Little May, just 7 months old, sat in the middle of the big big bed, looking at me with curious eyes. I sat by the bedside, and held her tiny hand gently in mine. They felt so tender, fragile. I could feel her fingers move a little.
I gave her a baby handshake. She stared at me. I shook her hand a little harder – she offered what looked like a sly grin. I shook it again, and again, and again… harder each time… until her cheeks wobbled like jelly in a mini-earthquake. She chirped, giggled, and gave me a giant, toothless smile.
Tumbling backwards on the fluffy bed, Little May laughed and squealed with innocent delight. Mummy joined in, then Papa, cuddling her, kissing her, laughing. Everyone was so happy, it became quite noisy. At one point, I stopped myself in quiet embarrassment, when I realised the loudest laughter came from me.
No posing. No cheese. No counting to 3.
“Shall I wait outside while you change?”, I asked Mummy.
“No need!” came her quick reply.
Little May looked at Mummy while she undressed, and murmured impatiently. She knew it was time to fill her little tummy.
While Mummy relaxed herself on bed, Little May climbed onto her, and helped herself to an Oreo*. The baby murmured and groaned in pleasure, and playfully pulled at the nipple with little gummy bites.
Mummy smiled, and wrapped her protective arms around her. When Little May had enough, she bobbed her head from side to side, nipple still in her mouth. She tugged at it again, but this time she pulled it so hard and so long, it looked like the nipple will come off with a rubbery pop.
“Ouch!!”, Mummy yelped. Little May propped her shoulders on her lotus arms, and chuckled.
For two hours, Little May spoke to her parents in a little voice that sounds like tiny birds in a nest, like a newborn kitten in a cotton-laden shoebox. I can still hear it now, as I write. A tiny violin playing in my ears. There was no crying, no sadness, and no complaints. Just a loving family in their own world, on their own little island, talking, laughing, holding each other, touching.
As Papa placed the baby on his chest, and pulled her close in a loving embrace, Mummy leaned on his shoulder. Little May whimpered, ever so softly, and touched their faces with her tiny hands.
I struggled to hold back tears.
I looked at their portraits every night, long after the shoot was over. They’re not my own family. Not even distant relatives. But every time, I was moved to a heartache. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m really a woman. But I do know I love people, and I love Little May and her family very, very much.
In this mad, rushing world, few consider photography as an emotional experience. This is normal – I know this, it’s been 16 years. But if we harden our hearts, if we treat people like cash-spitting mannequins, if portraiture is nothing but an empty pose, what, then, will be our legacy? What good are the values we pass on? What stories do we tell our children?
Little May’s story may not be extraordinary, but it is a story I will tell my kids, over and over. A story about simple love, real happiness, and an ordinary man, blessed with a life well lived.
* During my time with breast cancer survivors, I learned that some of them – after mastectomy – had the shape of their breasts surgically enhanced, but not all of these “new breasts” come with nipples. Fake nipples, which they mischievously called “Oreos”, are totally optional (I haven’t seen any of their Oreos, but they could have chosen another biscuit with more matching colours…).