AIR: Part One

On January 30th, 2014, a woman walked into my photography studio carrying a tote bag full of oxygen tanks and jewelry. She smiled at me from under the hose that disappeared into her nostrils and I fell for her instantly.

On film, first meeting, 1/30/14.

A few months prior to the day Julie VonderHaar came to my studio for a portrait, I was invited to be part of a group photography show at a gallery called SOHA in South St. Louis, MO.  I was informed that the theme of the exhibit was simply AIR. Each photographer (8 total) was to interpret the theme however they liked and create something for the show. As a businessperson, exhibiting in shows like this is rarely lucrative, but the artist in me couldn’t resist the opportunity to stretch a bit beyond my work portfolio of baby portraits, corporate head shots, and wedding documentation.

I knew right away that I wanted to make a portrait for the show, something gritty and strong. I had some “airy” shots of long-haired beauties riding in the back of a truck already in my portfolio, but that seemed a little too obvious. For this assignment, I wanted to communicate something personal and important.

When I was young, my grandmother spent the end of her life battling cancer that started in her breast and ended up in her bones. I have vivid memories of the tall, green oxygen tanks that were connected to her nose via long, clear tubing that helped her breath once she’d come home from the hospital to die. I remember wondering what made the air inside the tanks so much better than the air all around us, but this was a time in our family when one didn’t ask for explanations. This image of struggling for air, of its preciousness, is what I wanted to communicate in this show.

The desire to create a portrait of a person whose life depends on supplemental oxygen posed two unique problems for me: I didn’t know anyone who was on oxygen and I really wanted to get to know my subject before setting out to make their portrait. Sure, I take gobs of photos of wedding guests and random people for work, but for portraiture in its purest form, a relationship with the subject is the foundation of my process. I started asking around to see if I could get introduced to anyone who might be open to my request for a subject. That’s how I found Julie.

Ms. Julie VonderHaar was not an easy catch. First, I had to talk to her ex-niece-in-law and then wait to get a call from her mother-in-law, Julie’s ex-sister-in-law. After a week or so of waiting, I had to place a few calls myself and then spend the better part of an hour describing the project before I got clearance to wait for a call from one of Julie’s daughters who would then decide if I could have access to her mother. This process took a few more weeks but, ultimately, I was granted permission and Julie offered to come to my studio to be photographed.

When you sign up to create a portrait of a woman who has been living with lung cancer and emphysema, you expect a frail, gray person to walk through your door. I try not to pre-visualize too much about my subjects…many have come to me out of the blue for portraits and I can never really know what will happen until we get into it. Julie was bronzed and made up, fully decked out in a bedazzled top and matching earrings. She was a little plump, definitely not frail, and I really couldn’t give you a ten year over/under on her exact age. Her eyes told stories that her voice didn’t have the power to articulate and she had a kindness that immediately made me feel like we had been friends for years. Before any cameras came out, we sat on my second-hand black pleather couches and chatted about life a bit. She told me about her career as a bar manager and bartender, her five children and ten grandchildren, and the fifty-plus years she happily identified herself as a heavy smoker. She said she couldn’t recall a photograph of her where she didn’t have a cigarette in her hand. And, although she’d quit a year before our meeting, she made it clear that when the time came for her to go, she wanted to enjoy one last cigarette. In addition to emphysema and lung cancer, she was also a breast cancer survivor, like my own grandmother, but was sad to report that one of her daughters had recently been battling cancer herself.  As a tribute to her daughter, Julie proudly wore pink breast cancer ribbons and marched for cancer research.

While she posed for photos on my black backdrop and simple stool, she told me that she had recently gained about forty pounds of water, a side effect of a Prednisone prescription, and that it was uncomfortable for her to be so much heavier than usual. She wasn’t quite complaining, just expressing that the weight made it hard to find clothes that fit, especially on her tight budget. She also told me about her hip replacements and her terrible arthritis, but not in that negative, crabby way that most old people complain about their ailments. No, Julie had a way of telling you about something ordinary without being boring. Perhaps this was a skill she perfected over fifty years of barroom small talk with folks whom she lovingly referred to as “barstool philosophers.”

