Chicago Photobloggers

Sarah-Ji Photography
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Public Service Announcement With Hearts

PSA with Hearts

Friday night, late enough to technically be Saturday, I was walking down the street on my own, shuffling through my mixed bag of thoughts, reflecting on the events of the night. I was feeling kinda down, truth be told, and that's probably why my head and eyes were lowered towards the ground. That's how I saw this bit of stencil art on the sidewalk in the photo above. I immediately stopped in my tracks. My initial reaction was, "Aw, how sweeet," (semi-sarcastic) until I saw the note scrawled beneath the stenciling ("No, no, I love you, I LOVE YOU"), and then I laughed out loud. This little exchange between anonymous street artist and anonymous passerby reminded me of a Facebook exchange I had with my fotohermano B that went along the lines of "You da BEST" "No, YOU da BEST!" "No, YOU!" and so on...That memory put a smile on my face.

Had I been walking with my head up and a spring in my step, I probably would have walked right over this little message from the universe. I'm not saying that just because I saw this note, I immediately felt embraced and loved by humankind. What it DID do was to remind me that just a block away was a taqueria where some beloved friends were waiting for me, and for the moment, that was more than enough.


So This Is What Gratitude Feels Like


Today (technically yesterday), I commemorated for the upteenth time the day I was born into this world. And all day long, as friends left me messages on Facebook or texted me or emailed or called to sing to me (thanks, Brett!), I was filled to the brim with gratitude as I thought of friendships old and new and how in each chapter of my life thus far, I have always had the people I needed to love and support me and to speak truth to me.

Looking back on the past year, quite frankly, it's been really, really hard. I've had to face choices and changes that are some of the most painful I've had to deal with (and I've been through some tough shit in my life). And yet, there is this inexplicable joy and peace in my heart and an overwhelming sense of gratitude as I write this.

Me and my Freckles

I am reminded of the Kahlil Gibran quote my brother D texted me one particularly difficult night: "Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain." I've thought of that quote often since then, and I feel like this pain of the "breaking of the shell" is something I will experience again and again, as the layers around my heart are peeled away. And so for now, I walk between joy and sorrow, often with one foot in each side, celebrating the contradictions and complexities of being human, seeking hope and humility in my unfinishedness, feeling deep gratitude for the gift of loving and being loved.


Solitude and Community

How I got here

Sometimes I forget that I need solitude, the way I need air or water or food. I can get caught up in so many events--be they the struggling kind or the dancing kind; swept up in the flurry, loving the community, embracing the energy--and the voice inside me that says to find a quiet place and rest gets drowned out amidst the noise.

Stepping in for the first time this year.

And sometimes I forget that stepping into solitude can be more frightening and uncomfortable than jumping into a crowd. Being alone with myself, my thoughts, I can very easily take the wrong turn down the path of negativity and self-doubt. And yet I plod on, honing my self-advocacy skills, because I need to spend time here, alone, to dance this dance with myself, learn what it means to be my own partner, my own voice, my own friend. Trust and love and courage come with time and presence and risk.


And what I have found to be true for me is that when I embrace and treasure the times of solitude is when I am most comfortable in my own skin and am most able to love and to be loved in a community of fellow journeyers and strugglers and lovers.  Finding the space to be in solitude freely in the midst of community is a gift that I find liberating and healing, a gift that I cherish.


Thinking of those of you whose presence gives me the space to be in solitude without the loneliness.


Waking Dream

In the garden past my bed time65th & Woodlawn Community Garden in Chicago

I believe that there is magic that transpires in the middle of the night, when most of the world is asleep, when the volume knob is turned down, when you begin to dream even while you are still awake. You walk through this place full of dirt and growth, marveling at the concentrated spring bursting forth in one small place. You tune out the cadences of the city at night, and your senses tune into your immediate surroundings--your eyes adjust to the dimness, your ears perk up to the whispers, your skin tingles as you breathe in deeply the smell of earth that feeds. This is no garden of eden, but who wants perfection when you can have the beautifully imperfect, lovingly cared for and brought to life by the community?

10 short minutes...Really? That was it? And it could have all been just a dream, save for these fotos you are left with, postcard souvenirs from your late-night urban meanderings.


Open Door

Intuit Entrance

I love the teal door. Don't have much else to say...


An Open Letter to Cadence

Cadence and I

Dear Cadence,

I've been wanting to write you a letter for a long time now, but quite frankly, I don't even know where to begin. Excuse me if I'm a bit incoherent, but remember how mama hurt her neck and had to take some medicine? Yeah, that medicine makes me kinda loopy...

