She was exhausted with eyelids tinted a dark purple. She carried lines across her face like experience from years of emotion—laughter, anger, remorse and forgiveness. Her children were seated adjacent to her as she slightly scolded them for misbehaving, but never a moment’s passing without love.
Kelly Dawn Edwards, 49, was an aspiring photographer that tirelessly tried to capture the essence of human emotion. She had raised 10 children—both biological and foster—and faced the horrors of an abusive marriage, while balancing coursework with her career.
Each morning when dawn approached, Edwards would awake the same as the day before: at 5 a.m. ready for the day ahead. She would wake up her children for daycare, so that she could drive an hour out for classes. And finally, she would spend the afternoon in classes and the evening at work.
“Sometimes, I’m just tired. I’m thankful they go to bed at 8 o’clock, so I can do some of my homework, but it’s difficult at times,” said Edwards, Visual Communications student photographer and single mother. “I am so horribly busy right now that I’ll edit for school and then stop. I’ve owed people pictures for months or years, because I only have time to edit for one assignment and then I have move on to my next one, if I want to finish my coursework.”
Midwife and Medicine
Originally a midwife, Edwards specialized in homebirths before she moved toward portraitures and other photography. Her passion stemmed from the moment her neighbor’s water broke, which sparked her career into delivering children.
“When you attend a birth, they may forget whether their mom was there or their mother-in-law; they may forget certain aspects in their delivery, but they don’t forget who helped them the most,” said Edwards. “It was a huge honor. They were absolutely humbling experiences because people never forget you.”
Through the years of delivering children, she said she loved the professional labor support she gave women to smooth the labor process of homebirths. It was not until 25-years later that she divorced her husband and decided medicine was her calling.
She declared pre-med as her major before she was confronted by her father. Her father, at the time sick with Alzheimer’s disease, asked her whether she was happy in medicine.
“At first I shrugged it off, but he stopped me again and asked me if I were truly happy. I had to re-evaluate everything,” said Edwards. “I didn’t want to be called at 3 a.m. to deliver someone’s baby. I’ve done that for too long.”
From the First Shot
She began her studies at Tulsa Community College and discovered her passion for photography on a trip to Ireland for an English course. Her photography started as a means of documenting her trip, but after showing her colleagues the photos she shot, they said she should consider taking up photography as a career.
“When we had that trip back in 2013, we had a discussion because she was on the fence of whether she should go to school for medicine or photography,” said Sloan Davis, an assistant professor in English at Tulsa Community College and now friend of Edwards. “She kept showing me these photos that she took and I thought ‘man, you’re really talented,’ you need to follow your heart—that was the advice I gave her.”
Edward said she promised her friends and colleagues that she would take a photography course. After receiving more affirmation from her colleagues in the course, she said once she won a scholarship for one of the images she featured, she thought she should “just go for it.” She then applied to the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT) for a degree in Visual Communications with an emphasis on photography.
“She not only understands how the camera works, but she has an eye for it, and I don’t know if you can teach that. She sees a lot of things that most people don’t see, and then she captures it,” said Davis. “It’s like telling a story in her photos. She’s always catching some kind of narrative that most people might not see, depending on the angle and depending on the post-production of the photo.”
Her Closure via Photography
Edwards spent years meddling in different styles of photography for various organizations, and found that she loved portraiture. She said she loves to capture human emotion in her photography and spent many hours perfecting her techniques on capturing all ranges of emotion.
“I like to take a photo of somebody and make it into something that tells their story—telling someone’s story in a way that is not necessarily wedding photography,” said Edwards. “That’s what I want to do. That’s how I express myself.”
She defined her work on her ability to capture the intimacy of emotion, especially her emotions in a series of photos about her divorce with her abusive husband. Through her tears, she said the series was a pivotal moment in finding closure in ending the 25-year-long marriage.
“It [the series] was very hard to do, just having to relive those emotions. I learned that I haven’t forgiven him yet, when verbally I said that I forgave him,” said Edwards. “Going through all those emotions, and realizing that I hadn’t was eye-opening for me and painful for me. It was like, ‘F**k, I’m not over this yet. It was self-revealing, if anything.”
After she finished the project, she said she had released the weight she had carried from the darkest moments of her life. She said it felt freeing and her personal journey was the most intimate project she had ever traversed.
“I think all of our experiences, whether good or bad, make us who we are. I do the best that I can every day,” said Edwards. “Had I not been able to forgive, I don’t know who I would be.”
Moving Forward as a Single Mother
Edwards continued to balance her career, her social life, her family and her coursework through her daily obstacles as a single mother. She said she had difficulty building new relationships with those around her and sometimes with parenting her children.
“It’s a little difficult at times and sometimes I get a little serious for too long. As a single mom, all of those expectations that your family has for you and everyone else has for you, makes it difficult to ask for help,” said Edwards.
Edwards said her goal was helping others and to live her life through love. She said she believes that if she did not help others, she could not survive. She wanted to forgive others for their mistakes and find inspiration in herself, through her work, and through her family.
“When I die, the thing that I want people to say about me is that I was the most-loving person, that I was always there for people—to be kind and loving and always walking love,” said Edwards. “I strive to walk the line of love, despite being angry or tired sometimes.”
Edwards is continuing her studies and in the process of officially adopting her grandsons. She is working toward piecing together her portfolio as well as working toward featuring more of her photography in art shows and galleries.
“She is one of the most astounding people I have ever worked with. She is like my second mother,” said Mia Riddle, student filmmaker and photographer. “We work together. She helps push me into film and photography. I always think: if she can handle everything life has thrown at her, so can I.”