Unintentional Vulnerability

Model: Toni Marie Bentley Photographed by Cherie Zantow-Phelps at the Salton Sea

When I sat down to write a blog post about the Seniors Ignite conference in Palm Springs this past March, I thought about perhaps describing in-depth the amazing locations that we visited, or the invaluable business knowledge that was openly shared by some very successful photographers and personally received and acted upon in my own business, or even the smorgasbord of exceptional images that I captured as a result of being among them and harnessing the creative juices flowing from some incredibly talented and well-known photographers….truly, my list could go on and on.  But after I thought for some time on it I came to the conclusion that I wanted to share how this conference had a different sort of ‘mountain-top experience’ for me, on a very personal level.  Surely you have heard of this expression, ‘mountain-top experience’, but while trying to come up with an adequate definition of what it is, I found Tom Kennar’s explanation to be right on target to what I experienced at the Seniors Ignite conference.  He explains, “It’s one of those defining moments when the world seems to stop spinning for a while…and when those who are caught up in the experience are confronted with something new, something defining for the rest of their journey. It’s like a hiker who, along the path, finds himself at the top of a hill – able to see where he has been, and where he is to go.”

This was exactly the feeling I had, however my story doesn’t start in March.  You see, I had attended the conference last year, but I didn’t attend much of the events for circumstances that will go unpublished here. (Okay fine, here it is: my best friend from high school met me in sunny Palm Springs at the impeccable Rivera Resort and Spa, and we proceeded to sit by the pool, partake in fruity beverages and catch up on our lives…yes, for most of the weekend.)  In fact, many of the photographers that were there with me this year, didn’t even realize that I had been there the year before as well.  So it’s pretty safe to say that for all intents and purposes, I didn’t get much out of it last year.  So this year I decided that I would dive in whole-heartedly and glean everything that I could from the conference.  It was the inaugural event for Seniors Ignite (senior portrait artists had held their final event last fall, and given the reins over to Jen Basford), and I would make my self available for whatever they needed….from the very least, to the very most…I would be their girl.

I have been to photography conferences in the past on a local, state, and national level, and for the most part, I have only invested money, sometimes significant amounts of it, but never invested myself into them.  I usually stayed an arm’s distance away from the action, the involvement, and the friendships.  Even when I looked involved, my heart and mind were closed off to the intimacy and relationship building that goes on at these events.  I say for the most part because I was approached by spa to be a speaker and shooter at their final conference in Branson, MO, last September.  I accepted whole-heartedly and while there, I began a new outlook on these sorts of educational interactions.

I was excited to get involved on a more in-depth level at the conference in Palm Springs, CA, when Jen Basford, the owner of SENIORS IGNITE, asked me to share with the other photographers something that I am passionate about in my business.  I quickly found my subject, and was off and running. I didn’t realize at the time just how in-depth I was going to go with it, however.  When it was time to share my ‘talk’ with my fellow photographers, all of whom I look up to (and feel a little unworthy to call myself an equal in both business savvy and ability), I became completely vulnerable.  I am sure you have heard the saying that your biggest asset can also be your biggest downfall, and I have a lifetime of moments when I have said more than I should have (and became completely transparent) that were less than called for.  As a result, I have worked hard over the past few years to edit myself by thinking before I speak, share only what is essential to the conversation, and use my ever-constant “can this come back and bite me in the butt” litmus test.

For my time in front, I didn’t tell them my philosophy on how to make their business better, how to shoot more effectively, or how to get higher sales.  How could I?  How could I impart some level of ah-ha inspiration on a class of photographers that I still, in my mind, aspired to be like. At the same time, I didn’t mean to go down the path that my ‘talk’ took, as I had something far less revealing outlined on my laptop notes.  I also didn’t intend to bust open my ribcage, and expose my heart in such a vulnerable manner.  But on this occasion, at this moment, for some reason, I found myself in a place where I didn’t feel the need to be guarded. I spoke about my business inadequacies, my lack of personal confidence, and my desperate need for the approval and intimate relationship with a significant person in my life that has never seemed to come to fruition despite, until recently, my tireless pursuit of him.  I revealed how that had affected my self-worth, my significance in life, and how I have worked fervently to overcome this personal struggle.  How through a painful and very personal healing process, I have been able to take back what was stolen from me, even at the intensely painful revelation that some relationships need to be severed in order to find sustained healing.  And through that process, I have found it within me to  become the woman that I had always hoped to be.   And as this was all taking place, I remember wondering to myself, while my mouth was spewing out personal information, at which point had I become completely unrestrained during what was supposed to be a business building/informational talk.  I felt, once again, that I was going to walk away from this situation and regret opening my mouth.

