In 2011, I attempted to take a portrait a day. Little did I know I used this to cope with the death of Bekah "Jesus" Miller, one of my closest friends. With the help of Justin Cook, I gathered and organized images from that year and paired them with the story of my mourning. This is for you, "Jesus."
“I am so sorry that you're hearing like this . . . but Bekah passed away yesterday morning.”
“I am one of Bekah's friends in school. I was wondering if you could tell me what happened.”
“I just saw your post show up on Bekah's wall but had no idea of the news. Do you know what happened to her?”
I sat alone in a friend’s apartment on December 18, 2010, stunned by this stream of Facebook messages from strangers.
They all confirmed that Bekah “Jesus” Miller, my friend, died.
It would take me months to process this, but I urgently needed a challenge to keep myself photographing in the new year.
I started taking a portrait a day and posting the images on Tumblr. This allowed me to meet new people and to forge better relationships with my friends.
We took images everywhere: playgrounds, parking decks, showers, construction zones. I learned a lot about my craft and even more about everyone around me. People will blossom in front of the camera if you just get them to breathe.
On February 24, 2011, my subject wanted to know why I started this endeavor. He did not accept my usual story and pushed me to search deeper.
I realized all I could do was take these portraits. If I did not photograph someone that day, I would never leave my bed and would sink further into my depression.
Everything else came to a halt. Bekah was dead, and nobody around me understood.
I felt like a child who lost his imaginary friend when I told my loved ones about her passing. I had to describe every detail of our lives together for them to even attempt to understand.
Unlike my current friends, I did not have over a dozen great portraits of Bekah. She hated the camera and hid from me every time I pulled out my DSLR. In the time that I knew her, she only posed once for a class assignment, but that image disappeared when my external hard drive short-circuited
Reliving Bekah’s greatness was the only thing that kept me sane. I cried on the shoulder of each my friends while describing who I had lost, and I felt more and more comfortable with telling subjects why I wanted to photograph them.
Unfortunately, in a college town, people do not stay. Both my support group and subject pool dwindled, and I did not know where to turn during the summer.
A wide assortment of people normally gathers after a death: family members, life-long friends, former classmates, random acquaintances. I knew none of those people for Bekah.
She and I met in the easiest yet most interesting class I took at UNC. We happened to sit in the same area and immediately hit it off when we started making suggestive jokes about assigned readings.
Our friendship stayed completely insular after that. I never joined her rugby team’s house parties, and she never went to my monthly photo nights.
What made for a great friendship during Bekah’s life created my personal hell when she died. I could only think of one person to tell about her passing, and he was a distant acquaintance.
I was too broke to make it to her memorial services in Florida or to even send flowers. It made me feel inadequate, that I was not a true friend. True friends knew how to contact her family and sent their condolences.
I tortured myself with these expectations and sunk into the recesses of my room. I did not think I would survive the season.
Fortunately, a rather intense job landed in my lap. I could be distracted, could put my energy into something productive.
One by one, my friends started returning to town, and I started photographing them again. They told me stories of their travels, and I started to feel a lot like myself.
On October 28, 2011, about 50 of the people who had helped me through the year gathered for my Halloween party. They filled the room with warm conversation and with an appreciation of each other.
I hung a bright orange sheet on the wall and lit it with a specialty bulb. Everyone clamored for their costume portraits, and I photographed a wide range of characters.
When Dora, the explorer, is too drunk to compose herself to pose, you have to laugh and hate the world a little less.
I now look fondly over these images. Despite having never met Bekah, they all in their own way now carry a piece of her.
Every image I took of them in 2011 was in honor of Bekah “Jesus” Miller.
Two days after Bekah died, the pastor presiding over her memorial sent me a Facebook message, asking why I called her “Jesus.” Was it a joke? Was she my “Jesus”?
I hate my original response. It took hundreds of images and two-and-a-half years to come up with the true answer.
“Jesus” was the person who let me stay in her apartment for free one summer, so I could accept an unpaid internship. “Jesus” was the person who bought us sixth-row tickets to see the final Broadway tour of “RENT”, because she knew I could never afford it.
Our weekly lunches became sacred. We took this time to rebuild each other to face the rest of the world
Her smile could convince me of anything. She always called me “baby,” and she constantly told me that she loved me for who exactly I was.
Even after we graduated from UNC and she moved back to Florida, she could still help me escape from the world.
“Jesus” would text me about eight hours before she arrived in North Carolina, and she expected me to drop anything to see her. She wanted to hear about my struggles to become a photographer while I worked late hours serving drunken college students.
She was happy, because I existed. And that is the greatest validation someone has ever given me.
So, yes, she was my personal “Jesus.” What started off as joke nickname became an accurate title.
I have never met someone else so willing to love and to give to others without hesitation.
Bekah “Jesus” Miller, these words and images are for you. Even though you are no longer here, the fact you existed still pushes me to be better.