Seeing the Light

Monni Must’s encore photography career and newfound passion.

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” — Buddha

“The most significant thing in a woman’s life is often the birth of a child,” says Monni Must. “It makes you realize how much you are capable of loving. It changes your forever. It adds a dimension you never knew you had.” And then, when tragically, a parent loses a child, “you become aware of the depth of sadness” that is possible.

Must knows both extremes all too well. As the mother of four daughters who didn’t expect to become a mother at all, she embraced with her entire being the very act of motherhood all those years ago. When the girls were older and ready to take flight on their own, Must reinvented herself through her lifelong passion of photography, turning what had been for decades a hobby into a full-force encore career. And then, when she lost her eldest daughter Miya, Must turned once again to her photography to provide another kind of salvation.

She started first photographing Michigan-based Holocaust survivors for what became a hard-cover published book entitled Living Witnesses. “This project came out of that desperation I felt after Miya died,” she says. “It was my way of connecting with people who had gone through tragedy and enormous loss and I felt that since they had gone through his nightmare 65 or more years ago, I needed their assurance that I would remember my daughter and keep living.”

Must has reinvented herself so many times. First, at midlife, she created her photography career out of the loneliness of the empty nest. “It’s what I wanted to do — literally, I thought I was going to put the world on fire.”

Must has always observed the world through the viewfinder of a camera and captured people, places, experiences on film as her way of communicating. It kept her away from the drugs and alcohol that her peers entertained in their youth and it took her to a specialty photography school in California, where she studied the technical aspect of capturing a moment in time forever, as art, as commentary, as memory.

“I didn’t even know you could be a woman photographer then,” recalls Must, who married at 24, after attending an elite photography school in California. “I just knew I liked taking pictures.”

Raising her four daughters, Must dug her heart and her hands into every moment of their young lives, photographing friends and their families for fun. She didn’t want to leave her kids for work, and luckily she didn’t have to. By the time her youngest, Sabrina, turned 16, Must realized it was time “to find something to fulfill my life. My husband worked a million hours and my kids, I couldn’t hold them back — they were going to college. I don’t shop, I’m not a luncheon girl, and I could only exercise so much,” she says, laughing. “It was a desperate attempt to make sure I was whole,” she says, on a more serious note. “I have this passion. So much of my generation was raised that it wasn’t about finding your passion.”

Naturally by Monni is the super-successful artistic photography business that Must created a mere eight years ago. In it, she has found an outlet for her lifelong passion, providing art and soul for so many people through her portraiture and through the books she creates, merging image with message. It was at midlife that Must finally found the freedom and focus to reinvent herself through a passion she’d always had. “When I’m looking through that viewfinder, I see everything,” Must says, almost breathless. “I can do it all when I’m looking in that camera.”

Today, Naturally by Monni is a booming business, with a business manager, a full-time assistant and several digital artists. Must did what Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot shows in her book, The Third Chapter: reinvented herself post-child-rearing to become the person she’d always wanted to be. “My whole world for all those years was my kids,” she says. “I needed to find something for me. Fortunately, I had a passion — all I needed was to develop it. I jumped in with four feet at the age of 48.”

And then, two years ago, she reinvented herself once again. Out of necessity. First came the first Holocaust book, a gorgeous, thick clear-as-vision presentation of survivors of one of history’s most atrocious experiences. Now, she is photographing 250 Holocaust survivors around the world for a second book by the same name. “This is my way of cataloging these people and the world so we will not forget them,” she says. Must’s photography has become about more than seeing the world, since Miya died — it’s now about recording lives that have been lived. “If I do something really meaningful, I keep Miya around — she’s here with me.”

“When I started my business, I was looking to define who I was — looking to do something that gave me another dimension,” Must says. “It was never really about business.” “Now,” she says, “it’s about finding a purpose. I have to feel like there’s something worthwhile, a driving force in me. This project, this work, gives me all that and more.”


© 2011 Copyright   Allison Stuart Kaplan LLC

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  1. Monni; a most amazing inspiration for all women…Lynne; a fabulous writer…Love you girls!

  2. Your site has helped me a lot to bring back more confidence in myself. Thanks! Ive recommended it to my friends as well.

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