asap - after school arts program

you never know what you might see

20070101-100_0496(All photos used in this article were taken by participants in the Des Moines ASAP program)

The class was small – only five – but as soon as I began talking with these particular students on their first day in the ASAP (After School Arts Program) program several weeks ago, I knew I was in for an adventure. As they took their seats in a circle, I asked why they chose to be in this particular class featuring photography. Each expressed more than just a passing interest in taking pictures and using cameras, but it was their insightful, descriptive answers to my next question that really drew me in. It’s a question I have asked many times before, but usually with adults – not with 4th and 5th graders:

“What is one of the most beautiful things you have seen?”

Their hands shot up. One young girl mentioned a crystal she had once seen that sparkled endlessly as it moved with the light that was shining on it. Another girl spoke of being on a sandy beach near the ocean at sunset – with all the bright, vibrant colors of orange and gold and pink that filled the sky. Yet another student mentioned a hawk she had seen that week. With a tilt of her head, I could see that she was no longer seeing us in the classroom, but she had returned to that particular moment in her mind’s eye. With smooth, animated gestures of her hands for emphasis, and with a far-off look in her eyes that was beyond the physical presence of the room, she slowly, deliberately, recounted the story:

“I’ve seen a lot of hawks around before, but never one this close. It had landed on the roof of our neighbor’s house. As I looked at it, I could see the texture of the feathers – the way they were layered on top of one another. I could see that the feathers had different shades of brown and white – not just one shade of brown, but many – light brown and dark brown and all the shades in between. And then I noticed the hawk’s beak and the way it curved – and how shiny it was as the light from the sun was reflecting off of it.”

Then, the only boy in this particular class spoke:

“One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen? My church. But also, I have to say that one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen is that tree outside the window. And also, in this art room, there’s that poster of the color wheel over there that is also beautiful. That picture with the lines and curves and colors? Well, that’s beautiful, too. And really, anything can be beautiful if you really want to see it that way.”


I’m not making that up. He really said that. Those of you who know me would understand why my smile became even bigger at that moment.

“Anything can be beautiful if you want to see it that way.”

Yes. Yes. Yes. I was in the right class.

Two weeks later, we went outside into an enclosed courtyard accessible from the room where we gather. Though I was initially going to offer a task for them to complete, I realized quickly that they needed no nudge from me. Instantly, they were off with cameras in hand, framing the wonders that they discovered.

There was the young boy photographing the fluff of dandelions in the grass – and then attempting to catch photos of the fluff as he blew on the puff. Then, he was hunched over the sidewalk capturing the blur of his fidget spinner spinning on the ground. Later, he found a tiny spider enjoying a meal of something caught in its web.


One of the girls found two large grasshoppers on a wall, moved on to a bee landing on flowers, and finished by finding a praying mantis slowly making its way up a tree.

Two of the other girls took the occasional abstract route. While one photographed horizontal shadow lines, geometric shapes in bent metal, and what she could see by looking down through the center hole of a metal picnic table, the other found the curve of a picnic table and the corner where the lines of bricks came together.


Later, in experimentation, one caught a picture of her hat – thrown in the air, and the other came face to face with the praying mantis noticed earlier by her classmate.


Near the end of the class, I was speaking with the girl who uses gestures as she speaks, and with that tilt of her head which is so characteristic of her, she said:

“Sometimes, I like to lie down on a picnic table and take pictures of the sky…because  you never know what you might see.” 

When I uploaded her images later on my laptop, I saw she had taken three photographs that were nothing but the brilliant blue sky. No birds. No trees. No butterflies. Simply the brilliant blue sky, and I could hear her voice reminding me why…

“…because you never know what you might see.”   

20070101-100_0496              writing by Shari Miller, photos by the ASAP participants

If you would like to know more about ASAP (the After School Arts Progam) or find out ways that you could support the program check out their website at


human potential, photography

grit & a quarter of a million failures


In November 2011, we purchased our first DSLR camera. Since then, I have taken several hundred thousand digital images, and I have deleted significantly more than I have kept. Going through the set of images I have taken so far this week, I see that my average keep is about one out of every 12-15.  (That’s not even close to batting .300.) Approximately 92-94 out of every one hundred images that I take never make it to my “to be considered” file. And, out of those that do, only about one in three ever gets posted. I won’t do the math to figure out what that batting average would be, but it’s pretty low.

Years ago, I heard the quote from Michael Jordan – the one that talks about the 9000 shots he missed, the hundreds of games he lost, and the dozens of times he was trusted with the game-winning shot – and missed. I remember watching some of the Chicago Bulls’ games and marveling at the athleticism, the grace, and yes, the beauty with which Jordan played. He made it look so easy – as if it all just flowed naturally from who he was. He must have been “born with it,” right? I think something within us wants to believe that’s the case. If people are simply “born with it,” it lets us off the hook. They were just lucky – and we weren’t.

But then if we return to his quote, we are forced to realize that it wasn’t simply a matter of his being lucky. Yes, perhaps he did have some innate talent that he was just “born with.” But…without the 9000 shots missed, the many lost games, and the last-second disappointments, would he have become the basketball great that we all knew?

I have a friend who is an amazing pianist.  Watching and listening to him play is mesmerizing. He doesn’t look at the keys, and his fingers flow effortlessly over the piano. When I played years ago, I had to keep looking down at the keyboard to be sure I was playing the right notes. When I told him that, he flippantly (he has a bit of a sarcastic streak in him) said, “Why? The keys aren’t going to move.” He told me about playing the piano as a young child. He loved it. Really loved it. After school, he would come home and practice until dinner, and after dinner, he would play for another couple of hours. Every day.

Several hours a day – every day.

Huh. I took nine years of piano lessons, but I’m almost certain I never – or rarely – logged more than an hour a day. A half hour was about my max – and I definitely did not practice every day. Some weeks, the only practice I did was in the half hour before my weekly lesson.

Do I wish I could play the way my friend plays? Absolutely. Was I willing to put in the hours of work necessary to get there? Nope. I didn’t have the same passion and purpose.

Angela Duckworth, author of the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (find her TEDtalk here), has spent years studying the how and why behind people who succeed greatly and those who don’t. Those who push through to completion and those who give up. She has studied West Point cadets as well as National Spelling Bee finalists and winners. She has talked with urban school students and Olympic champions – always pursuing the question “Why?” Why do some make it while others of similar talent, skill, and IQ don’t? If success were solely based on characteristics like talent, skill, or IQ, why is there such a disparity of success between people who, by all measures, seem to have similar attributes? Why do some stick with it while others give up?

Her eventual answer? Grit.

Here’s how Duckworth describes it:

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

In other words, grit is making mistakes, learning from them, and always continuing to move forward. It is sticking with something even when challenges and obstacles come along because the goal is so compelling to you. Grit is a belief in a growth mindset – that is, believing that intelligence, skills, and talent are not static but can be developed with effort, strategies, and feedback. Grit is a belief that hard work and effort can and do play a significant role in the outcome of our situations. Grit is a willingness to keep at something for the long haul without giving up. Grit is about having such a passion and sensing such a purpose for what you are doing that you will absolutely not give up.

Some people seem to have a lot of it – and others not so much.

If you’re curious, Duckworth has a free, short, online “test” you can take, The Grit Scale, to see how gritty you are. Of course, I was hoping to see I had a high grittiness score, and…well? I didn’t. After some reflection, this doesn’t surprise me. I’ve changed jobs a lot. I’m enthusiastic about starting new projects, but I don’t always follow them all the way to completion before something else catches my attention. (You can ask my husband about this, and he’ll confirm it. We often joke about the degree to which my attention is diverted: “Ooooh, look! Something shiny!”) However, because I do believe in a growth mindset, I’m determined to put some effort into becoming grittier as I move forward.

Which brings me back to my journey as a photographer and the lessons that I could learn from the process. Photography is an area where I can claim a bit of grit. As mentioned earlier, it’s likely that I have taken well over 250,000 digital photographs in the past five and a half years. Of those quarter of a million images, I have probably deleted over 90%. And only a fraction of that 10% of images has ever actually seen the light of day. It’s strange, though, for reasons I don’t completely understand, I’ve never looked at any of those images as worthless “failures.” Each and every one has been a stepping stone. Each and every photograph has taught me something.

In the beginning, it was often a case of my looking at the back of my camera after a shot, and seeing that it was completely black. Oops. Guess I underexposed. If the back were completely white? Oops. Guess I overexposed. Would these images be considered “failures”? Unless I had had the intention to create abstract imagery of a starless, moonless, lightless night or a polar bear in a blizzard (which I didn’t), absolutely. But in the end, though they may have been “failures,” they were not lacking in value. These “failures” taught me what I didn’t want. They taught me what didn’t work – and also what might work. In gaining clarity of what I did not want, I also gained clarity and direction to move toward what I did want. Though the all-black and all-white images on the back of my camera are quite rare these days, I still examine each and every photograph I take to see if the image has arrived yet, or far more likely, is still on its way.

