I remember everything about that day, the day my college roommate walked in with a camera in her hand that made my jaw drop. I had never seen anything like it. My first sight of a DSLR. We sat in the floor of our living room staring at it as if it was a huge bag of money, and in college it sure felt like it was.
I was just weeks away from moving to a small country in West Africa called Burkina Faso and the small digital camera I had packed now just didn’t feel right. This DSLR felt like my destiny and I couldn’t shake the feeling. I spent those last weeks babysitting every child in the city to save up for my very own camera and when the package finally came I could have won the lottery. It was everything I dreamed it would be and I had absolutely no idea how to use it.
The days of youtube tutorials and social media were still undiscovered and I had to rely completely on the user manual that came with it.
The day I stepped off the plane and into a third world country I knew my life would never be the same. While all of my friends chose to move to beautiful countries in Europe where the food and sights were plentiful I stepped out into a country where paved roads were few, food came from the street market and no one spoke english.
I spent the first night laying beneath a fan that couldn’t blow air fast enough to cool the sweat dripping from my face but I knew this time was going to birth something special.
My first day on my own the missionary I was working with sat me down and said; “Jess here in Burkina, a child’s survival rate is 3 out of 5 and 3,000 children die here everyday because of Malaria. What are you going to do about it while you’re here?”
That conversation changed me, it changed my perspective. This time wasn’t just for me, wasn’t just about what I would experience or see it was about how I would make an impact both here and at home. How I would make this place a little bit better than it was when I arrived and how I would encourage others to do the same.
The first time I was brave enough to pull out my camera we were staying in a remote village hours from any civilization. We were the first white people most of these villagers had ever seen. We all stood staring at each other and I couldn’t help but snap a photo. My camera became our language in that moment. I took a photo of this beautiful women, walked right up to her put my hand on her shoulder and pointed at the screen. Tears streamed down her face as she looked at me, pointed to herself, pointed to the camera and back at herself again. She had never seen a photo of herself before. Her hand held mine as we held the camera, her beauty captured in one still moment.
I became the talk of the village and everyone started coming to see “the girl who freezes time.” I took thousands of portraits that day and every day after that. Every school, compassion center, home, and village I went into filled my camera with people, with moments I will forever cherish. When I started sharing these images on my blog, sharing their stories people started responding.
I received email after email detailing how these images told stories and captivated the readers. I felt like I could do something with this time, by merging my two worlds through photos and my heart came alive.
Then one day after my french immersion lessons I arrived home to an email I never expected to receive. Someone had been following my blog and loved my photos so much she asked me to shoot her wedding when I returned to the states…
I sat there with the cursor blinking for what felt like hours. I had never been to a wedding more or less ever dreamed of photographing one. How did children living in poverty relate to an actual real life wedding? The only response I could come up with was; “why me? What made you think to ask me to shoot your wedding?”
Her answer birthed what would become my world-renown wedding photography business right there in that small village in Africa; “because you have a way of not only capturing beauty but magnifying it. Your images transport me straight to those villages, your portraits show your love for these strangers and make me love them too. Your photos tell me a story I can’t get enough of and what more could a bride want than that on her wedding day.”
That night I started googling “how to be a wedding photographer” and dove into a career I didn’t even know existed before then.