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The Gift of Photography

Jul 15

In Stories, Thanks at 6:17am


Is one that is given, or accepted, freely. As a shooter, you can be the recipient of many gifts over the years: The grace of someone’s time, the whimsy of their expression, the fleeting emotion of their eyes the lens traps, forever.

Behind the lens, you are a gift giver as well. You honor someone’s humanity, beauty, or spirit. You wordlessly transact, and that transaction, fixed in pixels, becomes the stuff of memory. Nobility can be enhanced, or conferred, upon someone who has never been so recognized. If done properly, at least occasionally, what transpires within the mundane mechanics of a shutter clicking or a light flashing becomes a certain kind of poetry, the legend of both the subject and the shooter. When the house is burning down, and all the people and the pets are out safely, what does someone often save? The photo album.

I met the young lady at the top of the blog, Milk Cruz Mendoza, earlier this year in the Philippines. She was, at first, a typical, unabashedly enthusiastic young photog, eager to learn, eager to accelerate skills, ready to wade into the visual cacophony of the digital world and make people notice her pictures.

Then I saw her tattoos, covering her forearms. They were images from a couple of books I wrote, one called The Moment It Clicks, of the cover, and one from the interior pages of another tome on lighting, called Hot Shoe Diaries. Significantly, the cover is a woman’s hand, holding a jagged shard of a mirror, reflecting her eyes, against the sky. Milk’s words below…..

      “It was nearing my birthday 3 years ago when I was heavily emotionally in pain and I saw that photo online which immediately made an impact on me. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw that photo is that the gesture of the lady staring on that piece of mirror was the same gesture I saw a few days back. A girl staring and holding a broken mirror with swollen eyes, unruly hair, wind-chapped lips, slightly bleeding nose—just not beautiful, scared and insecure. Only her arm was bleeding too. That was me. And upon seeing the photo I felt the need to know something about it. There must be a story behind it. Then that’s when I ended up knowing you. Eventually that’s when it hit me too that maybe I can express myself through something more productive and way less painful. I wasn’t really successful with painting but maybe in photographs. And maybe, I can also reach out to some random girl or guy whom my photos can make some connection too! I don’t know. But, I know I’m about to take a big step towards making myself better. So, I struggled trying to get my own camera.” 

Milk was in an incredibly difficult place in her life, and she expressed her pain, and her feelings about her lack of worth, through cutting herself. The picture she tattooed on her forearm covers the scars.

When I met her, and she began to tell me things about the struggles of her young life, I became quite inarticulate, not an unusual event for me. I did two things—I hired her immediately for a shoot we were doing on the streets of Manila with Kris-Belle Paclibar, of Ballet Philippines. Milk became an assistant, and our documentarian.

And, I asked if I could make her picture. I’ve said before, as photographers, we often can’t find the words, but we can find a way to make a picture, and let that speak for all concerned.

Again, her words…..”I am a nurse but not practicing in any setting because I preferred to take care of my son and the elders at home. I have an asthmatic son, a diabetic father, an 87 year old grandfather recovering from stroke and an 84 year old grandmother with progressive dementia. I’d accept any type of temporary work… 10 months I was able to save and buy myself a consumer entry DSLR. Eventually, a friend invited me to go with him on a basic photography workshop. I saved up again and enrolled myself in it. It is the best 3,500 pesos I’ve ever spent. The months of yearning on how to use it and make good photos out of it is finally paying off.

 She followed with another workshop with Laya Gerlock, a fellow Filipino photog, who graciously discounted the class and gave her extra time. She is on her way, finding subjects in her local community, making portraits, and the beginnings of a bit of money.

 Her other arm is dedicated to the K-Man, a good friend, fellow photog, and lover of fedoras.

“The other tattoo on my forearm which is a man wearing a fedora hat, lighting a cigarette is simply a symbol of the man who challenged me physically, emotionally and mentally to become better and make some positive changes for myself each day. That man would occasionally use fedora hats and never missed lighting one cigarette in his life since 12 years old.”

