Note: Things move pretty fast in the social media world. When I started shooting weddings, having a LiveJournal as your blog was a perfectly appropriate thing to do, even if you weren’t Russian. Now we have Facebook pages and Tumblr and Google+ and so much more, and the way we communicate as people and businesses keep changing. Ryanbrenizer.com will always be my most important space because, hey, look at the name. But this year I am going to reserve it primarily for telling stories and the occasional equipment review. Random pretty photos will primarily be added to my Facebook page. Nearly all of these stories will be of weddings and couples because that’s where a big chunk of my time and my heart is. (The other biggest chunk, my girlfriend, prefers not to be mentioned here for SEO reasons. Now that’s a modern relationship.)
But this is not a wedding story. Kelsie most likely has a lot of other stories to live through first. (I’m sorry to all other photographers, but when it happens, I call dibs.) But this is a story that I feel needs to be told, because it is harrowing, because it has consumed a big part of me recently, and most importantly because I think Kelsie’s spirit and incredible, soulful singing is something the world needs to know about. Also, there are lots of photos waiting at the end. So with her permission, here we go.
Warning: Some of what I will describe is fairly graphic, although I will leave out the worst bits. Also, further down there are some pictures of a model in her underwear, though largely obscured by focus or artistic lighting. If either bother you, skip the rest and go straight to her singing, and make special note of the top comment. Otherwise, continue on…
When I was a kid, I didn’t really know how the life of a professional photographer worked. All I knew was what popular culture told me. I pictured it like an agent, looking through head shots and saying “My god, who is that? I have to photograph her!”
But it never really works like that, at least not for me. What keeps me excited about going to work every day — and in a photographer’s case, “every day” tends to be literal — is telling stories about real things. How people relate to each other. How we react under the forces of joy and love and stress. Who we are at any particular moment. Out of the shoots I do every year, 97 to 98 percent are with people completely untrained in being in front of a camera — and that’s great, because it’s easier to see the real person there, even if they start out as a nervous real person.
In July, the [FRAMED] network flew me out to Boise to film a show about how I do some of the things that I do. I was eager to escape the 90-degree-heat of New York, only to find it replaced with the 106-degree heat of an Idaho heat wave. I was staying with dear friends and fellow photographers Sara and Dylan, and while we were getting ready for the show we were watching some previous episodes of their shows. They do such a great job with production that I just sit back and let myself be entertained for episode after episode.”
Somewhere around the third episode we watched, a fireball of hair and smiles and charisma bounced onto the screen, and it finally happened.
“My god, who is that? I have to photograph her!”
“Oh, that’s Kelsie,” Sara said. “She’s my friend, and she’s amazing. Want me to see if she can come out for a shoot?”
At this point, I had just photographed six weddings in eight days, and flown out to find blistering heat waiting for me. I needed some rest. I needed to not pick up a camera until the next wedding. I needed …
“Of course! Let’s shoot!”
Who is Kelsie? From the photos below you might think that she is constantly sensual and sophisticated, pensive, aloof and longing. But that’s just because I photograph real stuff 97 percent of the time, so when I get to that three percent of sitting down and making a picture I want the photos to be an unanswered question, to make you linger.
But here’s Kelsie as I see her:
There is the wild determination of someone who said “My dress is getting tangled while we shoot underwater … do you have any scissors?” There’s the fun and energy she showed when we taught each other how to Dougie. And there’s that laugh. The photo on the right is, to me, the real Kelsie.
You can probably tell that I love this girl. But not like that. I’m in the midst of my own love story that is so fierce I make my friends both delighted and a bit nauseated. Also, when Kelsie was born, I was eagerly awaiting my first day at high school. Friends are the extra family that you choose for yourself, and right from the start I had the protectiveness of an older brother. The photo at the top was photoshopped to mask the ways that she was being firmly held to the ground. When Kelsie begged to stand on the ledge, I went to full-fledged Dad mode: “If you so much as put your foot on the ledge I am putting my camera down and not picking it back up again.” I might as well have added “Young lady!”
The world is a better place with Kelsie in it, and if I can help her navigate it safely, all the better. Which is what makes this next part so hard.
Kelsie was back in Idaho with her family, planning her next steps, making recordings, resetting herself after some global travels. She was up in the mountains, soaking up the sun, fresh air, and cool water. “My day couldn’t be any more peaceful,” she wrote.
If not for an incredible series of circumstances, that page would have been her memorial.
