Every Family Has A Story / by Luanne Shillingburg

Video Story of the Sams Family Session

Every family has a story.  It is written over time, centuries for some that are privileged to have access to their legacy.  For others it goes back only a few generations, or simply begins at Chapter One, with them.  However, no matter the length of the story, one thing remains true,

every family has a story.

Within the book of any family history, are pages we like to remember.  These are the ones that are told for generations, the ones we love to hear grandpa tell over and over again.  There are also those we would like to rip out and burn, those we beg, plead and bargain with God to let us to rewrite.  You see hind sight, while being our greatest teacher, can also become our greatest tormentor.  It magnifies the what if's and I should haves, and  if onlys. 

Another unfailing truth about history it that it cannot be undone.  There are no do overs in life, go ahead and try, and you 'll have a few chapters written about failed attempts at doing just that.  Each event in our lives, the happy, sad, joyous or tragic is written down for us, about us, defines us.  

As a photographer with a passion to tell stories through images, I always look for way to pull the genuine emotion from of a setting.  I strive to pull out the real personality in each subject I shoot.  Seniors, children, couples, families, whether shy, timid, goofy, loud, flamboyant, or reserved.  No matter what, my goal is to capture the real them, not craft a pose around them but click the shutter when I sense the real them.  I've been successful in doing this for sometime now, telling stories through the lens of my camera.  However, an image only tells part of the story,  which perhaps is why there are more written words in a book than illustrations or images.  For an image cannot tell you the past, merely show it to you as it was captured.  An image cannot tell you what happened in detail.   An image simply captures the moment.  You may capture clues of a persons past, but you will never fully read their book through an image.  That is the part that must be told, spoken or written and read.

When the horrible tragedy happened at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut I joined a group of photographers who volunteered to offer one gifted  session to a family with children,  and one to a school teacher.

My school teacher and her husband were expecting their first child...a miracle baby for them, and that was about all of the story I had about this couple as I shot the maternity session.  As a mom who lost a daughter, Samantha Taylor, at 19 weeks, I empathized with this couple. From that bit of information, I was able to approach this session with a bit more sensitivity, simply based on this bit of information from their story.  

Kimberly and Stephen's Maternity Session

Following their son's birth we quickly transitioned into  a newborn session, and then, one year later, his first year session and it was then that I was asked to shoot her extended family, mom, dad, siblings and children. 

Liam's Newborn and One Year Session

When October 2014 rolled around I was so happy to meet her family, all of them.  I arrived to a family that was ready to shoot, they had all the props out and ready, they had corn stalks, pumpkins, a sheet for the kids tent, blankets and picnic baskets etc...piles of leaves to play in.  There was also an abundance of happiness and love.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was there to do a job, because it more like I was playing.  Sure I was directing poses and capturing those "standard shots", but I was also capturing the emotion and relationship that existed in this family.  There was a genuine love between grandpa and grandma, there were many tickles and giggles,  there was the independence and sense of wonder of the one year old along with the gentleness of the parents and aunts and uncles who chased after him and allowed him to explore. The whole session was beautiful.

Sams Family Session

  The one thing that was abundant in this family was their love for one another.  Yet, what was not visible was their history.  Like I said every family has a story that you must either read or  have told to you.  I was not privileged to the pages of their past which included a traumatic, tragic event.  I had no reason to be privy to it.  That would not happen until months later, when a personal tragedy of my own would be forever written in the pages of my families book.

You see one year ago today, May 12, 2014, my son Nick and I were involved in a horrible accident that resulted in the loss of someone we loved dearly. We witnessed things in that accident that are unspeakable, unimaginable. Things that cant be unseen, undone or forgotten.  They cannot be erased from our book or story, it is a part of us forever.   Almost immediately we were plagued with night terrors, & flashbacks.  The fact that it happened within a close proximity to our home meant we have to relive it each time we leave our home, or each time we drive that vehicle.