 Mark was also very moved by her story, and stunned to find his image imprinted on someone like Milk. He writes of it in his blog, Jersey Style Photography, tomorrow. Worth a visit there.

Milk has a page on Facebook……

She wrote: “I am truly deeply thankful and blessed to learn from you, spend time with you and witness how you do things photographically….the photo that’s covering my scars on my forearm which was the lady staring at a broken piece of mirror was the most significant because it prompted my career in photography and a stop to my self-infliction habit.”

Your stay here was such a remarkable experience for me because I did not, even in my dreams, have I ever expected these things to happen. Not a single bit of it. I have never imagined that I’d be able to go with you on a photo shoot and let me use the things that you use on a set. That I’d hear you first hand how you plan and organize a photo shoot and learn from it. Then, one unexpected thing after another. You asked me to do a portrait which to me was so surreal. I felt so beautiful and special at that time. You even hired a make-up artist for me and waited. Your patience with me and your effort for me is priceless. I can never ever repay that.”

I think the equation is reversed, actually. I can never repay her, anymore than I can repay any subject who stands in front of the camera and offers a courageous gift. I have doubts that any of my pictures deserve the display Milk has offered them, but I do know that our photographic intersection made a difference, and I feel enriched having placed my camera in front of her. Some of it just might have to do with the fact that I’m a father of two girls, Caitlin and Claire, both of whom are Milk’s age or older, and know the path to adulthood for young women can, at least sometimes, be a tough one.

And I also know that photography, that facile, flip, irreverent, ubiquitous, quickie thing we all have access to via the phone/internet in our pocket, always has the potential to make a difference, as it did for Milk–a new beginning, a departure from a painful path, and an open door to a future hopefully as full of promise as she is.

More tk….







More tk….

Peter Rodrick says:

on July 15, 2013 at 7:10 am

One of the most uplifting articles I have read in a long time.


Derek Fountain says:

on July 15, 2013 at 7:16 am

What a truly great experience and story! Thank you for sharing. You really have affected a lot of people In great ways Joe. I don’t have a story like Milk’s but I know that I’m very happy to have learned as much as I can from your photography,books and YouTube videos. I hope to one day learn something from you in person on a seminar or trek. I’m saving my pennies. Thanks for sharing and always being real!

Carolyn says:

on July 15, 2013 at 7:24 am

Wow, this blog was very emotional and touching. Looking forward to being able to follow Milk’s growth as a person and as a photographer.

Chris says:

on July 15, 2013 at 8:10 am

Joe, your writing has again moved me to tears.

Thomas Michael Ahern says:

on July 15, 2013 at 8:17 am

Wow, truly a touching piece. I’m so glad you had that opportunity to meet her.

Peluna says:

on July 15, 2013 at 8:17 am

Excellent post. Very powerful. Thanks!

Hywel says:

on July 15, 2013 at 8:49 am

Two firsts for me:
1. Commenting
2. A ‘WOL’ – Wow Out Loud
I’m a reconstructive plastic surgeon who often deals with the physical consequences of self-harm – “the easy bit”. In addition to the psychological back-up and support my patients routinely get, I will refer many to this post. Thank you.

Richard says:

on July 15, 2013 at 8:55 am

Dammit, Joe! You gotta put a disclaimer up front if you’re gonna do that. The tears actually washed one of my contacts out and me stumbling around half blind is an ugly thing. What a beautifully written piece to go with the beautifully executed images. Thank you for sharing, though the words seem totally inadequate.

harold says:

on July 15, 2013 at 8:57 am

wow! that is very inspiring. i, too is from the Philippines and can truely feel her emotions. What a great impact photography has made in her life.

Please share us more inspiring stories, Joe.

and thank you for sharing…

Eric Politzer says:

on July 15, 2013 at 9:27 am

simply beautiful — in every sense of the word

Lori Ryerson says:

on July 15, 2013 at 9:31 am

Sitting in my office, getting the work done that pays for my camera gear. Checked into FB to see the world getting up to speed. Saw the toddler who used to live across from me, who eventually babysat my kids, is now grown up, and engaged to be married. Saw your blog, clicked in catch up. Sobbing now. It pays to remind people, not just photographers, but all of us, that we never know how we will intersect and impact the life of another human being. As a woman, and mother, thank you for sharing this story. Keep fighting the good fight, Papa Joe, it means a lot.

