The sisters of Alpha Kappa Camera (from left to right): Trina, Kara, Shea, Lee Ann, me, Joanna, Lisette, Cristi and Amelia. Charleston South Carolina, July 2009.
Last month, I went on the best blind date (one of only two I've had in my life, for the record). It lasted four days. We really hit it off.
They had me at "you're such a light packer," warm words of welcome (take that, Kyle) shrieked at me by a gaggle of girls as they giddily greeted me to sticky South Carolina.
I had come to Charleston seven months after receiving an unexpected email from Cristi Owen (an Arizona wedding/portrait photographer) and Amelia Strauss (an Alabama wedding/portrait photographer) inviting me to join, of all things, a photography sorority.
Alpha Kappa Camera was their brilliantly brave brainchild, born from a trip to Ireland last summer to attend a workshop put on by Arizona photographer Melissa Jill (remember that name because she is central to this story) and Alabamian photographer Arden Ward. At that workshop, Cristi and Amelia became fast friends, fused by their faith, connected by their compassion, and joined by the joy they bring to every day and person they meet. As Amelia remembers, "We confided in one another; discussed our businesses, our families, our dreams and goals and beliefs...We were so very different with so many things in common. This new relationship with one another was inspiring and encouraging and FUN, and thus arose the desire to start our own 'club', with MORE girls who could share in such relationships."
Remember Melissa. Well, she had recently returned from a women's photography retreat known as Photogirls and when she heard Cristi and Amelia's idea, she voiced support their sorority startup, and even helped them make up the Alpha Kappa Camera moniker. (As an aside, two of my photographer friends -the smart and sassy Stacey Kane, a Maine wedding/portrait photographer, and the magical Maile Wilson, an oh-so-talented Texas portrait photographer and dear friend- are Photogirls and reading on the blog about their experiences in that group gave me the courage to go to Charleston.)
For months, Cristi and Amelia talked back-and-forth about their aspirations for Alpha Kappa Camera, and in December, Amelia flew to Arizona where the two spent three days straight looking over literally hundreds of blogs written by working women wedding photographers, searching for those who shared their similar spirit, values and voice. Then they emailed us.
I remember opening the email with eyes already rolled. It led with "You are receiving this email because we love your work and think that you would be fun to have around." It was so random and seemingly ridiculous, that I didn't respond for three days. Give up an entire week, smack dab in the middle of Maine's wedding season, to fly across the country to hang out in a house with a dozen women (or so they say) I'd never met before? Heck, all that was missing was the promise of a money order in the mail or an extra three inches.
Still, I was slightly intrigued, so I wrote back "This sounds like so much fun!!!" (note the three exclamation points - a sure sign of subconscious skepticism) and lightly penciled it into my planner. I hadn't actually bought my plane ticket until two weeks before "the retreat", finally doing so after coming to the conclusion that, at the very least, Charleston would be a nice place to meet this Nigerian prince.
At once thrilled and terrified, I arrived in Charleston on a Monday morning with no expectations except that I would be picked up at the airport. It was there I waited, and waited, and waited. I stayed busy by texting Kyle.
Sam: "Just landed in SC. Hope someone is here to get me."
Kyle: "Me too! Let me know. Just because I'm interested, not because I know how to help."
This was followed by a frantic curbside call about 20 minutes later, ensuring him that yes, I was still waiting.
And then, they pulled up, piled out and in an instant, my life was forever changed. My next text to Kyle said more than I even realized at the time: "I've been claimed!"
It's taken me weeks to write about my experience with these women -no, my sisters- because I still haven't entirely figured out what to make of it. After all, how do you write conclusively about a trip that your heart is far from finished with? An obvious objective of the group was to network with other like-minded photographers who would then become reliable resources around the country (and thus not competitors in your market) to share your struggles and successes with and to have as a sounding board for ideas and inspiration. And so we spent some of each day (and often late into the night) talking shop and shooting, and in that sense alone, attending AKC 09 was a huge win for my business. Another goal was for us to have fun, and we did that too. Some highlights include learning (make that trying to learn) how to skim board thanks to lessons from two very infatuated 13-year-old boys we met on the beach (Trina-has your elbow stopped bleeding yet), fending off invitations to jump in the rooftop pool at a rooftop bar where we sipped champagne until closing, taking endless silly photographs and eating our way through Charleston (if you go, don't miss fried green tomato BLTS and tator tots with black pepper gravy at Vickery's).
