Photographer sees beauty despite disease

By Kathy L. Gilbert

Tiffany Chartier sees beauty in chaos and disease.

As a professional photographer and youth director of CHAOS (Challenge, Honor, Acceptance, Outreach and Serve) at Community of Hope United Methodist Church, Mansfield, Texas, she has created a unique ministry for herself: taking “affirmation” photos of young people starting on their spiritual journey and capturing some of the final moments of people dealing with cancer.

“Photography is a form of ministry for me. It always has been. It is just another avenue of expressing God’s love in a different art form,” she said. She is doing all this while dealing with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that will eventually make her blind. She only has 25 percent of her vision left.

“Because I am going blind I give more freely of the talents God gave me,” she said. “And because I’m going blind I refuse to be stingy with joy.

“Retinitis pigmentosa is a degenerative hereditary eye disease that starts by night vision—loss of night vision—and then slowly steals (like a thief) your peripheral vision so eventually what you see is like looking through a tiny, tiny straw. And eventually it’ll just…all close.”
Chartier said her lack of peripheral vision is not as much of a challenge as you might think because she doesn’t “just take a picture,” she “captures a story.”

Hank and Jan’s story
Hank Wyatt and his wife, Jan, got some bad news in February 2010. The cancer they thought Hank had conquered years ago had come back with a vengeance.

A tumor in his arm lead to the diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer. His doctor wouldn’t tell them how much time he had left, but Jan did some research and found out the average survival rate was two to four months.

The Wyatts are members of Community of Hope United Methodist Church, and they knew about Chartier’s ministry. They wanted some “happy” photos of themselves for their children and grandchildren.

“I think because her vision is narrowing she focuses in on what is important,” Hank said.

Life has changed a lot in the past year, he said. The photos by Chartier are now hanging in their bedroom.

“We’ve had Christmases and birthday parties and anniversaries that we didn’t know we were going to have. So when those things come to you and you know you are playing the bonus round, you just learn to enjoy every one of ‘em,” he said.

Affirmation stories
“I like to use the talent that God has given me and empower young men and women through photography. And how I do that is with something called ‘affirmation shoots’ and ‘self-confidence shoots,’” Chartier said.

She has the young person list seven positive traits about themselves before she takes their picture.

“I know photography helps people in their spiritual journey because I truly believe that every single person has an awesome, amazing soul that’s probably just allowed life to settle on them and make them a little dusty and rusty,” Chartier said.

The name of her photography company is SGLY (Smile, God Loves You). The mission of her company is to give back.

“And the joy of photography is to be able to take a snapshot of that one emotion and that one particular moment in their life,” she said. “And then they can look back on it and see how far they’ve come in their journey. And it’s beautiful, exciting. Sometimes it’s tragic.”
More than anything, she hopes the photos are helpful.

Chartier’s story
When she was 15 years old, she went with her father to the Retina Foundation of the Southwest, where her father was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. Chartier was there for moral support; neither she nor her father planned for her to be tested, but the doctors requested it.
She remembers the doctor’s words: “Doug Winters, I need to tell you that yes, you do have retinitis pigmentosa, as well as your daughter. And not only does your daughter have it, she has it worse than you do.”

“We walked out, got into the car. Dad was fumbling around for his keys, put ‘em in the ignition, grabbed the steering wheel and just lost it,” she said. “The only thing he said to me was, ‘I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.’”
Chartier’s oldest son also has the condition.

When she heard the news, she said she was transported back to that moment when she was 15.

“Except this time I was the one fumbling with the keys and trying to find the steering wheel and trying to get a grip literally—get a grip. And I told him the same words that I’ve been carrying around in my mind and heart for years, ‘I am so sorry.’ That’s exactly what I said to him. I literally became my father in that moment and understood the magnitude of helplessness and responsibility knowing that the only reason why your child has this is because you do.”

Chartier said sometimes she feels angry and sad but she is always reminded to look to God.

“I am 110 percent filled with peace because of Jesus,” she said.

“I try to live every single day with purposeful passion. I try to give that to the youth and to my kids with energy and being positive, and hopefully fulfilling my purpose, which I believe is to be a light for Christ.”

Kathy L. Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee. Jess Warnock, a freelance producer in Columbus, Ohio, provided the interview for this story.