Behind the lens, you are a gift giver as well. You honor someone’s humanity, beauty, or spirit. You wordlessly transact, and that transaction, fixed in pixels, becomes the stuff of memory. Nobility can be enhanced, or conferred, upon someone who has never been so recognized. If done properly, at least occasionally, what transpires within the mundane mechanics of a shutter clicking or a light flashing becomes a certain kind of poetry, the legend of both the subject and the shooter. When the house is burning down, and all the people and the pets are out safely, what does someone often save? The photo album.

I met the young lady at the top of the blog, Milk Cruz Mendoza, earlier this year in the Philippines. She was, at first, a typical, unabashedly enthusiastic young photog, eager to learn, eager to accelerate skills, ready to wade into the visual cacophony of the digital world and make people notice her pictures.

Then I saw her tattoos, covering her forearms. They were images from a couple of books I wrote, one called The Moment It Clicks, of the cover, and one from the interior pages of another tome on lighting, called Hot Shoe Diaries. Significantly, the cover is a woman’s hand, holding a jagged shard of a mirror, reflecting her eyes, against the sky. Milk’s words below…..

      “It was nearing my birthday 3 years ago when I was heavily emotionally in pain and I saw that photo online which immediately made an impact on me. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw that photo is that the gesture of the lady staring on that piece of mirror was the same gesture I saw a few days back. A girl staring and holding a broken mirror with swollen eyes, unruly hair, wind-chapped lips, slightly bleeding nose—just not beautiful, scared and insecure. Only her arm was bleeding too. That was me. And upon seeing the photo I felt the need to know something about it. There must be a story behind it. Then that’s when I ended up knowing you. Eventually that’s when it hit me too that maybe I can express myself through something more productive and way less painful. I wasn’t really successful with painting but maybe in photographs. And maybe, I can also reach out to some random girl or guy whom my photos can make some connection too! I don’t know. But, I know I’m about to take a big step towards making myself better. So, I struggled trying to get my own camera.” 

Milk was in an incredibly difficult place in her life, and she expressed her pain, and her feelings about her lack of worth, through cutting herself. The picture she tattooed on her forearm covers the scars.

When I met her, and she began to tell me things about the struggles of her young life, I became quite inarticulate, not an unusual event for me. I did two things—I hired her immediately for a shoot we were doing on the streets of Manila with Kris-Belle Paclibar, of Ballet Philippines. Milk became an assistant, and our documentarian.

And, I asked if I could make her picture. I’ve said before, as photographers, we often can’t find the words, but we can find a way to make a picture, and let that speak for all concerned.

Again, her words…..”I am a nurse but not practicing in any setting because I preferred to take care of my son and the elders at home. I have an asthmatic son, a diabetic father, an 87 year old grandfather recovering from stroke and an 84 year old grandmother with progressive dementia. I’d accept any type of temporary work…..in 10 months I was able to save and buy myself a consumer entry DSLR. Eventually, a friend invited me to go with him on a basic photography workshop. I saved up again and enrolled myself in it. It is the best 3,500 pesos I’ve ever spent. The months of yearning on how to use it and make good photos out of it is finally paying off.

 She followed with another workshop with Laya Gerlock, a fellow Filipino photog, who graciously discounted the class and gave her extra time. She is on her way, finding subjects in her local community, making portraits, and the beginnings of a bit of money.

 Her other arm is dedicated to the K-Man, a good friend, fellow photog, and lover of fedoras.

“The other tattoo on my forearm which is a man wearing a fedora hat, lighting a cigarette is simply a symbol of the man who challenged me physically, emotionally and mentally to become better and make some positive changes for myself each day. That man would occasionally use fedora hats and never missed lighting one cigarette in his life since 12 years old.”

 Mark was also very moved by her story, and stunned to find his image imprinted on someone like Milk. He writes of it in his blog, Jersey Style Photography, tomorrow. Worth a visit there.

Milk has a page on Facebook……

She wrote: “I am truly deeply thankful and blessed to learn from you, spend time with you and witness how you do things photographically….the photo that’s covering my scars on my forearm which was the lady staring at a broken piece of mirror was the most significant because it prompted my career in photography and a stop to my self-infliction habit.”

Your stay here was such a remarkable experience for me because I did not, even in my dreams, have I ever expected these things to happen. Not a single bit of it. I have never imagined that I’d be able to go with you on a photo shoot and let me use the things that you use on a set. That I’d hear you first hand how you plan and organize a photo shoot and learn from it. Then, one unexpected thing after another. You asked me to do a portrait which to me was so surreal. I felt so beautiful and special at that time. You even hired a make-up artist for me and waited. Your patience with me and your effort for me is priceless. I can never ever repay that.”