Anna Larson says:

on July 15, 2013 at 10:39 am

You said it beautifully.

Irjohn says:

on July 15, 2013 at 10:41 am

There’s Joe the master shooter and there’s Joe the master storyteller, together they tell humanities. Thank you Joe for reminding me life is rough for some out there, or maybe for all of us when we were younger…

Lewisw says:

on July 15, 2013 at 10:56 am

Your kindness exceeds your considerable talents.

Paul says:

on July 15, 2013 at 11:04 am

Amazing, amazing story. This communicates so powerfully what I’ve tried to teach my photography students: that photography is more than just image-making; it can be a way to express what’s in your heart and soul. Thank you, Joe. And thank you, Milk. I will be saving and sharing your inspirational story with everyone I know.

John Fowler says:

on July 15, 2013 at 11:06 am

Thanks Joe. Again.

Joe says:

on July 15, 2013 at 11:12 am

This is the best blog post you’ve ever written. Very moving. The portraits equally stunning.

Tony Drumm says:

on July 15, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Thank you, Joe. A great story (eyes are still somewhat damp), and this idea of the gift our subjects provide us is so very true.

Brenda says:

on July 15, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Wow, just wow! Thanks for sharing this beautiful story and for your caring heart! You have made a difference in the world!

Janine Fugere says:

on July 15, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Dear Joe, Thanks for sharing such a powerfully inspiration story. I am moved to tears, but also uplifted by this incredible tale of just how much difference we mere humans can make each other’s lives… Thanks, Janine

Julie Wegner says:

on July 15, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Your best blog to date, Joe!

John says:

on July 15, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Your best post ever – and that’s saying something!

Dwayne Fortier says:

on July 15, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Awesome post! Wish her all the best.

melissa says:

on July 15, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I’m new to Photography business, and been reading your books, and checking your site, and this would be my first time leaving a comment,I’m a Fili and this entry just reflects alot and has a great impact on me, thank you for sharing this, and thank you for inspiring us all! – moving article.mFox

Tom Marriage says:

on July 15, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Wow. Great story & a beautiful person.

Rich McPeek says:

on July 15, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Wonderful story and photos!! Wow!

JerseyStyle Photography says:

on July 15, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Not much I can add here that your wonderful readers haven’t already said. Your writing is as beautiful as your photographs. It’s pretty hard to believe that I have a small spot in this story. MiLK is an amazing young lady and I wish her all best. And I’m honored to be on her arm as a remembrance of someone she truly loved. ~ Mark

John A. says:

on July 15, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Wow! What a humbling and touching way to see your work! Hope she has a long, successful career in her pursuit of photography, and thanks again for reminding me why I continue to pick up the camera.

Bill Laramie says:

on July 15, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Inspiring and a wonderful story of both giving and receiving. Awesome article and thanks for sharing Joe.

Kyle Jerichow says:

on July 15, 2013 at 5:00 pm


Always love these types of posts. Simple images with powerful words always will win the day and impact people.

For one of the few times I’ve read your blog, you have left me at a lose for words.


Rod S. says:

on July 15, 2013 at 5:47 pm

WoW! Powerful! How gratifying to know that talent you were gifted has been validated with the purpose you have on this earth. Thank you for affecting all of us with your blog & work.

Bonnie says:

on July 15, 2013 at 5:56 pm

This post touched me.
I don’t shoot people, but I’ve often felt a sense of worship when I’m out with my camera – that I’m capturing nature images that mean much more than what meets the eye.

I love that you’re able to connect the dots–meeting this young woman and finding out she needed your photos as much as your knowledge about photography…then discovering that the meeting had so much more significance than you could have ever imagined. I call those God moments–divine appointments. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

John says:

on July 15, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Incredible emotions. I was moved to tears by her words and your words and photos. I’ll be reading this one over many times for inspiration.