When you were in my womb 7 years ago, I dreamed of a little girl with long brown hair who danced with me in circles, clutching my hands. I'm pretty sure that little girl was giggling in my dream, and I'm pretty darn sure that little girl is you. Ever since that dream, I knew you would be no ordinary child, and oh, how you have proven that to be true.

There are the obvious things that I love about you, like how you love listening to music while doing your homework, or how you say that dancing is good for the revolution, or that you love my corn empanadas, or the way you make up stories with your little friends as you act out elaborate scenarios that verge on being DADA, or how you can entertain grownups with your stand-up routine of nonsensical knock-knock jokes, or how you try to convince people like Mr. Mayoral Tutorial to hulahoop, or how you have the foresight to bring along a puke bucket when mama is sick and being stubbornly stupid by insisting on driving empanada ingredients to Francie's.

Then there are the not-so-obvious reasons I love you. Like the way you demand to be treated with dignity and respect in all situations, so that I can't just resort to the usual mainstream methods of punitive discipline. You've taught me to see children as my fellow human beings, worthy of respect not only when they behave "well" but at all times, just because they BE. Or like the way you've taught me that when you are acting your most cantankerous is when you most need me to show you love and affection, to demonstrate that my love is not dependent on your behavior but is freely given at all times. Or how your (surprise) coming into my life forced me to rethink everything--about the kind of world I want you to live in, about justice and equality and community and peace and compassion and hope and joy and love. No single person has instigated more change in me than you have.

I know there are things that we don't agree on. Princesses for example. You know how I feel about monarchy, but you just love the beautiful dresses princesses get to wear. How do I argue with that? Or how about Chuck E. Cheese which scares the bejeezus out of me but which you seem to thoroughly enjoy? And then there is your love of all things glitter and sparkle which I can only tolerate in the form of toenail polish. And who could forget your penchant for sweet while I prefer the savory? We're never gonna agree on everything, and I wouldn't want to. I hope you continue to form your own opinions about the world around you and who you are.

You are growing up so fast; I see your personality emerging more and more, and I keep pinching myself wondering how I got so lucky as to get to mother such a kick-ass kid like you. I simply don't have the words to express how much I appreciate you, mi corazon, mi Cadencia. I love you soooooo much...

Paz + amor,



Shutter Sisters Cross-post: Shooting For Transformation

Photo from March 10, 2011 Immigration Rights March in Chicago

(A version of this post appears on Shutter Sisters.)

You thought you were going to change the world with your photography, didn't you? You stepped into that struggle, camera in hand, thinking you would "help" these people by telling their stories through your lens. You meant well, you truly wanted to help, but guess what? It wasn't about YOU. It still isn't about YOU. It's about US. It's about SOLIDARITY. It's about the intersectionality of all the struggles of all who are oppressed. It's about how there can't be justice for one until there is justice for all. It's about letting people tell their own stories, even if you are the one behind the camera, framing the image and clicking the shutter, because we all know that we as photographers can control the story we tell by what we choose to capture and share.

And if you can get over yourself and open your eyes and your ears and your heart, YOU are the one who will be transformed, the one who will be humbled by the stories of The People, the one who will no longer show up as the aloof photojournalist but as a brother or sister in solidarity, the one who is there because you recognize that your liberation is tied to the liberation of all who struggle, the one who will never be the same.

"If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together... " ~ Aboriginal Activist


And when I use the term "you" above, I am talking about myself. This is the story of my own personal experience documenting social justice movements in Chicago for the past six months. I write about this after having experienced May Day, which is celebrated around the world on May 1st as International Worker's Day and here in Chicago as a day to also highlight immigrant rights, which are also worker's rights, which are also human rights.

I really thought my photography was going to change the world, I really did. What I learned instead, was that I was the one in need of transformation.


Looking Back/Moving Forward

Spring Showers

It has been a while since I've posted. I could say that I've been too busy, and while it's true that my calendar is full, it is not the reason I haven't been posting. I could say I don't have anything to write or it's been too cold of a winter to shoot anything worth posting. That also would not be true; I have many thoughts swirling around in my head, and while the too-cold-of-a-winter part is absolutely true, it's still not an excuse.

I guess the most honest explanation (as if I needed one in the first place) is that I find myself in a significant transitional period of my life. There are many changes going on, internally and externally. There is a part of me that wishes I had been writing and sharing about these experience as they happened these past months, but it has been very difficult for me to articulate in words what is going on.


