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My Year Photographing March For Our Lives

Photo by David Hogg

Photo by David Hogg

It was the middle of November when I looked up at my marker board calendar and read,

“January 2018 - Happy New Year!”

How symbolic. How devastating. Everything on my desk was left the same. Untouched. A time capsule of plans and directions. You know, the way things were supposed to go. And now here I was trying desperately to live 11 months in the future. It’s like the world had willingly decided to spin around without me. Quickly but also at the same time way too slowly. How is this year ending, and I’m still mentally attempting to work through February. Maybe if I don’t erase it. Maybe if I never let anyone erase it. 

I started this year off confidently. So basically I started this year off with a whole hell of a lot of naivety. I thought I was a photographer. I thought I was a documentarian. I thought I was a photojournalist. I 100% believed I was ready and equipped to be the person that shares the stories of what I was watching happen in my world, in my lifetime. I was none of these things before February 14th. I was none of these things without March For Our Lives. 

It was one month and one week into 2018, and I had already given up. My dad had told me I was living a pipe dream. And so I sat crying on my couch as I created a pdf file with wedding photography packages. Anyone who knows me knows that this was my white flag. I had never known defeat quite like it before. And this time I meant it. I dreamt that night of my photographer grandfather and shared with him how desperately I wanted to be a photojournalist, but that it wasn’t working out; maybe I wasn’t actually needed, I felt like I had to be letting him down. In what can only be described as magical, he comforted me, and sent me on my way. I didn’t think of that dream again until I had two options on that Valentine’s Day. Believe my conscious and overwhelming subconscious thoughts and let someone else step up instead. Or answer this loud loud call to action, and refuse to drown it out with fear. 

I had no idea how to do this. The handling of this story became the only thing important to me. I couldn’t care less about an image that was taken, if it wasn’t taken with respect and compassion. Maybe this was the wrong way. Maybe this is considered a weakness among working professionals in this industry. But there was no crash course on how to take photos of people in mourning while also soundly sleeping at night. I took it slowly. Put my camera down often. And asked names for the soul purpose of genuinely knowing and not just for telling. 

There are all of these little intricate moments that led up to every single significant decision I made throughout the entire year. I still remember the exact second I realized I was all in. A moment that was so incredibly profound that I even wrote it down and said “this is important”. It was February 18th and I was out taking photos at Pine Trails Park, which they had setup as a memorial site, honoring each victim individually. I don’t think I took more than 10 images that day. I was still having a hard time personally, balancing my own emotions, and recognizing when and where being intrusive was not necessary. I had met David just one day before and ran into him again that afternoon. We sat and spoke for a while about photojournalism. But it was when he went to walk away and took two extra seconds to turn around and tell me “I’m really glad you didn’t give up”, that put my entire journey with March For Our Lives in motion. None of them knew it at the time, and not a single one of them even knew me, but they had me. I was completely committed. This would just be the beginning of how a group of teenagers, while taking on the important task of changing the world, would completely shift the life of an incredibly unknown and basically failing photojournalist. 

From that point on you could spot me in the crowd of any and every single event they held. From school walkouts, to protests, to marches. From Parkland, to Tallahassee, to Washington DC. Plane rides, rental cars, crashing on couches of friends. Blasting that same song on repeat  over and over in my head “I built that road from the beginning with my hands.” All the work and all the effort, with everything uncertain and yet I had never been more sure of anything in my whole life. Someone needed to tell their story. I didn’t know if it was supposed to be me, but I was never going to let that stop me.

Throughout the year this doubt would continuously creep in, making appearances at all the most inconvenient of times, mentally and physically crippling me. I cared about this so much, that the thought of possibly messing it up was a constant battle and reoccurring nightmare. For the first time in my life I was having to google things like “imposter syndrome”. Watching ted talks about it. Reading interviews with Michelle Obama addressing it. I, for the first time in my life, was having to consider anti-anxiety medications. I was reaching out to the older and wiser women in my life embarrassingly begging for emotional support and guidance. I was out of my league. And so completely uncertain if what I was feeling was normal. How could I be entrusted with something so wildly important. Someone must have made a mistake. This humbled me very quickly. To this day I have to think back to July 6th and remind myself that on that day they picked me to officially cover them. A group of kids that I was whole heartedly trusting to take on and change the gun epidemic in this country, and yet here I was spending way too much time doubting their simple choice of me. Girl. Get it together. Other photographers on the road would occasionally be impressed with my position and ask how I got the job. I would shrug a lot as a response, just as amazed. But gradually as I got to know them better I started to understand. Showing up matters. And the one thing I can confidently say is that I always showed up for them. Along the way they taught me all the things I would need to know to tell their story properly. I didn’t create a job position, it’s more like they created me. 

It is with them where I made piece with my empathy. Where I learned that it’s okay to embrace it. It’s okay to follow it. And I’m allowed to stick to the stories that I care about. And that is my plan. Gun violence is something that i’m continuously being pulled towards. The murder of Trayvon Martin sparked the desire in me to use my ability and talent to direct awareness to it and March For Our Lives filled me with the confidence I needed to actually do it.

This year has not been easy. And I cannot say that i’m ending it completely okay. The constant conflict of knowing that people have to get hurt for me to do my job is incredibly burdensome and haunting. Parts of me feel like I’m not cut out for this and other parts feel like I couldn’t be anything but this. But that’s okay. May we all spend more time being affected by the atrocities going on around us. And may we all eventually heal when the work is finally done. 

There is so much more to this story, and one day I hope to get it all written out. Until then, these are just my thoughts a short 2 hours away from a new year.

Thank you, everyone! Thank you, MFOL!

Right after I was officially hired on July 6, 2018

Right after I was officially hired on July 6, 2018

Photo by Jackie Corin

Photo by Jackie Corin

Emilee McGovern
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