By Dave LaBelle
Sometimes our eyes are set so far from home we fail to see beautiful truths close to us.
This week my wife finished a meaningful print exhibition titled We the People. The powerful group of refugee portraits – individuals who have enriched Northeast Ohio communities – is on the esplanade at Kent State University through May.
Erin’s images are not over-glamorized with harsh or garish flash lighting, but straight forward available light portraits which allow the viewer to look deep into the eyes of fellow human beings without distraction. There is a quiet power and grace in each face. This is her authentic style. It is evident she feels a genuine compassion for each person she photographs. As a friend said, when she first saw the refugee faces, “Erin’s pictures have a warmth and humanity.”
And as I watched Erin enthusiastically embrace many she had photographed, I witnessed the magical goodwill bond she had created with individuals. Refugees hugged her, thanked her, even fell into her arms and cried. It struck me then how much my wife gives to make so many lives better. And unlike a lot of photographers who make compelling, even compassionate-looking photographs of suffering faces, but lack a sincere heart for their subjects, Erin cares deeply about those she photographs regardless of their background or circumstance.
But she has a special heart for refugees.
And those photographed by her, usually from a distance of less than five feet, will tell you they felt a sincere and authentic connection with her. Strangers feel safe with her, share personal stories and secrets because they sense she truly cares. She remembers everybody’s name, their story, even the names of their dogs or cats.
So often after photographing, she would proclaim, “I just love these people.”
Erin’s mission with portraiture has always been to make images that celebrate the value of other human beings. She works tirelessly, often shooting hundreds of frames to capture a face, an expression that shares human dignity. And I have never known her not to care about how a person’s image is shared.
Service minded, my wife lives to make other people’s lives better. She is a bridge, a connector always looking for ways to unite those in need with people able to help. While I read fiction, Erin stays up late devouring books about health and wellness. She never tires of reading about the brain or ways to help people live healthier, more productive lives. Her true desire is to “make everyone well and thriving.” And whether working to make our community better, or the lives of individuals healthier, Erin continually gives without fanfare. She helps for the right reasons.
The concept of compassion, most fail to recognize, is not just feeling sympathy for someone. It is more than empathy for those whose stories we listen to and whose images we make. At the core of compassion is a true desire, an aching to help, to lift the burden from a suffering soul.
Last month while visiting another city, Erin engaged a young woman trying to get a ride to a park a few miles from a coffee shop we were visiting. As we drove her to her destination, we learned of her drug addiction and scrambled life. Erin stood on the sidewalk talking to her, comforting her, and looking for ways to connect her to people and places which could make her life better and more manageable.
Erin has always been a compassionate photographer and human being. She lives to make other people’s lives better. I cannot count how many times she has said, “ I just wish someone would pay me to go across the country and make people’s lives better and healthier.”
She is also an activist.
If you follow Erin’s facebook posts, you will see she has strong opinions on several subjects, especially health. She doesn’t hide her distaste for Big Pharma and lifeless, institutional education. Erin is a continual learner, a forever student of the world who believes learning happens everywhere, not just in financially-driven classrooms.
“I understand by human beings talking to me, listening to their stories,” she insists.
“If I want to learn, all I have to do is listen to people. I really didn’t learn much before becoming a photojournalist,” she says, speaking of her formal education.
Her facebook introduction says it all: good news content creator, photographer, writer, teacher, observer, storyteller, witness.
Unlike so many who use social media solely as a tool of self-promotion, Erin doesn’t write about herself. Her posts are not “look at me, what I am eating, winning, or exotic places I am visiting.”
She posts opportunities for others, or ways to encourage or connect people.
Erin is the “great connector.”
Whether buying food for people who have little or volunteering to pick up food from a local from Coop to help offset food costs for those in need, she is always looking for opportunities to help others. Always.
My wife is a beautiful woman, talented photographer and gifted writer, who pretty much put her rising career as a photojournalist on hold when she married me and became a mother and unschooling teacher. Only recently has she started rebuilding her photographic career. It is her turn to shine, and shining she is.
Finally, if this post sounds like a love letter, it is.
Links to learn more about the We The People project: