How My Mom's Parkinson's Disease Influenced My Career

Diana Levine, on set with Kim Kardashian and Usher

Diana Levine, on set with Kim Kardashian and Usher

Many years before I was shooting Alicia Keys, Kim Kardashian, and Usher, and shooting ad campaigns for brands like Converse and Bumble and bumble, I was a 20 year old college student, studying photography and wondering if I could ever make it as a photographer.  

It was at that time that I went home to visit my Mom one night, and she sat me down to tell me the words that would forever change our lives: At 47 years old, she had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. It felt as if my world suddenly stopped spinning.

At first, I was so devastated that I refused to leave my Mom's side. I mean literally. If she wanted to go swimming, I would put on my swimsuit and go in the water with her. I have tears in my eyes as I write these words because I so clearly remember not even wanting to leave her side to go back to school.

I felt that I could never leave her side again. I wanted to protect her, and to spend as much time together as possible. I didn't know what the future held. I didn't understand the progression of Parkinson's disease. I was in a brand new world that I knew nothing about.

My Mom and I, New York City, 2005.

My Mom and I, New York City, 2005.

At the same time, I was a 20 year old with hopes and dreams for my own life and career. I wanted to be there for my Mom, but I also knew in my heart that I wanted to follow my dream of becoming a photographer. It put me into an internal conflict that I would struggle with again and again for the next 10 years:

How can I follow my own dreams, when I need to be there for my Mom?

I knew that if I wanted to truly pursue my dreams of being a photographer, I needed to move to New York City. My heart was filled with anxiety as I made the decision to move away from Massachusetts. I struggled with the idea that building my career in New York was selfish.

If my Mom had asked me to stay, I would have stayed. But, she was adamant that I follow my path and told me that I needed to go to New York.

I remember one New Year's Eve, watching the fireworks, hugging my Mom, and crying because I knew in my heart that it might be the last New Year's Eve that I would be home with her. She comforted me and told me that the thing that would make her happiest was me fulfilling my dreams.

And so, after working for a year working as the Designer at Boston Magazine, I left my job and moved to Brooklyn, NY with my boyfriend, and now husband, Matt. I knew almost no one. I had no clients. I had no work.

Matt and Diana, brand new New Yorkers, 2007

Matt and Diana, brand new New Yorkers, 2007

It was because of my Mom's Parkinson's -- because of this vague deadline I had in my heart that at some point in time, I would need to leave New York and move back to my Mom --  I had no time to waste.

I was building my career from scratch, and I didn't have time to waste drinking or partying. I didn't have time to waste by lacking confidence, or not challenging myself to find opportunities to advance my career. I didn't take days off, I didn't take vacations, and I didn't stop when I was rejected or ignored, even if my ego was hurt.

It's because of my Mom's Parkinson's that I forced myself to do things that made me nervous and uncomfortable. I reached out to people who had never heard of me. I did shoots for anyone and everyone who would hire me, even if it was free. I did spec shoots, even if it required my time and money, in hopes of the photos reaching someone who would want to hire me.

If I was going to sacrifice my time with my Mom, it had to mean something. It had to be worth it.

And it worked. With a mixture of sweat, tears, luck, and some life-changing people who saw my potential and became my supporters and mentors, I built my career from the ground up to shooting top celebrities, musicians and world figures, and shooting ad campaigns for world-renowned brands. I saw my photos displayed larger-than-life in Times Square. I frequently dropped by Barnes & Noble to pick up the latest copy of my favorite magazines that had published my photo spreads. I worked with some of the most incredible photo editors, designers, producers and publicists in the industry. I can truly say that I achieved my dreams.

Top to Bottom, Left to Right: Diana's photo shoots with Elijah Wood, One Direction, Hanson, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Elvis Costello, and Ed Sheeran (and 4 months pregnant!).

Top to Bottom, Left to Right: Diana's photo shoots with Elijah Wood, One Direction, Hanson, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Elvis Costello, and Ed Sheeran (and 4 months pregnant!).

I don't know if I would have achieved my goals if I didn't have that underlying pressure that I had to make it, and I had to make it fast. Sometimes it's the hardest things in life that push you to do things you never dreamed possible. Looking back on my time in New York, I feel at peace in my heart that it was worth it.

Building my career as a photographer was not only important to me, but I knew that it filled my Mom's heart with pride and happiness that she raised two girls who were confident and able to find their paths to happiness.