Still, we continued our regular routine, time heals all wounds right? Well, that's how the saying goes, but time can also play some nasty tricks on you as we later found out.  For, as it seems to be with traumatic events, the full blown effects sometimes do not surface until some time later. So, as we continued with our newborn, engagement, senior, maternity and family sessions...we shot a wedding two weeks following the accident, and many more through out the year.  It seemed as if we were processing or managing to live with what happened and going through the grieving process.  Then with my fall sessions complete, and all of my contracted events complete, the unimaginable happened.

 As if out of the blue, I froze. I hit that proverbial wall that athletes describe.  I got to a point where I literally could not shoot anymore, I could not edit anymore, I had shut down.  What can only be attributed to how deeply emotional photography is for me, since as I said I don't shoot portraits, but moments, it tends to be that way for me.

Admittedly, both Nick and I had suppressed it as long as possible, but like a vortex looming in the distance ready to suck us in, it inevitably won. We have since been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We have learned or are coming to accept, that what we experienced will always be a part of us.  It is an experience that, due to its nature, will come up from time to time in our memories and we will have to deal with it.  It's written in our families history book, but its not one that will be told around the campfire.  Its not easy living with what is forever etched in the pages of our history,  in fact,  at times its like your mind puts you back there on purpose and makes you relive it all over again as some sort of cruel joke or punishment.  That is the nature of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.   Sometimes these episodes resolve quickly, other times you are stuck there and it consumes you. We are dealing with it. 

This "moment" as I call it, the moment that I froze as if emotionally numb, happened at the end of the year for me, and shortly thereafter for Nick. Right at the time when everyone was waiting for sessions to be edited and delivered.   I was shooting what would be my last session for a few months,  a maternity session and near the end of it...I just lost my joy...my hope... my reason to continue.   The setting was beautiful, she was in a beautiful pink tulle gown and flowered head piece that I had made for her, she was standing  on a beach at sunset...it was magical.  And yet what was once a love and passion of mine, capturing wonderful memories of happy events was now lost, just sucked right out of me.  I literally saw and felt it happen as I looked through my lens as the shutter clicked what would be my last shot. 

In order to recover I took some time off from my studio, from shooting and editing, even from Face book, because the requests were coming in fast and furious, and I have a hard time saying no.  See on a good day, when I felt I could push and make it go away, I would scheduled appointments...and then end up needing to cancel them.  I had a beautiful studio set up with everything needed, I had 3 babies born needing newborn sessions, a maternity session, a one year old session, a 25th Wedding Anniversary session, all with clients I love dearly, yet I just couldn't do it.  This continued until I just stopped taking anymore period.  After completing the edits on my contracted/paid sessions, I took a break completely, but felt guilty for the work I still had left to do, the sessions left unedited, unfulfilled.

Though I tried to explain my situation to my clients who had received complimentary/gifted sessions I was still overwhelmed with messages. I could only tell them so much...how do you explain the real reason you are not working.  Too much of it was graphic, and some thought I was only talking about our other 2 accidents which were posted on Face book.  Yes, we had three car accidents in one year.  When I'd try to explain it I would have flashbacks and that gaping wound so desperately trying to heal would open right back up.  So I would not talk about it.  Thankfully, my husband, Jon was able to take over my messages for a while and that helped me out.  But it didn't lessen the guilt.  I had these images that clients deserved to have.  Yet, unedited they were undeliverable, and I was unable to do anything about it.  

The majority of my clients were unbelievably considerate, loving and kind. Their messages back were loving and supportive. Some messages brought me to tears with their understanding, others from the lack of it. Yet, the good out weighed the bad, and I thank each and every one of you who's messages were loving and kind, those of you who sent cards, flowers, my three nurse friends for your visits, my wedding couple who found out and sent me a homemade box of sunshine they created with gifts of all yellow goodies just for me.  My last wedding of the year who waited patiently for her photos and not once complained.  Nick's friend Andrew who drove 3 hours on a few occasions just to be that friend sticking closer than a brother, and those of you who kept us in your thoughts and prayers.

