As she watched a story about a bus driver becoming the latest person added to the unending scroll of Covid-19 victims, photographer Jonna Michelle knew that she needed to step away from the TV and her computer screen. It was time to stop panicking if all of her friends and family didn’t check in with her multiple times a day.
“I felt so stressed, so anxious,” she remembers. “I told myself that it was going to be okay if I didn’t hear from somebody for two hours.”
Michelle gave herself permission to unplug from the coronavirus pandemic for a bit and sought sanctuary on the Northwest Branch Trail of the Anacostia River. Burnt Mills, to be exact.
“I found a flat rock and laid on it for a long time,” she recounts. “I just stared at the sky – and found everything I needed. Honestly, I just needed time to myself, time to heal my soul.”
The ability to mend broken spirits is one of nature’s great powers. Giving other people happiness is another. Michelle learned the latter in 2013, when she turned her life-long love of photography into a new business enterprise: Jonna Michelle Photography. She specializes in family photography.
“I really enjoy shooting photographs of families,” she says. “One of the first questions I ask clients as a photographer is where they would like the photographs to happen. Most people haven’t given much thought to where they want to take their family photographs, so I began to ask, ‘Why not do this along Sligo Creek Parkway?’”
The creek is Michelle’s extended back yard, a place she fell for the first time she drove by it in 2008.
“It was like I found an enchanted forest,” she remembers. “I remember turning to my husband and asking, ‘What is this place? Let’s live here!’” Michelle began roaming all over Sligo Creek, becoming particularly drawn to its sparkling mica that gives Silver Spring its name.
Clients were thrilled with her work from the start.
“People started finding me and telling me they would love to have their photographs taken there,” she says. “They were excited about the place.”
The scenery makes for an exceptional photographer’s assistant, too.
“Families need a place that’s distraction-free, safe, and overs a lot of room to run around for their kids,” Michelle says. “You never know how kids are going to react when a stranger puts a camera in their faces. I incorporate nature into the relationship building that goes on. ‘Look at this pretty leaf. Look at this rock. It’s a gift from nature.”
It’s also a gift that keeps on giving.
“Sligo Creek is beautiful, and it doesn’t matter what time of year it is,” Michelle says. “I shoot in all seasons because living in the parkway gives me a sense of every season. There’s always something to look forward to.”
Though summer may be at hand, Michelle finds all kinds of surprises when the temperature turns frigid.
“I always encourage people to also think about winter sessions in the parkway,” she says. “This is primarily because, if you make safety a priority and are open to a little bit of adventure, you can have a lot of fun taking family photos outdoors in the winter — especially in Sligo Creek. I always tell clients to play up the cozy by wearing lots of layers, scarves, hats, mittens, vests, etc., and I also usually wrap them in a blanket, which introduces an unexpected element of charm. Because the scenery is neutral during this time of year (white and brown), the people become the primary focus of every image, and clients end up with very unique photos.”
Maintaining her full-time job as a communications director for the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD) hasn’t stopped her from getting out on the creek with her clients.
“Balancing both jobs can be challenging,” Michelle says. “Shooting family photos is a labor of love for me. It brings me so much joy. “If I turned this into a full-time job, I would have to charge exorbitant rates.”
The restorative power of nature she finds in the woods has even helped propel Michelle to a new passion project – an ongoing blog series of interviews and photos entitled “Life in the time of coronavirus: Voices from Silver Spring.”
“Some of my photography projects had been on the back burner,” she says. “If there is a silver lining in this for me, it has been the opportunity to pick up my camera and talk to my neighbors.”
Each one she sees, even through a mask, also takes one more worry away.