the incredible lightness of maddy


A few months ago, I received an email:

Hi, Karen!  Guess what:  I'm graduating this year!  I'm really excited.  So, I don't know if you do this or not, but I'd really love if you'd take my senior pictures. Would you be open to it?  Please? Love, Maddy.

My reaction?  Complete and utter shock.

See, Maddy's mom, Melissa, is a dear friend and a former coworker, and I actually met Maddy years ago where her mom and I worked.  It was a software company that used to do something awesome:  every year around Christmas time, employees would bring presents for their kids, clearly labeled, and leave them under the gigantic Christmas tree in the lobby.  And then, one of the Fridays before Christmas, the kids would all come to the office for a party, the CEO would dress up as Santa Claus, and one-by-one, he'd hand out the presents to the kids.  

On this particular Friday, Melissa was trying to get something out under deadline, but the party had already begun downstairs in the lobby, and her 5-year-old was anxious to see Santa.  So I offered to take her down.  We made it just in time to see Santa arrive, and I was the one who picked little Maddy up and placed her on Santa's knee.

And now she's graduating high school.

Needless to say, even though I don't do family photos and I certainly have never done senior portraits before, I immediately said yes.  And so this past weekend, Maddy, her mom and her little sister met me on the grounds of Rice University for the shoot.

It had been several years since I'd seen Maddy, and at 18, she's truly the most extraordinary young woman.  She's a student athlete (basketball), a member of the Student Council and the National Honor Society.  She has already been accepted to university (my alma mater, Texas A&M University, thankyouverymuch), and starts in the fall.  

But the most amazing thing about her?  Her light.

In my TEDxHouston talk, I shared how the most important thing for a photographer to capture with his camera is the light -- not just the physical light (which is clearly important for properly exposing the shot), but the light within his subject.  Each and every person has this light; it is essentially the source and wellspring of our beauty.  The challenge, however, is that not every person is comfortable letting their light be seen, especially if there's a camera nearby.  It requires a certain amount of trust between the photographer and the subject.  And it's for this reason it's always easier to photograph close friends and family, because they are more likely to be comfortable with you, and let down their guards.

Because I hadn't seen Maddy in a while (and hadn't really spoken to her at length since she was a child), it would have been completely understandable if she was nervous around me.  For this reason, I, in turn, was nervous about my own ability to capture her light.

I needn't have worried.  This kid is made of light.

This was truly the most fun shoot I've had in a long while; even more telling, this was the most emotional I've been processing photos in a while.  Maddy is an absolute delight, and there's no question in my mind that she's ready to take on the world (Melissa, well done, mama).  And because I knew when I was taking them that these shots would be such a great illustration of a person's light, I asked Maddy right then if she'd allow me to share them with you, and graciously, she said yes.

Friends, meet Maddy.

On a whim, I brought a bunch of sunflowers with me for the shoot.  It turns out that they're Maddy's favourite flower.   Score .

On a whim, I brought a bunch of sunflowers with me for the shoot.  It turns out that they're Maddy's favourite flower.  Score.


See what I mean?  She's pretty, yes, but it's so much more than that -- girlfriend is radiant.  Her light is everywhere.  She emanates joy.

God bless her, Maddy was also open to letting me make a short video of her shoot.  So as if her light wasn't apparent enough in the images above, click on the image below to see what it felt like to photograph her:

She's just so lovely.


I think the moral of this story (and really, the lesson that kept appearing while I was photographing Maddy) is that we should all -- each of us -- take Maddy's example and fearlessly let our light be seen.  And while that's easy to say, it's not always easy to do; but here's what works for me (and from what I could tell this weekend, what seems to work for Maddy):

1.  Express gratitude.  Early and often.  Stop yourself periodically and think about what happened in your day so far that you can be grateful for.  Be thankful for kindnesses from friends and strangers, for your morning cup of coffee, for a comfortable bed to collapse into at night. Express it silently in your head, or write it down in a gratitude journal at the end of every day, or simply say so to your partner.  But do it.

2.  Surround yourself with people you love, and be loved.  Let this be your priority.

3.  Do the things that you love, that light you up, as often as possible.  Create like your joy depends on it (it just might).

And finally, if a sweet little 5-year-old one day out of the blue emails you and asks you to take her senior class pictures, for God's sake, do it.


On that note, shine on, my friends, and have a great weekend.

Want to learn more about discovering your own light?  Join us.