Locals + Culture

Heal Courageously

5/2/2014 | Leigh Anne Bernal
Melissa Lipani

One of the best parts about what we do is connecting with the amazing people behind the beautiful spaces—those that make our city so damn sensational. Michelle Marthia of Heal Courageously is one of those inspiring individuals; the kind that makes us want to be better humans...that reminds us to live each day to the fullest. She founded the non-profit organization, which powerfully documents a person or family’s journey through cancer or other life-changing illness, all through the lens of volunteer photographers. The portraits get right down to our very core—they capture love, hope, healing, strength, and a thousand other nearly inexplicable emotions involved with the process. Quite simply, they embody the courage of the organization's namesake.

"My world was opened by this experience to the power of kindness and connection"

Michelle learned of cityhomeCOLLECTIVE and our obsession with community, and when it was time to find a new home she was all like, "who you gonna call?" [we're the new Ghostbusters]. She's enlisted my help to find the perfect space to write a new chapter [more on that later, as she’s busy sealing the deal on a sweet Sugarhouse bungalow with a deep, cozy porch we just can’t wait to sip some wine on]. We had a good, old-fashioned sit down with Michelle to learn more about the important work of Heal Courageously so we could share it with our COLLECTIVE homies [you might want to grab a tissue, folks]...

Tell us about the mission of Heal Courageously and how you were inspired to start this beautiful thing: The catalyst for the Heal Courageously project was my own journey through cancer treatment. My world was opened by this experience to the power of kindness and connection, and left me in awe of the strength required to move through a life-threatening illness. My transition from healthy to chemotherapy to brave bald woman, took me by surprise. So I decided to have professional photos taken to document that phase of my life. It quickly became clear to me that the path through illness deserves to be honored in a more significant way than snapshots on our smart phones. But in the midst of illness it may not occur to a family to create these records of where they’ve been…they are dealing with so much already. That’s where we hope to quietly slip into their lives. The mission of HC is to provide patients, caregivers and survivors of major illness the opportunity to document their journey in photographs at no charge.

"We aren’t documenting birthdays and weddings. This is the tough stuff."

We love the tag line of Heal Courageously’s mission, "honoring the strength needed to get through the night-side of life." Where did that come from and what does it mean? Our tag line, “Images from the night-side of life” was inspired by a Susan Sontag quote from her book Illness as Metaphor. She wrote, “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only our good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”  When I read this for the first time, it resonated on such a deep and authentic level, and I knew it was a way to communicate our story. We aren’t documenting birthdays and weddings. This is the tough stuff. We are invited to witness moments with families while they’re on a path that requires great reserves of strength and courage…the night-side of life.

The portraits are all so powerful -- in addition to strength, we see a lot of other emotions reflected, including humor. Can you share some of the ways you've seen participants face their experience as it's reflected in the photographs [and tell us what's going on with that red thong!]? As I work with each participant or family, we discuss the people who are most important to them and locations that will make this experience meaningful. If that means a favorite room of their home, the park they enjoy with their children, or a hillside someone loves to mountain bike, that’s where we go. We want these images to capture the essence and heart of those we work with, while making the experience comfortable and simple, allowing their personalities and emotions to be revealed. This can be the comfort brought to a very sick young boy by his favorite stuffed Tinker Bell. A mother playing piano with her dying son. A fresh henna tattoo on a beautiful bald head. Or a mother and son laughing with abandon as he holds the red thong she bought him to wear as a surprise for the radiation technicians.

"To be invited into this sacred space is truly an honor"

It's clear that you connect with each and every one of your subjects through the creative process. Share with us if there are any particular individuals who've stayed with you over time: Our stories are all intertwined now and each experience is surprisingly unique. I hold a special place for the families we’ve had the privilege to work with, but those who remain closest to the surface are those we’ve lost. To be invited into this sacred space is truly an honor, and we are humbled to offer this gift at such a difficult time. Garrett and his family have had the most profound impact on me personally, and his mother said this about the experience: “At a time when it is hard to get your bed made, let alone orchestrate and pay for a family photo, Heal Courageously offered a pause from the pain and honored what really matters…our relationships with each other. Garrett's life is a precious memory now, made sweeter by the photos from Heal Courageously.” The vulnerability required to be fully present during difficult times is eased by the knowledge that I have walked the path of illness too, and that allows participants to feel connected and supported even though I’m a stranger. Although, we all become intimate strangers pretty quickly. That’s the gift the families give back to me, and it’s amazing.

Who are the volunteer photographers with Heal Courageously? How can the community of SLC get involved to support the mission? This work could not be done without the generous donation of time and talent by the professional photographers involved with Heal Courageously. Our current volunteers are Alex Adams (alexadamsphotography.com), Brittney Massey (brittneymasseyphoto.com) and Jackelin Slack (jackelinslack.com). I love these amazing ladies and their hearts are connected to this project in such a meaningful way. This work requires sensitivity, respect and great care. I am fortunate to have them on the team that helps make this all happen.

Our community can support Heal Courageously in a variety of ways. Please share our story. It’s that simple. We all know someone facing the challenges of a major illness and we’d be honored to provide them this meaningful gift. We are a registered 501(c)(3) and donations will ensure we continue to provide this service to our community. You’ll find a link to give at www.healcourageously.org.  And if you’re a photographer, graphic designer, or social media expert…call me! As all nonprofit organizations know, we stretch to do as much as possible with very little, so we cherish our volunteers.

"what stands out is their authenticity"

What do these portraits mean to the participants and their families? Has anyone shared anything about their photographs that surprised you or inspired you to continue doing this work? How do people react when they first see the images? This work nourishes my soul and allows our team to give back to the community. Responses to the images have been overwhelming, but what stands out is their authenticity. Our photographers are tremendously gifted at capturing the essence of the spirit and personality of each participant, and I think this often surprises the families. At a time when someone may not feel their best, we reflect back to them their inherent beauty and strength. Words feel woefully inadequate when you’ve captured a young father playing with his small children in the snow just months before his passing. A woman embracing her beauty in a body that’s been physically altered by cancer. Or a daughter walking with her father while Alzheimer’s slowly steals him away from her. The families don’t need to find the words to express what this means to them…we can clearly see the gratitude reflected back to us.

You're working with Leigh Anne to find the perfect new home. What's important for you to find in your new space? What made you want to work alongside cityhomeCOLLECTIVE in your search? I became a fan of cityhomeCOLLECTIVE and their love of our community long before I found myself looking for a new space. My life entered another transitional phase and I knew working alongside Cityhome COLLECTIVE would be a great fit.  What I didn’t expect was how amazing Leigh Anne would be over the long haul.  She has been extremely patient with me during a time when I’ve found buying groceries to be difficult, much less a new home.  She stayed with me as I veered off course and has been a consistent guide as I became distracted by bright shiny kitchens. I am now under contract on a home that fits my personality, will nourish me as I heal, and hold the people in my life that are dear to me. That now includes Leigh Anne. The front porch is a perfect place for a glass of wine with new and old friends.

Heal Courageously

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