Midnight. I was five years old and blindfolded in the woods. As I clutched my sister’s hand, I could hear my Uncle forging ahead, guiding us while we stumbled over rocks and underbrush. My face was shrouded, my cheeks waxy with battlepaint. “I did this with your Uncle at your age and someday your babies will do it, too” said Mom. “This is how we keep our heritage alive.” She giggled softly in the distance, and against the velvety darkness, Kentucky’s night song unfolded, a soulful, eclectic melody of croaking frogs and rustling leaves, of mountain whispers and grand legends. That night, as the spirits looked on, my sister and I were initiated into the old Cherokee tradition, a family tradition born four generations ago and lovingly passed down, word for word, story by story. I learned about reverence that night, about the wonderment of an imagination coming alive, and how family legacy fuses with flesh and bone to become a part of you.

To this day it remains one of my earliest and most visceral memories.

My maternal lineage was a strong force steeped in lore and tradition. Nights around fires, booming laughs and old tales of my Mamaw and Papaw–his eternal sacrifice at war, her dedication to solidarity as a Riveter. Over time, these legends became the fabric that connected us all. My maternal ancestors spun the first burnished threads, each story weaving the grand tapestry into which my own narrative was entwined. My mother taught us how to summon the venerable and unbroken, how a single anecdote could stitch our lives together in one long, continuous seam. How to retell our ancestor’s stories with equal parts laughter and reverence, so we could marvel in the ornate swirl of richness and detail. “Someday, you’ll have kids of your own,” mom would say. “And these stories will be part of them, too.”

My father, by contrast, was a taciturn man, haunted by old secrets and an ancient pain that broke his spirit and drove him to the bottle. It was through him that I first learned about fear, secrets, and hiding in plain sight. His inner torment was a persistent darkness, casting a long, muted shadow across generations. Growing up, I seldom heard my father speak of his paternal love or pride for his family. But he was fluent in silence, spoke it in tongues; the insatiable, terrifying kind that seeped into our daily lives and ossified into something permanent. Yet, it was through this complex interplay of shadow and light that I learned my most powerful lesson: that even through chaos and pain, beauty lives.

In spite of his inner torment, my father taught me the power of imagery to communicate the unspoken.

With each click of the shutter, he told the story of our beautiful chaos. His photographs memorialized what he could never say: that he was proud of me, that he loved me fiercely and that I was innately beautiful. Today, when flipping through old family albums, it is abundantly clear that even when the right words or actions failed him, my father loved, cherished, and sought to understand us behind the safety of the lens. In so doing, he created artifacts that soulfully articulate a difficult childhood’s sweetest moments, captured in photographs that are beautifully composed, artfully lit and hauntingly familiar. He spoke visually from the pained soul of an artist that was never allowed to flourish, packed below years of suppression, only to emerge fitfully, and then to be put away again immediately.

Years of growing up in a home with an addict taught me how to project a false image of perfection to the outside world.  I have since found rebellion in the authentic. Beauty isn’t about perfection. It is found in the cracks, where one is open and vulnerable. True beauty is casting aside a facade and summoning the courage to truly show oneself. Beauty is about connection, within the subtle interactions where love trellises forth, like when a mother wipes a tiny strand of hair out of her daughter’s face, or the look of admiration from a younger sibling as she watches her sister climb a tree. It’s the fierce, yet tender gaze shared between lovers.  It’s the look on a person’s face when she finds the confidence to bare her soul, the look that tells you she has come home to her skin.

When I first sat down to write this, I believed that this story began the moment a Canon 5D was placed in my hands at 25 years old. But after two years of wrestling to write it, it’s become clear to me that this narrative began well before I was born. My truth arises from the wellspring of my mother’s storytelling, from my father’s tacit expression of love through imagery. It is the riotous dance of life that inspires me, the singular perfection of unscripted moments between loved ones; the raw, complex, and achingly human existence we all share. This is the only way I know how to how to weave a compelling narrative — with empathy, love, and a deep conviction that joy springs forth from the most unexpected places. Your story is already perfect. It is waiting to be told, and I would be honored to help you tell it.

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