Photographer Ashley Comer was born, and raised by adoptive parents in Milton, Massachusetts.
She grew up in a tight-knit family of adopted children, but became more and more curious about her birth mother as she grew up.
While finishing her final semester at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, she discovered that Sheila, her biological mother, had moved down to Florida, not far away.
After reconnecting, the two were finally able to meet again after 22 years.
“I discovered that the law in regards to my adoption does not permit any information [about my biological parents] until the age of twenty-one, so I was only a year ahead of what was legal anyhow,” Comer told Business Insider.
She decided to turn the experience into a photo series, called “Meeting Sheila.” It started out as a series of candids during their first weekend together, but as they grew closer, the subsequent photographs were born of collaboration, and the project served as an icebreaker as they reconnected.
Comer spoke to Business Insider about the project and shared images with us.
Comer, a photography major, had already planned her senior thesis project before tracking down her biological mother. But she eventually scrapped the original project to focus on 'Meeting Sheila' instead.
It wasn't until two days into Comer's final semester of college that the adoption agency told her that Sheila had received her information, and she learned her biological mother was only a state away. Comer wrote a hopeful letter, and Sheila responded a few weeks later in a short but touching way that expressed her mutual excitement.
The next day, they talked on the phone a bit. They revealed some personal details about their lives and the adoption, and found they both had artistic interests. The two scheduled an in-person visit for Comer to visit Sheila in Florida.
'I was very eager to meet Sheila, and I know she was just as eager to meet me,' Comer said. 'But if she had been further away, I probably would have waited until I graduated to make the trip to Florida. 'Still, it wasn't really about proximity. Time was a much larger factor. I only had five weeks left in Savannah when I realised Sheila and I could finally meet. I wanted to utilise the time I had left, which meant a visit every weekend.'
Comer's nerves were on edge at the prospect of finally being able to meet the woman who gave her life. She couldn't even stomach eating any food after stopping for a break on the way down to Sheila's home, she said.
Sheila, her boyfriend Ricky, and his daughter Bethany, all greeted Comer and her boyfriend when they pulled up to the house. The camera didn't come out until after all the hugs and smiles, when Sheila began showing all the items and information she had held onto from Comer's birth.
The camera would continue to work more magic that first weekend in capturing candid and special initial moments. 'I snapped photos of her as she talked. As we walked and reminisced, Sheila would also make potential suggestions, mainly about locations. She soon started to suggest different outfits that could possibly add to the imagery. For the photographs that feature both of us in the frame, I would set my timer, use a remote cable, and just let conversations take place while releasing the shutter,' Comer said.
The photography became a central component as the two got to know each other over the next few weekends. The following weekend, Sheila travelled to Savannah with her son Chris to see Comer's photography in an exhibit. Sheila was able to see and understand more about Comer's work, including her self-portraiture, which Comer said 'broke another barrier, as Sheila got to witness firsthand the nature of my photographs.'
On subsequent weekends, the photos went from candids to directed and conceptualized shots. This resulted in images that Comer said found 'a lot more romantic, aesthetically.' Comer brought assorted photos from similar projects, and the two worked closely to plan the compositions in unison.
This photo was one of the most memorable for Comer. 'Sheila's boyfriend Ricky noticed how beautiful it looked when the dust floated into the light,' she said. 'So Ricky and his daughter Bethany started kicking the ground as Adam released the shutter. The photograph was a five-person effort to say the least. When we finally got up from the shot we were completely covered in dirt, but it was worth it.'
'The image of Sheila's hands in the water was also a really fun moment,' Comer said. 'Sheila was happily jumping in this massive puddle in the dirt, and I managed to capture that shot as she was soaking up the sun.'
Comer was particularly fond of this image as well. 'Finally, there is the image of Sheila sitting on her porch at night. I was extremely excited about this photograph, as for me it seemed the most similar to my normal way of working. I printed it the next day.'
For the final showing of this initial series, Comer decided to keep the moments that were both candid and more composed. 'I felt they not only told a truthful story, but also offered a unique moment of juxtaposition,' she said of the decision.
Comer supports her birth mother's decision. 'I do not think Sheila abandoned me, and I would never wish to have her misrepresented,' Comer said. 'She made the right decision for both of us at the time. Now that we know one another we can say with confidence that it was the right decision.'
The connection to Sheila has been meaningful, but Comer still considers her adoptive parents to be her mum and dad. 'Though I am extremely grateful for (Sheila) and this opportunity to have some sort of relationship with her, it is still important to distinguish that she is my birth mother, and it is my parents who helped me to be who I am today,' she said.
Comer is now working at a summer enrichment program in Massachusetts where she teaches photography courses and workshops. The element of distance has altered the newly formed dynamic with Sheila. However, they still find time to talk. 'It depends. Sometimes a few times a week, while other times maybe once a week, if at all. We both have a hectic schedule, so it can be difficult to communicate. Despite the gaps, we touch base often to discuss the small things going on in both our lives,' she said.
There are plans to meet again at some point, and for Comer to continue photographing and documenting their relationship. 'For me 'Meeting Sheila' is the first chapter in a much longer narrative,'Comer said. 'But the introductory chapter is over. When Sheila and I get together again, the relationship won't be the same. There won't be a moment of pure revelation.'
Of course, there is another matter at play. 'There is also the question of ever meeting up with my biological father. I only know what Sheila has told me about him, and what the adoption forms say. I am curious to perhaps meet him in the near future, but am still allowing for this first step to truly sink in,' Comer said.
For now, Comer is taking things as they go. She hopes to one day turn the project into a book. 'This may sound cliché, but for me photography fills the void,' she said. 'Words cannot fully describe this experience for me.' When asked for five words that described the series for her, she replied with 'warmth, wholesome, gratitude, pride, joy.' And she's not the only one who was touched by the project. The intimate photos were recently featured at the Louvre in Paris as part of the Fifth Annual Exposure Award Reception.
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