Never underestimate the power of kind acts of love and kind words spoken at the right time can have on someone, for you never fully know how you can affect another person for the good or bad.

Now, this brings me to my family mentioned above, my school teacher with the heart of gold. She was also included in the batch of clients with sessions waiting to be delivered.  With her session not edited she kindly messaged me anxious to see them, and although she had every right to wonder and question, and to be upset with me about where her images were and why it had taken so long to see the finished result. That is not the message I received. Now, remember she was waiting  not just for her family session, but her son's one year shoot as well. While I was sincerely apologetic I still had no legitimate timeline in which deliver them.  Although she is, above all, kind in every way, I still expected her to be upset with me...for her family to be upset like some others had been. Yet, her response back is one that I will never forget, and has endeared this family to me forever. Her message, in hindsight, was the key to my knowing or believing that Nick and I could recover. Truthfully, I didn't care much about myself, I just needed Nick to be better...parents will understand that.

Her message and what she shared with me did just that. You see, she wrote that they were not upset, that they understood, that they loved me, that they knew I would get to her sessions, that I would make it. She told me to concentrate on recovering from the accident first, and then get to the photos.

Then she went on to read to me a few pages from her family story.   It included details of a traumatic event, as well as the story of recovery.  Trust me when I say she understood because their story is personal and will not be shared here.

What she didn't know is that her kindness and loving words of encouragement were exactly what I needed to keep going that day.  Her message and details of what happened to her family gave me hope, and something to look forward too. Something to share with Nick as well. 

For the first time I could see that we would get better. 

I was also given license to recover first and then get back to work.  There was no demanding to see images from her, or derogatory public post left on Facebook when others inquired about photographers and my name was mentioned, as another one had done.  No self-centered tone in her messages, only kindness, understanding, and above all inspiration to push ahead, and to not give up.

Shortly afterwards I received another message from another client along the same lines, they too had suffered loss as a family. It was unbelievable, and key to our not giving up. So, please, always consider your words carefully, because you never fully know what someone is going through, and your response can help or hurt. 

For when you do not speak consolingly to the depressed soul, you can, in affect, be putting a bullet in their gun.

After hearing this families story I went back to their session.  Certainly I must have missed something I thought to myself, why didn't I see the tragedy?  I saw the answer as I poured through the hundreds of images shot that day.  What I was seeing were the results of recovery, recovery from a traumatic event.  Recovery from a traumatic event.  That gave me hope.  For, knowing now what they had gone through you'd expect to see broken pieces, such as the ones that surrounded me.  But I saw the complete opposite.  I experienced it first hand during the actual session as well.  I saw a family bond so strong with a love for one another that you would never know the pain they had experienced. What she shared with me, gave me hope that we too could make it. I was shown compassion that I didn't feel I deserved. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel for Nick and I, and we pushed on because we knew it was possible to over come what we had gone through and not let it consume us any further.  That is not an easy thing to do, but it is attainable. 

Now, I don't believe in destiny or chance, but I do believe that every family has a story, and written within its many pages you may find a chapter or two which contain a traumatic event.  I believe that I was blessed to have this family selected to shoot in honor or tribute to the traumatic events and loss of life in Sandy Hook. And so it went in full circle, what began as a tribute to the families affected, and the children and teachers lost in Sandy Hook brought my family to one that would inevitably help mine through a tragedy of our very own. 

Now, I know that they say scars heal, but "they" should also tell you that you'll  carry them with you forever.  We still carry the events of last year with us...everyday in fact. I am sure this family does as well, as do the families of Sandy Hook. What is important to remember is that you should never take a single day for granted with the ones you love, and to be kind with your words to others. Be sensitive and understanding when you have every right to be otherwise...for you never know who's life may be hanging in the balance and how a word spoken at the right time can have such a powerful affect on another person.

Thank you again to each of my clients.  As Nick and I continue, it is, in part because of the love, kindness and patience you have all shown to us. To this family in particular, the family who choose to share pages from their personal history in order to help ours...we are forever grateful to you all.

The video above was made especially for The Sams Family.