I’ve often said that I would like to live my non-photographic life more like I pursue photography – seeing each mistake, failure, or imperfection not as something to try to avoid, hide, or be ashamed of, but instead simply as a stepping stone, a lesson to be learned. Being more willing to try new things and experiment. Taking chances even if I’m uncertain of the outcome. Not being frustrated when I can’t do something the first time I try. It’s definitely a work in progress. A lot of life’s challenges aren’t deleted quite as easily as a digital file is, but I’m working on it.

What are the things that you would really like to do? What are the ideas sitting in the back of your mind that beckon you to keep moving toward them? What have you given up on taken a break from that you truly would like to pick up again? What passions and purposes inspire you so much that you would continue to do them no matter what obstacles you encounter? Where would you like to have more grit?

Duckworth says:

“[Grit] rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve the future.” 

Our own efforts can improve the future. There’s something satisfying in that. It moves us from a place of powerlessness to one of authentic power. A place where we realize – and believe – that we can make a difference. It doesn’t end with the first shot missed – or the 9000th. It doesn’t end with the first wrongly played note – or the 600th. It doesn’t end with the first deleted image or the 250,000th. It simply doesn’t end – not if we continue learning and improving as we pursue our purpose with passion – and a little bit of grit.

delight, gratitude, photography, symbolism

delight in the form of a broken lioness

20170710-IMG_8929 e.jpg

It’s an unexpected experience, this thing called delight. It’s a word that we don’t hear all that often anymore but one that seems deserving of a comeback. Perhaps more than deserving at this point and time – perhaps necessary. How often do we actually go out and seek delight? When I think back in my own life to moments where I felt the sensation of utter delight, it hadn’t been something I was necessarily looking for.

It was unexpected. Un-awaited. Unsought.

In an instant, there it was. I imagine if I had been an observer, I would have noticed my mouth agape, the corners of my lips upturned as if readying for a smile, a sparkle in my eye, and a lightness of being. Delight has that effect. It inhabits us, even if only for a fleeting moment – hopefully, long enough for us to become aware of it to enter fully into its presence.

I’ll admit that the past several months have been a bit rough. My father’s health has been declining, and he has been enduring chronic, nearly unbearable pain for an extended period of time. If you know him, you know that he has always been a “go-er,” a “doer” – one who chooses not to slow down – even through and despite any pain he may have been experiencing. Even though his own gait has been stilted with limping for a couple of years, he continued to drive for Meals on Wheels, do nearly all the yard work, volunteer at a local pantry, help with church activities, and go for coffee every morning with the “old cronies.” However, the pain of the last couple of months has stopped him cold. He must use a walker to move from one place to another – and with each step, it is easy to see the excruciating pain he experiences. He no longer leaves the house except for appointments – and rarely leaves the couch or chair. To say this is uncharacteristic of my father is an understatement.

Procedure after procedure have been tried to no avail. Each new procedure presents us with both hope and trepidation. Hope that something will finally work to relieve his pain – and trepidation that it will simply result in another disappointment. Another disappointment for him. Another disappointment for my mother (whose patience in the past month, in the midst of frustrations and uncertainty, has risen to an unbelievable level). Another disappointment for his family and friends who miss his contagious (and loud) laugh and presence.

Watching parents age is not for the faint of heart.

And so with a combination of my emotions on overdrive from my father’s challenges, from watching my oldest son Nick graduate and look with excitement toward the next chapter of his life in college, from feeling a void at not being a part of an annual event in which I participated for the past seven years, and from several rejections in the vocational and photographic realm, I have definitely been in a phase of my life that is demanding that I move with grief and loss as frequent companions – in all the myriad forms they take.

Not that this past couple of months have been only grief and loss. There has been much to rejoice along the way, too. The moments that my dad feels good enough to come to the table to play a few rounds of dominoes. Laughter with my mother that is so intense that she “hurts from laughing.” Truly feeling excited about Nick heading off to begin his college life because I remember feeling the same way. FINALLY getting a “yes” on something that was probably the yes that I wanted the most. Patience from my husband and sons as they realize that I’m a bit “on edge” at the moment. Getting away by myself for a few days…

Finding gratitude in the moments, around the edges, and in the midst? That I can do – most of the time. I’ve been practicing that for a while. But finding delight – which seems much rarer and harder to expect? Is it possible to seek delight? I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to try.

In a conversation with a friend recently, in expressing the challenges that life is offering me, I mentioned that I was going to actively seek light and delight. So imagine my surprise yesterday morning, when delight found me – in the form of a broken figurine of a now faceless lioness tossed randomly aside in the grass near a path on which I was walking. I can’t explain it. I laughed out loud when I picked it up, and I was giggling inwardly all the while that I was posing her in a shallow puddle nearby. I knew it when I felt it, though. THIS was delight.