But Alpha Kappa Camera was - and intended to be- so much more. And that's where things become a bit more open-ended.
Bring together nine women, from around the country (Maine, Michigan, Alabama, Arizona, Tennessee, Georgia, Utah, North Carolina and Texas), with varied families, finances and faiths (Jewish, Catholic, Christian, Mormon and more) and put them far from home in a house together, and you've got all the elements of an explosive reality show.
Being the only Northeasterner, I might as well have been a million miles from Maine. I told myself I didn't belong here.
First of all, there were some major cultural divides. For example, I was in the minority by being one of just a few of us who had lived with our husbands before we were married (some even lived with their parents up until they got married, something I haven't done since I was 12). Second, they were all incredibly talented photographers. Third, they were all beautiful (inside and out), and despite the fact that they ate fresh baked cookies in the middle of the night and fried everything by day, they were skinny-minnies. And fourth, and perhaps most alarming to me, was that they were ridiculously nice. I mean, like sweeter than the sweetest tea in South Carolina nice. Like maybe they might be pulling something over me nice. Like maybe there really is a Nigerian prince behind all this nice.
(Queue "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" here and feel free to stand up and stretch. This is one long post.)
The second day, I texted Kyle: "So ready to come home! I miss us cynical New Englanders." His response was an instant attitude-changer. "I think you are brave for doing stuff like this. It would be pretty random to go to a place you've never been with a bunch of folks you never met and feel at home. Just bring one of those belles home with you."
Point taken. I was brave to get on a plane and commit to opening up to eight other people I'd never met before. And given that, it really would be pretty random if these eight other women were just like me, and thought and acted and reacted in the same way. What's more, is that it would make for a pretty darn boring week. Like me, they felt far from home, and they were taking a chance by being here, and just as I was, they were invited here for a reason. I spent the rest of the trip relishing in those reasons. Instead of bring backing one new friend, I found eight. Sisters.
Given that half in our group were Southerners (that capital S is intentional) and we were in the heart of the deep South (it's where Rhett Butler came from, after all), much of my reflection while at the retreat was on the Southern culture that surrounded me. This is not to say that the South doesn't have its faults, but after Kyle's pep-text, I decided to take advantage of this opportunity for me to gain new perspective from my new friends and their notably distinct culture. People in the South are incredibly laid back, a sharp contrast to me and I suspect many of my northern counterparts who are always rushing, rushing, rushing. This explains the delayed airport pickup (and cutting-it-close dropoff) and was a good lesson for me to learn. Is throwing up my hands and exclaiming anxious "ahhhs!" really going to make traffic move any faster? Likely no and this was a good take-away. There is also a sense of honor here that I haven't felt anywhere else and think I can infuse my own life with it a bit more than I have to date. Honor for husband. Honor for family. Honor for tradition. Honor for history. I may not agree with it entirely, but there is something to at least respecting it and seeing how it may fit into my own life.
And finally, southern hospitality isn't just a way of hosting, but a way of being. I soon realized that the niceness I noticed (and initially feared) in these women wasn't anything to worry about. It was true. Kindness is all they know. They rarely speak badly about anyone, and tend to pass less judgment than I know I am guilty of. And when they do decide to gossip, even that's done graciously, thanks to three freeing little words: bless her heart. For example, "She's as bland as unbuttered grits, bless her heart." Now there is some debate about BHHS (Bless her Heart Syndrome- it's a real thing- Google it) and how the phrase can be exploited so that the sayer sounds nice when they are really being nasty, but there is something to be said to hedging your words a bit. Bless my heart, but I am about as blunt as they come, both with the positive -which is great- but also with the negative- which is not so great.
Surrounded by those so distinctively different, I was finally able to see me. And because they were so darn nice, I largely felt really good about what I saw.
