To see DJ’s work, visit http://freesframephoto.com
When DJ Freesmeier shows you a photograph of yourself, he wants you to see how beautiful you are. He wants you to love yourself.
“Or, you know, a high school kid, [when he sees his photos], he thinks he’s the coolest kid ever. And he finds himself not being so different from everybody else.” That’s the kind of experience he wants you to have when he takes your photo.
We all know what it’s like to have others focus on our imperfections or to see the qualities that make us different as negative instead of special. Hopefully, we’ve also felt the huge impact it can make when people love and appreciate us as we are.
DJ was lucky enough to fully experience that inclusive kind of love as a child, but it was far from guaranteed. As adopted children, he and his younger sister were the only Asian-Americans in their tiny rural community of Donnellson, located in the southeast corner of Iowa. For reasons unknown, they had been given up by their two birth families and sent halfway around the world to a place where odds were high that they would feel very different from everyone they knew.
But it was never a problem.
“Even though I was adopted, I never felt like I was Asian in a White community. I never felt that. I always felt included. I also just always felt like I was treated fairly by the community growing up. And I think a lot of it was because my grandparents were so well respected.”
DJ’s maternal grandparents lived just a few blocks away from him. They were active in the community and in his life; generous with everyone.
“My grandpa was the guy that just helped everybody, did things for everybody. They owned a grocery store for a few years and he had this notebook. People would come in, and they couldn’t pay for groceries, and so he’d just write their name in the book. And then when they closed the grocery store they found out there were like thousands and thousands of dollars that nobody ever paid off. But he never once was upset about it or complained. He just said, ‘It’s not a big deal.’ He just wanted to help people.
“And then my grandma would make pies, and she would cook and help out at events all the time. That’s what I remembered Grandma and Grandpa always doing. It wasn’t just like going up there [to an event] and sitting around doing nothing. They were always doing something for somebody else.”
Their presence made a huge impact on DJ’s life and the value he places on relationships. “To show love is an action,” he says. “You can say you love somebody, but until you go out of your way for them or sacrifice something for them, I feel like you can’t truly say you love them.”
That’s the kind of love DJ and his sister received every day. He says his family’s love is a big reason he never had a strong desire to learn about his biological parents.
“I’m curious. You know, like if I’m going to go bald or anything like that. But other than that, not much. I never felt like I didn’t have parents. They always supported me. They always encouraged me. They’ve always been there, and I’ve always felt like I was loved.”
Finding His Calling
In many ways, DJ had an ideal childhood. He was surrounded by family and friends, lived in a safe community, and was empowered to pursue his dreams. He thrived in high school as a student, athlete, and artist. As the quarterback on the football team, DJ set the state record for most passing yards in a game: 543. But art was his main passion.
Luckily, he had an encouraging art teacher who helped guide him. “Coming from a small town, I would definitely credit Mrs. Heitz for being the person who would not only encourage [my gifts] but also show me what I could do, where I could go, what I could be.”
DJ decided to study architecture at Iowa State University after high school. He describes design school as an incredibly valuable experience and a place where he made some of his best friends. Ultimately, however, he decided not to become an architect. It came back to relationships. DJ wanted a career that felt more focused on people and showing them love.
He started with church. Faith (and his faith community) have always been a big part of DJ’s life. After graduating from Iowa State, he was offered a ministry role at a church in Marion, IA. But he quickly discovered that the experience of working in a church is very different from being a member. Serving as a church employee changed the way he spent time with God.
“I was doing readings in worship and leading, and welcoming people and helping them find stuff, and I wasn’t worshipping. I was working. So I found, like, when I took a shower, that would be worship for me. Singing. Or driving in a car was worship for me, because it was my time with God. With that experience, I also found the value of being outside the church.”
Outside church, DJ found his true calling: photography. It started out as a way for him to slow down, refocus, and creatively reconnect with something greater than his everyday concerns.
“We’re such fast-paced people. I like to be able to capture something as simple as a sunset on water or a raindrop. Those are the types of things people don’t see. We just bypass that.
I bypass it all the time. And I think photography forces you to slow down and be aware of that.
“I’d look at like a tree and see how much life and how much connectivity goes into it: all the way down from like a microscopic level of what that tree is made up of to how that tree affects the life of a bird which affects the life of a worm. All these connections that go into it, and I just think it’s beautiful. So cool to see.”
The Lesson of Perspective
Photography helps DJ engage with the world around him in a fresh, more thoughtful way. But it also gives him an opportunity to positively interact with people and look for ways to appreciate them more.
“I love the relationships with photography,” he says. I love meeting people. I love [when they] look at the photo and see themselves as beautiful.”
The art form brings him into contact with a huge variety of people. Through the process of getting to know them, he is reminded to see the world from different perspectives and honor differences. Photography helps him live out one of the most important lessons his mother tried to teach her children.
“Growing up, my mom was always saying, ‘Think about where they’re coming from. Think about how they feel and what their thoughts are. Don’t just think that the way you see things is the only way possible.’”
She wanted to teach DJ how–in his own unique way–to give others the same kind of love and respect he received from his family as a child.
If you’ve ever had your photo taken by him, you can tell he learned.
To see DJ’s work, visit http://freesframephoto.com
Story by Courtney Ball. Photos courtesy of DJ Freesmeier.