Inspire Speaker: Maureen Cotton

In this series of blog posts we are introducing people who are speaking at and attending Inspire 2014. Today we’d like to introduce you to Maureen Cotton of Maureen Cotton Photography who will be leading a session Wednesday afternoon on Reflect, Integrate, Strategize: Making the Most of Your Experience

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I thought photographing Franciscan monks would lead to my first great film project. Instead, it was a hidden beginning of interfaith ministry.

One of my first significant photo projects was a documentary of Franciscans who were my neighbors in Mission Hill (Boston) during my senior year at Emerson College. I was intrigued when I saw them walking up the hill from mass just as I was beginning my day. When I needed a subject for my documentary photo class I dug deep for the courage to ask to photograph their community. I knew nothing about Franciscans—I didn’t even know if, as a woman, I’d be allowed in their house.

I think a mutual curiosity led them to agree to my presence in their chapel, to follow them around the grocery store, and even to accompany them while they were visiting the homeless in the streets. I was immediately impressed by their pure intention and intense devotion.

Growing up around, but not in, Catholic churches, I had always thought Catholicism was just an Old World form of social control with medieval rituals. But I saw these Brothers engaging wholeheartedly in the rituals and practicing what they preached, so to speak (since they did not preach at all, but instead aimed to led by example). Their Ministry of Friendship was especially inspiring. The Brothers would pack a duffle bag of new socks, underwear, and sandwiches, and seek out the homeless. After the small tangible offering they would sit and listen to the recipient without judgment. With my own eyes I saw that it is indeed possible to be safe in the world, to thrive in the world, while giving and receiving unconditional love.

I wanted to broadcast their way of life to the world. I shot roll after roll of Tmax film (which I replenished with my little plastic bulk roller, to later develop in my bathtub—oh those were the days!). I envisioned sharing their story in the form of a still-image feature-length documentary. I began to scan in my black and white negatives and artfully pair them with audio. I got so far as a 5-minute trailer which stills circulates online.  The full documentary would tell of both the ridiculous and the sublime: from the interpersonal struggles of community life, to the profound personal conversion stories that inspired each of them to give their lives to God.

The challenges I faced in capturing their life started to transform me. In order to photograph the relationship between the Brothers and the homeless I had gain their trust; like the Brothers, I also had to be compassionate and listen without judgement. I, too, had to see the sanctity in washing dishes and sweeping the floor so that I could capture the intention present in these mundane tasks.

Fast forward almost 10 years later. I have a thriving and growing wedding and portrait business (I’ve just added my first associate) while simultaneously beginning a new spiritual and professional path to become a hospice chaplain. Two years ago I realized my calling to be with people as they are dying and grieving, and I’m currently enrolled in One Spirit Interfaith Seminary; in 2015 I will be Reverend Maureen Cotton. I will not be clergy of a specific religion, but rather InterSpiritual—learned in the universal spiritual needs of humans and their manifold expressions.

My documentary of the monks was so pivotal to where I am now, although not in the way I thought at the time. Years ago I envisioned my work with them as the beginning of a documentary filmmaking career. I wanted to share the stories of people who live in open-hearted devotion and transcend the social barriers we live within.

Now I see the experience as a vital heart-opening for me and proof that one can indeed live in love, even with all the that divides us. This knowledge fuels my studies of the world’s religions and the spiritual practices that prime us to be our best possible selves—to live without judgement, and to embrace the growth inherit in life’s challenges.

Wedding photography as a profession has been, and continues to be, extremely good to me and I’m not about to jump ship. I’ve had my ups and downs and big lessons of course—I am not a natural business person, but I’ve risen to the challenge. More importantly, I’ve found that what I offer families during a vulnerable and emotional time in life is extremely rewarding. I’ve also been financially successful enough to support my wife while she finishes her PhD, and to afford the tuition of my new schooling. I have the trust of my clients and the appreciation of wedding photography as a respected profession to thank for my success.

I love people—connecting with people—more than I love photography. Wedding photography is for me a meaningful pathway to countless connections and I believe in the life-long value of what I create for my clients. But slowly my work will become caring for people during another huge transition in life—death, dying and grief. And who knows? I imagine photography will weave its magic in a new way. I hope that in time I will be brave and sensitive enough to capture the emotions and vulnerability around death and family as I have done with marriage and family.

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