The photo above is one that I found last week in a group of unposted photos from the struggle at Whittier Elementary School, where a group of moms occupied the fieldhouse (a.k.a. La Casita) that was scheduled to be demolished. The occupation lasted 43 days, and the moms won a promise from CPS that the fieldhouse would not be demolished and that they would get their school library. I have always loved taking photos after a big rain. I love how huge puddles become mirrors, and in this photo particularly, I love how the banners created during the occupation are reflected in the puddles, a reflection of the struggle, if you will. To me, this image symbolizes the stage I am in right now, the process of reflection that I feel is so vital to growing and moving forward. The reflection I need to do is on my participation in the struggles of movement building, such as the struggle at La Casita, but also the personal struggles I have been experiencing as I strive to see myself as I am and to see those around me with an abundance of love and to allow myself to be seen by others as well.

(That's a lot of "seeing" in one sentence. Maybe it's the photographer in me...)

Writing this is not easy. I've come back to it, however, after chatting this weekend about how I've been neglecting my blogging, but how useful I found it in the past to push myself to practice writing on a more consistent basis.  I still feel like I'm struggling for words, but like I said, I've got a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head like so many colors of paint, so we'll just have to see if I'm down with getting my hands dirty to create something out of that beautiful swirly chaos...We'll see where this goes...


An Hour In the Life of Lah Cadence

Yay! No winter coat!

I realized that it's been a while since I've posted more than just a snapshot of Cadence, so here are a few fotos I took on Wednesday. We walked down to our corner Thai/Sushi joint so Cadence could get her favorite (Pad See Ew), and these are shots from that hour. Those of you in Chicago may remember that it felt like spring that day, and we were able to ditch our winter coats for the first time in forever!

Ah, sun!

Sometimes, you shoot from the hip and you get exactly what you want. This would be one of those times. Cadence is a girl of many and versatile faces, but some of her more serious ones are my favorite. This one is all "serenity now" methinks, with that sunflare in the background.

This makes her look really really tall.

It was the golden hour, when the shadows are long, and Cadence looks like she's 10 feet tall. It's hard for me to get shots of the two of us together very often (me being behind the camera most of the time), so I'll take what I can get, even if it's just a trace of who we are.

That look.

Cadence had been home sick. Wednesdays are my telecommute days, so we hung out like we used to back when she didn't have school to go to.

She's been feeling under the weather...

Poor girl. I've never seen her so tired. Those of you who know her will testify that she is a bundle of pure energy, so this is quite unusual.


Ah, but maybe all she needed was some pad see ew in her tummy! Here she is back to skipping down the street on our way home.

I've been realizing lately just how quickly Cadence is growing. Not just physically, but as her own person. I was telling some friends last night how Cadence has a real sense of dignity and how she should be treated and will not take kindly to being disrespected. It's one of her qualities that I admire and have learned from the most. Are there times when I wish she would just do as I say "because I said so" without my having to explain myself and negotiate the situation? Yes. But then I look at what's going on in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, etc., not to mention other parts of the world, and I know I want to raise a kid who won't take crap from nobody and whose natural reaction it will be to fight against violations of her dignity and rights as a human being. I want Cadence to question authority and to not let those in power get away with abuse of power. I know it's hard for her to assert herself in school where there is a lot of social pressure to conform, and so I'm trying to balance that out at home. It's hard. I fail a lot. But I'm not giving up.


Shutter Sisters Cross-Post: For No Obvious Reason

For No Obvious Reason

A version of this post appears today on Shutter Sisters.


I can't tell you why exactly, but I love this photo. I don't know much about rules of aesthetics that determine whether a photograph should or shouldn't be pleasing to the eye, and quite frankly, I don't really care about the rules. What I can tell you is that the first time I saw this photo, I was instantly smitten. Perhaps it's because looking at it made me develop a narrative about the woman on her phone. Maybe it has to do with the perspective from which the photo was taken. Or it could be because nothing is really in focus in this picture. There is no specific reason for me to like this photo, but I can't deny that I do find it beautiful, and that to me is more important than if a bunch of rules deem it to be a photo worthy of my admiration.


