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From Birth to Near Death: The Story of My Journey in Photography

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They say everything in life happens for a reason and while I didn’t hold much faith in that phrase before, I definitely do now. It took a serious life threatening experience to ignite in me a passion for my own photography as part of the healing process and then turn it into a career.

I know in my heart that I have always loved photography, but the way I stumbled into becoming a photographer is anything but a fairy tale — in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

I’ve always enjoyed looking at photographic images throughout my life. I can even remember going for visits to my parents as I grew older and always pulling out the family albums to look at the photos — it didn’t matter if I had already seen them. A few months ago, I was going through my old report cards and came across my grade school reports and was somewhat surprised that my kindergarten teacher had written that I knew my colors very well and that my art work was very good. My report cards, all through school, consistently reinforced that I had strong artistic ability although an art career never became the focus of further studies.

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My first camera was a Pentax K1000 35mm film camera, and I think I was about 18 at the time. While I learned how to use it and shot some good images, this first venture into photography only lasted a year or two, and then the camera was put away. Sadly, it was about 25 years until I picked it up again. I never really gave photography serious consideration back then.

There were others in my family who participated in artistic pursuits but they were mainly on the male side. Both of my brothers and my father were very good at drawing and my brothers were also musically inclined. Influenced by my sisters, I chose a different path, setting my sights on working in an office as they did. I don’t think I really had my priorities straight at that age, and to be honest I don’t remember being too focused on what career path I would take. So that is what I did for a little over 22 years.

I worked in an office environment in accounting/payroll and eventually became an office manager. Had the incident I’m about to speak of never happened, I would probably still be working in the office and would never have found my passion in life.

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Now here’s where life threw one of those infamous curve balls into our lives:

Fast forward a few years of marriage, about 25 to be exact, and in 2008 and my husband and I are expecting our second child. Even with an advanced maternal age (that’s what the doctors called it, I didn’t think of myself that way!) I had no issues and had a perfectly healthy pregnancy all the way through up until after my son was born. That’s when the nightmare started, and to make a long story short, I suffered some life threatening issues and almost didn’t pull through.

Basically my bowels had shut down after my son’s birth and 11 days later it ruptured causing me to become septic. I was put into a medically induced coma for weeks, leaving my husband with a three year old and newborn while having to deal with what was happening with me in the hospital. Fortunately some family members came up and stayed with our boys while my husband stayed by my side.

I don’t really have much memory of what happened after my son was born, up until after I was awakened from the coma. Thankfully I pulled through and after three major surgeries and several side effects from that ordeal, I was released from the hospital, with a colostomy bag attached.

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It was a very lengthy recovery lasting about 3 years. It was a time of losing all my hair, learning to walk again, an additional four surgeries, and the depression that resulted from all that. It was a very physically demanding and emotional time in our lives but I was determined to pull through as I had 2 small boys at home that needed me.

It was at this time in my life that I unwittingly stumbled into photography.

I had been off work for over 3 years and never returned to my old job. I was hoping to find something new and start fresh. I felt like I needed that in my life. However, with the unemployment rate being so high in this area, it proved to be more difficult than I had originally thought. I felt like there was something missing from my life, the whole incident left me feeling like there was a void that needed to be filled.

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Between living with the constant reminders from all the scars mentally and physically, I needed something to redirect my thoughts. That was in May 2011. That’s when I bought a camera, my first DLSR and kit lens. I started out shooting anything and everything in my backyard and front yard, day after day while I tried to figure out how to shoot in manual mode.

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It wasn’t an easy transition at first but with much persistence, trial and error I gradually had a grasp of it. By October 2011, I was a little braver and headed down to Niagara Falls with my camera to broaden my horizons. I was experimenting with long exposures and night photography and remember feeling so enthralled with it all. It wasn’t just an escape for me; I felt something when I was out shooting. It was and still is an indescribable feeling that overcomes me.

One of my first two long exposure photos at Niagara Falls. Shot on the U.S. side at Niagara Falls State Park-Niagara Falls.
One of my first two long exposure photos at Niagara Falls. Shot on the U.S. side at Niagara Falls State Park-Niagara Falls.
One of my first two long exposure photos at Niagara Falls. Shot on the U.S. side at Niagara Falls State Park-Niagara Falls.
One of my first two long exposure photos at Niagara Falls. Shot on the U.S. side at Niagara Falls State Park-Niagara Falls.

It’s like I was in my own world, no worries or stress, just such a calmness about me and an easy flow. When I see “pockets of light” or an interesting composition, I get goosebumps. I started looking into photography programs around November 2011. I felt like I couldn’t learn everything I wanted to know about photography fast enough. I remember looking at other photographers work online and feeling so frustrated at times, wondering when or if I would ever be as good.

I decided that I would enroll in the Continuing Education Certificate Photography program at Niagara College, a class that was held one night a week at the college. As much as I would’ve loved to take the two year full time digital photography program, I really couldn’t afford it and I also had two young boys to look after. In January 2012, I began the photography program at the college and once again, I felt I couldn’t learn enough, fast enough.

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Later on in the fall that same year, I joined the Niagara Falls Camera Club with the hopes that I could learn even more about photography by being around seasoned photographers. I’ve been told by a few photographers that I actually had the “eye” for photography, my schooling helped to fine tune what was already there.

