When Michelle Ellsworth was 6 years old, she asked for a camera for Christmas. When she didn’t find one under the tree, she took her Christmas money and bought one herself. That was the beginning of her career in photography.
Fast forward a few decades, and the arc of Michelle’s career and life had reached a very low point. After losing her 2-year-old son in a tragic accident, she spent years dealing with grief and depression. She also struggled with massive debt and two divorces. Through it all, photography was her therapy.
Ten years after the accident, she was on a plane to London for a dream gig: photographing a destination wedding at a hillside castle. But after landing in London, she never made it to the wedding. Instead, she found herself surrounded by barbed wire in a jail — because she hadn’t obtained a work visa for the job.
That moment was a turning point. “It changed everything,” she says. “I had gotten to a place where I was fed up with what was happening in my life. It was one failure after another, tragedy after tragedy after tragedy.” So when the destination-wedding job evaporated before her eyes, she felt ready to give up. “I was just done. I was shaking my fist at heaven, thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ Then there was this moment where I said, ‘If you need me to, I still will.’ And those three words changed my life: ‘I still will.’ I started trusting that every step would get me where I needed to be — whether it was to blessings or learning lessons.”
The Good Grief Project
Michelle knew she needed to use her experience with adversity to help other people who were grieving and struggling. But she wasn’t sure exactly how to do that. Photography had been her passion for years, and it helped her survive in the years after her son died. But she actually considered if the photography chapter of her career was coming to a close.
She registered to attend the 2018 Professional Photographers of America Conference to finally decide whether she should continue in the industry. She was convinced that during the three day conference she would arrive at the right decision.
I delivered the opening keynote address for that conference, and Michelle connected with a message I shared: “To become memorable, you must do something remarkable.”
That message resonated deeply: “I had heard before that you must do something different than your competitors to stand out,” she says. “But that kind of thinking is about comparison and competition. You start comparing yourself to everyone else. However, looking at it from the point of view of doing something memorable or remarkable really helps you tap into your ‘why.’ You focus on what you’re doing instead of what everyone else is doing.”
So, she started thinking about what set her apart: her story and her purpose. She had started her photography business the day before her son passed away. That tragedy gave her perspective on the importance of portraits — not just capturing a smile, but capturing the person, the human, the spirit, the connection, the love, the relationship. “That definitely makes me different than everybody else in the room,” she says.
“Then I said, ‘Well, what can I do with that? Just having that story alone is not enough to separate myself. So I took it a step further and I said, ‘What can I do with my remarkable story to make it a remarkable action? How can I turn my remarkable story into a remarkable gift and experience for others? How can I help heal others through photography now that I am healed?’”
She started thinking about families that lost a child. “Family portraits are one of the hardest things a family does after a child passes away,” she says. She started the Good Grief Project to help families heal and remember their lost child through photography.
She describes her work as “a win for everyone.” “For every family who hires us, we gift a Good Grief photo shoot to a family who’s lost a child. These Good Grief photo shoots are so special because we design the entire session around the child that has passed away and what the family does to commemorate their child.”
She describes the project as a complete life-changer. Viewing her work through the lens of her purpose and gift has helped connect her to people with big hearts. “The best thing about what we’re doing is the people I get to work with now,” she says. “People who have giving, generous, kind, loving hearts. It attracts the people in this world that I want to work with.”
I Still Will
Michelle has profound perspective for anyone who’s struggling with grief or suffering through a dark period in life: “Sometimes you’re in a tunnel where you don’t feel like there is light at the end. The light is so far down the path. But you have to have an attitude of ‘I still will.’ I still will walk down this path, and I know there will be light. Even if you can only see a glimpse, a glimmer, a dot, if you can see any ounce of hope, just keep going. I really believe that the greater difficulty and sorrow we experience, the greater the opportunity to experience joy.”
Michelle is one of the happiest people I know — because gratitude accompanies her joy. “Every day, I wake up totally grateful that I’m here now, in the light. Not only do I experience the joy, I experience the gratitude which elevates my experience of the joy.”
When Michelle reached out following the PPA event to share her story it really resonated. So, we decided to invite Michelle to spend the day with us in Minneapolis and become a giver of a Good Grief photo shoot. Our time together was transformational, and you can watch a video excerpt of our conversation.
Michelle is a world class photographer so in addition to some valuable life sessions we also picked up some pretty epic pics. More importantly, we got to sponsor a photo shoot for the Mahe family and help Michelle provide the gift of healing light energy that she uniquely brings to her craft.
Thank you Michelle for sharing your story and using your experience to help so many others.
If you would like to nominate a family for the Good Grief Project simply click on the link and complete the brief submission.
Ryan Estis is a Keynote Speaker & Management Consultant blogging about business performance.