I was a newspaper photographer. While I was I working at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, I won a Pulitzer Prize for a picture of a firefighter saving a drowning girl. That opened up some other opportunities, which is how I ended up at the L.A. Times.
When you’re a newspaper photographer, you’re expected to be able to shoot anything—from politics to food. But, like a lot of newspaper photographers, my interest was in documentary photography. The projects I most enjoyed were those that allowed me to tell a story. I felt I was doing my best work when I had the time to get to know my subjects.
I’m not sure if I would have gravitated towards the subject matter of Showing on my own. But when Jane asked me to participate, I had a lot of faith in her and her ideas. I was on board right away. Pregnancy is a pretty interesting thing to behold—pregnant women are in such an unusual physical circumstance, and yet they’re able to use their bodies in amazing ways. I wanted to understand that story.
2011, © Annie Wells
In the years since Showing, I left the world of photography. But the work I do now —I’m a palliative care chaplain—isn’t all that dissimilar from my work as a photographer. Chaplaincy isn’t all about religion. If a patient has a religious need, we’ll try to meet it, but it’s really much more about being present with people who need your support. I’m constantly striving to establish relationships and understand people’s stories. What I do with those stories is quite different from what I would have done as a photographer, of course, but both jobs require that same empathetic spirit.
And of course, working with people nearing the ends of their lives, it's impossible not to confront questions about the nature of life—the same kinds of questions that were so important to Showing. I was with a patient the other day. She’s nearing the end of her life, has a certain amount of dementia, and speaks a language I don’t speak. Understandably, it can be hard to connect. But when her very pregnant doctor came in, the patient smiled and reached out for the doctor’s belly (the doctor was fine with it).
I have to look upon that with a good deal of awe. Here’s a woman in the last stages of her life, struggling with dementia. But the second she sees that belly, she lights up. To take that kind of joy in a new life, even as you’re facing your own exit—there’s something so beautiful and elemental about it.