“In the dark wilderness we found each other.”
(Illustration by Gillian Gamble.)
(All images by the incomparable Kim Winey.)
I have a lump in my throat when my attendees start arriving to Promoting Passion. My empathy and anxiety intermingle and I’m sick at the thought of hosting a convention and the possibility that someone, even in the smallest way, won’t be happy. Or moved. Or changed. I expect so much of myself that I project my insecurities on to everyone participating. I think I’m going to vomit from the nerves.
The first bus of arrivals gets stuck in the sand after a late departure, traffic delays, a broken A/C, and more. I’m afraid they’re going to miss dinner. I chase the bus half a mile down the road until we’re both sunk in sand. I knock on the bus door and the driver lets me in, and when I pop my head up and yell at everyone the biggest and warmest welcome I can, I feel that I am home.
The energy engulfs me. The hugs start rolling in. I pat each person I see on the shoulder to acknowledge them. And it doesn’t stop until 2am. I hug 160 people. I try to make each person feel seen. We begin icebreaker games and I force everyone to talk to strangers, to share intimate information, to break down the walls. The desert is not a place for walls and barriers but for openness and connection. We end the night in a huge circle under the night sky. I make a statement and whoever agrees takes a step into the circle. We see right in front of us the ways in which we are alike. We share openly. There are tears. (And so many more to come.)
Day one of Promoting Passion officially begins. I only slept 3 hours the night before but I shoot out of bed early and run for the main hall, anxious to check on every person at breakfast and to make sure everyone feels taken care of. I’m so early that I don’t see anyone around, so I take that moment to breathe and settle into my role as leader.
At orientation I set the tone. I ask everyone, for just 3 days, to make every decision out of bravery. We feel the importance of our gathering, but not everyone gets it yet. The veterans of PPC know. They nod their heads with a sly smile on their faces. They know what’s coming. Workshops begins, we rush around and make sure all the speakers are in place. There is no time for food. I try to brainstorm ways of making each person feel recognized. The workshops are flawless. I’ve never worked with such a professional and kind group of assistants and speakers.
I get bad personal news and I do my best to make everything okay but I need time to myself, so I sink down in my car and I breathe as deeply as I can and I remember that despite anything happening to me, I can’t give that energy to my friends. I move past it quickly.
We listen to Joel McKerrow give a speech. Not for the first time he moves us to tears. I host a roundtable discussion about grant writing – but, nothing is ever about something so topical. We cry together as we acknowledge our insecurities. We are bound to each other by honesty.
Our first panel discussion rolls around and I make up silly questions about the earth exploding and aliens invading and what would you do and create and everyone laughs and I feel again like I am home. And just like that day one ends and my friends head off to bed and I lay there late at night worried about everyone’s well being and make myself sick over it, but how do you stop caring when you know that you have the power to make a difference for someone?
Day 2 and I have my own workshop to teach. Forty of us go to yoga outside in the morning sun and we laugh and stretch and feel as though we’re moving like one entity. My workshop is a beautiful gathering of honest expression and while we shoot and edit, everyone knows its not about that. It’s never about that.
Three past attendees (Jen, Michlynn, and Ted) share their personal stories and journeys, a way of telling everyone we are all on a level playing field and acknowledging that there are some incredible stories in our group. No one is better than anyone else. We are so moved by their stories and many hugs are shared after by people who related so much to what they said.
Sara Lando shares a personal project with us in her lecture about the art she created before her mother’s death, and after. She tells us that her mother gave permission for Sara to share those images with people because expression and story is so important in healing. She created after her mother’s death too, but she doesn’t share that. The dead can’t give consent. Yet again we understand that the images themselves are not important – the spirit of the creation process is what heals us and connects us. We are all moved by her words to tears.
We create again. I cover my sister-in-law in clay and flour and paint. We make a massive mess, but we don’t care. We let ourselves get caked in flour; we laugh hysterically.
And then another panel discussion. More aliens and exploding planets, and we learn so much about the speakers and their journeys and suddenly the long, long path we think we’re on gets shorter and we understand that success is not born of talent but of perseverance, and we are settled into ourselves.
That night I’m late locking up in the main hall because I’m entranced with my friend Devin playing the piano. It is a gorgeous night and the music is soft and I’m starting to become less anxious, less worried about everyone. We’re settling in. One of the attendees, Bryan, comes to play the piano and he shares with us his singing and songwriting talent after we beg to hear it. He has stage fright, he says. I suggest we make a music video. Devin is into it. Sara is into it. Oscar is into it. And suddenly we’re frantically collaborating and we’re in our creative flow and this is happening. We’re choreographing and blocking and singing and everything is perfect.
