this post is something very different from what I usually write on here - it is half confession, half story, and entirely personal. It is also one of the most important things I have ever written, so please read it with an open heart. The confession comes first, and my confession is that, up until this point, I have approached my chosen field of photography with very little integrity - I have shared the moments that I loved, shared stories that brought me joy, shown things that are nice and pretty; however, I haven't given that attention to sharing the stories that are not comfortable. I haven't taken nearly enough time to invest in the stories that aren't soft and beautiful. And my reasons for that have been entirely selfish. I've filed images away as ones I "wasn't ready to deal with" or "didn't know what to do with," and never forgot about them, but never stepped up and charged myself with their telling.
The other night, though, I realized the true weight of what it means to choose to be a photojournalist - I realized the weight of what I had taken on so many years ago, and what the true cost is of not sharing the all that I have taken on to share. A dear friend told me, "people let you photograph their stories. With that comes the responsibility for you to share them." And that hit hard. So, I apologize, and recognize that the truth isn't always pretty, but it is truth, and at the end of the day, that's what's important. So it's time to share truth, and to share stories - starting with the story of Valya and Anya. When I met Valya and her daughter Anya several years ago, their story was already full of heartbreak - Valya was a graduate from an orphanage in Russia, and by "graduate" I mean that she had reached the age (usually 15-18) where the orphanage kicks her out so that she is no longer the financial responsibility of the government. Through the help of the organization Desana Giving, where there is a program specifically in place for these "graduates" (statistics moment - within the first year of leaving an orphanage, 50% of these children turn to crime/prostitution, 30% become addicted to drugs/alcohol, and 10% commit suicide) Valya was given a place to live. Even with the unusual benefit of a stable place to live, though, the lives of Valya and her daughter Anya were impossibly challenging - Valya had cancer in her leg that demanded amputation, and was living in a tiny apartment with no running water or indoor plumbing, while raising a baby completely on her own. When I met them both, I was impressed by Valya's strong and resilient spirit, but I was strongly drawn to her baby girl Anya - it was mind blowing to me, that such a sweet and beautiful little child should have to grow up into a life like this. After leaving Russia, looking back at pictures of little Anya always pulled something special in my heart, but I never heard anything more on how the two of them were doing. This week, though, I got an email from one of the incredible women that I had the blessing of working with while in Russia, and she shared with me that Valya had started drinking again, excessively, and hanging out with a rough crowd - so rough that one night, a friend's boyfriend attacked little Anya in a drunken rage, and hacked at this beautiful little girl with a machete. After a month of recovering in the hospital, Anya was given back to her mother, under the condition that Valya start giving her the care she deserved. That didn't happen, and Anya was later found completely neglected and hungry, and so was taken from Valya and put into the orphanage system. Soon after, Valya's cancer came back in full force, and she died.
It is a truly mind-blowing story. It's suffering like most of us can't even fathom, and yet, in places like this, in situations like their's, this is normal. It's pain on top of pain on top of pain, with no end in sight. And that's life. And it's not easy to think about, it's not easy to hear about, I can tell you personally that it's certainly not easy to write or talk about. So, too often, it doesn't get written about. It doesn't get talked about. The fact that, in Russia alone, over 750,000 children live in unimaginably filthy and miserable orphanages, and another 1.2 million live on the streets, that's not something that's easy to spend time really dwelling on. But that doesn't change the fact that it's still happening. It doesn't change the fact that there are millions of other little Anyas out there, even in our own countries, our own communities, living lives that we can't even begin to relate to - and that those poor, neglected little children still have it easier than some. It's a challenge, to face the realities of the world - but it's also our responsibility. It's our responsibility to know and understand what is happening beyond our bubble, to hold space and compassion for what exists in places like this, and to allow that to impact our lives - whether that looks like just making the choice to live a little more consciously, or whether it means actively taking a stand to end at least one of the innumerable heartbreaks happening at this very moment.
This is heavy, and uncomfortable, and I get that. But don't let that mean that you don't feel it, grieve it, and allow it to impact your way of being, even in the smallest way. There are big ways to help, there are always big changes to make and some people are driven and passionate and incredible enough to step up and actively start making them. But it all stems from hearing, knowing, understanding, and truly caring... and even if that's all you have to offer, it is still absolutely enough.