I remember one particular sunrise that I went out to shoot at the falls in the winter of 2012. I got to the falls and was a little apprehensive and felt somewhat intimidated because there was a lineup of photographers there already, waiting to shoot the sunrise. In my mind I was sure they must have been much more experienced than I was. It took everything I had to continue walking up to them and pull out my camera and to set up for the shoot.

The sunrise I captured at Niagara Falls. This photo was later published by Canadian Geographic.
The sunrise I captured at Niagara Falls.

That was one of the most spectacular sunrises that I have ever witnessed in my life. Never again have I seen such a glorious combination of pastel colors, all glistening and reflecting off the ice coated tree branches by the falls. I think that truly was the “aha” moment for me, when I thought this is definitely what I want to do, I want to make a career from photography, more specifically landscape photography.

The image that I shot that morning was entered into a competition held by Canadian Geographic and The Weather Network, and it was actually chosen and published in a Canadian Geographic magazine in July 2013 as the centerfold image. I remember walking into the store when the magazine hit the stores; I lined them all up on the shelf opened up to my image and took a cell phone shot of it.

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Needless to say, that added fuel to the fire and had me falling even harder.

Since then, I have secured several contractual photography jobs in the tourism industry for Niagara Falls Tourism, Hornblower Cruises and Niagara Parks Commission to name a few and they have also purchased many of my images for their promotional materials both print and web based. It’s a great feeling when I see my work on a billboard for tourism advertising or even the NPC and NFT tourism guides, it reassures me that following my heart and pursuing a career in something I love was the right decision for me.

Earlier this year, Niagara Parks Commission did a short video on me and used it in their advertising. It was under their “Niagara Parks Big Picture” series:

The Niagara Falls Review ran a story on my journey and my photography in December 2014, it was very well received and I had numerous people reach out to me saying that I had helped them and was an inspiration to them during their rough times.

I have been a member of NPS (Nikon Professional Services) for the last 1.5 years and have had some of my work has been on display for 2 years in a row at the Nikon Canada booth in Toronto at the Exposure Photography show. Last fall one of my portraits was selected to be on display at 4 galleries across the country with Nikon Canada at the member exhibition tour. There were 30 images selected from all the entries received to be on display and I’m honoured to be one of them.

"First Train Ride." Nikon Canada chose this photo of my for a gallery show.
“First Train Ride.” Nikon Canada chose this photo of my for a gallery show.

My most recent accomplishment was having one of my Niagara Falls images being selected as one the Top Ten Travel Pictures of 2015 by 500px. To be recognized in this group was extremely humbling to say the least, especially when I found out that others named in this group are very highly talented artists such as Scott Kelby and Elia Locardi — some of my favourite photographers!

I think one of my most exciting moments so far was when I had 2 of my images go viral earlier last year in the winter. They were images of the American Falls in the winter with the ice bridge at night and the falls appeared to be frozen over.

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In the matter of 2 days they were seen worldwide and had aired on TV stations in Texas, Pittsburgh and were even shown on CNN to name a few. I had the LA Times contact me for an interview as well as other companies overseas contacting me through social media channels and emails. It was a pretty amazing couple of days, with quite a whirlwind of activity from it.

4p CNN No Nielsen Watermark Aircheck

Looking back at the past few years, it’s been amazing to experience a new direction and path in life as a result of the impact my turbulent and often uncertain life circumstances have had on me, and as impossible as it all seemed at times I have conquered adversity and I feel so lucky and happy to not only have found something in life that I am very passionate about but also to be able to have made it my career. It is truly remarkable.

"Icicle Curtains." This photo was just selected as the 1st place winner in the Canadian Geographic "Show Us Your Canada" photo contest.
“Icicle Curtains.” This photo was just selected as the 1st place winner in the Canadian Geographic “Show Us Your Canada” photo contest.

My thirst for knowledge and desire to become a better photographer has changed in this way from the first day I picked up the camera; it has increased tenfold. Some say that I’ve found my calling in photography and if that is so, I feel so incredibly lucky to have found it as some go through life never finding their special niche. Just when you don’t think you have the strength in you to go for it, give yourself that extra push, you’ll be amazed at what can be achieved with some hard work and determination and believing in yourself.

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While the circumstances that lead me down the path and on the road to photography were very traumatic and life threatening and the road itself had its fair share of potholes, I believe there was a reason for these challenges and personal trials in my life and I think that they have just increased my passion for photography which truly holds a special place in my heart. I look forward to growing and continually learning as a photographer and I know that my love for photography will only grow over the years and increase my passion that already feels like it’s been with me my whole life.

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If I could sum up my experience over the past years of my life’s story, I would say that I am grateful for the skilled doctors may have saved my life and mended me physically, but it has been photography that saved me and mended my mind, my spirit and my soul.


About the author: Christine Hess is a photographer based in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, where she lives with her husband, Jim, and her sons, Jaxson and Colton. Her photos include land, water, cityscapes, portraiture, events, and pets. Much of her work chronicles the Niagara Region, and Niagara Falls in particular. You can find more of her work on her website.


Image credits: All photographs by Christine Hess and used with permission

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