After the better part of an hour had passed, we cozied up to the computer to look over the photos we’d taken.  She marveled at the ease with which I could tweak the color this way or smooth her fine lines that way, but what impressed me most is that, unlike most older people when they view their portraits, Julie was really happy about how she looked.  She didn’t mind me leaving the wrinkles and the few hairs that straggled away from her hairdo didn’t bother her a bit.  This, she told me, was the first time a professional had taken her photo since she was a Senior in high school and she wanted me to know that this experience made her feel important.  She knew she’d earned every gray hair and all the fine lines and she wore them proudly like badges of honor.  What really mattered was that she was still living every day and loving her life, regardless of its physical limitations.

In the studio, 01/30/14


Little did I know that, for the following six weeks, I’d develop a friendship with her unlike any other in my life.  She introduced me to her friends and family as “her photographer.”  She invited me to meet her for drinks at a dive bar where I observed her celebrating a birthday with friends, meeting up with various family members,  or taking in a drag show featuring some of her closest cross-dressing comrades.  I would also take portraits of IV tubes in her arms and her yellow socks and sit beside her hospital bed while she got emergency breathing treatments.  She told me all about her son and grandchildren and her plans to visit them in California when she got out of the hospital.

At the bar, 2/15/14
At the hospital, 2/19/14

When the AIR exhibit finally opened on March 14th, 2014, six weeks after that first day I met her in my studio, Julie and I posed for photos together in front of her portraits, holding hands and making googily eyes at one another.  She beamed from her wheelchair as friends, family, and strangers approached her to tell her how beautiful she was and how happy they were to see her.  She really was beautiful….so excited and honored to be on the wall and in a room full of people.  Her sister and brother-in-law drove up thirteen hours from Louisiana to attend the opening and the whole place was full of her friends and family.  She told me how she had matched all her jewelry to her dress and she was pretty sure her doctor was also going to come see the show.  Then, once she was out of earshot, her daughters told me she’d been released from the hospital that morning after another emergency visit and she wasn’t going back.  This was it: hospice.  I glanced past them and saw her smiling with her sister, drinking a beer on the sidewalk in front of the gallery, and wondered how much longer we’d have her.

Jess & Julie at the opening of the AIR Exhibit at SOHA, 03/14/14 (photo by Virginia Harold)

As Julie was leaving with her entourage to go grab dinner, we kissed and hugged goodbye and she grabbed my face and thanked me again for making her feel important.  She told me she loved me and that she’d be sure I got invited to her “going away party,” which she said would be scheduled very soon.  I told her I loved her, too, and I wouldn’t miss that party for the world.

The next day, surrounded by loving family at home, Julie VonderHaar went to bed and never woke up.

Final AIR Collection




243 Comments Add yours

  1. What a wonderful article. You obviously made a beautiful lady feel very special and your photographs speak volumes.

    1. Marta Ferreira says:

      Sem palavras. Parabéns!

  2. rochr0k says:

    So touching. Thank you for telling it. The photos are awesome.

  3. kimfann2 says:

    Special tribute, makes me want to create one of my mom! Thanks for sharing!

  4. davidmelton365 says:

    Reblogged this on Breadstachio Studios.

  5. annelise says:

    wow. no words. xo

  6. This is a great truth

  7. Breathtakingly moving and beautiful. Thank you!

  8. Reblogged this on Dark Acts Bible: Glass Half Empty, Base Cracked… and commented:
    “Air” — It will take your breath away…

  9. Wow I’m simply at a loss for words!

  10. suemidd48 says:

    Thank you for this. My mother has emphysema – 30+ years now – the better part of my life. I see her as beautiful and vibrant even as she thinks daily that this day may hold her last breath. You’ve captured so much – not only in the photos but in the writing. She reminds me of my mother and I cried at the end of your piece – knowing that my Mom’s day will come too and she will be mised. Thank you.

    1. jessdewes says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Sue. Best wishes to you and your mom.

  11. Megan L. says:

    Typing through tears. A beautiful woman and tribute. My good friend just lost her 67 yr old mother to lung cancer so this hit close to home. I’m sure both Julie and her family felt blessed to have met you.

