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The Value of Showing Up With Photographer Joanne Arnold

[dropcap]J[/dropcap] oanne couldn’t figure out how to log onto her Facebook page at first. She turned to the class and explained technology wasn’t her thing. For the first three years she was taking photographs with a $90 Canon Elph because she didn’t want to be seen or judged as a serious photographer. Now in her seventh year she still is not quite sure what camera she uses, but knows what lens to use to capture the photograph she wants in any given light. For her, it is not about appearances. She considers capturing photographs spiritual work. She tells herself every morning she knows nothing, and explores what the world has to offer through her lens. She is bold without appearing egotistical. She is humble, grateful for every morning where she witnesses new things people often pass by on their daily routine. When she left our classroom, everyone was changed by the experience.

Arnold was a student at the Maine College of Art many years ago and  earned her BFA in Painting. She hid the messy creative part of herself to focus on other aspects of life when she became a mother and wife. In the last ten years, she has returned to her artistic self,  hoping to awaken her lost passion. And she has done just that with vigor.

Over the past seven years, she has woken before dawn. She explores downtown Portland to capture the first light of the day and all it unveils- the stories people never tell. “So much stuff happens at daybreak that people are oblivious to, and the only reason I know this is because I show up each day.” She has not missed a morning yet.

She is aware of the mortality of us all, and said, “I have missed too many dawns, I feel an urgency to not miss anymore, no matter the weather, it is my non-religious prayer to show up at first light saying ‘I know nothing.’ It keeps me awake and open, helps me to drop my assumptions and biases off the edge of the wharf.”

As an introvert, it is her daily walk out of her comfort zone where she has found the greatest satisfaction. “We are doing spiritual work when we are out on a limb, being vulnerable, taking a risk.”

She has found that she has become more open with age, she remembers a time where she had fear of being noticed or approached. She once thought there were certain places she belonged, things she should do and feel. She now embraces being wrong, and she emphasized the value of honest thoughts and feelings to the class.

“I fall in love with things in my environment every day. I call them my ‘little loves’. I figure maybe the big love of my life didn’t work out, but I am lucky daily to discover a fox, a rope, sea smoke.”

unnamed-1Despite the simple subjects in many of her photographs, a fishing boat, high heels left in the street, or even a door handle, there is nothing ordinary about them. Her photos seem to capture the essence of the moment, the natural beauty and raw pain in the world. The appreciation for these photos is shared by her followers on Facebook who often are moved to comment on what they see in her images or to tell their own personal story. 

For Joanne compelling imagery is not about what the subject is, as much as the visual experience it suggests or the patterns it evokes. “I’m always about to fall off a dock or into traffic because I become so absorbed in what I am capturing.”

Every morning Arnold transforms ordinary objects into spiritual expressions through her photography. Joanne herself has been transformed by the seven-year journey. “I got my butt out of bed and showed up. Nothing big happens at conveniently scheduled times, shit happens when you least expect it.” She says she has become less grief-stricken, and more filled with awe and wonder each day. She has found that she started having a relationship with things she had never seen before, or interactions with people who would’ve previously scared her and has found herself charmed by their stories.

Slowly her daily work became part of a hidden community that exists on the underside of the day, and her own identity became a vehicle for bringing their stories into the light. “There was a time my life when I did not remember that how I saw things was valued and unique.” She now helps to share the stories of those who feel they have no voice, or that it does not matter. For the first four years of mornings, she was terrified of interaction and mostly photographed landscapes and inanimate objects. Slowly she began to work more with human subjects but admits that as an introvert, every interaction with other people is an act of courage.

Her courage has been rewarded again and again with potent stories.

One day she showed up at the docks and saw a fisherman preparing the nets. She learned it is a lost art, and there remains only a handful of the younger fishermen who know how to tie these knots. This older man, had known the skill since before he could remember and had no recollection of how he learned it. She said it was 25 degrees and he was kneeling on cold concrete, but shared the warmest smile with her. An irreplaceable gift.

Another morning she saw a fishermen bent over a huge vat of smelly bait. He reached his arms into the tank and pulled out a seagull who had been drowning, releasing it to the early morning sky. This moment was invaluable to her, the kindness and compassion a man showed to something other fishermen consider pests and would simply kill without a second thought moved her deeply.

Yet another morning she was on a far away dock when firefighters, bait men, and police stood solemnly at daybreak, bearing silent witness to a fisherman’s body being pulled from the ocean after drowning the night before. She was moved to tears by the grave humanity expressed by this moment and hopes to one day share the story with his family so they know he was deeply respected in that predawn moment of unity.

Just this winter, she was approached by a man. She was asked if she would photograph him. The man had recently been released from prison. “He wanted to be seen, and because I have become familiar to the early morning crowd, they trust me to capture them in the moment.” He was able to see her photo after it was posted, saw the comments from around the world, and knew he was not invisible. She sees big surly men turn warm every morning as they face her camera and she has come to feel eternally protected by these intimidating strangers whom she has created intimate connections with. She loves portrait work because it has the power to illuminate how contradictory we are as humans.

People who were once frightening strangers on the street are now some of her greatest sources of inspiration. “Homeless people are you or I on a horrible day when things have gone horribly wrong, as a result of something like an opiate addiction.”

She often photographs the folks at Maine Works addiction recovery program who meet each morning in Portland. She has the privilege of helping these brave people be seen, allowing their stories of courage and determination to touch countless others through social media. The one thing she loves about technology is how it can connect and share the stories of people anywhere in the world.


If you look at her work on Facebook, her titles are just as beautiful as her images. Some imply political statements, some are reflective, some humorous. Like her photography, her writing is bold and raw. Ultimately, her captions simply supplement her photographs, she said, “If you have to convince me with words why the photo is important, you have not held up your end of the conversation as an artist. The visual image should have its own unwritten story.”

She leaves every morning and wanders to things that catch her eye. She doesn’t search for beauty, she stumbles upon it in the first light of every morning.

“Trust that feeling of interest when it arises —follow it without judgment. It is important to pursue. You never know what next thing it will lead you to.”

One Comment

  1. Joanne Arnold Joanne Arnold April 18, 2018

    Daniella…today , April 17 2018 is the first time I saw this story! Thank you for your listening and your generosity!

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