We meet at 6am the next day to film at sunrise. We make a music video in an hour.
I start my day and everything continues without flaw. My assistants make this possible, especially my best friend KD and my sister Jessy. They show an unprecedented level of care and commitment to my baby. They constantly make sure I am fed and that I have space to breathe and help everyone with their every need. They are organized beyond measure. They make this conference run.
That day I give a lecture. I feel the power of it. I see people crying as my throat tightens around certain subjects. I can’t speak them easily but it comes out of me and I am impassioned in a way I’ve never been before. Because this year, I’ve found my truth and I am living it in the messiest and most authentic way possible. I feel supported by 160 pairs of hands and it makes me feel alive in a way I cannot express.
I need to give this back to them.
I host a confidence collaboration. I tell about 80 people in a room to face the wall and talk to the wall and block out everyone else. I ask them to tell the wall what they don’t like about themselves. Then what they do like. Then to pick a word that can empower them. I hear tears and I hear sighs and I hear giggles at how silly this seems. But everyone does it. And we settle into that moment. We come back together as a group and the hugs are endless and the tears are so necessary and we breathe together a deep breath. Later I’m told that it was an extremely poignant and important moment at PPC this year.
That night we have our closing ceremony. As I picked up the mic to start, someone came and got me to tell me to look outside. I see something in the night sky. We realize what it is. I rush inside and scream as loud as I can for everyone to grab a camera and get outside. 160 of us do this. We stand in the pitch dark desert looking up at the stars – and, by complete coincidence, at the Tesla SpaceX rocket launching nearby. It creates a rainbow ball in the sky. Trails of ethereal light blaze behind it. It is a spectacle I could never imagine. We are in awe. Many of us hold hands and lock arms and give hugs. It feels like a sign of brilliance.
Finally, after it exits our atmosphere, we go back inside. We begin a create-off, where four of us have 8 minutes to create something based on the same theme. I go first and I run around like a chicken and somehow I manage to create an image that I don’t hate around the theme Monkeys in Space. It’s a long story.
Joel the poet goes. Gillian the illustrator goes. Bella the photographer goes. And then we are judged, and Joel wins. I have never heard such loud laughter from a room. Our escapades were ridiculous, and the perfect release of intense emotion from the week.
And then we get serious again. I ask everyone to think of that word that they are going to use as a mantra to empower themselves. Then I ask them to scream that word as loud as they possible can. I feel the vibrations of it in my feet through the ground. It is frightening and beautiful and I think I won’t be able to hold my tears back for a single moment more as I realize how many people have just accepted their power.
I decide, in honor of the Sony Alpha Female grant, that I am going to give away my own, much smaller, PPC grants. All week I’ve been asking attendees and assistants who has touched them and made a difference in their lives. I consider this myself all week. And then I choose three people to receive the grants. It is a massive surprise and I watch three women come to the stage, crying at being acknowledged for their brilliance.
Benny reads his story to the group. Not a single person has a dry eye. Benny is an artist who majorly effected many people’s lives by allowing art to save his own. It is so powerful.
Joel reads a poem called Welcome Home. We cry again. Do you know what it feels like to be accepted into a new family, one that frees you and lifts you up? It is a homecoming. It is powerful beyond measure. We all know it and we won’t let go.
It’s time to end. I tell everyone to give thanks to the assistants and models and sponsors. We can’t do it without them. We CANNOT do it without them.
And then KD comes to the stage, just as I’m finishing the convention. She takes the microphone. She tells everyone that I created this conference alone. That I had no help this year. That all the decisions were mine and that my energy and my spirit brought everyone together and that is the magic glue at Promoting Passion. And I wonder if this sounds idiotic to everyone, because I know in my heart that I did nothing alone – I had the power of 160 individuals who needed this conference spurring me on. I had friends to lean on.
And then they stand. All 160 of my family. They stand and they cheer and they send me so much energy that I am moved beyond tears. I cover my face and cry and lend my soul to them to carry while I cannot carry it myself. Sometimes it is so heavy.
I spent the past year planning Promoting Passion. I worked myself so hard. I cried so many times. I hated so many minutes of it. I doubted I could impact people in the way that they needed. But in that moment, I knew none of that was important. I had impacted people. And those people impacted other people. And the gravity of that moment was a weight that lifted off of me. It worked. We were changed. We were changed.
Thank you to the sponsors of Promoting Passion. These are the people who believe in a vision outside of photography, who invest in creativity, innovation, and community:
And for the amazing donations (over $8,000!) to give away to people at Promoting Passion: Microsoft, Sony, WHCC, X-Rite, Think Tank, 3 Legged Thing.