Finding Healing

20 yr Milestone: Self Portrait by Pulitzer Prize Photographer

Me Ra Koh

This is one of those blog posts that I’ve started a dozen times only to find myself deleting the words and restarting.  Fact is, there isn’t any natural way to bring up uncomfortable topics.  But for the sake of my own healing, for the legacy I leave Pascaline and Blaze, for the generations of women to come after me in my family, for all that I stand for and have built my life around, I’m going to forfeit natural and be abrupt.

On February 14th this year, I crossed my twenty year milestone from when I was date raped.  Twenty years.  Has that much time really gone by?

I remember being nineteen, desperate to find any kind of book that would offer me hope. That’s when I found the book called, Sexual Assault: Will I Ever Feel Okay Again? At the end of her book was a chapter titled “Twenty Four Years After the Rape”. I remember reading that chapter first.  She talked about her children.  She talked about how far away the rape seemed, like another lifetime.  She talked about how she had come to rebuild a life that was worth living.  I wanted to badly to see a photo of her, to know what freedom from shame could look like twenty plus years later.  But there wasn’t one.

The very idea of my rape seeming far away, another lifetime, seemed impossible.  I think I secretly tucked away a dream to make it to twenty years–that this marker in time would give me reason to celebrate because I had chosen to not give up on life.

For years, I’ve avoided stores like Fred Meyer or Target around the Valentine’s Day season.  It’s been a battle to separate the nightmares from that night and all the hearts and cupids that decorate the stores.  My birthday is also on February 9th, and my mama has always called me her Valentine Baby.  When the thief of all joy comes to rob us, he settles for nothing and tries to take everything.

I have held on to a secret wish, a whispered dream, that I would one day find myself looking at Valentine’s Day tokens and not feel the pain from years past.  Without me realizing it, that very thing happened this last February.  I was in Chicago on a layover and without realizing it I was looking at the different Valentine’s Day tokens in one of the gift stores–wondering what I wanted to do with the kids to celebrate Valentine’s.  Time came to board, and as I headed to my flight I stopped.  I realized that it had happened.  A deep shift had happened inside me when I wasn’t looking.  I had looked at Valentine’s Day gifts without ever thinking about the rape.

Ever since that moment…it is hard for me to find words to express…but I feel like I’m SHINING!  I feel like I’m SHINING, like a BRIGHT STAR.  It’s as if I’ve passed a milestone that at one time, a scared, vulnerable 19 year old girl, doubted she would ever make it to.  All of a sudden, I’ve realized on a deeper level that I not only made it here, I’m making it!

While at WPPI, the SONY Artisans of Imagery group had a special dinner together.  During the dinner, I asked Brian Smith if he could do something for me.  I told him about this recent milestone, and I asked him if he could help me with a self portrait that expressed a shining quality, a brightness that is no longer overrun by the shadows.  Brian is an amazing photographer, a Pulitzer Prize amazing kind of photographer.  And he looked at me with total respect and said, “Yes.  Let’s try to make it happen this week.”  Which brings me to being Brian’s model for one of his SONY booth shoots.

We had a GREAT time joking and teasing each other, and it was powerful to be in front of the camera again.  I’m always telling photographers that the best way to help people relax in front of the camera is to spend time in front of the camera.  I got a dose of my own medicine and was reminded of how vulnerable and lost we feel when the camera is pointing at us.

But Brian Smith was AMAZING to work with, and not only was he taking my portrait, but he was working to capture that shining quality I want to show my kids.  These are some of my favorites.

Brian purposely used a Ring Flash to create a “BRIGHT” feel for the photos.

The Ring Flash fits over the lens and fills in every shadow with this beautiful glow.  You might also think a white blouse on a white background wouldn’t work, but Brian felt it would make the story that much stronger.

Here is an example of how the brightness changed when we added my favorite blue wrap and turned off the Ring Flash.  This photo is by far one of my favorites.  I am so at peace with myself, comfortable and at home in my skin.  Confident.  Thank you Brian!  These are amazing!

Ever since that day in Chicago’s airport, I feel a new release of joy pouring into my life.  I feel a new release of confidence, of clarity in my mission to empower women.  And most of all, I feel like every shadow has been filled.  The shadows are still there.  But the shadows have become a part of what makes the story so beautiful.  I LOVE the shadow in this photo.

