When Photography Became More Than Just Making Beautiful Images | Oroville Photographer

“We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.” — Ralph Hattersley

Light. It is more important to what I do than the equipment I use. It is my muse, alongside my children, and can literally stop me in my tracks.  I was fascinated with the way light can transform a scene long before I developed the skills to understand and capture it, and in fact, I still sometimes struggle to capture all the beauty I see in the light.

I clearly remember the first time “the light” urged me to take a photo. I was in a PICU room on the seventh floor of UC Davis Medical Center where my baby girl was fighting for her life. {Spoiler alert: She’s now a perfectly healthy six year old.}

Oroville Photographer | Tonya Edwards | little girl in a pink jacket picking flowers in a field at sunset

At the end of July 2011, my second daughter was born with an undiagnosed birth defect (a congenital diaphragmatic hernia for those interested). Just hours after birth, she was sent via helicopter to be treated at a medical center 60 miles away.  At the time, I didn’t know if I would see my baby alive again, and all I had were a couple of grainy phone pictures. 

The next few days were filled with learning an entirely new medical vocabulary, making arrangements for our other daughter and our housing, and a hundred other things. Our baby was placed on ECMO (a heart/lung bypass machine), heavily sedated, and barely resembled the baby I had given birth to. Babies born with this defect have a 50% survival rate, and my heart felt stuck in limbo. So much was happening and not happening at the same time, and still, just a few terrible phone pictures were all we had of our little love.

I knew I would want photos of her someday, but I was struggling. I was afraid to love a baby that I might never hold alive again. I felt awkward taking a “big” camera into her room.  I worried that no one would want to see photos of her. My head was full of jumbled half-thoughts and my heart was broken. But her room, the LIGHT in her room, washed this all away.

She was in a corner room of the PICU on the seventh floor (the NICU, two floors down, couldn’t accommodate the ECMO machine, so she had been moved upstairs.) Two walls of her room were covered in windows, and oh, that light!  If ever there was a room for healing a sick body, it was that room.  I cannot explain to you how magical it felt.  I saw her little body in that room, and I knew, no matter if she lived one more hour or many, I would want photos of her.  Not grainy cell phone pictures, but real photos.  Even if her features were swollen and misshapen.  Even if her body was covered in tubes and needles.  Even if I didn’t even really know what I was doing.  

Tonya Edwards | Oroville Photographer | baby in PICU on ECMO
Oroville Photographer | Tonya Edwards | newborn baby in the NICU on ECMO

So, on her third day of life, I took my entry level DSLR and my beginning photography skills, and I did my best to capture that fierce little human.  I barely knew how to shoot in manual and my lens wasn’t ideal for the space, but I knew what I felt when I saw that light. The way it flooded over her little body, I couldn’t help but feel hope. I moved around her capturing all the details…her fuzzy head, her puffy eyes, her tiny feet.  And right there, photography took on another meaning for me.  It was no longer just trying to create beautiful photos, it was a way of healing my heart. Much like journal writing had always helped me sort out my thoughts, taking those photos became a way to sort out everything that had happened in the previous few days, and it was everything I needed at the time.

I still love those photos, but what I love even more, is how photography and light took on a new, deeper meaning in that room. Photographing my life is a therapy for me. It forces me to slow down, to really see the people and things in front of me, to appreciate the beauty and value in my life.  These are the same reasons I feel so drawn to photographing families right now, and even more so, photographing mothers.  I’m right there in the thick of raising a family too.  I know the joys and struggles of motherhood.  I know the beauty of baby curls and the fear of losing your self identity. I know how overwhelming, difficult, and amazing it can be, all at the same time. I still find myself with a headful of half-thoughts, but when I photograph it, it seems to make more sense. And when I have the privilege of including amazing light, it’s magical.

Oroville Photographer | Tonya Edwards | little girl in a pink dress twirling her hair by a window
Tonya Edwards | Oroville Photographer | little girl in pink dress flipping her hair in a field with rim light

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