Laura stood in front of the group. Her hands were trembling, and her infectious smile had been replaced with a face of anxiety. It was her turn to teach the photography lesson she had prepared. Holding the paper in front of her, so I could barely see her face, she started to read the lesson straight off the paper. When you aren’t used to speaking in front of groups, it’s easy to start here. I assumed this was just her way of breaking the ice, eventually she would have to drop the paper and sink into teaching. But she never did. The timer went off before she was done reading. The video camera was paused. The group was silent. Everyone was waiting for me and Brian to give her our critiques.
This exercise was part of our three day training weekend. Six months earlier, I had sent out an email to the six hundred women who have taken our weekend CONFIDENCE photography workshop. Brian and I were launching a new part of our business. We had decided to teach less photography workshops and instead mentor a select group of women, nationwide, to teach a half day and full day version of our workshop to their local communities. The application process was grueling; they had several essays to write and a video piece. There was an interview for some, and requests for more information from others. Brian and I have spent years building the Me Ra Koh brand and our CONFIDENCE workshops. We wanted to make sure we were picking women who were not only equipped but at a kairos season in their life to make a three-year commitment to our brand and mission of empowering moms with cameras. Out of those that applied, we chose fourteen women to be our first group of CONFIDENCE teachers. Laura was one of them.
The night before, the teachers in training had a group exercise. They were asked to bring a self portrait that symbolized this specific season in their life. Laura had shared with her small group why she took a picture of a parrot.
“This bird doesn’t realize he can fly,” she said. “He has spent his whole life in a large cage. He sits on a pedestal in the antique store and never flies. He assumes that his wings have been clipped.”
Teaching women photography was something that Laura wasn’t certain she could do. She had a past career in being a nurse. She is a grandma. In fact, she is the only grandma in the group. Photography was a new passion in the last five years. She knew there was only one way to find out … to jump. Laura said, “Teaching photography workshops is a lot like flying is for this bird. He was made to fly. I am made to teach. But I have to spread my wings and just do it…no matter how scared I am. It’s in me and I have to try.”
Instead of giving Laura my oral critique, I asked Brian to reset the timer.
I hadn’t asked any of the other women to reteach their lesson. You could feel the tension in the room. After all, how could I ask her to relive this experience again when it was so clearly painful. And yet, I knew we had to. Laura had to try again. There was more in her. I asked her to set her papers down. Then I asked her to explain photography by drawing on examples of photos she’s taken of her grandchildren–to picture us having coffee together. To envision us being new moms, eager to capture our babies.What is the first thing we should know? What is the most important thing to remember?
Laura agreed to try again. We reset the timer, turned the video camera back on, and invited her to try again.
She stumbled through the first few sentences, but then she looked up at us. A light began to glow in her eyes, as she shared a recent story of capturing her grand-kids playing. Her hands, now free of her outline, moved with her words bringing emphasis to nuggets of knowledge. I felt like I was witnessing the transformation of a beautiful butterfly. And when she was done, the women who had been in her small group jumped up clapping and said “You flew Laura!! You flew!” There were tears in all our eyes. Laura had taken the leap, unsure of whether or not her wings were clipped, and found that she could fly after all.
Since then, Laura has been unstoppable. The CONFIDENCE teachers have affectionately named her the “Trail Blazer”. She was the first to host a Photo Home Group, the first to teach the Budding Confidence Workshop. Like I said, she is simply unstoppable.
At the beginning of each new year, I dream of transformation. The kind of transformation that isn’t handed out freely, but causes me to dig deep within, to muster courage I didn’t realize I had, so that I may fly to heights I’ve only dreamed of. But to see transformation in our lives, we need a starting point. The starting point is the hardest place to expose. The starting point is raw.
Laura brought a second photo with her. She wrote about the photo; “I am sitting quietly inside a church looking out the window, thinking. Everything in me wants to teach the workshops, but I am not certain I can succeed, but I have to try.”
What would your starting point look like? Would it be the photo of a parrot who believe his wings are clipped? Or would it be a photo of you sitting with eyes closed, soaking in a moment of being still? Or maybe there would be one hundred sticky notes all around you because this is the best way to capture your starting point this year.
I refer to these “starting point” photos as Self Portraits. With all the different New Year’s resolutions you can make, I invite you to consider taking a Self Portrait. The idea of starting your year off in front of the camera may seem insane. But tomorrow I’m going to share fourteen self portraits with you from fourteen women photographers. And maybe their stories, their raw and honest starting points, will infuse your courage to capture your own.
One of the teachers took this photo of Laura at the end of our weekend. Look at how Laura glows. Can you see the new found confidence radiating from her? Every time I look at this photo I can almost hear her sweet laugh.
It is in the ability to look back, to see how far we’ve come that empowers us to have confidence to take flight again and again.
Happy New Year! And I’ll see you tomorrow!
p.s. Visit here to read more about Laura, see her photography and find her next photography workshop in Virginia.
Me Ra Koh loves cameras, kids, and parents, and spends her life bringing them together. See her new show Capture Your Story with Me Ra Koh on Disney Junior. Her book Your Baby in Pictures is a national bestseller. She is honored to be one of SONY’s Artisans of Imagery. Me Ra and her team of certified teachers lead CONFIDENCE photography workshops for women nationwide. She has been featured in The New York Times, Parenting, American Baby, Popular Photography, and her photography has been on exhibit from San Fransisco to New York. You can find her at merakoh.com.