My painful experiences will always be with me, but the shadows illuminate the brightness in my life that much more.  And that is why this last one is my favorite!

Thank you so much Brian Smith!  What an incredible gift.  These photos will live on for generations.  These photos will tell my kids, grandkids and great grandkids the story of how we don’t have to get rid of the darkness, we don’t have to live in shame, we can embrace our pain and end up shining that much brighter.  All my respect and love Brian.  Thank you.

And maybe a woman who is deeply hurting, like I was twenty years ago…who desperately needs to see what it looks like twenty years after, will find hope in the story of these photos.

Enjoy this special Photo Recipe on Capturing Your Self Portrait from Beryl Young.  Beryl applied for the SOAR! Scholarship years ago, and even though she wasn’t a recipient she pushed forward with her pain and photography dream.  Her story is incredibly moving, and I know this inspiring Photo Recipe will bless you.

Take some time this week to think about the kind of self portrait you could capture that would show your children a deeper part of who their mama is and was.  If you don’t know where to start think of a few words to describe this season in your life.  I started by telling Brian Smith the words; bright, shining, and full.




  1. Me Ra, I love this post, you are so incredibly brave to embrace the shadow as part of your story. You didn’t run from it or bury it, you let it make you brighter. Thank you for constantly being an encouragement to us, your readers. -M

  2. Beautiful, Me Ra! Shining indeed.

  3. Awesome, inspiring, important! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Shelly Stewart says:

    You look so beautiful, confident and proud! As you said in the workshop, it’s the darkness that illuminates the light…it’s vital and part of the beauty. Hugs to you~

  5. Jennifer Leigh Tacbas says:

    Me Ra… Congrats on embracing the presence of your shadows and for not allowing them to restrain you from happiness! I am so deeply proud of you. You are beautiful! xo

  6. BreAnna says:

    Beautiful post and stunning photos! You are most certainly SHINING! I am so happy for you to have reached this milestone and thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

  7. freida hall says:

    “it’s the darkness that illuminates the light.” – Me Ra Koh –> my favorite quote from the workshop. 🙂 what a powerful & beautiful post this this – keep shining friend! 🙂

  8. Laura Hanis says:

    Thank you, MeRa. Thank you for bearing your soul and for always being raw with us. Thank you for your honesty and witness of healing.

  9. Me Ra, thank you for sharing! Your words are so beautiful and always have a way of bringing tears to my eyes!

  10. Jamie says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. Truly powerful!

  11. Kari at Mamabloo says:

    I love you, darling. The image of you as a star is simply perfect.

  12. Very moving blog! Congrats on your milestone! <3

  13. RachelAbelson says:

    Three words: YOU.INSPIRE.ME.

  14. What a beautiful post… You look so radiant, and your story is one of such glorious redemption. When I read your post it made me think of these verses in Philippians: “you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.” You are shining, holding out words of life to so many! Thank you so much for your bravery in sharing your soul.

  15. you’re just awesome – and congratulations on twenty years of a life worth living – you’re an inspiration to so many of us! here is to the next 20!

  16. Gorgeous. Inside and out.

  17. Amanda Mays says:

    You are beautiful!!!!

  18. Andrea Scott says:

    You are truly shining now! Thanks so much for sharing, you are an inspiration!

  19. Tina P. says:

    Thank you, thank you for sharing this MeRa! I don’t catch your blog all the time but this time I’m so so glad I read this and think there was a purpose for me to read this. I’m writing this with tears in my eyes as I am one of those women that needed to read and see what it CAN look like. The words you wrote regarding your last photo with the shadow gave me chills, “My painful experiences will always be with me, but the shadows illuminate the brightness in my life that much more.” I fight ALL THE TIME, to forget the past and it’s the reminders like you’ve given that help me break down that brick wall little by little so that I can allow myself to be “just me”, past and all. I will likely read this post many more times. Thank you for being the bright light that you are to so many women. Your smile and laughter is contagious and I can hear your laughter through these photos. I’m so happy that your secret wish came true…it’s well deserved! You definitely are the picture of freedom from shame. Thank you for sharing! You deserve all good that comes your way!

