A Photographer Refocuses Life's Lens

His wife's illness and the power of prayer changed his priorities.

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Joel Sartore and wife Kathy whose illness got him  to rethink his priorities.

I’m a nature photographer by profession. I’ve traveled the world and endured every kind of physical hardship to get that perfect shot. I love my work and I’m a perfectionist about it. I am prepared. I once lay still for hours in the sand in Bolivia, ignoring the bees and wasps that crawled up my shirt, just so I could capture a rare butterfly flitting past.

The hardships don’t matter when I look through the lens. Somehow the world makes more sense to me framed by a camera. For one blissful moment everything is composed and in focus. Everything is under control.

Nothing was under control, though, one terrible autumn a few years ago when I got back from an assignment photographing Alaska’s majestic North Slope for National Geographic.

I’d been home in Nebraska a couple months editing photos when, the day before Thanksgiving, my wife, Kathy, discovered the lump in her right breast.

We’d just celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary. Our two older kids, Cole and Ellen, were still in elementary school. Spencer, our youngest, was barely out of diapers. Within weeks Kathy was bedridden, so weakened by chemo she couldn’t even speak some days. All of a sudden I had a new assignment. I had to take care of Kathy, keep the household going and hide my fears from the kids. It was the exact opposite of being in the field. I had no team of assistants helping me. I was by myself. And I was totally unprepared.

One evening about a month after her cancer diagnosis Kathy was resting in the bedroom and I was in the kitchen cooking dinner. Well, not exactly cooking. I was trying to decipher the microwave directions on a box of Tater Tots.

“Dad, how come Mom’s Tater Tots taste better than yours?” asked nine-year-old Ellen.

“When are you going to help me with my math homework, Dad?” asked Cole, who was 12.

“Tater Tots!” cried two-year-old Spencer from his high chair.

“They’re coming, buddy,” I said.

“I don’t like it when they’re soggy,” said Ellen. “Don’t make them soggy.”

“Tater Tots!”

The microwave beeped and I dished out the meal. “They’re soggy,” proclaimed Ellen.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m doing my best,” I said.

Cole scribbled at his homework as he ate. I looked at the pile of lunch dishes still unwashed in the sink. Spencer chewed a Tater Tot and frowned.

“I want Mommy,” he said quietly. Ellen nodded in agreement.

Cole looked up. I did my best to keep my voice from cracking.

“I miss Mom too,” I said. “Let’s finish up here and get you to bed, Spencer. Then we can work on that math, Cole.”

Then I remembered. It was bath night. I wouldn’t be joining Kathy in bed for quite a while. When I finally slipped in beside her I couldn’t tell whether she was awake. It was the dead of winter. She was wrapped in blankets, a wool hat pulled tightly over her bald head. She seemed to be murmuring something, maybe talking in her sleep.

I stared at her curled form and tried to remember happier times. We’d met in college at a blues bar. She was so beautiful, so patient and wise.

She still was those things. So different from me! Joel, the guy who never sat still, who hated every moment he wasn’t working. They call people like me Type A personalities. We’re hard to live with sometimes. I felt an intense pang of guilt. For much of our marriage Kathy hadn’t had to live with me. About half of every year I was away on assignment, mostly for National Geographic. Kathy ran the house while I was gone and when I got home, I holed up in my office to edit photos.

Kathy ran everything. I might have changed a diaper or two when our kids were little but I don’t remember. The kids, the house, Kathy—those weren’t my focus for months at a time. Traveling the wild in search of photographs was what I did.

I didn’t quite know how to be a full-time husband or dad. Heck, I didn’t even know how to make Tater Tots! I couldn’t imagine losing Kathy. She was my emotional center even if I rarely slowed down long enough to remember that. “I hope I’m not letting you down,” I whispered. “I feel like I’m flying blind.”

Again I thought I heard her murmur something. I listened closer and realized she was praying. Kathy was a devout Catholic and she’d started praying about her cancer the moment the diagnosis came.

I wasn’t so sure about praying myself, but I knew it comforted her. I caught the words “God” and “heal.” Was that my name she said?