I think the equation is reversed, actually. I can never repay her, anymore than I can repay any subject who stands in front of the camera and offers a courageous gift. I have doubts that any of my pictures deserve the display Milk has offered them, but I do know that our photographic intersection made a difference, and I feel enriched having placed my camera in front of her. Some of it just might have to do with the fact that I’m a father of two girls, Caitlin and Claire, both of whom are Milk’s age or older, and know the path to adulthood for young women can, at least sometimes, be a tough one.

And I also know that photography, that facile, flip, irreverent, ubiquitous, quickie thing we all have access to via the phone/internet in our pocket, always has the potential to make a difference, as it did for Milk–a new beginning, a departure from a painful path, and an open door to a future hopefully as full of promise as she is.

More tk….







More tk….

69 Responses to “The Gift of Photography”

Amber says:

on July 17, 2013 at 11:52 am

How have I not seen your work before? I’m blown away.

Tara says:

on July 17, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Moving! More power :)

Dan says:

on July 17, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Wow just wow. I cannot well I am just speechless.

E. Olusegun Aderinto says:

on July 18, 2013 at 8:36 am

PHOTOGRAPHY A GOOD WAY OF LIFE! Touching, beautiful and an inspirational story.

Duncan Gibson says:

on July 18, 2013 at 10:06 am

Well written an well read.. Thank you..leaves me with thoughts

Gideon says:

on July 18, 2013 at 12:55 pm

I’ve been an infrequent visitor of your website and throughout those visits, I’ve noticed how moving you are not only with photos but with words as well. In spite of your eloquence, I know, I will not write a response or comment until now.

Is it because you are writing about a fellow Filipino or because you have touched a life like no other. The transformation that happened to this lady speaks that you are more than your pictures.

Thanks and God bless!

Sue Ganz says:

on July 18, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Not only are you an incredible photographer, you are also a beautiful writer. Thanks for the post.

Ashley says:

on July 18, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Your work is incredible!! I love everything about these images – especially the focus around the tattoos on the girl.


T.H. says:

on July 19, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Thank you for this. This is what I hope to do with photography, if I am lucky, to lift up and to be lifted.

Jonathan Ellul says:

on July 20, 2013 at 8:48 pm


William Chinn says:

on July 21, 2013 at 9:24 am

The gift continues to give. With the story it also passes forward.

Donald Chalfy says:

on July 21, 2013 at 7:13 pm

Dear Joe,

Thank you. There are no words to express how profoundly this impacts and touches me to my core.

Just…thank you.

Donald Chalfy says:

on July 21, 2013 at 7:18 pm

Dear Joe,

Thank you. I am moved to the depths of my soul. Truly, you have.

Ken Toney says:

on July 21, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Joe, I’m not a tattoo type person but if I were you would be there next to Clapton and Margret Thatcher…,,ok, Thatcher is a joke :)
Great story and my hat is off to Milk, I bet she is an awesome person!

Simon says:

on July 25, 2013 at 3:08 am

Wow. Great story.

You may be the bringer of rain sometimes Joe but I think that may just be the counterweight to all the good stuff that you exude.

Bjorn Rossland says:

on July 28, 2013 at 11:33 am

Dear Joe. You put the story so wonderfull. I followed a few girls with somewhat the same story in Norway, for 5 months. The picture enclosed here is of my friend – for the first time leaving the knife down – not cutting anymore. She had a few fallbacks, but also her story made a big impact as media picked it up.

After this came to be public i January – I one day stood in the exit of the local mall, paying my merchandise. The girl at the register looked at me, and assumingly – she recognized me from the paper. Her eyes went wet as the tears started falling, and while beeping my things – she pulled up her arm sleeve. I was a truely wonderfull moment – as the pics of one girl, did something for the next. Hidden was another arm that had tasted the knife…….

I take the chanse to enclose the pic and hope i will survive for months more – telling its story to many more:


Kind regards Bjorn R.

Peter Brock says:

on July 30, 2013 at 10:41 am

Great story. It is similar to many stories I have experienced shooting in Asia. You write beautifully and obviously make awesome photos. What is more important is that you care and despite your self-deprecating sense of humor, your heart shows through. I would like to make a donation to Milk to help her on her journey. If you could facilitate my doing so, I would appreciate it.

Jessie Caturan says:

on August 4, 2013 at 3:16 am

Wow this is a beautiful Filipina. And that tattoo wow to awesome. I hate woman having tattoo but this kind of photo make me interested for some reason.

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