I was invited to give a short inspirational talk at The Mother’s Symposium in Palo Alto, CA on February 23rd, 2019. Many people asked that I make the talk available online, so when I returned home, I gave the talk once more, this time for YouTube. The transcript is below as well. There are 76 stanzas, one for each photo in my presentation.
Mothering + My Quest for Joy
Paige K Parsons
The Mother’s Symposium in Palo Alto, CA on February 23rd, 2019
My Quest for Joy
Paige K Parsons
Hi. I’m Paige.
I am many things –
I’m a mom, I’m a designer, I’m dyslexic.
But, for the purpose of this talk, I’m a photographer and an artist.
I try and capture what it is like to be human,
to be alive, to love. to feel joy.
To be present.
When I photograph,
I am always searching for moments of vulnerability and authenticity.
Joy and connection.
Empathy is my currency, a camera is my instrument.
Serendipity is my muse.
Whether it is for rockstars, academics –
by putting my art in the world,
I create physical memories that I’ve imbibed with meaning.
The skill and craft of my art combines with my beliefs
To purposefully shape people’s attention and memory.
To focus that attention on JOY and CONNECTION.
I want to promote messages of
courage, compassion, joy and kindness
in a world that normally doesn’t focus on these core aspects
of being human.
Through my photography I try and shed a compassionate light
On our shared humanity.
AND On our need for connection.
How did I come up with such a notion?
Well that’s what I’m here to talk about today.
I didn’t start out with this goal in mind.
When I was younger,
I didn’t even know I had a choice to choose my own life’s goal.
I was shy, I was timid.
I was clueless about following my heart.
I was fortunate to have what we now call a free range childhood,
as well as a mother and a grandmother that gave me unconditional love.
For many of my formative years
our family migrated to and fro across the country.
Initially westward from Syracuse to Louisville to Los Angeles.
Followed by a few years sprinkled in the midwest
then to the bay-area.
Paradoxically, the first four years of my life our family was stationary
but my father traveled constantly
to support his young family.
For those early years
for all intents,
I was raised by a single mom.
A mom that loved me (and my sister) unconditionally
and delighted in my uniqueness.
I wasn’t aware of the hardship
of raising two young girls, mostly by herself.
I was only aware that I was loved.
I was also amazingly lucky
to get to spent lots of time
with my grandmother,
Baba’s love of family was evident both in her words and actions,
As well as from the mosaic of family photos, large and small
that tiled the walls of her cozy home.
As my childhood unfolded, my family would be uprooted again and again,
And Baba would visit the new city we called home.
Baba would tell me stories.
Tales of Birdy and Abigail Galloway
Baba’s own mother and grandmother.
Stories of their homesteading adventures in South Dakota in the late 1800’s
She’d tell me about Birdy and her sisters attending a one room schoolhouse,
a rivalry between Ernest and Florian for Birdy’s hand in marriage.
Baba also read me all the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House on the Prairie” books.
She loves these books
because they paralleled her own mother and grandmother’s pioneer struggles.
My grandmother’s tales of adventure and survival
helped me process and even celebrate each of my own moves.
Through her stories, I felt connected to my ancestors
and to the American experience of migration and change.
I was a modern homesteader,
carrying on the American pioneering tradition!
Baba and my mother taught me almost everything I know
about being kind and compassionate to others.
self-knowledge and self-compassion
was not something that was modeled by my family of origin.
I knew how to read others, but not myself.
So when it came to choosing a college and career path,
My primary thoughts were:
What would everyone else want me to do?
My family was already in the midst of uprooting from San Carlos to Chicago.
I decided that I might as well make a big move, too,
I decided to go to college in Cambridge.
I’d never been there before…
It sounded exciting…
my parents said Boston was a nice city…
so I took off by myself to MIT – ,
with one large suitcase, and some big 80’s hair.
Don’t worry – on an airplane, not a Vespa scooter!
I took several courses in photography,
but made architecture and design my focus.
As much as I loved photography,
it never crossed my mind that photography could be my career.
Photography and music were an aside,
an amusement that filled my soul,
but I thought I needed a career that would impress others and fill my bank account.
I went on to use my visual and analytical skills
to design some of the first web-based user interfaces
for companies such as Apple and Netscape.
I might have continued indefinitely on that path
if it weren’t for the birth of my children,
Emma and Gus.
They cracked my heart wide open,
They gave me the gift
of feeling truly vulnerable for the first time in my life.
It wasn’t until then that I truly had empathy
and began to understand
the deep love and the unspoken sacrifices
of my mother, my grandmother and their mothers before them had made.
The birth of my children allowed me to step off the silicon valley crazy train
For just long enough
that I didn’t
want to get back on.
My true heart didn’t reside in a cubicle.
I wanted a life that let me frequently visit Baba back in Syracuse
As well as my in-laws, and my parents, (who were still on the move)
As is the case with many proud parents,
I wanted to document my kids early days.
I wanted pictures of my kids
to be loving woven
into my grandmother’s tapestry.
My timing was fortuitous.
The digital camera revolution had just begun,
and I have always had a penchant
for cool digital toys and tools.
For better or worse,
my kids (and their classmates)
have some of the most extensively documented childhoods
of the early 2000’s.
So how did this lead to being a rock photographer?