    1. jessdewes says:

      Megan, it’s been a truly meaningful experience for all of us. Thank you for your comment.

  12. lenstrek says:

    Beautiful photographs and a very touching experience …May her soul rest in peace …

  13. My own mother passed from emphysema last year. This story touched my heart and flooded my mind with so many memories. Thanks for sharing and giving a face to those who view air differently than the rest of us.

    1. jessdewes says:

      You are so welcome. I really appreciate your comment and may your mom rest in peace.

  14. Wow, your post hit home on so many levels. I smoked for 35 years and quit recently. That means I quit, it doesn’t mean I am safe, the damage might be done and I am aware of it. I am smoke free and intend to stay that way, but it is an addiction. Your post just reminded me on how it might end one day…but although reminded me to be happy that I quit. So..Thank you! I would like to re-blog this, but have no idea how to do it and I don’t know if I have to ask permission first (can you tell I am new to blogging). Oh well, I don’t have many followers so no harm if I can’t figure it out 🙂

  15. Reblogged this on How I quit smoking! and commented:
    I rebloged this post because this beautiful woman, the long time smoker…well it could be me, or it might be me one day! But then, who knows, maybe I quit and bought me lots of time, maybe I did quit in time. Either way…I will await my future as a non smoker!

  16. pavanneh says:

    This is such a wonderful story. I love the photographs and it is obvious that you made her feel so special.

  17. A wonderful post that brought tears to my eyes…Thank You!

  18. marykeyk says:

    Amazing! Not only did you captured the beauty of an ailing person like Julie but you made friendship which I think made her last days on earth wonderful.

  19. marykeyk says:

    Reblogged this on Inspire.Live.Love.Happiness.Guilt and commented:
    I want to reblog this because I just want to inspire someone today. That even if you’re sick that doesn’t mean that you have to give up life and it’s not the end but just the beginning of something new.

  20. Magnifique et tres touchant! ♡

  21. warrenjwalker says:

    Beautiful story and portraits. It’s truly inspiring that you were able to use your photography as a medium for making other people feel important.

  22. kazg10 says:

    I cant add anything more than anyone else above me has… simply beautiful. Stunning pictures, a beautiful lady, inside and out, and a wonderfully written piece.. I am moved to tear by this but so happy you made this lady’s last weeks on earth very, very special! She was a gift to you for the exhibition but you also were a gift to her!

  23. HendryL says:

    I couldn’t read to the end, i was halfway and already shed my tears.

    Those photos touched my heart way deeper than anything I have ever seen.

  24. Done “Like”, is there a button to “Love”?

  25. stellingsma2010 says:

    Reblogged this on hansstellingsma and commented:
    congrats with this amazing story breathtaking for sure 🙂

  26. AmyRose says:

    Tears are running down my cheeks. This story touched me so deeply. I really am a loss for words. Thank you SO much for writing this story. Love, Amy

  27. jademwong says:

    This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read and tears are falling from my eyes. Your photographs are also wonderful.

  28. judithhb says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us. 🙂

  29. theyanii says:

    Reblogged this on theyanii and commented:
    Very inspiring. 🙂

  30. aalaasekina says:

    Reblogged this on aalaasekina and commented:
    A story to fall for and words to love!
    I am keeping this on my own blog so I keep re-reading it.. Fabulous!

  31. jeffstroud says:


    Beautifully expressed story. This captures a joyful person living her life in the fullest manner. A touching bittersweet experiences !

  32. ranu802 says:

    Thank you so much, it is such a beautiful story.

  33. Nooryak says:


  34. Reblogged this on Retreading for Retirement and commented:
    Such a beautiful essay and beautiful photos about a beautiful woman.

  35. ryandan says:

    Absolutely stunning. A very powerful, moving article about a very proud lady.You were very lucky to meet her. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  36. ryandan says:

    Reblogged this on Life In The Fast Lane and commented:
    This is an awesome story of a very brave woman. Not even cancer could break her spirit.

  37. ANDREA says:

    Inspiring! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  38. Kacie says:

    Love your blog. My mom is battling ovarian cancer and I’m journaling the road as a care giver, please check it out and let me know what you guys think!

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