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How 2015 Changed My Life

I only casually used the phrase "flip my world upside down" until this year. 2015 brought heartbreak, grief, joy, adventure, challenge. I traveled alone abroad for the first time, road tripped across the states, photographed stories that meant the world to me, and lost my best friend to a tragic car accident. I never knew I could be stretched so thin emotionally, mentally and physically — but 2015 taught me about resilience. Here are a few images and some thoughts that reflect on that...


2015 brought adventure. I road tripped across the country with 22 strangers to camp in two feet of snow along the rim of the Grand Canyon (which none of us expected. I only packed two pairs of warm socks which became soaked with snow after our second day camping). But my biggest adventure was a trip I never thought I'd get to go on. In July, I left for Northern India for six weeks.

India, oh India! Bittersweet, intense, exhausting, alive. I'd go back in a heartbeat to relive it all (maybe not getting a 5-week long stomach infection, though). The above photo was taken on my first day in New Delhi. I remember unpacking my 65-liter pack in the damp, Pepto-pink hotel room completely naive to what was to come in the next six weeks and just happy to have a bed to sleep on after a 2-day flight. 

The intensity and diversity of India's landscape was by far my favorite part of my travels. Each train we got on took us 16 or so hours to a completely different environment — from the Great Thar Desert to the foothills of the Himalayas to the densely populated cities. To this day I can still smell the intensity of Delhi. A strange mixture of curry, trash, urine. I can also still feel the ache in my body from five weeks of stomach sickness that caused me to lose an unhealthy amount of weight. India rung me dry, but it also filled me with so much beauty that could arise only from breaking down my anxieties and discomfort.

I was terrified to photograph in India. Getting myself to wander the streets with my camera was a challenge. Was it even my place to photograph a culture that I would never really fully understand? My Operation Groundswell group and I spent our days learning about women's rights, education, and health issues in India — issues I had never personally faced but was attempting to understand. Every day was an ethical mental battle with my camera in hand.

It was not until we reached Jeetwas, a village outside the market town of Railmagrad, that I began to feel some sense of purpose. The girls in the images above were part of a women's empowerment class I was observing through the nonprofit Jatan. I cannot begin to explain how surprisingly relatable it was to share space with young girls who, although I could not communicate with because of language barriers, I still felt a strong connection to. I knew what it was like to be a teenage girl and I could find common ground in at least that. 

We ended our travels in India in Rishikesh, yoga capital of the world. The holy Ganga runs through the city, and I am eternally grateful to have been able to witness Hindu families take holy baths in the river. It was humbling, coming from a not-so-religious lifestyle myself to speak with people whose lives were shaped entirely by their faith in Hinduism. 

For me, the end of my travels did not end on a positive note. I was ready to leave, sick to my bones, and mentally exhausted from the cultural differences that flooded each day. But looking back, as 2015 comes to a close, I gained perspective on what it means to live within your means and to seek empathy when presented with something so different than what you know.

As photographers, we're always hoping to find a story we strongly connect to. I stumbled upon the Fullers — a family of 10 (two parents, 8 kids, 7 of whom are adopted) — by accident. When a story of mine fell through for class, I met DJ Fuller and was immediately inspired by her unconditional love and strength for her family. I knew then when I met her that I wanted to tell her family's story. Kids who had been through so much had serendipitously fell into the hands of two of the strongest parents I've ever met. 

Literally. 

Photography had always felt surface level to me. I never connected very well with the people I photographed or felt the work I was making had a purpose. And maybe it still doesn't really. But the time I've spent photographing the Fullers has taught me that photography is entirely more than the pictures. Photography is about human connection, compassion, and listening. The good pictures come after all of that is put first. 

But with the good comes the not-so-good. And 2015 ended unexpectedly.

