Beautiful and Fragile: My Story for the Atheist Photo Book, “A Better Life”

In 2013, photographer Christopher Johnson published A Better Life, a beautiful hardbound collection of photo portraits of 100 atheists, accompanied by our thoughts on how we maintain a better life — not in spite of our atheism, but because of it. He’s now working on a documentary film using the video footage he collected during the project: if you want to help make it happen, here’s the Kickstarter.

This is the piece I wrote to accompany the photos he took of me, and of me and Ingrid.

Greta and Ingrid photo for A Better Life

So there’s kind of a weird story about these photos.

The day these photos were taken was the day I found out I had cancer. I literally had gotten the news about the cancer thirty seconds before Chris knocked on my door.

I considered cancelling — but I’d already had to cancel on Chris once, not even two weeks earlier. Ironically, because my father died the day we were first supposed to shoot. And this project was important to me. So I put on my best game face, and went ahead with the shoot.

I didn’t tell Chris. I hadn’t had a chance yet to tell Ingrid, and with all due respect to Chris, I wasn’t about to tell some photographer I’d never met that I’d just been diagnosed with cancer before I told my wife. So again — game face. We walked around my neighborhood looking at street art, and we sat in my backyard, and we talked about joy and purpose and the meaning of life when there is no God and death is final… and every time I looked into the camera lens, I was thinking, “Cancer. Cancer. Cancer.”

It was, to say the least, a very strange day. Especially when Ingrid showed up to join me on the shoot: I knew about the cancer, but she didn’t know, and I didn’t want to tell her until after Chris had left… so I had to do the shoot with her, knowing that I was about to tell her this enormous horrible news, and sitting with the knowledge that she didn’t yet know. But it also gave the photo shoot an intensity, a poignancy. Sitting with Ingrid in our home; talking about what gives my life value; framing shots that might capture part of the essence of that life — all not knowing how much of it I’d have left — put a sharp focus on that day, even as it made it deeply surreal. And even in the moment, it seemed like some sort of metaphor: we have so little control over what happens to us in our lives… but we can choose how to respond to it. I chose to handle this dreadful day, this dreadfully bizarre day, by biting the bullet and moving forward with the things that matter to me.

I got lucky. The cancer was caught early; it was entirely treated with surgery; I am now cancer-free. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at these photos without thinking of the strangeness of that day… and without thinking, not only of how beautiful life is, but how fragile.

Beautiful and Fragile: My Story for the Atheist Photo Book, “A Better Life”

8 thoughts on “Beautiful and Fragile: My Story for the Atheist Photo Book, “A Better Life”

  1. 2

    The story behind the photo is amazingly poignant, and the photo is so beautiful.

    And it’s so good to be reminded you are now cancer free.

  2. 3

    Great — that is a beautiful, beautiful piece of writing about your quite surreal day I am very impressed with how well you handled yourself. You are a really good representative of how to live an good, ethical, compassionate life without believing in any god or gods. And the photo is very touching and sweet.

    Thank you very much for sharing that day with us. I admire your bravery. And I am very happy you are still cancer-free. Hooray!

  3. 4

    So, allow my rather discordant voice to join the chorus of praise. Beautiful picture. Even more beautiful story.

    I really have nothing else to say. I mean, I can’t, can I? Not with this lump in my throat.

  4. 6

    Thank you for your reflections on the situation of the photographs. They were both poignant and, as you say, surreal.

    I like the plates on the fence. Are they permanently mounted?

  5. 7

    I like the plates on the fence. Are they permanently mounted?

    Al Dente @ #6: Semi-permanent. Our neighbor, who hangs them, occasionally rotates them, adding in new plates and taking out ones that have gotten damaged.

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