Sarah looks through her viewfinder, framing a flower in the Rose Garden at Balboa Park. Plants are her favorite subject. She’s focused so methodically on each individual detail that we could spend ten minutes on a single rose and yet another ten on a cactus just a few feet away. Her eyes get big when I tell her we're not going to shoot out auto anymore and she twists the wheel on her camera to manual.
On day two, we hike Torrey Pines, kayak in La Jolla with GoPros, shoot product for Bradley Mountain Backpack with our stylist (and model friend) Kelsie, fly a drone, watch the light change on the beach, and learn long exposure techniques around a bonfire.
Sarah is goofy and witty. She has a sharp mind that’s quick to learn. So when we walk into some odd lighting and I ask her to look at the light around her and tell me the settings, I’m not surprised when she nails it. Just 30 hours before, words like aperture, ISO, and shutter speed were new to her. Now, she understands lighting.
I wasn’t surprised by Sarah’s ability. I’ve always talked to kids the same as I would adults and trusted them to do their best when given a chance. I was, however, astonished by Sarah’s natural eye for a shot. By the third day, we were just two photographers out shooting.
My travels take me to remote places in a lot of undesirable temperatures and even less desirable times, so I rarely shoot with other photographers. Shooting with another photographer is a fun experience – to share a common bond in the pursuit of capturing something special is in itself special.
For most of our trip, that was the only thing on my mind – getting to hang out with a young person passionate about photography and trying to capture something special.
STAY AVAILABLE TO GOOD
Some of the best advice I ever got came from Bob Goff a couple years ago. At the time, we were both speaking at a high school event. I told him a little about me and some more of what I wanted to do in the world. Naturally, I asked him for any advice. His response was simple. Stay available to do good things and have good things happen to your life.
I strongly believe good attracts good and opportunities come when we stop saying no, when we stop making excuses that we’re too busy, and when we stop focusing on only the things that bring us money.
This mentality helped connect me with Make-A-Wish and become part of granting Sarah’s wish.
A month before meeting Sarah, I was preparing to film a video for the Make-A-Wish Trailblaze Challenge Fundraiser when Ashley (in my phone as Ashley Wish-Granter, although her actual title is Wish-Coordinator) asked me to help grant Sarah’s wish. Immediately, I thought of the wall I filmed with all the granted wishes and the wishes I saw online – wishes to meet celebrities, wishes to sail boats with captains, wishes to meet Justin Beiber, and even wishes to meet the Pope!
I figured if Make-A-Wish could arrange a meeting with the Pope, they should go get Chris Burkard, Jimmy Chin, Aaron Chang, or any other photography superstar to shoot with Sarah. I told this to Ashley, and she thought I was a good fit since it was in San Diego. I reasoned Make-A-Wish could get a bigger, more talented name than me but also reasoned that, if anything, that person could only match caring as much as me. With that reasoning, I set out to do my best and make our experience amazing.
While I didn't face such a severe illness as a kid, I had grown up as a frequent guest of hospitals. My fascination of the outdoors started as a little kid. This, paired with being a moderately clumsy risk taker constantly involved in sports, led to me frequenting the ER more than twice as many times as both of my older brothers combined. In my defense, my hospital visits started before I could even be clumsy – as a baby with jaundice (note: born on Halloween with orange skin… I’ve always been very festive). Since those early visits, I kept coming back. I jumped out my crib twice in the first two years of my life and got four sets of stitches on my chin in return. Emergency room visits became routine for the next 18 years: getting stitches while potty training, falling out of trees, off rope swings, down the stairs, and accidentally smashing my fingers between rocks. I went to the hospital at the same rate other kids got new shoes or even haircuts.
Later in childhood, there were genetic problems: surgery at 12 to remove some benign tissue, hip surgery at 13, and reconstructive nose surgery at 17. In total, I’ve had ten broken bones, three dislocated joints, multiple concussions, one massive muscle contusion / blood clot, four surgeries, one partially torn Achilles, a torn plantar fascia, three immobile vertebrae, one bent tailbone, crutches for a year, 15 or 16 sets of stitches, and one memorable doctor visit for being bitten by a bird. (Update: smashed my finger between two boulders while editing this, which should have required stitches but I stubbornly closed it with surgical steri-strips because I hate going to the hospital). Most recently, my mid-twenties included by a couple broken hands from snowboarding, a fractured elbow, and a cancer diagnosis at 26.
What I learned from all of this is what it’s like spending so much of life in recovery – being on the mend and having the “get better” mentality. I remember a lot about the people around me, mainly my mom since she took care of me during my youth. I remember hockey players and Santa visiting me in the hospital. I remember they brought me a teddy bear from an event where people threw stuffed animals onto the ice rink between periods, which would be given to sick kids like me at the hospital. Later during that same hospital stay, a different Santa walked into my room with a big red bag. I had an adverse reaction to a dose of morphine so the room was spinning, but I tried to be friendly and thankful. Unfortunately for Santa, I ended up puking all over his shiny black boots. God bless you, hospital Santa.
I’ve had talks about possibly not being able to run ever again, not being able to scuba dive (weird chemo side effect but thankfully we opted for different treatment), losing my leg (possible bone cancer), never being able to have kids, and a very odd talk with a confused nurse when (true story) I tested positive for pregnancy.
I’ve been a kid whose world revolved around sports but whose doctor talked to him about possibly never playing again. I’ve also been a young adult whose life revolved around living but whose doctor talked to him about the odds of living and not living.
My friend Adam and I were diagnosed with the same cancer around the same time. He would call and share encouraging words, calling us cancer buddies. His cancer spread. Mine did not. He passed away two Christmases ago. Then my little brother from my fraternity and a friend’s husband were both diagnosed with this same cancer. Through it all, I’ve seen how illness affects our friends, families, and communities – the look in a father’s, mother’s, husband’s, wife’s, or child’s eyes after the person they love leaves the waiting room for their vitals, CT scan, blood work, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, or surgery. I’ve seen the same eyes of struggle in the mirror.
Sometimes, strong people get tired. At these times, strength takes on a new meaning. It means you’ve got the mental fiber to keep going, regardless of the struggles.
The thing you have to learn about being nearly constantly injured or sick yourself or loving someone who is injured or sick is that you have to learn to heal and mend – both yourself and others. Mental and physical healing takes focus. You have to keep countless appointments, treatments, and bills in order while still keeping the rest of life moving forward. You have to live with a smaller margin for error than most other people. You have to repeat the same conversations with friends, family, doctors, and teachers – with everyone. You should talk to a therapist to help get your mind right, but you hate repeating yourself yet again. It’s the elephant in the room at every event, wedding or funeral. It’s as if you need to introduce your illness along with your name but with a little joke to soften the blow.
The hardest conversations are with yourself – convincing your mind to stop thinking about the illness or the next possible thing to go wrong. At some point, healing means you learn to embrace that life doesn't revolve around being sick, injured or recovering. Then you learn that it’s okay that it stops crossing your mind. Some day, the hope is it will let go of you and you’ll let go of it.
I think this type of healing is the point for Make-A-Wish kids and families.
I forgot we were on a Wish. I forgot the whole point was a step in healing. For three days, we didn't speak one sentence about Sarah being sick. We weren’t worrying. For three days, I taught a girl who loves photography and got to be as enthusiastic as I ever wanted to be about it.
Ultimately, healing sneaks up on you and works the sickness from your mind. Those three days did a little of that for me, and I hope it did for Sarah too. We were just two photographers out capturing some of the beauty life has to offer.