“It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey.” –Wendell Berry
I have been a commercial photographer for about 16 years, but my journey as an artist—even as a human being—started two years ago. Two years ago I took my first trip to Haiti. Somehow, on this island littered with destruction yet filled with hope, my paradigm shifted—my heart crumbled—and I discovered my purpose and mission in life. It’s my hope that I’ll encourage you to do the same.
I have captured most everything and anything through the language of photography. From chefs to musicians, celebs to fishermen, artists to business people, and architecture to food—I have had a blessed career thus far.
Yet somehow, even with the most creative jobs and supportive clients, my work never completely took me to a place of pure passion and purpose. It failed to rattle the core of my being in a way that stripped away my layers—it didn’t render me raw with understanding of what I was trying to communicate. Until Haiti, I was uncertain of who I longed to become.
In May of 2010, I traveled to Haiti as a photographer for the medical relief team New Reality International. I began returning every 6-8 weeks, living with friends in the tent cities, sharing their homes in Port au Prince. Through photographs and video, I was able to document the beauty of every day in the life of these families. They allowed me to give voice to their story—a post-earthquake story of resilience and life—a story that I felt was being ignored. Of course the international media was plastered with images of immediacy, but they seemed to communicate only a fraction of what I witnessed on my trips to Haiti and what I was personally witnessing by living with my friends.
I wanted nothing more than full immersion into this project. I welcomed the insecurity, the fear, the discomfort, and also the excitement. This immersion gave light to a vulnerability and honesty in my images that I had never seen before. I stopped caring about the process and the rules, concentrating instead on the story. Their story. And the photographs projected their voices—not just mine.
The beauty of storytelling is found in a series of images that translate truth—not our truth, but theirs. When we, as photographers, let go of our selfish needs to create the best work, capture award-winning images, or be featured on the covers of magazines, we allow the beauty of others’ circumstance to resonate through our lenses. This is art. This is humanity. We are able to show others that their story has significance, that their lives are beautiful and profound.
I followed my three friends and their families over the past two years. I have shared their stories and my images and videos with countless people. Up From Under, a foundation I started, has raised almost $50,000 in a single year, and is now building new homes in Haiti for my friends who lost theirs.
I tell you this not for praise or recognition, but to share with you what a catalyst for change our vision can be if we choose to see clearly.
If you feel stuck or unfulfilled—if you fear that your work declares nothing about the person you are—seek an opportunity to do something beyond yourself. Immerse yourself in vulnerability and you will discover a deeper understanding of who you are in the broad scope of humanity, who you are as an artist, and how we as photographers carry a huge responsibility when we step behind the lens.
Nicole Wolf was raised on the small island of Grand Manan, in New Brunswick, Canada. As the daughter of a lobster fisherman she grew up with an attachment to the sea and an unwavering connection with small-town life. In 1991 she left the island and moved to the United States to pursue her education. Nicole received her undergraduate degree in photography and art therapy from Indiana Wesleyan University and her MFA in photography from Columbia College Chicago. Since then, she has carved out a career as an accomplished photographer, and owner and operator of Sota Dzine Inc.
Nicole has photographed musicians, celebrities, chefs, politicians and events of all kinds. Her work has been published in several editorial outlets including DC Magazine, the Washingtonian, The Washington Post, The Washington Express, Maine Magazine, Maine Home and Design, Rangefinder and PDN. She is also a humanitarian and has been working in Haiti for more than two years as founder of Up From Under. Nicole is represented by Elizabeth Moss of the Elizabeth Moss Gallery in Falmouth, Maine.