Looking at me through their eyes, I viewed someone who was witty, who had a huge heart, who was articulate, who had unmatched insight, who was pretty, who had grace, who was grounded, and who could write and shoot and make new friends and maybe even one day skim board really, really, really well. They told me I was all of those things and more, and I believed them, because when I looked at them through my own eyes, I adored and admired every single one of them, for a million different reasons, the least of which was that they too had had the courage to get on a plane bound for nowhere they'd ever been to open their souls to strangers they'd never met.
The first stop after picking me up was our Sullivan's Island pad, a classic beach "cottage" which we rented for the week. 10 points if you can tell me why Sullivan's Island has been in the news lately, and no, it's not because of Alpha Kappa Camera.
After putting my bags down, the girls took me out to lunch at a packed Poe's Tavern, my affection for which could be summed up simply by pointing out one of their signature menu items: bacon blue cheese slaw. Let the food coma commence (and it did)!
Just a block away was the beach, where I was thrilled to discover water temperatures in the mid-80s (compared to the chilly 60-something we find on our coast here.)
It goes without saying that when you bring together photographers, ridiculous images will be the result. Having experienced the awkwardness of making the silly shot below, I vow that I would never ask my couples and their wedding parties to do this.
For the most part, we ate breakfast and lunch each day together at the house. This called for a trip to the local grocery- the Piggly Wiggly.
Having gone to bed the night before around 3 a.m., we typically woke up around 10 or so, and spent the hot part of the day (until 4ish) congregated on this screened-in porch, lounging on white wicker and having connective conversations about everything from our favorite album companies to our post-processing techniques, and the endearing things our dogs do (all but one of us was a dog owner) to the not-so-endearing things are husbands do (all but three of us were married, and one of those will be soon).
We'd then head in to explore nearby Charleston, a regal city rich with history, culture and awe-inspiring architecture. Here we all are in this hidden courtyard we discovered.
During a surprising rainstorm, we took cover in this hat/sunglass shop...
And then this happened:
Though it was photography that brought us together and to Charleston, most of us (including me) had never been to the city before, so we of course played tourist. Here are the founders of AKC, Cristi and Amelia. They are actually as fun in real life as they look here, if not more so.
And here's Lisette and Cristi. They bring genuine sweetness to a whole other level.
We would find a spot where we wanted to shoot, and someone would step up to be our model.
I bet when this brick market was built back in the 1700s, it was never intended to be used like this- a backdrop for our America's Next Top Model style shot. Fierce, right!
With weekend weddings waiting, Kara and I had to leave early. On the last night the whole AKC 09 group was in town, we broke into groups of three and took to the streets to shoot each other. I went off with Kara (left) and Lee Ann (center).
So who are we? Well, let me introduce you to the inagural sisters of Alpha Kappa Camera.
Cristi Owen, a photographer from Arizona and a founder of AKC, who is about as unassuming and authentic as they come and whose reflections on her own marriage taught me of how I could be a better wife (she's a pretty great one). Tiny in size but so not in spirit, I think if her energy were harnessed, we could be free from our dependence on foreign oil.
Amelia Strauss, a photographer from Alabama (soon to be California) and a founder of AKC, who proves it's possible to be both grounded and giving while being a a highly successful photographer and businesswoman. In fact she's so giving, that she rarely posed for a portrait, but I think this image captures all I adore about her. She's only four years older than me, but I so want to be her when I grow up!
They just don't come kinder than Lisette Price, a Georgia photographer who embodies everything I love and respect about the South, especially loyalty to tradition, family, and country. As sweet as she is, she has a subtle strength that I so admire. Go Hokies!
A nurse by day and with all the compassion that entails, Trina Knudsen, is a Utah photographer who in addition to have just an unabashed affection for having a camera in hand, has a natural gift for taking photographs and then post-processing them in a way that makes you more aware of the beauty in this world than you ever were before. She sees the world in images, and as a result, you'll see many of hers here in this post.
Lee Ann Fuller, a photographer from North Carolina and my AKC roommate, who has more grace and elegance in her pinky finger than the queen, yet conveys it with such warmth and humility. A former Charlestonian, we couldn't have had a better tourguide.
Speaking of warmth, Shea Halliburton, a photographer from Tennessee who satisfied my late night ice cream cravings by driving me to the market, is so chic and stylish, she managed to make even me look cool. I appreciated how open both her heart and her wardrobe were to me and all the other AKC women. Look out, Anna Wintour!
