Rachel and Austin are two of the most genuine, hardworking, passionate, in-love people I know. They are both deep and intentional, both loyal and courageous. I have the privilege of walking through life with them as my siblings and as some of my best friends. Recently, Rachel and Austin had to start their lives over. They woke up in their apartment in Boone, NC to the terrifying sound of someone banging on doors below them screaming “FIRE! FIRE!” With a suitcase in hand that they had packed to go see my sister and brother-in-law in England the next day and their French bulldog, Mr. Willoughby, they ran out of their apartment and within minutes watched it burned down in flames. It is a traumatic experience that they continue to work through as they learn to rebuild the life they created-- from the thoughtful wedding gifts they lost, the personal notes they wrote to one another, the framed photos that filled their walls chronicling the beginning of their legacy together. They have walked through this tragic loss with grace and boldness.
The first thing I thought of when I began figuring out what my part was in helping them rebuild their lives was photos. My husband Eddie ordered large prints of the engagement photos we took of them, which now hang on their walls in their new apartment and in many ways helps connect them back to what they have lost. Photos are incredibly important to Rachel and Austin. Rachel’s childhood photo albums were in their apartment when it burnt down. It was one of the first things she thought of as she watched her apartment and her life inside it succumb to the ruthless hand of fire.
Amazingly, while Rachel and I were adventuring through Scotland together weeks after the fire (a week of adventure that I will hold close to me forever), Austin went to their old apartment to see if he could salvage anything. He saw the remnants of Rachel’s photo albums somehow untouched and borrowed a friend’s ladder to recover them. Peeling the melted pages away from one another, her photos were almost all preserved. We cried together in our rental car in Scotland when Austin told Rachel that her albums had been saved. Out of everything lost, somehow the memories of her childhood were preserved.
I have asked Rachel and Austin to describe how it felt being so close to the end of their lives. I don’t know that they are still able to fully answer this question, but I know that they have been changed. I know that in many ways it is so much harder for them to take life for granted. They have always been dreamers, but now more than ever, they are pursuing their dreams fearlessly. Rachel is pursuing her dream as a writer, and Austin as a motion graphic designer. They truly are fearless, both in their dreams and in their love for one another. I have been inspired and changed by their bravery.
It became such a special honor to be able to create new images of their lives together now as they have fought through so much. They are now living in one of the most beautiful places in Boone. They are surrounded by horses and have the most beautiful view of Grandfather Mountain in their backyard. Willoughby can run around, wade in the creek, eat apples and pears from their backyard, and they can feed the horses carrots in the morning together. They have discovered a new beauty in the Blue Ridge Mountains and are treasuring it.
As their new home has quickly become a significant part of their lives, we decided that an early morning photo shoot in their backyard made so much sense. I decided to take a more documentary approach and let them live out their morning as they normally would as I tried to seamlessly capture the three of them soak in the morning as a family. They have a routine of feeding the horses carrots and walking around the yard together talking as Willoughby runs free.
I love be able to capture the honest. I love that they will have these images to look back on forever that aren’t just posed and manipulated, but truly represent an intimate, significant time in their lives.
Over the years, the Taniwha Trail has also become a significant place for Austin and Rachel. It is the first place they had their photos taken and it is their favorite place to take Willoughby for walks. They now live only 5 minutes away from the trail. We spent a sunset photographing the two of them on the trail, which overlooks Grandfather Mountain, their backyard mountain.
More than anything I felt abundant joy while photographing Rachel and Austin on the hills of the Taniwha Trail. They were radiant and boundless. I thought about the first time I had taken photos of the two of them on these hills and how they were also joy-filled and free then, but how now, years later, with now the beautiful experience of committing themselves to each other forever through marriage and walking through the tragedy of loss together, their joy and freedom were rooted in a new strength and depth. They are grounded. Their laughs are louder, their hugs are longer, and their words are more intentional.
It is the greatest honor to capture these changes and significant moments in their journey, filled with loss but even more so filled with hope and bravery. I am beyond grateful for the gift of telling their story and capturing part of the legacy of two of the most incredible people in my life.