Thank you for sharing her story so eloquently and with such power at the same time.

J says:

on July 15, 2013 at 6:41 pm

And this is why I always read your blog and recommend to all the photographers I know. First human, then photographer. And so the former helps the latter.

Julia Schluraff says:

on July 15, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Another home run!! I knew you were special when I “found” you — can’t actually remember where, but I think your old buddy Scott was nearby…… :-) I was a cautious newbie until I saw your work, then I was moved…….

You gave a heart where most I met in this business only had F stops and equipment……..

Thank you, as always, for following your destiny as that always has an incredible impact on those who bump into you during their journey!!

Cheers and keep looking up!!

Gracie says:

on July 15, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Mr. Mcnally, i met you once in santa Fe and worked my way through the crowd so I can boast to my friends that you shook my hand. Your candor and your unexpectedly funniest humor catch the most serious and somber person off guard. You pay attention to people. You paid attention to me at least for that three second of exchange your attention was mine. As a Filipino myself, I know a lot of young eloquent people who just get trapped in the throes of poverty. Rather than go to the Philippines and shoot poverty for others’ eyes like others do, you gave Milk a job and gave her hope to follow her dreams…. Things a photograph of poverty may never give.

André Baron says:

on July 15, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Thank you for sharing Joe.

I must say that in addition to an impressive photographer you are one hell of a story teller.

You, also, quite clearly, have a very large heart.

anton carstens says:

on July 16, 2013 at 3:29 am

Wow amazing

Huey says:

on July 16, 2013 at 7:08 am

Moving story Joe! Beautiful!

Karen says:

on July 16, 2013 at 7:08 am

Such a wonderful journey of the heart and soul in this post ~ WOW! Thank you Mr. Joe McNally

Björn Lubetzki says:

on July 16, 2013 at 8:56 am

I recognize another image on her arm. It is an image of Joey L.
From his personal work “Holy Men”. It is a “boy” called Gashaw Mesganaw

Ciao Björn

Raphael says:

on July 16, 2013 at 10:05 am

Thanks for writing and sharing the article. The most emotional description of photography I have read for a long time!

Diane says:

on July 16, 2013 at 12:39 pm

So beautiful! This story, your writing, your photos…brought me to tears. Thank you.

Nap Beltran says:

on July 16, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Thank you Joe for writing this about Milk. One the few occasions that I have spoken to her, she is this humble young lady, I knew she has a story to share, and would always suggest that she writes.

I always subscribe to the words of Steve Jobs, you can only connect the dots looking back, and that time you were in Manila was the perfect timing for you to be here otherwise you would not have met Milk and Milk would not be as inspired in her photography as she is now.

All the best,
Nap Beltran

pablo beltran says:

on July 16, 2013 at 9:40 pm

Hi Sir:
just finished reading your blog and images floated in my mind, images of your visit to Manila last January. Your blog about Milk and how photography can change lives was written with so much warmth and sympathy for could not have chosen a better subject than that of Milk. if you could allow us to publish your blog in our next issue of FRAME ONE, will appreciate that much..for we think you will never know how many more Milks will you transform and change for the better..more power and regards from ms. edi huang and the rest of FPPF lito beltran

Brian Struble says:

on July 16, 2013 at 9:57 pm


Wonderful story. You routinely put your yourself in those special places where the story truly is… I thought you hit the pinnacle when you stood on top of the Burj Khalifa a short time ago, but Milk’s story and your photographs of her go much further…

Glad you shared her bravery and journey with us…

Pamela Vasquez says:

on July 17, 2013 at 7:40 am

Remarkable post and story! Today I was struggling with trying to describe what makes photography important, not only to me but important to society. You went above and beyond explaining that with this. Thank you.

garnet r. albesa says:

on July 17, 2013 at 9:09 am

wow,,, goosebumps while reading this im so proud of being pinay, on how we get our strength to survive in life…tnx joe for making us proud on our own skin, being pinay photographer is not that easy but every one of us have stories, thank you so much this stories…its inspirational to me to never give in life….