On her way back, driving down winding mountain roads, the car suddenly spun out of her control, careering off a cliff. She saw sky and ground and no road at all, and she floated off of her seat, and she knew she was going to die.
She had time to think “Please God don’t let this be it. Please don’t let this be my time.” And then the car hit the ground. Everything went white. “This is it,” she thought. “I’m dead.”
And then she was ejected out the back window. Somehow she made it through the window alive, but deeply gashed all over by the glass. One piece had missed a nerve that would have caused permanent brain damage by less than an inch. She somehow landed sitting upright on the back of the car, like she was lounging with a good book.
I do not want to share the full extent of her injuries here, despite her permission. But when a mutual friend got to her hospital room and heard the full rundown of injuries, she immediately passed out. “Really? You passed out?” I asked her, and then she told everything to me. I felt faint and had to lie down.
So as you can imagine, she was losing blood fast, sitting at the bottom of a ravine, completely invisible to traffic above. She realized that she had survived the crash but would quickly bleed to death. Somehow, that wild persistence of hers gave her the strength and presence of mind to make her shirt into a tourniquet for her arm, but she wouldn’t have long.
“Hello down there, are you OK?” a woman called. She’d been driving in a car full of people and said “I thought I saw a car drive off the road. Did you see anything?” No one had, but she stopped anyway. From her vantage it looked like the girl sitting upright on the edge of the car must be fine, but she wanted to check. Kelsie screamed for help.
Help was there. One of the people in the car was a lifeguard. They scrambled down the cliff and helped stabilize her long enough for a rescue team to come by helicopter. She would live.
Here’s another thing that’s important for the story: Doctors are heroes. The worst cut went straight over one of Kelsie’s eyes, but in overnight surgeries the medical team managed to save it. Even after multiple surgeries she had major cuts all over her body and on her face, and a broken foot would keep her unable to walk.
Even with all this, the first worry she told me about was that she’d lost her car, so how would she get to work? There’s the determination.
Thousands of miles away, I didn’t find out all of this until the next morning, when her friends posted on Instagram and Facebook. No, no, no! I pestered our friends, even though they were shooting a wedding. What happened? What hospital is she at? What can I do?
The flip side of being a problem-solver is that I can’t not solve problems. Being unable to help, unable to make things work, is my greatest frustration. I even found myself saying “5 on AP Bio, 800 on Bio SAT IIs, why didn’t I become a surgeon?”
Oh, right, because when her injuries were even described second-hand I almost passed out.
I did all the normal things — I got her flowers, I spoke to her on the phone. For the whole call, she was relentlessly upbeat. She remembered everything, she remembered staring down death, so even being battered and broken and scarred, all that mattered was she was alive.
I had to do more. Weddings are in full bloom so I couldn’t go there. But I wanted to make sure she knew that people cared, that her dreams were still within reach, I wanted to do something that, if even just for a moment, would make her forget the long road of recovery ahead.
Wait. Lana Del Rey. One of Kelsie’s idols. Known to my parents as Lizzie — the name she went by when they taught her in high school. Our families know each other well. Even just a quick call would be that “Holy s***” moment. It’s silly, I guess, but it’s what I could do.
I threw a Hail Mary, going from my mother to hers. I’ve been put in a sort of state of micro celebrity by my photography, and I know how much stress and feeling of constant obligation there can be even for me — I cannot imagine what it all feels like for a rocketing “real” celebrity like Lana. She was going through a grueling promotion schedule for Gatsby in Cannes, which only sounds fun until you really think about it. I thanked everyone involved for being so kind, but it didn’t look like we’d be able to get through.
After a few days, Kelsie came home, and sure enough, she went to work. She’d had one of her first studio sessions a few weeks before, and had first seen the video of a cover she sang the morning before the accident. She watched the video again, and the words struck her in new ways.
When I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me
When I got nothing but my aching soul?
By this point I figured Lana was unreachable, but I sent a note on. “Hey, thank you so much for everything. I won’t bother you again, but I just wanted you to see this.”
I figured that was it. But the next day, I saw this:
It was the holy s*** moment. Kelsie flipped out. Our mutual contact told me that it was definitely written by Lana, not her publicist. Thank you Lana, they raise ’em right in the North Country. It is going to be a long time until Kelsie is back able to dance the Dougie with me again, and any trauma will leave physical and emotional scars. But no one makes scars look so good. In every way, Kelsie will continue to be beautiful.
This is the longest story I’ve ever written on this blog several times over. But it’s not over yet. That’s my favorite part — Kelsie’s story is just beginning.