I lay back against the pillows. I suspected it would take more than prayers to see me through this awful time. It was just like I’d told her. I was flying blind. And I was scared.

The next morning was chaotic as usual. Breakfast, getting kids dressed and out the door, making sure everyone had coats and hats and gloves and homework. Then dishes and work around the house.

I found myself longing for the clarity of work in the field. Out there, no matter how rough the terrain or how awful the conditions, I had to concentrate on only one thing: getting the perfect shot.

There was no worry, no guilt, no fear, no uncertainty. Just watching, focusing and activating the shutter.

I would not be in the field again for a long time, though. I’d canceled all assignments for at least the next year to take care of Kathy and the kids. I was lucky to have such a flexible schedule and I simply couldn’t imagine leaving Kathy’s side until she was better.

I just wished I knew what I was doing. I wished the old Joel was somehow better at living this new life. I wished the new Joel was braver. Yet how can you understand a thing like cancer when you are so afraid of it?

Kathy had a doctor’s appointment that morning. I helped her into the car and we started out for the office. Kathy dozed beside me. We came to a stoplight and I looked around at the other cars.

How strange it was to see all those people living normal lives while Kathy and I traveled through the alternate universe of cancer. People chatted on cell phones. A woman peered into her rearview mirror, deftly applying makeup. Someone behind us wolfed down a fast-food breakfast in two bites.

All at once I felt a shock of recognition. Everyone around us was in such a hurry. So rushed they had to put on makeup and eat breakfast at a stoplight. If I’d been on assignment doing a story on modern life, I’d have whipped out my camera and started shooting.

Of course the best shot I could have taken of a harried, overworked, Type A personality was…me. My eyes widened. I was seeing myself in those cars. I wondered, was there any way Joel, the uncompromising photographer, could slow down and be Joel, the supportive husband and father?

I remembered a night out on Alaska’s North Slope, my last assignment before Kathy’s diagnosis, in the town of Kaktovik on the shore of the Beaufort Sea, where the Inupiat people conduct their annual whale hunt.

I was there to photograph polar bears. I waited hours in my rental van until, shrouded in the perpetual twilight of Arctic summer, the bears suddenly appeared, swarming over the shore to feast on the remnants of the hunt.

The bears were bold, even dangerous, sometimes approaching my van to bang on the window. I kept shooting. It was the first time I’d ever seen a polar bear. I felt no fear. I was totally absorbed in my work.

Now, stopped in traffic, I looked at Kathy. I felt a rush of love for her. In that instant I knew. Of course the old Joel could take care of her. In fact, there was no old Joel. There was just Joel. Joel and Kathy. Joel and Kathy and Cole and Ellen and Spencer.

Nothing prevented me from caring for my family with the same patience, fearlessness and commitment I brought to my work. My only mistake had been reserving my best self for the work. I had braved the frigid Arctic and the curiosity of polar bears. I could brave the fear of cancer and the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood.

It’s been almost six years since Kathy’s oncologist pronounced her cancer-free. She recovered from eight months of chemo and today she’s as active as ever. I’m back working, but life is nothing like it used to be.

I still travel, but now I nearly always have someone with me—Kathy or, even better, Kathy and the kids. They’ve been with me to Moscow, the Galapagos, even Antarctica. On my last assignment, in Mozambique, I took along a new assistant, Cole, who’s 17 now and shooting amazing photos of his own.

I can wield a vacuum and even cook mean Tater Tots. But what really matters is that I’ve learned to slow down, to be patient like a photographer waiting all day and night to get that perfect shot. The shot I’m aiming for these days looks something like this: Kathy and me sitting on our porch in the evening talking about nothing in particular or maybe not talking at all, just watching the light fade, savoring precious time together.

I’m still learning about prayer. And I’ll tell you this. What happened in our family after Kathy’s diagnosis is nothing short of a miracle. We all received the healing we needed. And I learned it’s never too late for a man to start giving his best to the ones he loves the most.

View 10 examples of Joel Sartore's breathtaking photography via this slideshow.


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