If there has been one constant in my life,
it has been my love of live music.
Concerts are where I have always felt the most connected to the world.
Since I was a teen not a month has gone by
where I haven’t been at some kind of concert.
The synergy of
my love of music, photography and digital tools
finally came together in my late 30’s.
My real “ah-ha” moment happened in the summer of 2007
That is when I crossed paths with Matt Allen,
AKA “The Ice Cream Man”
at The Lollapalooza Music Festival in Chicago.
What is Ice Cream Man?
The Ice Cream Man organization was created
with the goal to give away a half a million free bars of ice cream,
Most often at music festivals.
Why free ice cream?
It was a small, simple, ephemeral act of kindness.
Ice Cream Man wanted to show the world
you can follow your dream – no matter how crazy –
and that through small acts of kindness
you can inspire others to be kind and to follow their OWN dreams.
His message and his philosophy resonated with me.
Thus I began photographing music festivals and concerts
(and giving away ice cream) with the Ice Cream Man crew.
No, I didn’t leave my family and start crossing the country
living on an Ice Cream Truck (although it did cross my mind!),
but I did being to listen to my heart
and transition my career from User Interface design to photography.
I am the house photographer for the iconic Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco,
as well as several other venues and music festivals in the bay area.
I usually shoot at night, and edit photos during the the day.
Which gives me lots of time to be present with my family.
Some of the most common questions I’m asked are
What’s your favorite show?
What’s your favorite picture?
Honestly, these aren’t the things that stick out for me.
The most memorable things are when I’m able to have a connection.
Sometimes it’s with an artist, sometimes,
it’s with the audience, sometimes it’s with friends.
If I had to pick one thing that brings me joy in shooting
it would have to be when I hear from the parent of a performer.
Several times I have been contacted by parents of musicians
who wanted a print because they felt
I captured the essence of their child.
To me, there is no greater honor, nor better judge of an image
than someone’s parent.
And no – I haven’t yet heard from Beyoncé and Solange’s mom,
but I’ll be excited if I ever get that call!
Rock star’s parents aren’t the only parents that motivate me.
Over the past 15 years
I’ve taken over 20,000 images at my children’s grade school.
Peninsula School in Menlo Park
It is a progressive school that was founded in the 1920’s.
There are 200 preschool – 8th grade children involved in
without grades, without shoes,
and with genuine respect between teachers and students.
It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
I love being able to document
the unique place that is Peninsula School
for the kids, the parents, and the entire community.
Before that, I documented our classroom life at PreSchool Family.
PreSchool Family was my first experience of community
outside my nuclear family.
They also gave me what my own family had not;
the gifts of self-reflection, self-compassion and self-care
these seeds of emotional wisdom
were planted and nurtured
in myself and also in my children
steadily, each week
over 9 years
of parent night meetings and hands on work in the classroom.
Those lessons stuck.
I consciously choose the types of clients I want to work with.
In addition to my live music photography,
and volunteer work with schools,
I am the house photographer
for The Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford,
documenting the work they do on behalf of gender equality.
I also photograph for the non-profit Challenge Success.
Challenge Success partners with schools, families, and communities
to promote a broad definition of success
and to implement research-based strategies
so that ALL kids are healthy and engaged with learning.
By documenting the work of these non-profits,
I am helping to spread my beliefs in in equitable society.
by making and spreading art that features passion, joy, and connection,
I am drawing attention to their importance. This is what my heart tells me to do.
I want my photography to remind you:
You are not alone.
I hope that when you see my pictures,
you feel connected to others.
I focus on music
because music cuts through our cynicism
and breaks down the barriers that we erect between ourselves
and the rest of the world and helps to encourage empathy and build bridges.
We humans need each other, we are social creatures.
We are interconnected and stronger when we work compassionately together.
Reaching out for support is not a sign of weakness –
it models vulnerability, compassion, and connection.
I also want my photography to empower you:
To Be Brave.
I believe kind people are brave people.
Brave isn’t just a feeling – it is a decision.
A decision to show up.
A decision that compassion is more important than fear,
More important than fitting in,
More important than following the crowd.
One of the bravest things you can do in our society
is to be kind to yourself.
As mothers, we see suffering in others and we give and give and give,
but rarely do we bestow that same sense of compassion upon ourselves.
We are often our own harshest critics;
We are often kinder to people in line at Starbucks
than we are to ourselves!
Finally, I hope my photography inspires you:
To listen to your heart – your intuition.
Especially as moms, it’s all too easy
to try and stuff down our feelings and soldier on.
To make decisions based on other people’s needs and desires.
On “shoulds” and “musts.”
We need to find expression through our own unique and imperfect selves.
Our beauty lies in our imperfection.
Share and celebrate the whole you, warts and all,
with your children, your friends, your collegues.
Celebrate the imperfection in us all.
It’s not an “either-or”. It’s a “both AND”.
By listening to BOTH your head and your heart
By listening to BOTH your own needs and the needs of others
you are being both a brave AND a responsible person.
When you are authentic and true to yourself,
you bring your singular uniqueness to the table.
You honor the generations of women who came before you.
You serve as an example,
for your kids, for your mentees, for the many women around you.
We all have a choice about where we put our attention and effort.
It is through our shared empathy and action
that we can create solidarity and begin to change the world.