Images That Have Special Meaning For Me

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

People have asked me, “What’s your favorite picture that you’ve ever taken?

That’s a tough question. In the past 35 years, I’ve shot hundreds of thousands of photographs. Some have been displayed in art galleries, and one was chosen for an international photography annual.

So what’s my favorite? The photos that are nearest and dearest to my heart – the ones I would rush in to save if my house were burning – are not necessarily my crowning achievements artistically or technically. No. The photos I treasure most are ones that hold a strong personal meaning for me, and they have poignant stories behind them.

Here are three of the photos that have special significance for me.

Toes in the Sand

Our son Ben was 18 months old when we flew to Florida on vacation. He’d never seen the ocean, and I'd promised one of my brothers I'd get a photo of Ben's face when his toes first touched the sand.

As we headed down to the beach, my wife Bonnie carried Ben while I trailed a few steps behind with my camera. When we crossed a sand dune and caught a glimpse of the foaming waves, Ben could barely contain his excitement. He squirmed for Mom to put him down, but I pleaded for them both to hold on a little longer. I wanted to get closer to the water.

We walked down to where the waves were lapping at the shore, Ben wriggling frantically to break free. “I can’t hold him much longer,” Bonnie called out.

I hustled to get myself into position, knowing I had just one click of the shutter to capture this precious instant.

CLICK!  This is the moment. You can see his little toes curled into the sand, the wind blowing through his hair, his fingers splayed back, an expression of unbridled glee on his face. This photo was taken 25 years ago, but I’ve kept it in a prominent place where I can look at it every day. It makes me happy. It makes me feel like my own toes are touching the sand for the very first time.

Together We Walk

Last November, Bonnie and I visited our friends Gene and Barbara Bullock-Wilson at their home in Carmel on the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Gene, a lifelong non-smoker, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. His health was declining rapidly, but he never let on just how much he was suffering. A remarkable soul with gentle grace and boundless love, he maintained his humor and he ate heartily at dinner and breakfast.

On our way out to the car, I asked Barbara and Gene if I could take a picture of them walking together. The intent was to send a framed print to them as a Christmas gift. Little did we know that this would be the last time we would see Gene – or that this photograph would have an even deeper meaning than we intended.

When Bonnie and I mailed our Christmas package, we included a note explaining that this photo represented the beautiful journey that Barbara and Gene shared for more than 40 years, supporting each other every step of the way.

Gene died on New Year’s Eve. After his passing, Barbara told us that the little book Together We Walk by Peter S. Seymour was at the core of their wedding ceremony in 1972. Every year on their anniversary, Barbara and Gene recreated their entire ceremony, including a joyful reading of Together We Walk. This photo hangs in their bedroom as a loving symbol of their journey together.

A Warm Farewell

My mother was nearing the end of her long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease when I got a call from my brother in Buffalo. He told me she’d taken a serious turn for the worse and could go at any moment. Bonnie, our kids and I were living in Charlotte, NC, and I knew we couldn’t get home in time to be at my Mom’s side.

Feeling numb with sadness, I found myself remembering all the little things my mother had done for me during my lifetime – all her small, unselfish acts of kindness and love. In particular, I found myself thinking about the tomato soup she made for me when I was a little boy.

I suddenly realized that I'd found my way to connect with her as she died.

I rushed up to the grocery store and bought several cans of tomato soup, along with every brand of alphabet soup I could find. I wanted to make sure I had all the letters I needed. When I got home, I created this photo as my way of saying goodbye to my mother – and to thank her for warming my heart in so many ways.

Several months later, this photo and the story behind it appeared in the November 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine. I received heartfelt messages from people around the world who were touched by the image. My Mom would have appreciated that, because she was all about the heart.

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~ Paul