A photographer's eye-opening year

After ups and downs, Zach Adams reflects, "It made my family stronger."

click to enlarge Zach Adams’ portrait of his daughter, Kinley, before her serious illness. - ZACH ADAMS OF 1221 PHOTOGRAPHY
Zach Adams of 1221 photography
Zach Adams’ portrait of his daughter, Kinley, before her serious illness.

"Eye-opening."

That's how Zach Adams describes the year 2020. Within five months, Adams went from working full time and doing a bit of photography on the side, to being laid off during quarantine and becoming a stay-at-home parent, to watching his photography business take off as he was able to take more pictures, to dealing with the sudden, severe illness of his beloved four-year-old daughter.

Adams is still trying to process all the changes he's been through this year – good and bad. Ultimately, he feels grateful for it all.

"It made my family stronger. It made my extended family stronger. It got me back in touch with friends I haven't been in touch with for a long time. So as much as I want things to go back to normal, I'm grateful," he said.

At the beginning of March, Adams spent his days at his job detailing cars and his evenings and weekends at home with his wife and daughter, trying to book photo shoots on the weekend and fit in time for taking pictures any place he could.

He was laid off from work when statewide quarantine measures closed businesses. With his wife still working full time, Adams became the full-time caregiver to his daughter Kinley. The 47 days he spent at home with her is a time he cherishes.

"I got to know her personality, I got to know how she thinks, I got to know how she learns. That's when I truly found out how smart she is, how she pieces things together and remembers things," Adams said, his devotion to his daughter evident in his voice. "Kinley means the world to me. I just love her so much."

While he was laid off, Adams also began to devote more time to photography. He began by taking pictures around the house, documenting life during quarantine and his experiences with his daughter. He also began scrolling through Facebook, looking for different events that he could photograph around town.

The first one he attended was the Reopen Illinois rally on May 16. He wasn't there either to support or to protest – just to document what was going on. After the rally, he loaded his photos to his Facebook page, 1221 Photography.

"I didn't think much of it. But I posted it on 1221 and it went viral. I woke up and it had 4,000 likes, and it kept growing and getting shares. Eventually the Facebook algorithm showed that my photos had reached over half a million people. It was eye-opening."

Adams first became interested in photography in high school at the suggestion of one of his art teachers. He started getting serious about photography in 2017, when his wife and dad bought him a professional-quality camera for Father's Day. After that, he read and watched everything he could get his hands on to learn about the function of the camera and the craft of photography. He started booking gigs, first with family and friends, shooting maternity photos, senior portraits and family portrait sessions. Each year business picked up a bit more.

He explains his passion for taking pictures this way: "The thing I love most about photography is being able to stop time at that moment and capture, at that moment, as much sadness, happiness, any type of emotion I can, in that moment."

Adams' talent for capturing the emotions of the moment made itself clear with the photographs he took of the Black Lives Matter rally held in Springfield on May 31.

"When I got there, it was one of the most emotional and powerful experiences I've ever been around. As I'm walking and taking pictures, when we got to the Capitol, there were times when I was in tears behind the camera, seeing everyone together, seeing everyone together for one cause, all different races, all different ages," he said.

As only the truly talented and inspired can, Adams was able to channel that emotion into his photographs of the event. One of the most iconic images he captured was that of a young Black child and an older white woman clasping hands as they laid on the pavement.

Once again the photos were widely liked and shared on social media, and several were published in Illinois Times.

Robert Sill, Curator of Art at the Illinois State Museum, became a fan of Adams' photography when Adams began submitting his images to the Museum's COVID-19 collecting initiative.

"Whether capturing the emotionally charged energy of a protest rally or a quiet moment of domestic tranquility, Zach Adams possesses the trained eye of a gifted photographer. He has an uncanny knack for distilling the moment, sweeping a crowd and finding some visual truth. His compositions are richly textured tonal explorations in black and white. His mastery of light and texture, of dynamic compositional balance, of capturing human emotion, all combine to elicit emotional responses in the viewer," Sill said.

Sherry Gunn of Pittsboro, Indiana, said that she first became aware of Adams' photos when his pictures of the Black Lives Matter rally came across her Facebook feed.

"They were very moving photos and I specifically recall feeling as if I were looking at pictures of the Civil Rights Movement. Zach did an excellent job at capturing the moment," she said.

Adams got a sense of just how deeply his images had touched people when he happened to be at Menards wearing a T-shirt featuring one of his photographs. He was approached out of the blue by an older white man.

"I could tell he'd seen my pictures. He shook my hand and said 'I know I don't know you, but I will march for you. I've seen your pictures, and I've never seen Black Lives Matter rallies from that angle before or understood before. I will march for you.'"

Another time, Adams was approached in the Culver's parking lot by another, older white man who pointed out that Adams' brake lights were out. The man looked him in the eye and said, "I want you to be safe."

"At that point I got emotional, because at no point in my life has an older white man who I don't know looked out for me," Adams said, musing that just maybe things are changing in this country, a little bit at a time.

As Adams' pictures gained traction on social media, his photography business started to take off. Requests for gigs started to come in, as well as requests to purchase t-shirts with his iconic Black Lives Matter rally photo on it.

Then, towards the end of July, his daughter's school reached out. Kinley wasn't acting like her normal, outgoing self.

In the coming days, it became clear something wasn't right. Kinley complained of headaches and pain in her eyes. One morning she woke up with slurred speech. At the hospital, a CT scan and MRI revealed a lesion on Kinley's brain. She was referred to the St. Louis Children's Hospital for testing and treatment.

Over the past few weeks, Kinley has been in and out of the hospital in St. Louis – at one point being rushed there by ambulance from Springfield when she couldn't stop vomiting. She has spent 11 days as an inpatient, undergoing countless blood tests, IV treatments and brain scans. Adams and his wife struggled with the fear and helplessness that comes from watching your child suffer and not being able to fix it for them.

Throughout the ordeal, they have been buoyed by an outpouring of love and support from friends, family and fans of Adams' photography.

When Gunn read about Kinley's medical issues on Facebook, she offered to start a GoFundMe account on his behalf to defray the costs of medical bills and travel to St. Louis. As a pediatric nurse and a mother whose own children have been hospitalized, she realized that it can be nerve wracking for parents facing mounting bills, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

"Parents should be bedside when their kids are ill and need them, and unfortunately many parents have to choose between being bedside with their child or keeping a roof over their head," said Gunn.

"I was just overwhelmed that a complete stranger did that for me," Adams said.

It looks like Kinley will be OK. The consensus of her medical team seems to indicate that she may have contracted West Nile Virus, which is responding well to antibiotics and steroids. She is now at home with her family and looking forward to starting T-ball at the end of August.

As for Adams, he is still taking pictures and working to build his photography business. He dreams of a day when he can make photography his full-time occupation, whether as a photojournalist or a portrait photographer. And throughout it all, he stays positive.

"As long as I kept my daughter positive and I kept a positive attitude, I've seen that positivity will outlast the negative times. That's why I wear a mask that says positive vibes only."

To book a photo session with Adams, send him a message through the 1221 Photography Facebook page or email him at 1221photography1@gmail.com. To contribute to the Kinley Adams GoFundMe account, visit https://gf.me/u/yk2kxz.

Erika Holst is the Curator of History at the Illinois State Museum.

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