  20. Love it MeRa … and know there is more yet to come! <3

  21. Summie Roach says:

    Once again, without knowing, you encourage me as you did 17 months ago! To embrace a past with a new perspective and outlook! Shining where once only shadows lived…. Love you for who you are and what you do for others! Shine on! 🙂

  22. You look radiant, MeRa. I am so happy for you. May your days always be filled with the brightness you describe feeling. Hugs.

  23. Me Ra says:

    Thank you so much for celebrating this wonderful milestone with me. The freedom is that much richer with all of you here.
    Tina, your comment moved my heart because I could relate so deeply. I spent so many years trying to get “past” or “push away” the things that caused me shame or pain. I think photography and a little grace from God showed me that we need the darkness to see the light. I didn’t need to push away anymore. All of me was beautiful, is beautiful, all of me. And all of you Tina, all of you.


  24. ali anderson says:

    X marks the spot.

    You are a bright and shiny treasure chest, Me Ra. I’m thankful you don’t lay buried at the bottom of the sea though. Instead, you are open; spilling out your gifts for everyone around you.

    Love to you.

  25. Carmalee says:

    Beautiful MeRa. I love how you have captured forever the radiance about you that so many of us have been drawn to. Congratulations on such an important milestone! Keep shining!

  26. Wendy says:

    Thank you for sharing a private, vulnerable moment I can completely understand. You have given me the courage to write about my own time…at a moment in the future when I am strong enough.

  27. Melanie says:

    Me Ra – you are needed in this world. Your photography shines and your soul inspires. Congratulations on reaching an invaluable milestone.

  28. Catherine rulli says:

    You inspire so many in so many ways. Keep on shining. Namaste.

  29. Cyndi says:

    Wow, Me Ra this was beautiful! I am crying as Im typing, and just appreciate so much that you’ve shared this with all of us. that is what makes you so amazing-truly! You have so much inner light that NEEDS to shine out to others. Because ther are indeed others that need to see your light, and know your story. Thank you for shining your light so brightly, and full! I love your photos.

  30. 20 years?!! Wow!! You are an inspiration to so many, me included. Thank you for sharing so openly, it’s that raw human connection that helps us all. Love you to pieces, and I’m so proud of what you’ve done, and how you’ve grown in spite of what has happened.

    Shine On, I know you will!!

  31. Nanette says:

    You are so brave and so beautiful!

  32. Rhonda Kane says:

    I know I haven’t been your friend for very many of those 20 years, but I am sooooo happy for you and proud of you – not only of what you’ve let God work in you, but sought out. There are so many beautiful, growing, shining years to come.
    Love you my friend!!!

  33. Ryan Fonkert says:

    Powerful post. Thanks for sharing, and congratulations on getting to where you are now in your journey. Frankly, I think your “shine” comes through in about every post your write, whether it’s about a workshop, client, or your family. You have an obvious and infections zeal for life; something no “thief of all joy” can take away. A belated Happy Valentines Day to you and your family. 🙂

  34. This pictures are beautiful! I saw him taking these and wondered what you were up too, lol. This is great!

  35. Me Ra this is so beautiful! I sat in one of your classes at Blissdom, which must have been right after your V-Day 😉 and one of the things I noticed immediately was that you GLOWED!

    I haven’t experienced a date rape, but I’ve lost four close family members, a friend, and a baby to miscarriage in the last five years. I’ve felt the darkness and heaviness and wondered if my soul would ever soar again. Your story resonates with me so much because I find such healing behind the lens. I’m not a professional by any stretch, but there’s something about photography that just feeds my soul.

    Thank you for making your heart and healing accessible. The white on white is absolutely spectacular and makes the radiance you carry on the inside shine through on the outside 🙂

    Sweet blessings!

  36. my dear friend. what a great post. i’m beyond happy for you. there IS a light that is coming for a heart that chooses to hold on. 🙂

  37. Jan B says:

    As I was there watching this shoot, I did notice how you were glowing, Me Ra. However, I didn’t know the circumstances of the shoot. I am glad you have these photos to see your shine and strenghth as much as all do!

  38. Genie says:

    Again showing the depth of character, brilliance and feminine wisdom you have Me Ra. Pride for who I work with and what I do expanding exponentially as I type. Love you deeply. Congratulations on crossing the threshold.

  39. Georgina Petrosky says:

    Congratulations! This is an amazing milestone of recovery – here’s to celebrating you and the light that shines in you!