Ode To Joy

In Digital, Fine Art Photography, How-to, Inspiration
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“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

This isn’t a typical post about how I find joy in everyday life through my camera lens (although that’s absolutely true) or how documenting my family makes me happy and fills me up (even though it totally does). Instead, this is a post about how I unwittingly harnessed joy to launch my art career in the last few years.

Yes, you heard right. Joy.

When I picked up a camera six years ago and started shooting meaningfully, it was because it felt incredibly good to do so. I couldn’t think of a better outlet for my creative energy while raising two young boys. I saw my world differently as I studied light and composition. Sandwiched between nap time, preschool pickup, grocery shopping, and laundry, I used my camera to capture my children in their various stages of development. The images made me swoon and reminded me why motherhood was worth all the work. It felt good, so I continued.

Frond (no. 1) from my series She Told Us To Trust Our Intuition (2016)

Not long after I starting shooting regularly, I came upon an advertisement for an online self-portraiture class. Take a picture of myself? I was intrigued. The photos of previous participants looked fantastic, and I had a strong gut instinct to go for it, not knowing why. I jumped into the course, initially thinking that I might get kicked out because I wasn’t an “artist,” just a mom with a camera. I quickly learned that every other woman in the class felt intimidated and excited. We dug deep together, for a full 52 weeks, 200 women from around the world. I found not only my voice but also a community of women who have become soul friends. I had no idea what I was moving towards, but in the early days, I didn’t press myself to define it. I was having fun as I worked to deepen my understanding of the medium using the subjects in front of me — my children and myself. That was enough.

Each year, I gave myself a new photography challenge but only if it sounded fun. A 365? I loved the concept of applying daily discipline to my creative practice, so I kept it up for 2-½ years. I stopped mid-year on the 3rd go-round because, well, it no longer felt fun — a sure sign I needed to move on.

Filmmaking? Whoa, that looks incredible. I felt a strong pull towards the films I saw others making. I took class after class until I got the hang of it. I set goals for how many movies I wanted to make each year, and I met them. My skills improved over time, and it felt great.

Somewhere along the way, I saw other artists photographing their children underwater, and my jaw dropped. I had to try it. I began with a waterproof cover for my iPhone, then graduated up to a GoPro. My passion continued to grow, so I decided to purchase an underwater housing for my DSLR. That purchase (a big one for someone who didn’t exactly know why she was shooting underwater) started to get things moving for me.


Digital fine art printing caught my eye too. I saw what a huge difference it could make to learn to print my photographs. I didn’t know precisely why this mattered, but a new fascination was born. I signed up for classes and eventually found a mentor who could help me execute my vision onto paper.

Reviewing color corrections and paper options (2017)

Mingled in there was a desire to understand the world of project-based fine art photography — developing a series, writing artists statements, entering juried competitions. This may sound like work to you, but I was lit up by it. I sat at my computer for hours as I immersed myself in this process. I found fine art mentors willing to guide me. I studied and worked and of course, failed an awful lot. But boy was it fun.

The Aquatic Street (2015 – present) explores my fascination with water imagery and beach culture, a subject matter that is deeply rooted in childhood memories shared with my mother and siblings. With this series, I seek to capture the magic of those playful memories, with a nod to the traditions of street photography. Traveling the world and swimming with my camera allows me to chronicle beach culture from the unique vantage point of the water. I am drawn to vivid colors and layered compositions serviced by the surrounding architecture to create a sense of place. The photographs in this collection were captured in Positano, Capri, Hawaii, and Florida.

I kept myself busy following the next breadcrumb, and the entire process felt so joyful. Yep, there’s that word again. Joy. I didn’t know that each of these skills — developing an innate understanding of my camera, shooting underwater, filmmaking, digital fine art printing, project-based fine art photography — were connected in some way. I just knew that each of them sparked a deep curiosity and gave me immeasurable joy.

Unconsciously I was making a commitment to move towards the things that felt good and further away from the things that didn’t. It was as simple as that. For me, the path fell within the realm of photography, but for someone else it could be an entirely different medium — food, woodworking, gardening, writing, music, or sign painting (I have a dear friend who is completely in love with sign painting. Isn’t that cool?). I learned a few lessons along the way, and I’d like to share them with you now.

First, spend as much time as possible doing something that gives you joy.  Don’t attach too much meaning to any of it — don’t expect to get a new career or make a ton of money (but hey, don’t assume you won’t either).  Cultivate space and time to play.  Give yourself permission to get lost in the flow as often as possible.

