Shots from the heart

Kimberly Miner goes to the ground between shots of the Wheeler family to scope out a low angle.

Kimberly Miner goes to the ground between shots of the Wheeler family to scope out a low angle. Kimberly Miner

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MILTON-FREEWATER — Before she sets one foot out of her rig at the home on Walla Walla River Road, Kimberly Miner knows she’s going to cry. She always does.

“The whole time, I am fighting tears,” she said.

The Walla Walla photographer is no novice to taking pictures of families. But on this day the tears will be for a Milton-Freewater family trying to prepare for the likeliest outcome in their situation — losing a mother, daughter and grandmother to a rare liver disease.

For an hour or so, Miner will ply her skills to create art in what is likely to be Karen Wheeler’s last formal photo session.

Such shoots start off awkwardly.

“The first time I see them, I’m aware they’re dying,” Miner said. “‘Hi, I’m Kimberly, and I’m here because your family says you’re terminal.’”

Yet she would not trade the honor for anything, she added.

It began when Miner heard about an East Coast organization offering free portrait service to families with a member terminally ill and close to death. The group was too distant to have clients in this area, but Miner said she felt the cause grow in her heart. “I decided to put it out there on my own.”

Word spread and now she’s taken some of the most sensitive, delicate shots of her career. In her business — Kimberly, Ink — she specializes in what she calls “real life photography,” done in photojournalistic style.

She likes nothing better than to become invisible to parents and kids while she captures intimate family moments with her camera.

Always, Miner said, she is awed by the requests. “They are basically inviting a stranger in to be part of it.”

Todd Reiswig asked Miner to come into his family’s situation when it looked like he would lose his father, Donn Reiswig.

His father had been battling cancer and things were not looking good. With all the sons in town and most of the grandchildren last December, Todd Reiswig seized the opportunity after discussing it with his brothers. “We didn’t know how long Dad had.”

The photo session had a twofold effect. Miner photographed the posed groupings typical for family photos, then shooed everyone off to normal family gathering moments.

Out of that time came the most serious and the most humorous pictures of the session as Miner wound in and out of conversations with her camera, Reiswig recalled.

The time served, as well, to help people grasp the reality of an impending death, he said.

“I think it was hardest for my step-mom. It drove home that point. When you first face that, everyone is positive — ‘We’re going to beat this.’ Then when you take the step to take pictures, it makes it very real,” Reiswig said

His family learned the lesson five years ago. His mother-in-law also had cancer, with devastating results. Reiswig now recommends seizing that visual slice of family before illness changes everything.

“Chemo is one of the most brutal things you can do to your body,” he said. “My dad went from being a stout and healthy man to looking like my grandfather. Before treatment starts, it’s a last chance at normalcy.”

Karen Wheeler’s daughter, Lydia Ryan, was determined to act before it was too late. Her mother is the rock Ryan and her sisters look to and lean on as they raise their own families, she said.

Having Miner reflect that in pictures seemed so right. Even if, Ryan said, her mother was “weirded out” by the idea at first.

Wheeler grew up in Milton-Freewater, married her first love and became produce manager at the local Safeway in a career spanning more than two decades. She and her husband moved to Alaska in 2007 when the grocery chain transferred her there.

Wheeler now flies to Seattle for medical treatments every few months. Without a liver transplant, however, the autoimmune disease she suffers from will eventually turn her body against itself, destroying the cells lining her liver.

Although a recent stent procedure sustains her, it’s only another Band-Aid, Ryan said. She and her sisters have watched the illness rob Wheeler of vitality over the past three years.

“Without a liver transplant, she is not expected to survive,” Ryan said.

This recent Sunday, though, is about life. When Miner arrives at the home of Jackie Nelson, another of Wheeler’s daughters, she immediately begins asking questions. She has but a few minutes to establish a connection — to absorb a sense of family dynamics and gain an understanding of her clients’ vision.

The photographer talks quietly with Ryan, getting clarification of Wheeler’s situation while surveying the landscape. Miner waves at the gaggle of children emerging from the front door.

It has stormed all morning in the Walla Walla Valley. At this moment, however, the air is still and dry. The sun shines atop the clouds, lighting everyday objects with a glow.

Wheeler’s parents, offspring and grandchildren line up on the porch of Nelson’s 107-year-old farmhouse. Herding the gathering into height-assigned positions, Miner begins with more formal shots — aside from the boy cousins making monkey faces — with the 51-year-old Wheeler seated at the center of her clan.

Wheeler’s mother, Wanda Hamby, arms crossed over her chest, keeps her eyes on her daughter. The family recently lost Karen’s sister, Kathy Turner.

“And we’ve been roller-coasting with Karen,” Hamby said. “It’s been real, real hard.”

The portrait idea is amazing, she added. “We just don’t know with her ...”

Miner said she feels she has discovered a gift of portraying the heart.

“One thing I can do is make people feel good about themselves through my photos,” she said. “I have the ability to capture emotion, so it just seems like a really good fit. If I can photograph someone’s family with them before they die, I have that to offer.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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