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Photographing while your heart is breaking

Covering the news can be really hard on your soul sometimes. Last week was one of those hard times….

I was in Valley Park walking through the old part of town following Captain Mickey Downing and his Valley Park Fire Protection District crew as they went door to door urging homeowners to evacuate as waters rose on the levee. Most residents had already left or were in the process of moving.  Those who wanted to stay behind were recorded in the Captain’s notebook where he wrote their emergency phone numbers and other helpful contact information in case the worst happened.

The firemen had almost completed their task in the neighborhood when Dixie appeared out of seemingly nowhere. She was dressed lightly for the frigid temperature and was several blocks from home.  She had been out walking trying desperately to find someone to help her.  Reporter Dave Luecking, the Captain and I just happened to be there at the right time when Jesus needed someone to help His Dixie.

It turns out Dixie is a caregiver for her 94-year-old disabled mother, (and for 2 dogs and a cherished cockatiel). She had no phone, no car and nobody to help in the emergency.  So with some alacrity and sense of impending waters, we headed off to her house to see what could be done.

Dixie’s mother cannot hear very well and her eyes try very hard to focus in her small and cramped surroundings.  She was sitting in a chair in the front room of the house with her nightgown on.  She was disoriented and there was fear written on her face.  Dixie tried to explain to her mother that they needed to leave their house because the waters were raising on the levee but her mother cried in fear, “What are you doing to me?! Why do I have to leave? I do not want to loose my house.” She cried, saying the words over and over.  Nothing Dixie could say would calm her frail mom.

The elder woman was so scared, her screams of fright pierced my heart, and I felt compelled to record this painful happening with my camera. To make an image of a tender yet chaotic moment between mother and daughter in hopes that the instant would mean something for others.  Maybe it would speak to another heart; maybe it would help people understand the tragedy of flood, of disaster, of human relationship. Maybe I am simply hiding behind my lens as a shield from the emotion of what is happening. But maybe, and as I hope for, the resulting image will offer a glimpse into how God sees us as poor little souls in complete need of His loving and saving power. We are helpless, just like Dixie and her mom, without Him.

After a few moments recording this compelling scene with my camera it was time for some action.  Dixie’s mom’s name is Nora and that was my first connection to this dear woman. I come from a long line of Nora-women, including my mother and daughter. (Why I didn’t get to be a Nora too is still something that pains me; but I digress…) I tried to talk to Nora but she has a hard time hearing so I had to get pretty close. When she didn’t recognize my face it made things even more difficult.  But when I told her about my Noras, she was instantly better. “We Noras have to stick together,” I said!

We got a few blankets around her and found an old wheelchair out on the back porch to settle here into.  A bird rescue volunteer came to take care of BeBe the cockatiel, leashes were found for the dogs and a driver was ready to drive everyone to safety at the Red Cross emergency shelter.

Later that night, after a day of shooting more photos of flooding, I came home to the quiet of my home and gave thanks I was dry. And when I went to pray, I found myself asking God one of my usual questions “Why do You put me in some of the situations You do? They are so hard for me!”

The answer I always get back in the quiet of my heart is.  show my children.

It’s a kind of straightforward answer He gives to me, so I guess I’ll continue to be an obedient servant and push the shutter button on my camera trusting He knows what to do with the resulting photographs.

And I’ll continue to do it because in each frame I shoot, I somehow find Him


  For more information on the recent flooding in the St. Louis area please visit the St. Louis Review: stlouisreview.com/flooding

Contact Lisa: lisajohnston@archstl.org