Matt Gendron says:

on July 17, 2013 at 9:40 am

Incredibly beautiful story and the typical incredible images from you, Joe. Separately, I think I would have imagined images and words that would have been different than what they represent when combined. Thank you for sharing your strong the insights of your world.

Martin Tolley says:

on July 17, 2013 at 11:21 am

Like so many others here, I wept. It’s a magnificent story. Maybe later I’ll have the composure to read it again.

Amber says:

on July 17, 2013 at 11:52 am

How have I not seen your work before? I’m blown away.

Tara says:

on July 17, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Moving! More power :)

Dan says:

on July 17, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Wow just wow. I cannot well I am just speechless.

E. Olusegun Aderinto says:

on July 18, 2013 at 8:36 am

PHOTOGRAPHY A GOOD WAY OF LIFE! Touching, beautiful and an inspirational story.

Duncan Gibson says:

on July 18, 2013 at 10:06 am

Well written an well read.. Thank you..leaves me with thoughts

Gideon says:

on July 18, 2013 at 12:55 pm

I’ve been an infrequent visitor of your website and throughout those visits, I’ve noticed how moving you are not only with photos but with words as well. In spite of your eloquence, I know, I will not write a response or comment until now.

Is it because you are writing about a fellow Filipino or because you have touched a life like no other. The transformation that happened to this lady speaks that you are more than your pictures.

Thanks and God bless!

Sue Ganz says:

on July 18, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Not only are you an incredible photographer, you are also a beautiful writer. Thanks for the post.

Ashley says:

on July 18, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Your work is incredible!! I love everything about these images – especially the focus around the tattoos on the girl.


T.H. says:

on July 19, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Thank you for this. This is what I hope to do with photography, if I am lucky, to lift up and to be lifted.

Jonathan Ellul says:

on July 20, 2013 at 8:48 pm


William Chinn says:

on July 21, 2013 at 9:24 am

The gift continues to give. With the story it also passes forward.

Donald Chalfy says:

on July 21, 2013 at 7:13 pm

Dear Joe,

Thank you. There are no words to express how profoundly this impacts and touches me to my core.

Just…thank you.

Donald Chalfy says:

on July 21, 2013 at 7:18 pm

Dear Joe,

Thank you. I am moved to the depths of my soul. Truly, you have.

Ken Toney says:

on July 21, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Joe, I’m not a tattoo type person but if I were you would be there next to Clapton and Margret Thatcher…,,ok, Thatcher is a joke :)
Great story and my hat is off to Milk, I bet she is an awesome person!

Simon says:

on July 25, 2013 at 3:08 am

Wow. Great story.

You may be the bringer of rain sometimes Joe but I think that may just be the counterweight to all the good stuff that you exude.

Bjorn Rossland says:

on July 28, 2013 at 11:33 am

Dear Joe. You put the story so wonderfull. I followed a few girls with somewhat the same story in Norway, for 5 months. The picture enclosed here is of my friend – for the first time leaving the knife down – not cutting anymore. She had a few fallbacks, but also her story made a big impact as media picked it up.

After this came to be public i January – I one day stood in the exit of the local mall, paying my merchandise. The girl at the register looked at me, and assumingly – she recognized me from the paper. Her eyes went wet as the tears started falling, and while beeping my things – she pulled up her arm sleeve. I was a truely wonderfull moment – as the pics of one girl, did something for the next. Hidden was another arm that had tasted the knife…….

I take the chanse to enclose the pic and hope i will survive for months more – telling its story to many more:

Kind regards Bjorn R.

Peter Brock says:

on July 30, 2013 at 10:41 am

Great story. It is similar to many stories I have experienced shooting in Asia. You write beautifully and obviously make awesome photos. What is more important is that you care and despite your self-deprecating sense of humor, your heart shows through. I would like to make a donation to Milk to help her on her journey. If you could facilitate my doing so, I would appreciate it.

Jessie Caturan says:

on August 4, 2013 at 3:16 am

Wow this is a beautiful Filipina. And that tattoo wow to awesome. I hate woman having tattoo but this kind of photo make me interested for some reason.

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