The Healing Power of Photography
By Dustin Michael
Joe Craig doesn’t necessarily believe in destiny, but he believes everyone is born with a purpose.
In his photography studio in downtown Cape Girardeau, his eyes beam with a luster reminiscent of the subjects of his portraits. He speaks with the passion of a man who knows he’s on the threshold of something and gestures to a black and white shot of a young couple.
“Look at this one — their souls are dancing,” he smiles. “You can’t set that up.”
Behold a man so passionate about his craft and so eager to share it with others that he cannot help but be distracted, and understandably so; the walls of his office are covered with riveting views of souls — souls dancing and laughing, screaming, weeping, struggling and recovering; imagine a few dozen life stories shouted simultaneously. The effect is dizzying. “I believe as long as we’re following our purpose, doing what we were born to do, we’re fulfilling our destiny,” Craig says.
That said, take a peek at Joe Craig’s ‘born to do’ list: work as a professional photographer, train photographers from around the world, encourage folks to share their digital pictures instead of leaving them on disks, and manage a not-for-profit organization, The Art and Soul Society, which he founded with partner Eric White.
Craig has made it his mission to get people all over the world to document their lives, because he believes photography as not just a record, but also a gift to the world. Through his own experience and the vast range of emotions he’s witnessed displayed in others during his 31 years as a professional photographer, Craig has come to the realization that people are all very unique and different, but there are hidden strands of commonality — things all people share: anger, joy, sorrow, surprise. Craig understands this, and with his sharp eye for composition and flawless timing, he is able to visualize a human being as he would a photograph, separating the elements that make a person an individual from those general to everyone, and incorporating them all in one image. He plays with the core human elements as easily as he would a cast shadow or dance a shaft of light across a face. The result defies the conventional idea of what a portrait should be, abandoning cheesy smiles and clumsy posturing for startling, almost alarming glimpses of human personality.
But Craig learned another thing, and that was the way his subjects responded to their images, a paradox, in a sense — the people exposed something for the photographs, the photographs exposed something back.
Enter the concept of photography as therapy, and ask yourself for a moment why no one thought of this before: To look natural in a photograph, you need relaxation and trust, plus a willingness to view the film and confront who you are and how others see you. Vulnerability is involved. So is acceptance. Every wrinkle, crease, shadow and flaw could be blown up for all to see — but if those features are common to everyone, are they bad? And what if they’re part of what makes us unique — are they flaws?
The most striking example is a collection of photographs of a group of women battling cancer. In an inexplicable demonstration of trust and comfort, the wigs come off, and the chins rise; something flickers in the subjects eyes — an unleashed courage — and you find yourself fighting back tears, whispering, “Yes … you can beat it … don’t give up.” Craig reiterates his point — that documenting what they are makes them feel like it’s OK to be in treatment.
“Seeing herself in pictures made her like herself,” he says of one of the women.
“It made her realize, you’re not yourself because you have hair. You’re yourself because you’re loved.”
Craig shows example after example of people suffering, coming to grips with loss. Some are parents who’ve outlived their children. Others are former lovers.
“You can see the anguish that they feel, but also how they triumph and transcend,” Craig says. “Your essence isn’t plastered on your face or what you’re wearing, it’s who you are.”
The framed evidence around the office supports this. With stunning, vivid photography, Craig exposes raw humanity, revealing every person as a gallery of experiences, and every life a journey.
“We’re giving people validation,” he says “and we’re giving them hope.”
Describing White and himself as somewhere between educators and artists, Craig is ready to take the message to the masses. Armed with an impressive portfolio, seemingly boundless enthusiasm and a cache of disposable cameras, the two are setting forth to show amateurs and professionals alike how to pull people’s hearts out their eyes, figuratively speaking.
Rallying behind them is Craig’s client and long time friend, Bradley Minton, whose luxurious home provides the backdrop for some of Craig’s shoots.
“To have that kind of talent is remarkable, but to share that talent is astounding,” Minton said, during a phone interview. “I can silence you with these photographs. I can show you these photographs and bring you to tears, because you’ll see these people’s journeys. You see that joy, that pain and a reflection of yourself. Anybody can take a picture of the Grand Canyon, and that’s great, but what can you capture in a person?”
Minton also has seen Craig in action as an educator, and is impressed by his effectiveness.
“I’ve been to events where he’s handed out disposable cameras and said, ‘See what you can do,’ and it’s amazing what amateurs can produce after they’ve seen a master,” he said. “Joe no longer does photographs—he’s taken photography to the highest level of art.”
Joe Craig’s message, the healing power of photography, won’t have to reach the far corners of the earth through his efforts alone. He’s already touched enough lives with the snap of a shutter to prevent anyone from questioning whether he’s fulfilled his purpose, and the people he’s helped will bear his word wherever they go. It is a very simple message.
“People should get to have up-close and personal pictures, shouldn’t they?” Craig grins. Even if that message were never to leave the area where he grew up, the impact has been made, and Craig believes its deep enough to stand the test of time. “A hundred years from now, people will look at this and talk about what incredible people lived in Southeast Missouri,” he says.