A photographer’s story of grief, grace and redemption
“Two years out of undergrad and very unexpected, my dad committed suicide.”
Those were the words that made a room of college students stop scrolling through their phones and look up at Ashley Stephenson.
Stephenson, a 2006 graduate, shared her story at Connections — a one-hour course designed to nurture the spiritual life of students from a Christian worldview and help to build a strong sense of community — one morning late in the fall semester.
Receiving the invitation to be a guest speaker shocked Stephenson initially, as she wouldn’t call herself a poster child for the cookie cutter Christian she thought students expected.
She chose Campbell because her parents went to school and fell in love in Buies Creek. She thought about transferring early into her first semester on campus — and even had the papers ready to submit — when she found a tight-knit group of friends and declared herself a religion major. She always knew she wanted to be in ministry somehow, but she didn’t know exactly how that would take form.
After graduating from Campbell, Stephenson moved on to Duke Divinity School to continue to explore her passion for ministry. She happened to pick up a part-time job at a photography studio to help with bills and tuition during her time in school. But she left Duke after a year, saying she was “pretty miserable.”
“At the time, I felt like I was a little bit of a failure. I had never quit anything before. I had always done really well at everything I had done, so it was a new experience for me to give up on something. I know now that it wasn’t the best fit for me and it really wasn’t the best timing either.”
Around that time, her gig as a photography assistant began to take off. Like her, most of her college friends were in their early to mid-20s, and they reached out to her as they got engaged and married. They remembered the college days when she always had a camera on her no matter what (and that was no small feat since digital cameras and smartphones weren’t as commonplace as they are now). They would ask her to take photos, then refer her to their other friends.
“It was like all of the sudden, this thing I did on the side grew into something that could be a sustainable full-time job.”
On Sept. 1, 2008, the first blog post went up under the Story Photographers brand — Stephenson chose “Story Photographers” because it was important to her to tell others’ stories through the lens of photography. She went from being part-time, using her initials as a wordmark, to a full-time small business owner.
Three days later, her dad took his own life.
“That turned everything upside down for me. I began questioning things I thought I knew about my family. I thought I had to take on the role of leader for my family. I felt like I needed to take care of everyone. I took on too much.”
At the same time, the church where she devoted time to leading worship and small groups was divided over issues that were and still are very close to her heart — women in ministry and equality. And it wasn’t just a simple disagreement. This was the third church, the third community, that broke down over this.
“Experiencing this loss of community and my life feeling like it turned upside down, all while keeping my business running and my relationships meaningful, I just sort of spiritually checked out.”
Her spiritual toolbox, as she calls it — the experiences growing up in a church environment and the knowledge she gained studying religion — found its way to a shelf.
“Instead of inviting God into my life at that moment, I chose to think God had way too many things to worry about than me.”
So she began working around the clock.
Story Photographers hit its stride in in the early 2010s. She made a name for herself as an authentic, non-intrusive wedding photographer in Raleigh before the wedding industry became oversaturated. Earning honors like The Knot’s Best of Weddings award multiple years in a row coupled with her married friends wanting newborn shoots and family style photography, she found herself busy.
She spent her days behind her camera, her nights in front of her computer editing and her afternoons in a drive-through grabbing something quick to eat so she could get back to work. A lifestyle like that quickly caught up with her. She was stressed, overworked and spiritually empty.
“Part of my work-life balance struggle was that I just wanted everything to be perfect,” Stephenson said in a recent online profile of business owners. “I wanted to be the best, the favorite, the fastest, and so on. There was a current of anxiety that fueled that workaholic energy.”
That current of anxiety climaxed when she suffered yet another personal loss in 2016, the dissolution of her marriage.
On stage at Connections, Stephenson continues telling her story of love and loss throughout the years since she graduated Campbell and the anxiety that powered her every move. The moments where she felt she had to perform and earn the love of God and others. The moments where the unthinkable happened to her not once but twice.
“I was trying to hold everything together at the same time to the point where it was too much. I was not myself in any of it. I had put everything before me to the point where I was lost in all of it. I had done everything to keep the worst things from happening, and it still happened.”
She reads the story of the Prodigal Son’s return from the book of Luke. The parable about two brothers, one who goes off and squanders his wealth and the other who stays dutifully at home helping his father.
She pauses before she shares the last part of the story, which she says is what resonated with her the most.
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
She felt like the other son in the story.
“I spent my whole life following the rules and being in church every time the doors opened. I wanted to do everything the best that I could, to earn the best grades, to be the best spouse, the best friend, that when I got to the point where something bad happened, my reaction was ‘But I did everything right.’”
When she hit rock bottom in the summer
of 2016, she found herself reciting the Serenity Prayer.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
That prayer made her feel safe. She was asking God to change her and to meet her where she was.
“I had spent all of this time running my business and behind my camera watching other people’s stories and telling them. And I realized I had used that as a way to hide out. I ran from God and I channeled my grief from the loss of my father into avoiding my own story.”
Now, she’s listening to herself more and more these days. Apply her business’s vision of intentionally telling someone’s story to her own life by slowing down a bit to live outside of the frantic schedule she created for herself as a business owner.
See Her Story
Throughout her photography career, Ashley noticed women, in particular, were uncomfortable around and in front of her camera. They would give her a laundry list of things to touch-up when she edited the photos or they would hide behind someone as their photos were being taken. They tried to shrink themselves down to minimize their exposure. To fight back against the Photoshop culture and the idea that women have to be perfect to be photographed, she created a fundraising event called See Her Story. For three years, women all over Raleigh come together from all walks of life to have their photo taken and raise money and needed items for InterAct of Wake County.
“The See Her Story event gives women the chance to be photographed however they want to be seen. I have women come for professional headshots, or in their work uniforms to tell who they are in everyday life, or they come dressed up super fancy. The whole point is it’s their photo, so they get to decide.”
This year, she went took the See Her Story concept one step further thanks to her journey of spiritual, emotional and physical health. She offered a weekend retreat in the fall at Bald Head Island for women needing to invest in themselves.
“Now I’m fueled by breathing and patience and self-love and grace upon grace upon grace,” she said. “I am so very honored to lead and create space on this retreat. What a gift it is to dig deep alongside other women wanting to dig deep.”