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Picture Perfect: Curating Genuine Adventure Images

After my dad died two years ago I tried desperately to conjure up the memories of his life, to piece together all he was. I would sit on the sea foam blue carpet of our office and sort through box after box of old photographs, touching the worn edges and running my fingers over his face as a little boy, large drops of tears evaporating on the prints. I pulled out stacks of the two of us rock climbing together, me in an oversized tie-dye t-shirt and he in his cringeworthy pink 90’s shorts belaying me up an easy pitch with a blue sky overhead. Candid shots of him holding me in his arms, us building a bicycle together, me helping hand him tools working on an old car, the two of us hiking side by side in a thick forest, him tending to my blisters on my first winter summit, the two of us covered in head-to-toe mud. The memories of us together are endless. I held the pictures tight and let the essence of him flood me over. This is the power of photographs; they transcend time and give us frozen moments we never want to forget.

In studying these pictures I became struck so profoundly by the relationship we had. He helped make me brave, pushed my limits, and gave me passion for the outdoors. Even as a child he treated me respectfully, included me, talked to me gently, and took me to have many great adventures. And what became so precious to me about these boxes of photos is the imperfect way in which they were created. The composition all wrong, overexposed, no creamy bokeh of light filtering behind us as we climbed mountains together. They aren’t dreamy or artistic or posed. There’s a collection of shots he took himself on his third attempt up Denali in Alaska, white zinc sunscreen covering his nose and all neon colors of gear strewn about while mountains in the background were washed out by overexposure. And you know what? I look at those pictures and all I feel is joy. I feel him radiating off the paper and into my heart, this man who taught me so much, who lived so big and bold, who left a massive hole in my life.

I share this story because many years ago I learned the art of photography, and I can tell you with more confidence than ever that an aesthetically perfect snap is rarely a reflection of the raw experience. There is no beauty to be had in the illusion of an impeccable life. We live in a time when social media forces us to play a harsh comparison game with one another. What we see as the end result tells very little of the actual story. And we have questions! How does she have time for that? Why does her hair look so good after hiking 10 miles? Who took that photo? Is everyone in the world out having extraordinary experiences while I’m at home folding laundry? Am I good enough? The images we consume on social media can bring up prolific amounts of inadequacy.

Somewhere between dial-up and the invention of the iPhone, we’ve forgotten we once lived our lives in relative privacy. We weren’t privy to first hand beautifully curated glances at how others were spending their free time. We weren’t bombarded with data on how fast someone else runs, what they eat, and their worldly travels.

When apps like Instagram were new, we were all fumbling around together finding our way. My first post was a cheery yellow sunflower sitting on my kitchen table. I added a filter and thought it was the fanciest thing I’d ever done on social media. I continued to share fascinating shots of a ladybug, some cloth diapers, a grainy picture of homemade almond milk, and a picture of my very pregnant self with a weird frame around it. I didn’t put much thought into these images. I didn’t know about hashtags, and I only had 30 ‘followers’. When a username I didn’t know liked one of my photos I immediately texted a friend of mine frantically asking her what was happening. After learning the Instagram ropes, I tentatively found myself searching hashtags for like-minded mamas in the world, and it surprised me to find myself making authentic friendships with people I had never met before. Instagram in particular has since evolved as a platform for marketing, influencers, small businesses, photographers, and everyone in between. Generally speaking, I find it to be an inspiring place to share life.

I pursued some pretty lofty goals this past summer, and I did some epic work. I had heart surgery in April and ran a half marathon four weeks later. I climbed and summited Mount Saint Helens, Mount Baker, Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and Mount Shuksan, among many other smaller peaks in the Olympic Mountains of Washington state. I had a very romantic vision of the photos I wanted to capture while out on these mindful endeavors, because as a mom of two young children I wanted to be able to show other women it’s important to get out and pursue your dreams in a season of life when many people would say it isn’t possible. It took a lot of organizing my time and arranging childcare, constantly trying to fill the holes I left in my wake as I carried my heavy packs in the mountains. It took massive energy to train hard and well to prepare for these big goals. It took gear and training and commitment and steadfast focus. It took massive amounts of belief that I am worth it. It took knowing the best gift I can give my children is showing them how to live with joy and passion and purpose.