But what I experienced that night (when I was in the front of people I looked up to, people I would NEVER want to know that I didn’t have it all together, inadvertently telling my story) was complete acceptance by a group of individuals, some of whom I had just met that weekend.  Through their acceptance, I was challenged to grow in areas of my business that I had expressed fear and inability to grow in.  I was encouraged to believe in myself as a business person.  I was validated in who I am.

Model: Toni Marie Bentley Photographed by Cherie Zantow-Phelps at the Salton Sea

Remember in the beginning I said that your biggest asset can also be your biggest downfall.  I can be overwhelming sometimes. No, really, I can.  Intensely focused, unintentionally ignoring all outside stimuli and interaction – just ask my kids and my husband.  But this focus drives me forward to learn new techniques in the studio, take calculated risks in my business, and challenge my own creativity.  I can be incredibly free-spirited and quirky, causing me to be a jokester first – sometimes saying things without thinking of how it my be perceived.  I have had to apologize more than once for saying something that I later regretted.  But this free-spirited, quirkiness has allowed me to avoid taking myself too seriously and relate to the very subjects that I cater to. My beloved seniors.  I can laugh at myself and joke with them during the photo shoots taking the focus off of how they may feel awkward or nervous, thereby putting them at ease with my humor.  And I AM an open book.  Sometimes I divulge way too much information about my feelings, opinions, and inner-vulnerabilities.  But it makes me authentic, approachable, and unpretentious.  I am wholly grounded in who I am, who I am not, and more importantly who I still long to become.  Just ask the photographers I shared my story with that night.

Ultimately, we ALL have our own personal misnomers of who we are, which cause us, at some level, to question our ability, our self-worth, and hinder our ability to reach our own personal goals.   My hope, if you are someone who can relate to my story, is that this post would be an encouragement to begin the healing process and work through thoughts of inadequacy so that your true ability can shine its light without limitation.  That through this healing you would gain confidence in yourself personally, as a photographer, and as a business-person.  That you would find extraordinary growth in the personal awareness of your uniqueness and how it imparts beauty and flavor to those close to you.  And finally, that you would find the courage to let go of relationships that hinder this growth and healing, and invest yourself in a group of individuals who respect your differences, love you where you are, and encourage you to grow in all areas of your life and business.   Most affectionately called, by Jen Basford (from her love of Seth Godin’s book), your tribe.

One of my most loved quotes of all time is by Maryanne Williamson:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I am aware of my inadequacies; they are part of who I am and who God created me to be.  Through this process of awareness and healing, I no longer keep in my pocket the diffidence that was imparted to me during my upbringing.  The truth is:  I am strong.  I am secure.  I am fearless.  I am worthy.  I am intelligent.  I am passionate.  I am capable.  I am loyal.  And I am loved….by a group of photographers that I am honored and grateful to call friends.  And SO ARE YOU!

4 Responses to Unintentional Vulnerability

  1. TracieJ April 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    I love you & who you are. You are all you stated above and more! I recently told my boys that everyone has that one special friend that they can be real with, be a grown up with & that they can act like they are 12 years old with…for me, that person is you. You bring out the good & the silly in me…this ability to put others at ease is something I’ve seen first hand with your seniors as well as your youth group. You love all with your whole heart…is it any surprise that that love comes through in your art of photography? I think not! So proud of you!!!

  2. JennFolz April 30, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Cherie, Thank you for sharing this post.  It resonated so deeply with me, I appreciate your openess!  

  3. The Light Monkey May 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Cherie, Cherie, Cherie…how awesome are you?? Reading this took me right back to that cozy suite, surrounded by amazing people and amazing talent. There’s Cherie, this little firecracker I only just met sitting Indian style (yeah I said it) on the floor with her laptop spilling out great wisdom interspersed with personal revelation. Healing herself and teaching the group all at once! 
    I went to that conference with every intention of spending about half of the time sitting by the pool and/or napping but presentations like yours and those of Matt and John quickly showed me my time was best spent soaking up all I could from all these amazing people. I was lucky to ride my wife’s amazing coat tails into this group and, as a non-creative I am hopeful to find ways to contribute and be an assett for as long as the group will have me!
    Thanks Cherie for your passion, your openness, your encouragement, your talent, your lunacy and your energy. 

  4. cphelps May 1, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    Thanks everyone, so much, for all your feedback.  Over and over again, I am reminded of the amazing people that I have invested in, and who have invested in me.  

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