 On December 16, I got a call that Kyra had died in a car accident while traveling out West. I immediately collapsed to the floor of my front porch in disbelief of what I had just been told. I had never felt pain or emotions like that before since no one I knew closely had ever passed away. I had just talked to her less than 24 hours ago on the phone as we were both in a car, talking about boys and frustrations and ridiculous stories like we always did. She had told me not to worry about the small stuff and to let it go on the phone. The thought of never hearing her voice in our home again haunts me still as I count down the days until 2016 and the start of our last semester of college without Kyra.

I miss her everyday.

I miss dancing on bar tables with her, our weekly runs and vegan dinner dates, our long talks on our porch about our love lives, her desire to always fill her time intentionally and spontaneously. 

Her funeral was held in Florida. Hints of Kyra's energy kept crossing our paths — through the perfect temperature of the ocean, the flock of hundreds of seagulls circling us, the wind blowing through the Spanish moss at the cemetery.

 


 

It has been the hardest two weeks. But I do know one thing and that is Kyra would want me to live my life as fully as I can just as she did. To stop talking and start doing. I hope with the new year comes new experiences that I will not turn away. I hope 2016 brings spontaneity, adventure, and joy. And while the hardships are inevitable, I know 2015 has given me the strength to overcome them. One day at a time.


Road Trip Out West


Grand Canyon National Park. March 2015. 

I didn't spent my week off classes on a beach with my closest friends or back home in Pennsylvania. Spring break consisted of sleeping in zero degree weather caked in a foot of snow alongside a group of strangers turned good friends as we traveled across the country to camp at the Grand Canyon. I find myself rereading my journal from the trip and scrolling through the images I made over and over just to pretend I'm still out there. 

Here are my favorite frames I made over the course of 10 showerless days, 4 national parks, 5 humorous Walmart stops, a few parking lot meals, and 5,000 miles later.


En route to Glen Canyon, Utah. March 2015.


Pecos River, New Mexico. March 2015.


Somewhere outside of Durango, Kansas. March 2015.


On the road. March 2015.


Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. March 2015.



Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. March 2015.


Arches National Park, Utah. March 2015.


Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Campground at the Grand Canyon Village. March 2015.


Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Campground at the Grand Canyon Village. March 2015.


Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona. March 2015.


A native American reservation en route to Glen Canyon, Arizona. March 2015.


Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. March 2015.


Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. March 2015.


Somewhere on the road, lost in a book. March 2015.


Painted desert in the Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. March 2015.


Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. March 2015.


Bright Angel Trail; Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. March 2015.


Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. March 2015.


Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. March 2015.


Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. March 2015.


Arches National Park, Utah. March 2015.


Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona. March 2015.


Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. March 2015.


Rest stop outside of Emporia, Kansas. March 2015.



Where Photography Took Me: 2014

Photography took me to some spectacular places and introduced me to some amazing people in 2014. While I've probably made thousands of pictures this year, some better technically and some that tell the story more accurately than others, these images below speak to the best moments of this year. The good, the bad, the moments I was a part of and the moments I was humbled to witness. 


I climbed mountains in Costa Rica,

met strong women at the Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home,

witnessed the strength of a man struggling with AIDS,

hung out in the temporary home of a traveling evangelist,

witnessed over 80 same-sex couples march through the Pittsburgh Pride parade the morning of their weddings after same-sex marriage became legalized in Pennsylvania,

met retired Pittsburgh Pirate Steve Blass,

and even photographed a Pirates game, nearly getting hit by foul balls three times while shooting from the pit.

I spent an afternoon sharing love stories with a Vietnam War widow and her son,

witnessed a young boy with cancer fulfill his dream of becoming a police officer for a day,

spent four tireless days chasing images of bodybuilders at the Arnold Sports Festival,

and watched fireworks from the highest point in Pittsburgh.

I stood in solidarity with the Ferguson community during a peaceful protest at Ohio University,

celebrated a touchdown with a young man with Down Syndrome during football camp,

and mourned the loss of a home after a fire.

I ran alongside parades, camera in hand, with veterans,

braved icy waters to capture silly moments during the Polar Plunge,

and relaxed on days off with the best of friends a girl could ask for in the most beautiful spot in Ohio.


I often need to remind myself why I'm a photographer. It's moments like these that make it all worthwhile.