Last month I hit the road in my truck and camper from my home in Tampa, Florida to begin a 5-month excursion across the West to photograph the beauty of the landscape wherever it calls to me. First stop on the journey was a visit with my wife’s sister Lori and her family in Ohio. My wife flew in for a week there and I expected to continue heading west right after she returned home to Tampa, but I delayed leaving Ohio first one day, then another, and before I knew it I had stayed on a full extra week with my sister-in-law and her family without my wife there. As each day passed I found myself connecting more and more with Lori, her husband, all their kids, and even some of their friends and the local community itself. And then I began to think over the question of identity: who I think I am and exactly how I identify myself, thoughts of lacking family identity and connection after transplanting from Seattle to Florida a year ago (and from not having children of my own), how Lori’s family seemed to have that natural sense of identity that comes from having your role in a large family unit. I yearned to be more rooted and to have a greater sense of belonging.
With this rumination on identity rattling around in my head I finally pulled myself away from the warm confines of family and set sights on the first planned photographic destination – Badlands National Park in South Dakota. This place has been special to me since my first visit with my wife in 2008 and this would be my fourth trip. It’s a rugged beauty of mostly gray and tan badland formations, but in early summer lush grasses break up the starkness and add another layer of beauty. It’s a land of big open sky, fresh breezes, frequent afternoon thunderheads, a meeting place with the prairie, and it’s own collection of wildlife such as bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.
While scouting and making images in this unique section of South Dakota I was frequently filled with awe at the glory of the Creator pouring forth. Nothing humbles me more, nor brings me more childlike joy, then to be flooded with the grace of God all around me in a stunning location carved out by his powerful artistry. In these moments my heart joins the writer of Psalm 92:4 :
For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
And in the midst of all this majesty, as I was fully engaging in the work of being a photographic artist for God’s glory after some years of doubt and fear, I began pondering questions of identity once again: is this what defines me? Can this vocation provide meaning? Will my identity in this life become more rooted, more fulfilling, if I find some semblance of success as a landscape photographer?
As a follower of Christ, his words in Scripture have much I need to hear over and over again to untangle the internal struggle with identity that has dogged me for so long, and I’ll explore that in part 2 next week. I hope then to unpack the ramifications of a thought the Lord placed in my mind just yesterday:
Is your identity based on your accomplishments? Or is it based on the One who already accomplished everything for you?