Throughout the process I shared online a lot what training looked like while balancing my life as a mom. I’ve written much about advocacy for self-care and recovery, inspiring wellness, and continuing to go big and enjoy passions in life with honesty and vulnerability. My life is a privilege, and I hold immense gratitude for that. While much of my online sharing comes in the form of words, I do take and share a lot of beautiful images. As a professional photographer I have an advantage of curating more aesthetically appealing content, but that doesn’t mean it’s all I want to be focusing on when I’m out having the experience. 

And thus, the movement, mindful endurance, relationships, and personal enlightenment that came from living out the dreams I’d been working so hard for became much more important than the documentation of it all. I left my expensive camera and nice lenses at home. The grainy iPhone snap of me and my two friends shoved like sardines cocooned in our tent with big sunburnt smiles on our faces is one of my favorite images. The selfie I took on the summit of Mount Shuksan with a mouthful of snacks reminds me of the joy I felt drinking in the views of my accomplishment and feeling the energy of my dad. I could have framed something more beautiful, but the representation wouldn’t be as true. The photo taken of my husband and I touching noses on the summit of Mount Rainier wrapped in colorful layers of down with nothing but the horizon beyond us is a picture of achievement and love, no doubt. But moments later he was vomiting, I was anxious about our descent, the wind was screaming, and I had a mere 1/2 liter of water left in my Nalgene was starting to feel dehydrated. My point is: there are a lot of very small and big moments and external things happening in the time surrounding the second you see in a photo.

How we craft our lives is important. An image we see online is literally a small, small picture of someone’s experience. We can create an image to look any way we like it. It’s a picture, but not the whole one. The way we ‘see’ other people’s lives might be very different than the reality. Some people have tidy organized homes, some don’t. Some people are kick-ass backcountry skiers and some of us can barely get down a beginning line without crashing and burning. Some of us like fly fishing, hiking, running, gardening. Maybe you love car camping at parks or maybe it’s deep wilderness backpacking which brings you joy. None of these are right or wrong, they are just different. Don’t you dare let someone else’s Instagram steal your thunder or your joy.

The images we see online can make us feel we aren’t successful enough, we haven’t met our soulmate, we need to constantly be pursuing big experiences, working our dream career, have a lot of friends, and that everyone else has accomplished these things and maybe we are the only ones who haven’t. This feeling of dissatisfaction is a psychological trap modern life has set for us, and it makes us look outward with envy as opposed to inward with gratitude. Scientific studies show time and time again that gratitude, no matter the context, brings joy to even the smallest things in life. Practicing gratitude is a real way to reprogram your core beliefs about how you experience life. Spending even five minutes a day meditating on the things and people in YOUR life you are grateful for instead of seeing what everyone else has will have a profound effect on your perspective.

There are many, many, many ways to live. We are living in a strange time where social media and perfect photos can influence our individual identity. It can make us feel like we are always missing out on something. It can make us question ourselves and become discontent. It can be a place where time gets sucked away from us and jealousy can rear its ugly head.

But social media can also inspire, motivate, and cultivate connection. I craft very carefully what I share and what I say, because I want to share conversation centered around images which are good and genuine, meaningful and real. If I share a ‘perfect’ picture on the Internet, I want it to touch on the human experience with words that are written to build up and inspire. I want to “do good” with my online space. I want to connect with people. I want to support women. I want to advocate for wellness. I want you to know that no matter how beautiful and creative an image I edit and share with my online presence, I will always counter it with my words to reveal more about the joy or pain or mishap or work it took to get to that moment in time.

I’d like you to truly know deep inside that you are enough, you are worthy of any dream in your heart, you are just as capable as all the perfectly framed Instagram photographs. The experience is there for everyone. Let’s undress the idea that life is perfect for anyone and shift our focus to one of larger perspective. Life is beautiful and hard and all of it is worth sharing through the lens of honesty, not perfection.

It is my hope that someday when I’m gone, my kids will soften when they hold printed images of us together, unposed and imperfect. My daughter will see the picture of me carrying her up the last steep section of a climb to the top of her namesake, my face red with a slight belly hanging over the hip band. Maybe she will remember how she told me I was a strong mama and thanked me for carrying her so she could rest her little legs. I hope my son sees the pictures of the first trip I took them camping by myself, we took selfies with my phone, sticky marshmallow covering the corners of our lips. These imperfect snaps don’t get shared on social media, but they are the perfectly imperfect details of our life.

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