Joanna Garcia, a Texas photographer and a most beautiful bride-to-be, has a candor and curiosity that I find so admirable. Her questions to me and the other old married ladies about what marriage was like and what advice we had provoked a lot of really good external and internal conversations about what we could be doing to better our own relationships with our husbands. She says she's a klutz yet she carries herself so well. If you want to watch a good love story, check out her proposal pictures here.
And Kara Purtell, a Michigan photographer, with a truly talented eye and a business sense like few I know. Destined for success beyond what she can even imagine, I am forever indebted to her for taking a portrait of me that captures the inner beauty I know I have and outer beauty I never saw I had.
Speaking of, here is that image Kara took of me. I love it!
And just because I carried that floppy hat all the way from Maine and back, here is a shot Amelia took of me working it (the hat that is) on the boardwalk to the beach. How sweet is that goggle-turned-sunglass tan?
In any group of photographers, it will inevitably be pointed out that are more Nikon shooters or Canon ones. It's always this arbitrary contest, kind of like Chevy and Ford, Pepsi or Coke. (For the record, I shoot Nikon, drive a Volvo and drink Diet Coke.) At AKC, the split was 5-4 (I can't remember in favor of Nikon or Canon), but interestingly enough, all the Nikon shooters were blonde, and all the Canon shooters had dark hair. Though Kara had flown out earlier that day, we had have some sort of mock showdown, captured by a Nikon.
Eight of us loaded up into one SUV to take me and my limited amount of luggage to the airport in what was to be one of the most fun car rides I've ever been on. Shea and I were in the trunk, if that helps explain its hilarity. While only two days before I'd wanted to run back home, I was a total crying mess while saying my goodbyes at the airport. Luckily, the girls jokingly tried to improvise a secret AKC handshake that left me laughing through the tears.
On the way back to the beachhouse from the airport, they stopped at this curiosity shop we'd been eying as a potential shooting spot all week, and did just that.
Then they went back to Poe's for a final group lunch. I can't believe I missed it (though I actually had a nice BBQ sandwich and hush puppies at the airport) but even though I wasn't there, these images completely capture how I remember these women.
A thousand thank-yous to Cristi, Amelia, Trina, Lee Ann, Shea, Lisette, Joanna, and Kara for all they taught me about themselves and myself. The fact that despite our differences, we all became such fast friends is a testament to Cristi and Amelia's thoughtfulness in pulling this group together, and each one of you. I miss you more than I wished I would and I cannot wait to take Vegas with you in February. What a relief to see our swank suite there has an oven for making midnight cookies. Just please don't be late picking me up at the airport.
Who: Meghann & Brad
What: A colorful garden gathering for 80 or so on the serene shores Lake Opechee
Where: Outdoor garden ceremony at the bride's family's home on Lake Opechee in Laconia and indoor reception across the water at the Lake Opechee Inn in Lakeport
When: Saturday, July 18, 2009*
How: Flowers at the ceremony site from the bride's father's private garden and the bouquets, corsages and boutonnieres from Lakes Region Floral Studio in Laconia; hair at The Color Amber Salon in Laconia; officiating by Quinn McDonald, aunt of the bride; bride's dress from David's Bridal; matron of honor's dress from Special Moments in Laconia; and cocktail party niblings by Edible Arrangements.
Why: When Meghann groggily got off the plane in Nairobi, Kenya to begin her Peace Corps service, she wasn't entirely aware of what to expect from the assignment that awaited her. What she did knew was that she was more than 7,000 miles from her home in inland New Hampshire, about to embark on mission that she'd heard most describe as life-changing. How right they were.
Brad picked her up at the airport. Literally.
A native Chicagoan, he'd been serving since 2002 in the rural portion of this African country as a small enterprise development volunteer for the Peace Corps, helping natives begin their businesses and grow them through loan programs. Just months before Meghann arrived, he'd been chosen as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for the western part of the country, charged with coordinating communication, collaboration and training for the dozens of volunteers working in the region at any given time for what is perhaps the US government's most well-known and celebrated volunteer program. Also in his job description: airport duty.
