Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Northwest Originals: Photography with Soul

This is the second Northwest Originals profile, wherein I interview locals who spice things up around here through their interesting and productive lives. You can read the first one here.

When you first meet Lynette Johnson, you’ll probably notice an elegant woman dressed with an artist’s flair for style. But soon it’s her enthusiasm and passion that shine. This is a woman with a fierce sense of purpose.

On this particular morning, she shows up at the neighborhood bakeshop wearing bright red rubber boots and vivid blue leggings with big stars—her Wonder Woman outfit—at the request of her young grandson, whom she’s seeing later. 

You can tell pretty quickly that life around Lynette is never boring.

As founder of Soulumination (a nonprofit that honors children/parents facing life-threatening illness through photography), professional photographer, cancer patient/survivor, and fundraiser extraordinaire, she has a mission. 

“I want my life to stand as one that was giving.”

Becoming a Photographer
Lynette was raised in Sequim, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula with room to roam and many animals to call her own (from ducks and chickens to sheep, pigs, cattle, and horses). There was not a lot of exposure to the arts, but she craved seeing family photos anytime she visited friends. “I remember specifically loving hallways that were lined with family photos in black and white,” recalls Lynette.

Lynette's daughters
 As a young mother, Lynette simply loved to photograph her two daughters. When I asked her how she became a photographer, she said it actually started the day her oldest daughter was born. “I asked my husband to bring the old camera to the hospital. I started taking pictures and never stopped,” she reminisces.

It didn’t take long for people to notice Lynette’s striking photographs of her girls. Friends started asking her to photograph their children, too, then weddings got in the mix. Soon this self-taught photographer’s reputation for artistic, natural, black and white photographs spread.

“I wanted the images to be real, with a goal of photos that people would want to hang for their artistic value, not just as a wedding photos.”

Her client mix has included a Who’s Who of Seattle (from professional athletes to Bill and Melinda Gates).

Lynette's youngest daughter as a young girl.

Becoming a Soul Photographer
A heartbreaking experience in 2004 changed everything for Lynette, when she was asked by her sister-in-law to take photos of her stillborn baby. The on-duty nurse’s lack of compassion at the time made Lynette want to photograph infants like her niece to honor them, however brief their lives. 

Coincidentally, a bride who was a client of Lynette worked at the pediatric advance care unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital. When she learned of this bride’s job, Lynette immediately offered to photograph seriously ill babies at Children’s. Then Lynette’s daughter asked her to photograph a preteen who was dying of a brain tumor. The same day she also met a teenaged Guatemalan boy in the cancer unit at Children’s and became friends until he passed away.

Lynette with a photo she took of her Guatemalan friend Francisco.

“Photographing these children is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was so obvious there was a need to honor and photograph these kids,” explains Lynette. “It was just the right thing to do.”

So she founded Soulumination in 2005 as a nonprofit to further her mission, tapping into other photographers willing to follow her lead. In 2005, Lynette was featured in a People magazine article, then was interviewed by Anne Curry for a segment that appeared on the Today Show (see clip below). Heck, she's even given a TEDxUofW talk.

Over the years Lynette has gotten a lot of publicity and is on a first-name basis with many influential people in Seattle (including some Seahawks and Mariners). And Soulumination has grown to over 60 professional photographers who donate their services for families with children as well as parents facing life-threatening illnesses.

Hugs with a favorite (former) Seahawk.
The Battle Hits Home
In one of life’s unpleasant ironies, Lynette herself was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma). While she’s currently enjoying good health and training for the Big Climb Seattle (a stairclimb up Seattle’s tallest building to raise funds for blood cancer treatment), she’s suffered through difficult treatments. (BTW Lynette is pictured on the front page of the Big Climb link along with her daughters.)

Interestingly, it has helped kids open up to her. After Lynette finished treatment a few years ago, she was asked to photograph a family with twin boys, one of whom was diagnosed with leukemia. 

Lynette enjoying time with a "Soul" kid.
During the photo session, the boy with cancer was initially quiet and seemed down. He told Lynette he had the cancer, and she told him she had the cancer too. Then they talked about what it was like to have the treatment and other “cancer talk.” Later his parents called her to say they didn’t really know what was going on with their son Evan until he talked to Lynette and heard him open up to her. 

