Connecting People Through Story

By: Sarah Byrd in Get to Know Us
on September 25th, 2020

A woman turns her face toward the ember rays of the sunset while the soft clicks of the camera echo in the background. As Gen presses the camera button to collect another memory, she breathes deep. The season was changing—at least that is what the leaves on the trees told everyone.

Gen moves a little to the left, noticing how the scarf on the woman’s neck matched the golden flecks in the eyes of her fiancé. She kneels down on the ground covered by orange and yellow leaves and takes in the moment, the visual moment of two humans who have found each other.

She is no stranger to moments like these. Gen feels the depth of these moments and captures them in less than a second on her Nikon D800. She has been a part of peoples’ lives as a silent observer of moments for over ten years.

Studying people was something that she naturally did, and she ended up double-majoring in communications and leisure studies at the University of Ottawa. Leisure studies is the social science of how different cultures value their time. It’s a psychological/social look at how the world views that work-life balance.

The whole course taught her what it means to ask questions about the choices we make and the excuses we as a culture use to make them.

“We’re raised to believe that you do [your required work] in order to accomplish [something you love to do]. Whereas there are other cultures that believe you get one life, and you start living it now.”

This belief carried her through to the decision that would come to her after graduation. She had been working in federal politics when she received the opportunity to work for the Olympic bidding team in Toronto. This had been a dream of hers ever since she was young. She loved sports, the Olympics, and how much it brought people together. This was it!

After speaking with her contact at length, Gen realized that she would never be able to grow roots in one place for more than four years at a time. It was as if she would live nomadically—something she did not want—and it brought torment inside of her. After wrestling with the decision for a week, she decided to turn the opportunity down.

“It felt like [I was] starting from scratch again,” she reminisces.

She let the opportunity go and continued with her job in politics, enduring long periods of stress followed by more stress. There was only so much she could take, so she took leave for two weeks, and after the end of those two weeks, she had been offered another job at the National Gallery of Canada in marketing and communications.

“I never could have anticipated what it would be like to witness another person truly lean into all the different aspects of their story: the beautiful, the dark, the painful, the healing.”

Imagine walking through vaults, where you would see a Renoir and a Picasso. Or working with budding artists, as they began to show their work for the first time in a national gallery. Gen would stroll with a new artist through their own exhibit for the first time, enjoying the joy, tears, and gasps of awe.

“It was a beautiful place to heal your body and soul,” Gen says.

She also had the amazing opportunity to meet the wife of her favorite photographer, Yousuf Karsh, when his work was given to the Library and Archives of Canada. Karsh’s studio used to be in downtown Ottawa, and he has taken photos of historical figures such as Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill.

“His thing is always come as you are.”

Getting to see his work that wasn’t exhibited was momentous—especially since Gen loves the dramatic effect of black-and-white portraiture and the story behind the people.

“I love photographing people. It’s always my favorite.”

As her time at the gallery continued, and she had been married for some years, Gen became pregnant with their son. She knew she wanted to be home with him and looked to the gallery for inspiration. Photography seemed like an ideal business model: she could work on weekends, be home with the kids, and be surrounded by people who were experts in that field.

Over the course of nine months, Gen learned how to work a camera and take pictures. She would use her lunch breaks for practice, and sit down with other photographers and ask them to help her dissect the different images: the focal points, light, or small details such as a girl’s eyes matching a man’s tie. It helped her to pull apart the elements of photography and to understand what made it work. Then she would try to replicate them and consistently practice until she achieved the same look.

When asked what kind of advice the other photographers gave her, she responded that there are two kinds of people in photography. One group of artists loves the mechanism, the body, the lenses. Everything about how a camera works. The other group of artists loves the emotion involved in the end product.

“I’m the one emotionally involved,” she laughs.

As Gen continued with her business, she noticed that her clients were more than just that. Their lives intertwined as they came back, shared parts of their lives together. An engagement photo would turn into a wedding, then a maternity photo, then a family photo. Gen began writing about these moments.

“As a photographer, I get to be a visual storyteller. But as we all know, an image is merely a single moment. And while that moment can articulate a thousand words, it can also leave out so much that lies within the peripheral vision.”

Feeling that disconnect, Gen turned to the written word to fill the gap. So, while sharing images of a couple on their wedding day, Gen used words to share how they got to their wedding day. She would write blogs or share on social media the backstory, and it changed her life.

“I wanted someone who wasn’t at their wedding to read about the day, look at the photos, and feel like they had been there. This desire taught me how to write in a whole new way!”

Using this newfound talent, Gen has been able to impact the world through articles featured on Oprah.com and two published books, Her Own Wild Winds and Solace. Now Gen doesn’t just connect people through the clicks of a camera in seconds of time, but she also connects them through the written word, using the ability to convey story as an executive editor at RTC. She has worked on more projects than Starbucks has coffee concoctions, but what fulfills her is not accomplishments but the people.

“I never could have anticipated what it would be like to witness another person truly lean into all the different aspects of their story: the beautiful, the dark, the painful, the healing. Many clients come to us feeling a deep sense of shame or grief over various parts of their story. Watching them move through the process of sharing, owning, and ultimately embracing that story is one of the most fulfilling experiences.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Vulnerability is the RTC core value that Gen identifies with most. It is something that she has learned to do herself and what she immensely values in others. It wasn’t easy for her at first, being vulnerable, but as she showed pieces of herself through writing, her life has changed so many others.

“I recognize how it can become the gateway for the most magnificent human connection—with others, with ourselves, and with our stories.”