Second, stay open — really wide open — to possibilities that may come your way as a result of feeling good for extended periods of time. If new interests come into your sphere as a result, see where they lead you. This is the “following the breadcrumbs” phase and it is rich with opportunity. As you pursue those new avenues, you will find that some things will light you up and others don’t. Keep following the ones that feel really, really good. That feeling is the confirmation that you are on the right path. At times you may think that the various directions you are moving feel random, or seem dissonate. As long as you are in your joy, don’t get hung up on why. Our brain wants to over-analyze and over-process everything, but all the good stuff comes to us when we turn off our thinking brain and get busy having fun.

Third, attach some discipline to the process but let’s not call it work, ok? Set goals that feel exciting or challenging and perhaps just a touch out of your reach. Think in terms of long stretches of time, like six months or a year. In my case, I made a year-long commitment to self-portraiture, 2-½ years of daily shooting, two years of studying under a printing mentor. You get the idea. By the time you reached the end of the goal, you will be amazed at how different the landscape looks. You will have made new connections, discovered entirely new pathways, or gotten clarity on what you do and don’t love. Completing this stage often leads you to new goals for the next year. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

And finally, when you are in the early stages of following your joy, it is a bit like a teeny tiny flame has been lit. Such a small flame can be extinguished very easily by the criticisms of others, even well-meaning “suggestions” or mild disapproval. For that reason, I recommend you keep your new ideas private until you are deeply established on your path. This is not about being secretive. It’s about honoring something sacred during the early stages of gestation. To this day, I share my early ideas with a few trusted individuals; the people who applaud any wild scheme I come up, who willingly fan the flame I have lit, or throw another log on the fire. When your ideas are fully formed, when you are deep in your understanding of what you are creating, then begin to share it with others. Waiting until your flame is a roaring fire allows you to shine your light on the world.

For those of you reading this who are wondering, what is my joy? Don’t be stymied. It simply means you have one extra step — uncovering what lights you up. Congratulations. This is the BEST assignment you will ever receive. Have fun with it. And remember, even small steps in the right direction provide an opportunity for something incredible to unfold.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something and it seemed obvious to them after a while.”
— Steve Jobs

xoxo –Deb


  1. Oh my, such a wonderful post on following the breadcrumbs to what brings you joy. Your final piece of advice to keep our new ideas private until we are deeply established on our path, especially rang true. Last year I too quickly began sharing my art work, mainly as a way to bravely put myself out there, and tried to do too much too soon. This year I am exploring and playing and taking the time to enjoy the process. Thank you, Deb, for this great reminder.

    • Grace, I am so happy the post spoke to you. That final bit of advice about holding things sacred during the gestation period is really important. But there comes a time when you have a tiny bit of detachment from it — when you are so comfortable in the new skin you have created and maybe you have even moved on to the next thing that lights you up — that’s when we are ready to release it in the world. Lovely to know you are on the path too. Thank you, Deb

  2. This path, these words, they really moved me, Deb, I think because I do such a great job of denying my purposeless joy in the
    sea of my responsibilities. thank you

    • Deborah, your joy is full of purpose. You can even think of it as a public service. When you are happy, everyone around you is impacted. Now, go get your JOY on! xoxo Deb

  3. Deb, This is the best thing I’ve read in a very long time. Your words speak directly to me at the place I find myself right now. You have put into words my experience with photography and given me great comfort and reassurance. I’m printing this essay out and carrying it with me everywhere until it is stored in my heart and my mind. Your photographs are art and your joy is contagious!

    • Thank you so much. I wrestle with putting intangible things into words at times. I sat with this one for many months before feeling ready to release it. But, every word is true and comes straight from the heart. I am delighted you see yourself in it and that my words will support you in your creative pursuits. It’s all I could have ever asked for. Thank you.

  4. Your words are such an encouragement and guide for me since I am still seeking to know direction in this wonderful world of photography. Thank you for sharing your heart which is a light to those of us struggling to find our way. I look forward to more of your wisdom…..

    • Nanci, I would encourage you to release the struggle and just focus on your joy. Everything you need to know about your journey is found there. Isn’t that a wonderful assignment?! xoxo Deb

  5. Oh Deb, this is just so wonderful – pardon the pun, but a JOY TO READ! What a great reminder to have a breather and think about how our creative intentions make us feel, whether they are being forced or pushed a little too hard because of outside factors, sometimes forgetting that internal voice. You never disappoint, friend! Gosh, I feel so blessed to have watched this journey you speak of. I have goosebumps as I write this. What a gem you are xx

    • You most definitely have been there with me and I am so grateful for that Tahnee. I feel equally blessed to watch you manifest YOUR beautiful and joyful career, my friend. xoxo

  6. Thank you for sharing your joys and passions, and for reminding me that each step is part of the journey. Beautifully said!

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