Both admit to feeling a connection from the moment Meghann deplaned. And it wasn't just jet lag. Three months later while both living and working in the western Kenya town of Homa Bay, they started dating, and while their sacrifices for service have often since separated them geographically, their hearts never strayed. And so on a sunny Saturday in July, the two were married in the backyard of Meghann's childhood home overlooking the lake in Laconia, New Hampshire. And just as she'd dreamed about since she was a little girl, her dad's well-kept wildflowers surrounded her on her wedding day. As lovers of nature and the outdoors, Meghann and Brad couldn't been more thrilled with the day's selected setting, seeing it as "sacred space."
A celebration of their shared values of service, selflessness and compassion for everyone they meet and also of their friends and family who had flown in from around the country (and some beyond), the wedding day also served as a going-away gathering, as following their honeymoon in St. Lucia, the couple was leaving their lives in New Hampshire where Brad had just finished business school to drive cross-country to begin their new life together in San Francisco, where he'd recently took a job with the Aquaya Institute, which brings safe water innovations to those in need the low-income countries. Meghann no surprise will be working as a social worker in their new city. That juxtaposition of at once joy and sadness made the day especially poignant, and there was never a moment not melodious with notes of laughter and cheer.
Knowing how important her father's gardens were to her, I sought to establish a sense of this place with some shots around the property.
And you can't beat the view of the backyard ceremony site and Lake Opechee from the sunroom.
As Meghann and Brad's love story shows, they truly put others first, so it should come as no surprise that in the final hours before she was to be married, Meghann made time to do her sister's makeup and her mother's too!
With a final look in the mirror as her mother secures her veil, Meghann beat the heat (and was it ever!) with a cool glass of water. Brides-to-be, note the straw. Always good to have on hand to prevent any last minute lipstick loss.
A most radiant bride.
Meghann opted to have both parents walk her down the aisle. I am seeing more and more brides do this, and I love it, especially in this situation where I know the value Meghann's parent's marriage has had in shaping her own perception of a strong partnership.
Instead of waiting until the reception to ring in their marriage with tender toasts, the best man - a fellow Peace Corp volunteer- spoke from the deck directly following the ceremony. I loved the look of this!
Both the bouquets and the boutonnieres also featured flowers from the gardens surrounding the service. How meaningful to hold such a hallmark of home in your hand on this most important day.
A kiss while lingering on the lawn after the guests had been gathered up in the trolley to be taken around the lake from Laconia to Lakeport for the reception.
I loved the lines this fence brought into framing within these next few images, and even more so, the symbolism of the white picket fence and what that means about marriage, home and family. You can see the playfulness between these two partners.
A little sunset love, lakeside.
I've been having fun photographing the dance floor with my fisheye lens lately. To me, it really helps to capture the craziness in context.
The last dance.
Well, not quite. The DJ cued up a final fun dance and Meghann and Brad enjoyed the end of their day with family in hand.
Congratulations, Meghann and Brad on such a thoughtful wedding day. And best wishes in your new city. How cool is it to see the Golden Gate Bridge out of your apartment window! I'll be coming for a visit soon. And don't forget to view their slideshow here.
*You may be wondering why this post is so delayed. Partly, it because I've been out straight and my blog has taken a backseat. But more so is that I always hope my couples have access to their images before I publicly blog the day's story. As I mentioned above, immediately following Meghann and Brad's St. Lucia honeymoon, they returned to New Hampshire, retrieved their car and immediately set out on a cross-country road tripping adventure that took them through the Badlands, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone on route to their new home in San Francisco. (Yes, I am insanely jealous!) So while their image gallery and slideshow have been online since just two weeks after their wedding, I had to wait a bit longer than I am used to for them to review them and be in touch.
Luckily, they loved them, as I suspected they should. Here is what they wrote to me: "These pictures are amazing! Brad and I made it safely out to San Francisco... needless to say, it took some time to get connected online and we both found loads of e-mails. Yours was one of the ones we were THRILLED to open. Thank you for the "welcome home" gift of these fabulous images- we are so pleased! We were also so impressed with the slideshow. Good work on that, Sam. Very well done. It gave us chills to relive those hours; what a beautiful day we had!"