This image has been shared more than 3.6 million times.
Probably much more than that but with so many people showing it to their friends and family, I know my name has been lost and I can’t keep track. To say it’s been an honor is an understatement. The number of conversations, emails and private messages I’ve received about this one image has been overwhelming but so humbling. Even to this day, 7 years later, I will still get messages in my email box specifically about the emotions people have felt about it.
This post isn’t to brag or to show off. It comes from the bottom of my heart. The deepest gratitude I can offer to the beautiful city I call home, all those who have taken the time to tell me how much this image has meant to them, and especially all the veterans and families who have been impacted by the Vietnam War.
So I wanted to take a moment and talk about the story behind the image, Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Sunrise:
It All Started 11 Months Prior. January 6th, 2012:
I woke up for sunrise with every intention to photograph the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I had visited the memorial one time before but did not come out with images I was super excited about. After a conversation with a friend, I decided I needed to go back.
Little did I know, the sunrise that morning was going to be EPIC!
Everything was working in my favor.
The cloud formations were stunning, the colors in the sky were exploding and I knew it was going to be a good day. I remember arriving a little bit later than I had wanted to (early mornings can be rough sometimes) so I parked my car as quickly as I could and raced across Constitution Ave.
I mean if you saw me that morning, I would have looked like a crazy woman with my tripod tucked under my armpit, my camera bag on my back and my hair flying everywhere.
I immediately arrived at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and set up my shot. I was so overwhelmed by the developing sky and concerned with how much time I actually would have to get with to capture the colors in the sky, I just started shooting.
I was able to capture a few images that I was happy with but it was when I turned my attention to the Washington Monument when all of a sudden, I found my composition.
At that time I knew I wanted the Washington Monument to be the focal point. It had to be the sharpest element in the image in order for me to convey the message that I wanted. With a brand new day, comes a new chance. I did not want the concentration to be on the names on the wall, I wanted the concentration to be on the beautiful natural elements of the sky.
I used the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to reflect the sunrise colors, a line to direct your eye to the Washington Monument and a way to balance everything out in the image.
I was so excited about what I had captured that as soon as the sunrise was over, I went straight to my computer to edit the images.
At that time, I was heavy into a post-processing technique called, HDR (high dynamic range) photography where you blend multiple exposures to try to capture the entire dynamic range (all the darkest darks, and the lightest lights) into the single image. The idea behind doing this is to be able to fully show what it was like seeing the scene as if you were looking at it with your own eyes. So in actuality, this was 5 different exposures combined into one single image.
From then on, the rest of the day was kind of a blur. I came back from the kitchen only to see my image had been shared more than 100 times and counting. Holy COW! Never in my life had I imagined one of my images to spread so much, so quickly.
To be honest, I was jumping up and down the entire day. I was so excited. The image had spread so much that it appeared on the evening news. My first time seeing my own image on TV!
Here’s a youtube video of me watching it:
By the end of the day, tens of thousands of people had shared the image.
I am so grateful for all the shares because they were able to reach people that needed to see it. I was getting more messages and emails about this image than I have ever had about all of my other images combined. It was one of the best days ever.
Growing up in the Washington DC area, I always knew the impact of war, I just never experienced it myself. Getting all the messages of gratitude and emotions from people I didn’t even know made me feel emotional.
But the biggest and most impactful part of this whole experience was being able to attend Rolling Thunder’s banquet during Memorial Day weekend that year. To see and hear from the men and women who fought for our country was unforgettable. It was surreal. To see all these leather-wearing, tough looking men getting emotional about anything was shocking and gave me a better understanding of war. I was honored to donate a print of this image to the organization.
Another side effect of the popularity of this image was that it became difficult for me to go back to the memorial.
How was I ever going to top it? What was the point? Should I even bother to do it again?
Sometimes I would go back at sunrise just to take a moment to appreciate all the amazing things that had to happen. The National Mall gets more than 25 million visitors a year (according to the National Park Service and Department of Interior). It’s a beautiful thing when you can go so early in the morning and be the only one at the memorial. It’s such a beautiful way to start the day.
To this day, I will still visit without pulling out my camera and just run my fingers over the Vietnam Memorial names. I try my best to say that person’s name and say thank you.
A date I’ll never forget. December 19th, 2012.
I woke up for sunrise to a foggy morning. Something I had never experienced in Washington DC but it made a brisk winter morning feel a little bit warmer. I’m not sure what actually compelled me but I felt ready to go back to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and photograph it after almost a full year.
I was surprised to see the wreaths from Wreaths Across America had been laid to honor the veterans during the holiday season. For some reason, I thought they were only at Arlington National Cemetery. Either way, they were made me smile.
The mood was just right so I started just snapping away.
This time around I captured a similar scene with a vertical composition. I was able to capture more of the memorial and highlight the repetitive pattern of the wreaths. Again, I did not want the focus to be on the names. But the sky had a brighter sunrise in a totally different atmosphere.
One of my favorite parts of the image is looking on the right-hand side of the image and seeing the broken up reflection from the puddle on the ground. There’s just something that draws my eye to that part of the image.
I also created a youtube video while I was out photographing the sunrise so you can see for yourself. I think it’s so cool to look back on this day. It will be a video I treasure for years to come.
When the colors in the sky started to fade out a bit, I walked over to the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to try to capture some reflection shots. I wanted to include this image so you can see a more Pan-oramic view of the sky.
I was so excited about the beautiful sunrise that I did the exact same thing as I did 11 months prior.
I went straight to my computer, edited the images and tweeted them out. To my complete shock, it spread like wildfire, again. But at a much faster rate than the first image.
Unfortunately, I can’t find any of the original tweets, but here are some kind people who shared my image on Facebook:
To be honest, when I captured the second image of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I did not understand why it went even more viral than the first.
I thought I was capturing something similar so I did not see what the fuss was about. But after hearing the reaction from the image, I think I have a better understanding.
The second image is much more hopeful and bright. It’s not as dark or moody like the first. It still has the same qualities of a new day with a beautiful reflection from the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial image, the second image is just warmer that makes it more inviting.
It is also the holiday wreaths that add a totally different feeling. The holidays can be a difficult time for veterans and families. I love how this image can be a visual conversation starter amongst family members or other veterans who are dealing with PTSD. It’s a way to connect to their brothers and sisters during the holiday season and
A moment of silence with no one in sight that only a sunrise at the National Mall can bring.
In the end, I hope this image brings a sense of calm and peace to those who look at it. I know the memories of war are hard to cope with sometimes, but I hope this image can alleviate those feelings for just a moment.
And because of this image, I’ve become friends with the good people at Wreaths Across America. They’ve used it on many marketing materials and even have the image as the centerpiece to the Veterans Museum in Columbia Falls, Maine.
Seven years later…
This post was not to brag about these images or show off. It was to tell the story behind it and express my gratitude for all those who were involved.
While I was capturing either one of these images, I had no idea the kind of impact it would have. I was honestly just doing what I love and wanted it to share it with the world. I’m honored that I could create something that has been meaningful to so many people.
I’ve had friends ask me if it bothers me that my name, as the photographer, has been lost through all the shares and retweets. Many people have knocked it off as their own or have used it for their own marketing materials without permission. And honestly, my answer is ‘no’ every single time. It honors me that this image has been shared and viewed by so many people. It has reached so many more people then I could have imagined and if it helps veterans, their families or friends in any kind of way, then I’ve done my job. I don’t need the recognition. It is enough for me to create a piece of art that can be so impactful.
So thank you so much for taking the time to read this story, viewing my images and to those who have trusted me enough to share their feelings with me. You’ll never know how much it means to me. So much love <3