Almost four years ago, a terrible thing happened. A child died a month after her Smooch! shoot with her family. Her death was painful and unnecessary, the sad result of extremely poor decisions made by the two adults entrusted with her care. Both of these people are now in prison. They are going to be there a very long time. One of them has since become my friend. With her knowledge and permission, I’ve decided to write this story. My relationship to Julie is an important one to share because it illustrates a vital lesson offered by The Smooch! Project.
This image is called Julie luvs Cadence. (No, Cadence is not the child who died.) I refer to this image as ‘my mermaid photo.’ This was a very early Smooch! shoot which was set up outside, something I no longer do now that I use studio lights. As I was preparing to take this photo, an updraft gently moved through the set. It lifted Julie’s and Cadence’s hair and made this photo appear as if they were underwater. I clearly remember snapping the shutter, fervently hoping I had captured that instant. Later, when I was home reviewing all the pics I had collected that day, I came upon it again. This photo hit my heart so powerfully that I literally burst into tears. I was amazed and grateful that I had somehow managed to capture such a beautiful image. From that moment forward, I made a personal goal regarding all my future shoots. If I could manage to capture even one photo as beautiful as this during each Smooch! shoot, collecting that single image would make the shoot worth the entire effort, even if all the other photographs were terrible or even accidentally destroyed. Even after 80+ Smooch! shoots, I still wait patiently at every shoot, to see and capture the single photo that — if all else failed — would make the day’s effort worthwhile. So far, I have never been disappointed.
This image has been hidden from public view since 2006. I removed all photographs of this family from my website because of the controversy surrounding the death of 12-year-old Jordan. Understandably, there was a lot of public anger regarding this tragedy and The Smooch! Project was accidentally caught up in it. (For more specific info, read this story about a Hero who helped me get through it.) I did this so the media could not use these images to fan the flames of outrage already swirling throughout the community. This family was going through enough as it was. But it also meant that, in addition to mourning the loss of Jordan, I also mourned the loss of sharing this photograph with a public audience.
At the time, The Smooch! Project was also pulled from an art show because of the controversy. Not a very big deal to me. Frankly, my grief over Jordan’s death was far more keen. Opportunities to exhibit work come and go and I knew there would be many others in the future. The controversy would eventually disappear and I could go on with my work. My life returned to normal. Imagine my surprise to receive a letter from Julie six months later, offering an apology to me for her role in the loss of that exhibition.
I had read the accounts of the trial, which described Julie’s grief-filled remorse over her role in Jordan’s death. She publicly accepted her responsibility and had received a lengthy sentence. She had also given up custody of her three children, including little Cadence. Now she had personally apologized to me. I felt a strong need to talk with her. Our lives had been briefly tangled together in such a poignant way. I wrote back to her to say if she wanted me to visit, she need only ask. I registered with the prison, which ran a background check, and was added to the approved visitor list. I waited for Julie’s reply, which arrived three months later. She wrote she didn’t know if I still wanted to come but I could if I wished. “I’m here,” she wrote, “and I’ll be here for some years to come.” I visited her for the first time in August 2009.
Yes, it was scary, going there. And, yes, it was awkward and uncomfortable at first. But not any longer. Julie and I have developed an ease between us during our meetings, enough so for me to ask her permission to publish the photo above once again. It’s now back in the online archive, where it belongs. Julie also gave me permission to write and publicly speak about our shared history and our growing friendship. Because it is important. Because it illustrates something powerful. Because it is something I want everyone who loves The Smooch! Project to truly understand.
Here is why I wanted to meet Julie, what I said to her during our first meeting, and now want to say to you as well. This is the point of this entirely far-too-long blog entry: We ALL make mistakes. It’s part of being human. Personally, I can recall several things I have done over my 50+ years that I deeply regret. Some of them can still cause me deep shame. I wish I could do them over, but none of us have that option. I sincerely hope that I never someday find myself in a position where I cause the death of a child, either through willful neglect, or poor decision-making, or even by accident. So far, I’ve been spared that pain.
Julie knows she did a terribly stupid thing. I do not feel she is an evil person. I believe she sincerely regrets her role in that tragedy. She was convicted of murder, lost all rights to her three children, and will now spend 20+ years in prison because of it. When she regains her freedom, she’ll still be carrying all this with her for the rest of her life. Just like you and I carry our past — good and bad –with us. This is part of what being human means.
All affectionately-inclined people are welcome to participate in The Smooch! Project. Because I have made both good and bad decisions in my own life, this tells me that the archive contains images of sinners as well as saints. Because of my own personal experience, I also know that there is at least a little part of good as well as the despicable in each and every one of us. Julie is now my friend. Her photo belongs within The Smooch! Project Archive for the same reason as every other photo there: Because she is capable of love and decided to demonstrate that with daughter Cadence. The images in The Smooch! Project Archive are designed to help us focus on our human similarities, not our differences. I am very happy to have Julie luvs Cadence back in the archive where it belongs. You can see it here. Happy Mother’s Day, Julie. Happy Mother’s Day to every mom out there in the world!
I’m drawn to the Smooch! Project because of Bonnie’s passion for it. Her desire to share the heart-warming feeling you get when smooched is absolutely something to promote. Why not pay it forward? It only gets better!