“Don’t Leave Before the
Photography and Meditative Seeing
an Interview with Photographer Catherine Just
I’m delighted to share with you an interview I did with Catherine Just over a few days of email conversation.
I first became aware of Catherine’s photography a few years ago. The first photos I saw were portraits– as well as other photos, some of which can be viewed in this photo gallery.
No descriptions or captions were attached to those first photos I saw. I was drawn in.
Something deep called out from each one, asking to be witnessed. Viewing these photos took me to a more distant and mysterious place in myself. Echoes and whispers of questions, and a silent knowing beyond words.
My eventual asking of Catherine for an interview was one of the first times I’d ever reached out to someone I’d never had even a brief online conversation with. So reaching out was humbling and took some nerve.
Later, I joined her 4 week photo challenge called “The Daily Miracle” (#thedailymiracle) on Instagram and got to know her a little bit then. In the Daily Miracle, Catherine created such a positive, creative, non-threatening atmosphere encouraged hundreds of participants to be intentional in their approach and to see below the surface of their subject.
I’m so grateful to Catherine for taking the time to share her thoughts and feelings about art, photography, her life story, photography as presence and her beautiful son Max. Her responses were so thoughtful, complete and have basically no resistance in their energy. Just openness and sharing.
I hope you enjoy her words and her photography as much as I do.
Tina: You offer a photography eCourse called “The Daily Miracle”. Can you tell us about your own definition of “miracle” at work in this idea?
Catherine: A miracle for me is a shift that occurs when you essentially “wake up” to the sacred moments that are happening in your daily life.
It could be that you turn to notice how the light is streaming in through the window, or the way your child is focusing on a book or art project.
A miracle could be getting off the phone after a very difficult conversation and then staring at the way the vines are making their way up the wall outside your house and a hummingbird zips by and you notice it. You forget the conversation in your head and in a split second you’re connecting with the world in a deeply meaningful way.
Photography helps me to pay closer attention to my life and moves my attention from my head down to my eyes and heart. A miracle is that shift of attention. The shift in perception.
A miracle can also be that moment where you feel afraid to move forward, but instead of retracting and giving up, you lean into and become curious about what’s on the other side of that discomfort. That moment of choice, when you lean into it…and then you have the experience that what’s on the other side of that fear is actually much more extraordinary than you could have possibly imagined.
It’s when the Universe shows you that what you fear, those fear thought forms, are not true and that you are actually supported by forces much greater than you. Breakthroughs happen when you lean in and resist listening to your mind.
Tina: Thanks. Now can you give us a quick rundown of what “The Daily Miracle” eCourse is about?
Catherine: The Daily Miracle is a 30 day eCourse that helps you shift your attention from your mind back down into your heart. I use the transformational tool of photography to help facilitate that shift.
I have each participant choose one area, one topic or subject to focus on for the entire month. It could be photos of bath time, morning coffee, their daily walk, something that they do every day that would be relatively easy to take a photograph of every day.
I send out daily emails with photo lessons, assignments, resources all geared to help participants become stronger “Seers”. They put those lessons to use on the subject they chose for the month.
My own personal experience is that when I focus on the same subject for a specific amount of time and really look and take notice of the details, a miracle does happen for me. I see how incredible it is. I see how unbelievably beautiful my experience can be of my daily life.
By the end of the course, people have faced resistance, self doubt, doing something new, not understanding the point of it all, wanting to quit, judging themselves for not doing it perfectly…and then….The miraculous shift happens and they feel empowered, centered, joy filled, connected, creative and inspired. Watching this process occur is such an honor.
Tina: So, your tagline, “Don’t leave until the miracle happens” is about slowing down, waking up and staying open, knowing that the “miracle” will eventually come— in the photoshoot and in life?
Catherine: The Tagline ” Don’t leave before the Miracle happens ” came from 2 very different but similar experiences in my life.
The first was when I had about 10 years of sobriety and was a regular at a women’s AA meeting. I saw the same people go in and out of the rooms, meaning they were chronic relapsers. I didn’t understand it. It seemed as though every time they would get too close to feeling pain they would retreat and sabotage themselves. once they came back into sobriety, the chaos and drama they created became their new focus for a while.
The stuff they were avoiding was put on the backburner. And then inevitably, the feelings they were avoiding were still there waiting for them so as soon as the mess was cleaned up and they had a moment to breathe, they would jump right back out and drink or use drugs again in order to escape the pain.
What I noticed was that the IDEA of the pain was actually what they were running from. In my own life, I faced a lot of pain and once I leaned into it, that imaginary dense fog of fear and worry would evaporate. It was NEVER as bad as my mind was telling me it would be and I learned so much by staying sober instead of running.
I found that the gifts of moving through those difficult situations and feelings often brought unexpected miracles in my life that I would have never experienced otherwise.
Maybe it’s that I’m more comfortable in my own skin, able to look people in the eyes, feeling more confident speaking my truth. I don’t really know what is going to happen when I stay.
