On Grief & Why I Left the UN Sector For Photography / by catherine williams

Grief has been an all too common pattern in my life. I've seen far too many friends and family members pass before they should have. I think that's why I became fascinated with a camera by 15 and it only snowballed more and more with the years. 
Grief makes you hyper sensitive. It's a process that always makes time feel slower, makes human touch more sensitive, the light and the environment around you feel like a movie. You move slower, you experience slower, you walk outside and it's as if you are hearing birds for the first time- it's as if you're in a hypersensitive tunnel that defies space and time. It's trippier and more mind expanding than any drug while simultaneously being the most sober state of your life. It is because of these experiences that I believe I am a highly sensitive and that these experiences have made me passionate about being a photographer, in tune with moments that matter.

charlotte photographer,

Here is my grandmother in her youth, joyful and cancer-free. 

charlotte photographer

Here you can see my aunt as a child, whose same identical baby face was reflected in her own son's years later, who lit up her whole life. 

charlotte photographer

Here is my best friend, somehow and in some form, in the setting of the adventures we spoke about, but never got to accomplish together. 

I've seen photos comfort my dad after he lost a son, after my mom lost her parents, and after my friends lost their friend. 

A long time ago during a time of grief and mourning, I read "I Am a Strange Loop" by Douglas R. Hofstadter, a spiritual physics book based on the golden ratio that I found tremendous healing in. He spoke of patterns and the sense of "i". One quote that stood out was:

 "The key question is, no matter how much you absorb of another person, can you have absorbed so much of them that when that primary brain perishes, you can feel that that person did not totally perish from the earth... because they live on in a 'second neural home'?... In the wake of a human being's death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of those who were dearest to them... Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain... a collective corona that still glows."


I photographed a wedding when I was 21 and then gave up because I believed it wasn't a proper career. I regret that now. I believe the work of capturing that collective corona is more important than anything, because though some see them as just photos, I know just how important those photos will be some day. I know each photo is an opportunity to truly capture that person so that that person, that look, that moment can live on for much longer. I worked around high level officials at the UN who supposedly had important jobs and did "important" things. So we heard, but rarely ever saw the numbers or direct impacts behind such grandiose reputations or the work that actually made an impact was being done by other people. I didn't see direct impact in my work or those around me and all I saw was ego. I would argue that the work of photographers is more important. Storytelling and capturing people's lives is some of the most valuable work there is. It directly impacts people in that moment and for the rest of their lives. Photography captures the moments you might have missed in the moment, the way someone looked at you, the way you smiled as he kissed you, the laugh. These moments are worth more than anything.

These moments are forever. These moments are dreams and goals captured- moments made invincible. These are the moments that comfort during grief, as we huddle around our photo album or laptop and look to find these people once they are no longer here. It is in this work that we find these people and these moments again. We find comfort, we find closure, we find love. 

This is why I changed my career from United Nations development work to photographer. Because knowing grief makes me better at capturing moments. Because life is too short to do anything less than what you always dreamed of doing. Because giving someone beautiful moments during times of happiness or grief is a vocation I feel fulfilled in doing.

Life isn't always positivity and handling life isn't as simple as instagram quotes would like to make you think. Life can be raw and awful- there is just as much bad and tough parts as there is good. But I think this is why it is so important to elevate the good when you find it. To take care of what makes you feel safe, what you adore, what gives you light. Documenting these important things with photography is that work. It's what has personally given me peace and in having experienced that, motivates me to bring peace and happiness to others by doing the same for them with their memories.