THIS IS BERKLEY.
SHE’S A FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER WHO LIVES WITH AN INVISIBLE ILLNESS. THROUGH HER STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEM AND COMMUNICATION, BERKLEY’S STORY ENCOURAGES YOU TO NEVER JUDGE A PERSON BY THEIR APPEARANCE.
We’ve worked together in the past, and you’ve taken some of our favourite photos. Can you introduce yourself to our community?
Thank-you! My name is Berkley Vopnfjord, I’m from Vancouver Island and I’ve been a full-time freelance photographer for nearly ten years. I live in a cute little brick home with Rupert (my husband), Elroy (the pup), and Sumo + Digit (two fluffy cats).
I can imagine it’s difficult to be a freelance photographer, especially with the stay at home orders we experienced this Spring. What have you been up to?
It’s been interesting. Luckily the nature of my work already had me mentally prepared for a lull in incoming jobs. Things always come in waves, so I got creative and started making repurposed denim bucket hats and bags for TODAY. Denim, my side business. I also put my health first (that can be hard to do when busy) and switched my diet to an anti-inflammatory one, life changing. I had a chance to take a business/photo course online that I’ve been meaning to take for ages. So, I suppose I made lemonade.
Your photo work ranges from lifestyle to weddings. What are your favourite moments to capture?
I’ve actually transitioned into mainly lifestyle, commercial and fashion photography. I love creative portraiture and all the *in-between moments*. I want my imagery to be thought-provoking, to tell stories (real or imagined) and my viewers to feel something.
Over the years we’ve gotten to know you more and you shared how you live with a chronic illness. What is it and how does it affect your body?
Long and complicated story short… Scoliosis and Kyphosis are what I was diagnosed with weeks after my family was in a life changing car accident on the way to my soccer game one Saturday morning in 2002. Shortly after, I was thrust into a full torso back brace (worn 24/7 for two years) in an attempt to slow the progression of my rapidly twisting and curving spine with frequent appointments in Vancouver. My first surgery was right before grade 9, my lungs and heart were being crushed and I couldn’t wait any longer. Vancouver Children’s Hospital only had 13 ICU beds, therefore my surgery was cancelled twice, almost three times, all just minutes before I was wheeled in. After 11 hours of one of the most intense surgeries you can have, I had my spine broken and put back together again, six ribs cut to lessen my hump back and two rods with hooks along my spine to keep things fused together.
Recovery was long and traumatic, my pain never went away. Over the course of 5 years I had medical professionals telling me that it was all in my head while I was trying absolutely everything to help myself (while dealing with the joys of grade school and teen life). My surgeon finally settled on booking a revision surgery the year after I finished high school. Over the course of this 14 hour surgery, all my hardware was removed and I had two screws fused along each vertebrae with two new rods running the length of my spine. While in the OR my team discovered that my lower fusion didn’t take, which was big news (I was right all along) but not much could be done.
Now, my pain is the same, if not worse. Mechanically “I look great”, but I have severe muscle and nerve damage with complex chronic pain. Everything is affected, I get shooting pain down my limbs, numbness, migraines, muscle spasms, arthritis, etc. It’s a mental, physical and emotional battle I face every damn day. My entire life changed and sped up since the diagnosis. I immediately lost my innocence as a child and entered the “real world”, I didn’t have time to deal with everyday teenager bullshit and drama. I’m beyond grateful for rock solid, supportive parents (and little brother) and truly believe that their influence and wisdom is the reason I chose not to let this ruin my life from an early age.
What is it like living with an invisible disease? How does it affect your daily life and work?
It is necessary for me to be loving what I’m doing for a living while dealing with chronic pain. This is why I do what I do. Some days I wake up and can’t get out of bed, or others my day only lasts 5 hours before I’m exhausted. I’m able to create my schedule and make sure to have rest days and constant self care in preparation for a big shoot so I’m not as stressed about a potentially poorly timed flare up. It’s a lot of work, but it’s beyond worth it. For anyone looking to support a friend or family member dealing with chronic pain/illness, I highly recommend googling the Spoon Theory.
There are pros and cons to any situation. Something that has been a hurdle for me is the judgement I receive from people who don’t know me. I am misunderstood and I look totally normal, there’s a strange guilt that comes along with that. I’ve been yelled at multiple times for not looking handicapped enough to use my parking pass on a really bad day. I am thankful that most days, on the outside, you can’t see my struggle.. but sometimes I want to shake those people and tell them not to waste time and negative energy judging others for something they know nothing about. Everybody has a story and we’re all trying to get by.
How have you learned to manage living with your illness?
Patience, making time for myself, being realistic and communication. Playing victim is exhausting and I’ve never been into that, but every single person needs to be their strongest advocate no matter what your situation is.. no one is going to do that for you. I think I’ve found a healthy balance of advocating for myself and letting things go. I try not to pull the “it could always be worse” card and allow myself to have bad days along with the good.
Can you explain how your relationship with your body has changed overtime?
I’ve learnt so much about myself through my health journey. I see myself as a strong, courageous woman now. I am grateful that I’ve grown with my chronic pain, rather than this all hitting me at once after establishing my life as a young adult. I spend a lot less time criticizing my body and more time focusing on the positives and what I’m thankful for.
Looking back, what would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment? What are you looking forward to?
Not doing work for free/exposure since the beginning. I’m proud to have pursued my dream as a photographer before it was considered something that “everyone and anyone can do”, when Instagram didn’t really exist. Everything changed when social media really blew up, but I stuck to my guns and kept doing me. I’m proud of my backbone *no pun intended* and not allowing anyone to take advantage of my work. My time and skills are valuable, especially in a saturated market now, this is what stands out and my clients and I have a mutual respect for each other.
I’m looking forward to establishing some more concrete roots within the commercial/lifestyle realm, but in my own way.
When do you feel the most empowered?
While I’m shooting! There’s no better feeling than executing my vision and making things come to life. Also, when I'm outside.
Which physical attributes do you love the most?
My freckles and my bum.
Photography by Berkley Vopnfjörð