I DO know the consequences if I decide to leave. No miracles are going to happen. That’s for certain. I’ve already been down that road, and I’ve seen so many people suffer worse when they leave before the miracle happens rather than just holding on, waiting and leaning in.
The other example was when my son was born and I was trying to do nap time with him. It was becoming more and more like a moment out of the movie “Groundhog Day”. No matter what I did, Max wouldn’t go to sleep, or he would go to sleep but not stay asleep for more than 15 minutes.
I was so ready to have my alone time, eat lunch, do nothing, be somewhat “free” to do as I pleased in the house while he slept. But Max didn’t get the memo. I was thinking that I needed to do something to help me handle this situation as it wasn’t going to go away any time soon.
So I brought my iPhone with me to nap time and once he fell asleep I took a photo of the two of us. What I noticed what that I was missing everything.
What I noticed, was that there was a sacred time between the two of us that I was not present for because I was stuck in my mind and in where I’d rather be.
When I looked at the photo I noticed how the light was wrapping itself around my son’s beautiful face. I noticed that he was snuggled close and I could see how beautiful our relationship was. It shifted my attention and helped me to stay in the room mentally and emotionally so that I could really experience this sacred time in both of our lives.
That first nap photo turned into a 3 year photo project and was one of the inspirations for my “Daily eCourse” idea.
“Don’t leave” means – stay present, lean in, focus on what’s happening, stay sober, stay true.
“Miracle” means any type of shift that occurs within yourself as a result of staying present, leaning in, focusing.
Tina: Another tagline you have is “Love the way the light hits your soul.” To me, this was a hint at what you’re looking for when you photograph someone. Not just how the light hits their body, but what glows from within? Is this right? and if so, what else would you add?
Catherine: Yes, that’s exactly it. I don’t think I can really add anything more to it!
Tina: Your Black and white photo style is very special. It really stands out and is easy to recognize. One of many reasons is that your style isn’t like what’s trendy in photography these days. I don’t think you’re being contrarian, deliberately trying to be different. It’s clear from looking at these photos that the choices you make are coming from a very deep place in yourself that you’re called to express. Can you talk about that?
Catherine: Thank you! I don’t even know what the trends are right now! I’m just focused on making my work.
I learned about conceptual photography when I went to art school. It literally saved me.
I had just gotten sober from a crystal meth addiction at 18 years old. I went to art school shortly thereafter.
Learning how to express what’s going on underneath the surface of my every day life through images was life changing. I was very insecure and through this medium, I was able to find a way to express visually what was so painful for me to express verbally.
I graduated college in 1992 and have been investigating the space in between words ever since.
So the work I’m doing is just my own style, mainly using self portraiture and objects to metaphorically discuss the underworld, the shadow, the conversations that go unsaid, the river that’s running underneath what’s seen.
Tina: I wish I had asked the previous question better, yet I’m still not sure what the words would be! I don’t know what the trends are either! Ha! Not even close, but I find a lot of self-expression in photography these days is outwardly turned- and not revealing shadowy truth in the fearless, nakedly truthful, vulnerable way you do.
To me, these days, the shadow is portrayed pretty often, but usually in an ironic way– to evoke shock value or to make something darkly sexy out of it. Not to say that those portrayals are WRONG, not at all. But surely the most courageous and helpful reason to delve into the shadow, or any part of ourselves that might be considered dark or taboo, is in search of truth. And, ultimately, is there really anything dark or taboo about the truth?
Catherine: I think people express themselves based on where they are at in life and what they learn or see.
I’m still investigating the shadow side myself and find that I must just make the work. Even if it SEEMS trite.
That work will lead to the next people I do portraits of or art I make. Some work is really strong and other work seems to need a little something. I won’t know until I dive in and make the work. It does tend to be romantic and pretty no matter the subject matter.
It will change as I change. I’m not sure about trends really…I try to stay out of all of that and just make the work. People’s work changes over time too. I think my work has an honesty just from 27 years of practice.
I’m just now starting to talk about what the images actually mean.
For many years, the meaning was cloaked in secrecy and mystery which I actually like as well.
Pushing myself to reveal more to you and others who follow my work in Instagram has made me a much better photogapher and seer.
Tina: That’s such an enlightening response. And you’re right, people do express themselves according to where they are in their life, what they’re learning and seeing. And speaking of learning and seeing, it seems to me that both meditation and photography are heightened forms of awareness. What do you think?
Catherine: Absolutely. If used for that purpose.
There are many photographers that are big on the size of the lens and the brand of their cameras and know how to use f/stops and shutter speeds like no one’s business. I don’t know if they are having a higher experience of awareness when they look out into the world or not. I just find that if there’s no connection with your being and that which you’re photographing, or if you’re not trying to connect with your subject…what’s the point?
A pretty photo is a dime a dozen. I want to know how it made you feel to be in that place or with those people or how you’re person was affected by what you were looking at. That, for me, feels like higher vibration and more purposeful photography. And, I honestly can’t say if that’s the truth, as I am making an assumption about that, really.
