If you have ever struggled with multitasker tendencies, you know the angst that twists inside your stomach when asked to focus on one thing. To focus on one project, one person, finish one book, commit to one vision means that you spend less energy taking care of all the other ones that pull and tug at your heart. Fearful questions have raced through my mind: “Will that other vision die if I put it on the back burner? Will that person think I don’t care if don’t respond to them with the frequency they are used to?”
Then, one of the biggest questions I’ve had to battle: “Will I miss out on something by putting too much focus in one area—will I have limited myself unknowingly?” And yet, after eschewing that one thing that called to you, life quickly feels half-lived.
As a working artist for almost twenty years, I have encountered a powerful myth. It is the message that you have to figure out what “your art” is and never veer away from it. I understood the reasoning behind this advice, but it felt so limiting. Wasn’t the act of creating meant to be free? I felt like the oxygen had been robbed from my creative spirit. I decided to meet the naysayers (whoever they were) halfway. Instead of being dedicated to being a certain type of artist, I would dedicate myself to being an artist. And whatever art knocked on my heart’s door and asked to be created, I would focus on creating it with excellence until it was birthed and living on its own.
This choice has walked me through an ever-changing, evolving journey. Twenty years ago, I started as a high-school teacher wanting to craft the art of speaking with confidence so I could one day read easily in front of a crowd when my first book was published. This evolved into me being an author, speaker, and then by surprise, a photographer.
My first child Pascaline was eighteen months when I miscarried our second baby, little Aidan. The overwhelming grief of this loss robbed all my desire to speak — and writing felt too intimate for a broken heart that felt so raw. One afternoon, I was lying on the couch and watching Pascaline play in front of the sliding-glass doors. The afternoon sun spilled through the doors, illuminating her with a golden light. And in that moment, I wondered if it was possible to capture her, preserve her story in images, homage to the life I couldn’t hold onto.
I bought my first SLR camera at Costco along with a bag of film. And I started taking photos of Pascaline, discovering the craft of storytelling to be as true and powerful in imagery as it was for me in writing.
Instead of sharing my story in front of audiences, I was sharing her story. And behind the camera, my heart began to heal.
Yet at the time, I felt like I was betraying myself as an author and speaker. My first book, Beauty Restored, took me ten years to write. It was based on my journey of finding restoration and healing after being date raped. The audiences I spoke to were close to my heart, desperate to know that you could not only survive, but breathe deep again, after being traumatized in such a horrific way. Now I felt such a deep disappointment in myself. I feared God was disappointed with me too, for giving up speaking to these women, giving up the mission I had started … to take photos instead? Was this okay?
The truth was that no matter how much I felt I should keep speaking or writing, I couldn’t. My heart wasn’t ready yet. I said a prayer that somehow I would someday come back to empowering women again as I stepped into the unknown territory of taking photos.
That was almost ten years ago. Since then, the healing hobby of taking photos evolved into taking family portraits, which transformed into shooting million-dollar weddings with my husband shooting beside me. Three years ago, in the midst of running a successful high-end wedding photography boutique business, the knocking came to my heart again. It was time to shift my focus again.
I’m not sure if it’s a curse or a blessing, but I can’t escape the sound of the knocking when it comes. The knocking isn’t loud or intrusive, it is simply present and constant. I remember sitting down with my husband, Brian, and telling him that I felt like we were supposed to move away from shooting weddings. In many ways, the timing didn’t make sense. We had finally climbed to a place of leadership and recognition in the wedding industry. We were featured in the top magazines, speaking at conferences, and to give it up — to walk away — wasn’t that crazy?
It came back to my commitment years before, a commitment that Brian now shared with me. Our commitment was to be focused in our art, whatever art that may be. And when we put our focus in one place, we would give it everything we had, not holding back, until we heard the knocking again. In the quiet of that conversation with Brian, I told him that I felt like we were supposed to return to empowering women again, like we had in the days of touring with Beauty Restored. But this time, it was going to be moms — moms with their cameras.
I also said that I felt like we were supposed to get me on TV. I remember whispering it to him even though no one else was listening. It felt so scary to share.
Ten years after I picked up that SLR, it was as if an awakening was happening. All the years of teaching in the classroom, combined with shooting million dollar weddings, and the immense stress that goes into NOT missing the moment with practice of writing daily on my blog — every piece of the journey had prepared me for this particular knocking. The first time I walked on to the Nate Berkus Show on NBC, with 200-plus audience members clapping, half a dozen cameras filming, I was ready. And it was those experiences on-camera — my two years with Nate, Harpo’s team and NBC — all preparing me for my new show with Disney Junior, Capture Your Story with Me Ra Koh.
This is where I want our starting place to be. Choosing to focus can sometimes feel like it may threaten our freedom or possibilities, and yet this belief underestimates the creative power we each carry. Whether you recognize yourself as an artist or not, your life is still ever-evolving, ever-changing. There is a knocking that comes to your door, a sense that you feel in your spirit. Do you listen and follow the trail? Do you risk shaking up all that is known and familiar to follow a gut feeling that gives no guarantees of where it will lead? If you do, you are in good company.
I want this space to be a place of safety, especially knowing that I’m among an audience of risk takers. When we choose to be risk takers, every safe harbor is that much richer. May this column fill you with rest, companionship, and hope as continue to risk putting your focus on that single knock.
nggallery template=’carousel’ id=’2′
image 1 of 9I felt intimidated by the technical side of photography. But when I saw the joy on Pascaline's face as she played with a balloon, I knew I wanted to learn more about photography.
image-2 2 of 9Photography started as a healing process. I was grieving the death of our second baby, Aidan. And even though I couldn't hold on to him, I could still preserve the beauty of Pascaline.
image-3 3 of 9My beginning was when we still shot rolls of film, but digital cameras opened me up to a new courage, to push the boundaries of my creative comfort zone, and learn to play with light, shadows, and darkness.
image-4 4 of 9When I meet with a family for a portrait shoot, I seek to tell the story of the specific season in their life. If their days are spent in bed with a nursing newborn, a sense of wonder in the air, this is where my story of their family begins.
image-5 5 of 9High end weddings was the best training for TV. LOL! The stakes are high, sometimes a million plus dollars has gone into a single day, and "the kiss" will only happen once. Calming myself, showing joy versus stress, was only a few of the gems I took into TV shows.
image-6 6 of 9Being Nate Berkus's go-to photo expert on The Nate Berkus Show with NBC for two years was one of the biggest honors. I felt like a sponge every time I walked on set, soaking in all that I could, knowing this too was preparing me for the next season.
image-7 7 of 9I have to share this photo. Wouldn't you! Women often come up to me in the airport and ask me if Nate is really that genuine. Yes. He absolutely is. His big heart and trust in me created a learning space that I will always be in debt to him for.
image-8 8 of 9Becoming the host of "Capture Your Story with Me Ra Koh" seems to good to be true. I get to hang out with kids, teach moms how to capture their family's story and did I say hang out with kids?! I am amazed at how every thing I've done from being a writer, speaker, teacher, high end wedding photographer, TV photo expert, all the above has prepared me for the current season.
image-9 9 of 9Seeing a mom's face light up in our CONFIDENCE Workshops brings me incredible joy. I remember feeling like I wasn't smart enough to understand photography. But if I can, I know any mom can. And the reward of capturing their child's story is endless.
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.