His Newfound Passion for Photography Changed His Life

He had struggled with depression and anger for many years. Then he learned to see the world in a different light.

Posted in , Apr 24, 2020

A creature up close from Matt's macrophotography.

I glanced over at the passenger seat. My 17-year-old daughter, Emma, was on her phone again. “I drive you to school every morning, and every morning you ignore me,” I said. “Can’t you put down that phone and talk to me?”

Emma shrugged. “About what, Dad?”

“I don’t know. Your life?”

“Why would I tell you about my life? You’ll just get mad at me, like you always do.”

“I shouldn’t get upset when I see you making poor choices?” I said, my voice rising. “I only want the best for you. You should be grateful!” I pulled up to her school. Emma got out and slammed the door without saying goodbye.

When I got home, my wife, Sandi, took one look at my face and said, “You fought with Emma again.”

“She’s infuriating,” I said.

“She’s a teenager.”

“She gets under my skin.”

Sandi sighed. “Everything seems to get under your skin, Matt. It’s not normal to be angry all the time. It’s not healthy.”

It wasn’t the first time Sandi had brought up my anger issues. I had to admit, lately I’d been overreacting to every little problem.

I’d struggled with anger and negativity since I was a kid. I grew up in South Florida, the youngest of six boys. I spent my childhood trying to keep up with my brothers, and I always felt as if I was an afterthought, the last one picked for the team. Being an artist made me different, and awkward around others. Even at church, my connection to God seemed so different than other people’s. Was there a way to connect to God in my everyday and not just in a building on Sunday?

After high school, I got a degree in art and landed a job at an ad agency, designing logos and doing other commercial work. I was good at it and did well, but you know how some people look on the bright side? I couldn’t help looking on the dark side, bracing my-self for troubles I was sure would arise.

I was amazed when something—someone—wonderful came along. At 25, I met Sandi. She was born and raised in Hawaii and was working as a flight attendant. Miami was one of her airline’s hubs. Sandi and I clicked, so well that she canceled her request for a transfer to the West Coast to be closer to Oahu.

We married in 1992. Emma was born the next year. Two sons followed. For a time, having a family of my own helped me see the good things in life, but the stress of providing for them finally got to me. The graphic arts field was changing rapidly as software made things more automated. I developed fibromyalgia-like pain and digestive problems. I went to the doctor and detailed my symptoms. He said, “Have you ever thought about taking an antidepressant?”

How dare he suggest that my illness was in my head! My problems weren’t emotional; they were physical.

One day at work my fingers hurt so much I couldn’t even move my computer mouse. I went home feeling lower than ever.

I couldn’t work for a whole year. I saw different doctors. The only one who seemed to have any answers was an alternative medicine doctor. He linked my diet of processed foods to leaky gut syndrome, which he said can cause all sorts of symptoms, including depression and anxiety. He put me on vitamins and a strict, bland diet, which helped lessen the pain in my hands. Maybe I am depressed, I thought, and the emotional pain is causing the physical pain.

By the time I was able to return to work, the graphic arts field had changed even more. My old boss gave me some freelance assignments, but I couldn’t get enough other work to pay the bills. If I’d been more positive, I would have been motivated to figure out how to remain relevant in my field. Instead, I felt defeated.

Some days it took all my energy to get out of bed. During my darkest moments, I wondered, What is the point of living like this? I can’t even support my family. I’m a failure. We had to take out a home equity loan or we wouldn’t have stayed afloat. To make myself useful, I took over tasks like driving Emma to school.

If the blowup we had that morning was any indication, I was failing at that job too. Sandi was right. My anger wasn’t healthy for me. Or for my family. I had to find an outlet, some way out of this cycle of negativity.

Not long after, a friend showed me his macro lens, which he clipped on his smartphone to take extremely close-up photographs. His photos made very small subjects look larger than life. I was captivated. I ordered a macro lens as a birthday gift to myself.

As soon as it arrived, I attached it to my phone and headed out into the yard. I spotted a tiny iridescent fly on the wall. Through my new lens, I could see how its eyes and body seemed to change color, depending on the angle of light. Beautiful. I crouched in the grass and took what seemed like hundreds of pictures of that fly.

Every morning after I dropped off Emma at school, I went out in the yard and looked for something interesting to photograph. Some insects flew away as soon as I got near them, so I trained myself to be still.

I spent hours kneeling in the grass with my phone. I would slow my breathing and relax my body. Anything that was bothering me would fade away. Looking through my macro lens was like getting a glimpse into an awe-inspiring hidden world. Amazing things that I had walked past my whole life without noticing. I’d capture the morning dew on a leaf, a spider spinning a web, a bumblebee on a flower. Focusing my energy—and lens—on something so small brought me the most peace I’d ever felt.

It was also the closest to God I’d ever felt. Where I used to see just an insect, now I saw a beautiful living being. If God created that bug so intentionally, he must have created me for a specific purpose, and he would help me find it.

I posted my photos on Instagram. People liked and commented on them. Some asked me for advice about photography. It felt good to teach them how to do something I loved. I was sort of a macro guru and even shared Bible verses that seemed to align with the images. Was God speaking through his tiniest creations? I had found my church outside the building.

Macrophotography became my outlet. Whenever I got into an argument with Emma or felt stressed out, I’d grab my phone and find something to shoot. One time, I came across a baby lizard sitting on a plumeria bush. He had a scar across his eye. Has your life been hard? I asked. Mine has.

My photography techniques filtered into other parts of my life. One day when Emma ignored me, I took deep breaths. Then I calmly explained why her behavior bothered me. “We’re so much alike that our relationship gets complicated,” I said. “We have a lot of the same struggles.”

Emma nodded. “Life is hard.”

I told her how photography was helping me with my depression, especially the anger that came with it. It was the most open conversation we’d had in a long time.

It has been 10 years since I discovered macrophotography. Our family has gone through some big changes. We moved to Hawaii in 2014 so Sandi could be closer to her family. I was offered a job teaching art in an elementary school. I love it. Hawaii doesn’t have as many bugs as Florida, but it does have an abundance of natural wonders to photograph.

As you can probably tell, I’ve made peace with depression. I can face those darker days now. I can feel my anger or sadness, then find a way out of it. It takes light and shadows to make an interesting photograph. I think the same is true of life.

One Father’s Day, Emma gave me a book she’d put together of my photographs with verses from the Bible as captions. Macrophotography has turned out to be an even greater gift from God than I thought.

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