More fun with another Soul kid.

“Cancer has made a difference in my work with Soulumination,“ says Lynette. “I think I was a compassionate person before, but you can’t help but be changed by treatments and frequent visits to SCCA [Seattle Cancer Care Alliance], where you see so much heartache and suffering.”

 Lynette sees a lot of people undergoing treatment for cancer pull inward, but it makes her open outward, like dressing up in silly costumes to make kids and health care providers laugh (…there was that Cat woman costume, among others.) And it has driven her to raise funds for treatment of blood cancer.

The Wizard of Seattle (aka Lynette) at Gasworks Park
 “Seeing some of these children we’ve photographed pass away is an unbelievably powerful inspiration to make a difference if the treatments could stop cancer in young patients,” says Lynette. She has been one of the biggest fundraisers for the Big Climb four years in a row, having raised over $100,000.

How You Can Help
Lynette is currently training and fundraising for the Big Climb again in March 2019. You can donate to her team here. If you’re moved by the mission of Soulumination, you can donate here. Thanks to Lynette and Soulumination for all the photos used in this post! And below is short documentary that Soulumination produced about who they are and their mission.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

January Reset: Inspiration Outside

Do you enter each new year with resolutions, lofty goals, a desire to take stock?

I usually look forward to the promise of a new year and new possibilities. Do I always succeed in effecting positive change? Nope.  But that doesn't stop me from trying to start fresh each year, each day. 

With a forecast for clear skies and unseasonably mild weather, this morning I felt drawn northward to the splendid convergence of sea, forest, and rocky cliffs at Deception Pass State Park. I filled my pack with a sketch pad and pencils, fresh journal, and book of Zen koans. And of course my cameras.

When I parked beachside at Bowman Bay, there were only two other cars in the lot and the sun hadn't crested the cliffs to the east. So I bundled up with hat, scarf, and gloves and took off walking down the beach trail.

Soon I passed an enchanting, quiet little wetland with a rich forest backdrop, where I had to pause and shoot. Perhaps the book I'm reading has infused my mind with forest spirits (The Bear and the Nightingale), but I could envision faeries lurking in the woods nearby. :)

As I tramped onward, the trail switchbacked up and over a cliff and back down to a narrow isthmus separating Bowman Bay from another tidal wetland. I briefly stepped down to the beach, just beginning to reveal itself after high tide, before continuing up into the woods.

My goal was a quiet, somewhat isolated spot to sit and meditate, contemplate, and hit the reset button for the still new year, with good intentions. Along the way, the views were as usual exhilarating.

After passing above a few lovely coves (where I've kayaked), I settled under a fir tree with a sweeping view west looking up the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

I sat and tried to meditate, but I was distracted by some voices nearby, and then a ftp ftp ftp noise from a flock of ducks half flying/skipping across the water surface below. 

I pulled out my sketch pad and drew a rough approximation of the island offshore. Then I pulled out the book and read a koan and commentary (more on that later). And I tried to contemplate and clear my mind.

But, well, as is usually the case, there was no great, clear inspiration. There was...okay, I've sat here about half an hour; I should be getting going now. 

So I packed up and continued along the trail through thickets of healthy green salal.

I didn't get the clarity I was hoping for or any grand epiphanies. But I'm not going to let it bother me much.

What I did get today was a renewed sense of connection with the land I love. And an ongoing commitment to honor that by getting out as much as possible, sharing it with you, and striving to touch others with the goal of doing what we can to protect and treasure our untamed places.

And I got to pet this handsome guy, who enthusiastically asked for attention.

May 2019 be a good year for us all. May we be vigilant and fight things (new policies, unsustainable development, overuse, etc.) that could harm our precious environment and natural resources. And may we not take it all too seriously all the time.

So how do you like to approach the new year? Just another day? New goals?

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

 When You Go
Deception Pass State Park is at the northern end of Whidbey Island and southern tip of Fidalgo Island, north of Seattle, Washington. With no traffic on an early Saturday morning, my drive from north Seattle was not much more than an hour. You need a Washington State Discover Pass to park.