Dear Spring: Hurry Up. Love, SJ

Me and the stars

It's that time of year. The frigid temps have me seeking warmth and comfort and espresso, and my camera sighs from lack of use that matters to me. I am ready for my feet and fingers to finally thaw. I am ready for long walks at night, camera in hand, communing with my nocturnal city. I am ready for picnics on the beach at sunset and spontaneous dance parties in the park. I am ready to paint my toenails blue and forget about socks for months and months.

I am sooooo ready for spring to finally get here.



Near and Dear

Near And Dear

Triple cortado. Hafiz. Notebook + pen. Pandora on my phone. Two hours to myself, alone with these things that are near and dear to my heart.

And you were there, mis amig@s, in my thoughts and in my heart, as you are now. I have so much love for you all, for teaching me to treasure honesty and transparecy and vulnerability in my relationships, for being the mirror I needed to see myself with eyes of love, for calling me out on my shit instead of letting it slide, for giving me space to wander far and wide, for not pretending to have all the answers, for laughing with me, dancing with me, walking with me, getting lost with me, cooking with me, drinking with me, eating empanadas with me, making music with me, taking photos with me, and so much more...Thank you for this...I love you all quite madly.


In The Sweetness of Friendship

30 seconds

"And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed."

~ From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

I love friends who can convince me to come out on a blustery night to be a passenger through post-blizzard streets, pass a can of whipped cream like a peace pipe while driving, push the car through a big mound of snow into safety, share hot chocolate and sugary snacks while watching the movie I'd been craving to see that very week.

So very grateful...


Sometimes This Is What Hope Looks Like

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

It's just one small feather, clinging precariously to a rusty metal chain-link fence overlooking a dirty polluted river. It's not a bird, not a living creature that can soar of its own volition.

And still, it gives me hope...

[Thinking of the people in so many countries taking to the streets in recent days and weeks, fighting fearlessly for their rights.]


When All Is Not So Clear

When I Feel Hazy

"Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain." ~ Kahlil Gibran

Friend, those were the exact words I needed to hear in that moment, just as I need to hear this incredible mix of dialog and sounds and music that you created. My eyes are not dry, and I'm okay with that.

Friend, you see my heart and you smile. How could I ask for more than that? What a gift to be seen in this way and to be accepted and loved.

Friend, you speak truth to me, even when it's hard for me to hear. But know that I do listen, and I take it to heart, because I trust you. I can only hope that I also can speak truth into your life.

Friends, you are all incredible.



Harnessing Moonlight

Harnessing Moonlight

I had a post up on Shutter Sisters yesterday about sharing what our photographic superpowers are. Mine happens to be night photography, or using what light is available in the wee hours of the night to create images such as the one above, which actually had hazy moonlight (reflected off snow) as the primary light source.

It may seem odd that although I am a photographer I would love the night so much. Perhaps it's because I am a night owl, and my eyes have adjusted to the dark. I also think it's because I enjoy the challenge of calling forth images that radiate light and beauty from places of deep darkness.  In a small way, it's like the struggle for peace and justice and reconciliation and liberation that many of us are a part of--how utterly dark and hopeless the world can feel, and how impossible it seems that the little light we shine could make any difference.

We practice the harnessing of moonlight in our struggle, this subtle, cool glimmer that seems so weak compared to the power of the sun's blaze. And yet, as a photographer, I can tell you that given enough patience in leaving the shutter open, the resulting image created in collaboration with mere moonlight will reveal a quiet hidden beauty that would be lost in the harsh brightness of the mid-day sun. This, I'm hoping, is a metaphor for something bigger than making pretty pictures.

I'm reminded of a quote by Howard Zinn: "The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory." So how then do we harness the light of a hazy moon, the flicker of candlelight, the warm glow of city street lights and bring forth beauty and peace and justice and liberation and love?

I don't know...But maybe...maybe if we gather our light together, and we build and struggle together, we laugh and cry together, we break bread and drink together, we sing and dance and read poetry together and for each other, we carry each other, we hold each other, we share our strength and positive energy while not concealing our weaknesses and deepest fears. And most of all, maybe we love each other--ourselves, the oppressed, the oppressors--indiscriminately. Maybe we have to do all these things again and again until our eyes--those instruments limited to seeing only individual moments--can finally perceive the beauty in the world that has long been obscured by darkness, a beauty that we slowly call forth through the long exposure of our open hearts, illuminated by our collective light. Maybe...

All this is much more easily said than done, and yet I would like to try...

(This is in rememberance of MLK and for all those--past, present and future--hoping and struggling, loving and hungering for Another World That Is Possible. This is for you, mis compas.)