As these words formed this morning, my curiosity was piqued. I believe that our external world has a way of showing up with signs and messages – if we are open to seeing them. I find it extremely satisfying to seek meaning and metaphor in that which we encounter in our lives, and in this case, I found a broken, faceless lioness. With a mid-August birthday, I am a Leo, and I have been known to shoot a portrait of a lion or two. I’m a sucker for symbolism and metaphor, so I had to know. What might a lion or lioness symbolize? What message might this animal be offering to me? And, thanks to the wonders of the internet, these three topped my Google search:

Family ties



Ha. Coincidence? I doubt it. And the fact that the lioness figurine was broken? Even more appropriate. Yes, courage and strength are necessary these days – but I’d be a liar if I claimed that my courage and strength hadn’t been fractured or sprained as of late. Besides, I’m not sure I would have found the same delight in a lioness that had been whole. This lioness was faceless for goodness sake, and I offered it a photo shoot.

Yet there was something satisfying, something delightful even, about taking that which had been cast aside and forgotten, broken, abandoned, and “in the mud” – and honoring it with its own (admittedly comical) photo shoot. Though she had no face and no voice to speak, she still held a message – at least for me.

Delight in the form of a broken, faceless lioness.

Unexpected. Un-awaited. Unsought. Just as delight usually is.

–shari miller

lighthearted, photography

little twist


Friday afternoon, I took my camera and headed out for a walk through the woods on a full sun, bright and chilly day. Not long into my walk, I found myself “grounded,” crouched low, holding my camera nearly level with the earth. My preferred vantage point.

The vibrant green patches of moss had been pulling my eyes to them as soon as I left the road and continued on the path. Eventually, I finally found a swath that seemed full of life and easily accessible without too many thorned plants around it. (My back side thanked me for that.) I squatted down to begin focusing on all the little anthropomorphic sprouts standing around on the carpet of green when my eyes glanced up at a nearby plant for a moment and saw a beautiful, tiny spiral vine that whispered (not so quietly) “Me! Me! Me!”

I’ll admit, it seems like a strange notion…

…but I’ve heard other photographers mention it as well, so I know I’m not the only one that has so-called inanimate objects “speak” to them. Sometimes, quite often actually, I find that photography is far less about ME finding a subject and far more about the subject finding ME. The little things seem to have their own channel and frequency in my brain, and when they want to be heard, they simply broadcast their message in my head and nudge my eyes to see them. (To be honest, these tiny voices from nature are far kinder than other voices that occasionally make themselves present in my mind.)

I carefully removed the spiral – maybe an inch high at most – and began posing it – well, her. Yep. Posing . Placing her fragile little body carefully in the moss – to become fast friends with the red-bodied, yellow-tipped beings standing around wondering what was up with this twisted newcomer in their community. Some stood back, hesitant, while others saw new adventure in coming over to join in the dance. Soon, the daring ones were intertwined with the twisted stranger in their midst.

They danced together for a while until little twist was ready for more adventures. I plucked her carefully from the moss and continued on my way – camera bag over my shoulder, camera in one hand, tiny & fragile twist between my thumb and forefinger. We crossed a bridge, and this daring little twist wanted to tempt fate. It was slightly windy, so I was certain to find a crack in the wood on the railing of the bridge that could hold her securely – safe from an unfortunate fall. A couple of walkers and a jogger passed by, and, much to the chagrin of little twist, the humans cast their eyes in the distance to try to figure out just what I was finding to photograph. They completely overlooked my new little friend.

That’s one thing I’ve noticed – the passersby rarely look close by for what is being photographed – they look far away. It’s as if beauty is always “over there” instead of right in front of us.

Having had her adrenaline rush on the bridge, we both knew it was time for the final photo shoot. Walking on, being held even more carefully between thumb and forefinger after having lost a bit of her footing in an unfortunate accident of excessive pressure (for which I was apologetic and for which she offered me much grace), we sought the ideal location for the last portrait.

And there it was. Down a hill a bit and through a small thicket of thorned plants (of course), but there it was – a thick old log that had been cut down some time ago. The wood was decayed, plenty of cracks and crevices lined its bark, and it wore its moss like a well-loved and well-worn coat that was, perhaps, a year or two beyond its prime. A cover of trees filtered the harshest of the sun’s light, and with great care, little twist was placed in one of the cracks.

It took quite a few shots. I was seeking great clarity, great sharpness, and great definition, and little twist took it all in stride. When I began to pay more attention to the photograph I was creating than to her, she gently reminded me that perfect focus in the image was not the intention – perfect focus on the moment was. On the presence to one another. A simple presence.

In being seen. In being honored. In being noticed. Thank you, little twist, for the reminder.


–shari miller

©2017 shari miller photography (all photographs & words are my own unless otherwise noted)