I don’t know what anyone experiences when they do their version of anything. All I do know is that for me personally I love how photography is a form of meditation. It helps me to breathe. Photography helps me to connect. Photography helps me to create, express, explore, be even more curious about the world and about myself.
Tina: I’m not a photographer, but love to take photos. I used to think that taking photos distracted from being present. This opinion prevented me from taking a photograph for years! Even during momentous occasions and other experiences that part of me really did want to capture.
Now I think the opposite, that photography can draw someone deeper into their experience and help them to be present. I feel like I see this very strongly in your photography. I can feel a penetrating kind of mindfulness in your work, the more submerged messages that ask to be drawn out and seen.
Can you talk about how an approach to photography can be a distraction or a practice in presence depending on the approach of the photographer?
Catherine: I was told once to put my camera away when I was on a spiritual journey in Teotihuacan, Mexico with Miguel Ruiz (author of The Four Agreements). The person who told me to put the camera away basically said that I was using it to hide and not be present. I actually tried to just be there without the camera. I felt sad that I couldn’t document some of the sacred moments I was experiencing around me.
I believe it was at that time that I realized that for me, photography is a way to connect rather than to detach.
Sometimes it’s been a great way to get out of talking with people at an event when I’m not feeling very interested. (I’m not much for small talk.) So looking at how the light is wrapping itself around someone’s face is much more interesting for me than the usual chit chat. I have to keep that in check because it can keep me from connection if I’m not careful.
Tina: I’m sure we’d all love to hear the story about how you became a photographer and when you knew you had found your life’s work.
Catherine: I spoke a bit about this earlier, but basically, when I was in high school I was addicted to crystal meth. I took an art class for 4 years and that art teacher told me I had talent. It was the first time in my life that someone told me I was good at something and paid attention and gave me instruction on how to become even better at what I did.
I checked myself into treatment the summer after graduating high school. (I’m not really sure HOW I graduated High school, but that’s another story.)
After I got sober I decided to go to Art School, because I really didn’t know of anything else I liked to do. It was in art school, when they asked me what I wanted my major to be, that I very quickly and randomly picked photography out of the blue. No past experience in the medium. No dreams of one day becoming a photographer.
It was in a class with the instructor David Goldes when I realized the gold that was in conceptual photography. Luckily, my school was less focused on the technical side, and all about the content of the work.
I dove into the practice of creating images that express the internal world rather than the external world. I fell in love with it and I’m still in love with that practice. I didn’t really know that it would be my life’s work. I give myself permission to explore whatever it is that is tugging at me in the moment.
I’m also a printmaker. I love carving into linoleum blocks and using the brayer and printmaking inks and printing presses. I love mixed media. I love charcoal, wax, ceramics, bookbinding. I love getting my hands into my work. I started with drawing and painting in high school, so I don’t consider myself just a photographer. I use all sorts of medium to express. Lately it’s been mostly with the camera.
Tina: I love how you share your life with your son Max on Instagram. You post photos and tell stories, some of which are quite lengthy and deep— and often quite personal, even confessional.
You touch the hearts of so many people with these stories, myself included. Have you always been so open? What inspires you to tell the stories about your life with Mac?
Catherine: I learned how to be open when I got sober. I’ve been sober now for 27 years and i learned early on that sharing the truth about what’s going on can really set you free.
The more you share, the more you find how many others relate and then you feel a freedom in that. The isolation of the dis-ease can be consuming. We can’t do this life alone.
Over time, it’s just become a part of my personality…To share very openly about what’s happening in my life and what’s happening within me. I find that when I do, it gives other people permission to do the same. It connects all of us in a way that is so much more powerful than when we try to put up a mask of perfection or when we don’t get real with those around us.
My son isn’t a diagnosis, or a list of symptoms. He is a human being with a very unique and beautiful personality. Most people (including doctors and experts in the field) have a limited idea of what’s possible for my son, based on the diagnosis.
That is something I’m working towards shifting. If I can shed light on the beauty of this one boy and his life and the value he brings to the world, it may start to crack open a very outdated viewpoint in our culture.
Tina: Now 3 questions I ask everyone:
- What never fails to make you happy/smile?
Catherine: My son Max. His laughter, His smile, His curiosity in life, his personality.
- What breaks your heart?
Catherine: Our culture’s belief that people with Down syndrome are not valuable.
- If you could send a message to everyone in the world at the same time, and all people— of all cultures and states of being, could understand you, regardless of language— and not just understand, but be influenced by your words, what would you say?
Catherine: You are not broken.
You are a unique and valuable individual with something powerful to bring to the world. Don’t hide it from us. We need you to bring all of you so that we can heal. You are not the sum of your thoughts. You are not the sum of your past or what others said to you or did to you in your past.
You are much more than you could ever imagine. You are the space between the stars. You have unlimited potential to do and be anything you dream of.
Become curious and lean in. Don’t leave before the miracle happens.
Tina: Catherine, this has been a truly amazing experience. Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us.