I did what I could to be there for my Mom from afar. Throughout my 8 years in New York, I traveled back to Boston every two or three weeks, and tried to help in any small way that I could. I called her every night before I went to sleep, to make sure she was feeling okay. We arranged frequent trips for her to come to New York, and we attended the annual Parkinson's Unity Walk and The Mark Morris Dance for PD programs at Julliard.

I worked with The Webutante Ball to raise $50,000 for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, thanks in part to a matching donation from Google co-founder Sergey Brin. My Mom came to New York for the photo shoot, and it was a night I'll never forget. However, after 8 years, I knew I wanted to be there for my Mom in a more day-to-day way.

Top to Bottom, Left to Right: Kim Kardashian, Billy Corgan, ad campaign for Bumble and bumble, and ad campaign for Converse in GQ Magazine

Top to Bottom, Left to Right: Kim Kardashian, Billy Corgan, ad campaign for Bumble and bumble, and ad campaign for Converse in GQ Magazine

LEAVING NEW YORK

I knew it was time to come home. I had gotten my work to a point where I had established my career, and it became clear that it was time move back to Massachusetts.

At the time, it felt impossible. I had worked too hard to build my career in New York. How could I leave my clients, my friends, my life? My Mom was coming up on 10 years living with Parkinson's disease. She was facing more challenges in her life, and there had been a few incidents that made me think "My Mom really needed me last night, and I wasn't able to be there for her."

I also had a toddler, and would soon be pregnant with my second child. I knew I wanted my children to grow up having a close relationship with their Bubby.

My Mom and her grandmunchkins in 2014 (before my daughter arrived)

My Mom and her grandmunchkins in 2014 (before my daughter arrived)

And so, along with the most supportive husband in history, whose life and career as a cinematographer was also firmly based in New York, we left our life in Manhattan and moved home to my Mom's tiny ocean-side town in Massachusetts.

It was culture shock. I didn't understand how people could actually get in their cars every single time they wanted to go somewhere. I couldn't understand the concept of buying more than one or two day's worth of produce at the grocery. I couldn't believe I had to leave my house to have a play date. I missed my clients, my work and my life in New York.

But my husband and I both knew in our hearts that this was the right move. It wasn't easy at first. I was pregnant, taking care of a 2 year old, and Matt was traveling back to New York for work 75% of the time. But like everything we've done in our lives, we had a plan, and we were going to make it work.

I am so beyond grateful to say that it did. I have been blessed to find my place in Boston and have found myself working on shoots that I absolutely love. I'm working with clients and subjects that inspire me, and make me so excited to back in this beautiful city. Matt founded a software company for the film industry and is able to run the business from home.

Rockin' the Suburbs of Boston with Matt, our son and daughter :)

Rockin' the Suburbs of Boston with Matt, our son and daughter :)

I've fallen in love with Boston all over again, and am exploring the city through my children's eyes, as we take adventures to the Boston Children's Museum, The Museum of Science, and the New England Aquarium.

I've found myself in a place where I feel fulfilled through my career, while also being there for my Mom. Some days, I'm on set shooting for magazines, universities or brands. Other days, I'm taking my Mom swimming, which is essential to her wellbeing. There are days when I finish up a production call with a client, as I'm heading out the door to do errands for my Mom when she isn't feeling up to driving.

And in December of last year, I was there when she fell and broke her right hip. I was there to open the doors for the ambulances and to comfort and support her along with my sister as she suddenly found herself in the challenging journey of being a Parkinson's patient going through emergency situations and surgeries. I was able to be there day-to-date during her months-long recovery.

Cindy with her daughters, Diana and Katie, and one of her granddaughters, Shoshana. 2016.

Cindy with her daughters, Diana and Katie, and one of her granddaughters, Shoshana. 2016.

I'm a person that is inspired by the idea of a challenge. But, as much as I can help my Mom with her day-to-day life, I can't stop the progression of her disease. It's because of this deep desire to want to make a real difference for people living with Parkinson's that my sister and I have started producing Photo Shoot for a Cure.

I'm combining my work as a photographer with our passion for fundraising for Parkinson's research. We are producing a series of photo shoots around the Greater Boston area, where 100% of shoot fees go directly to The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

Our first shoot is taking place October 1, 2016 in Wakefield, MA. We are currently planning our next shoot for November 2016 in the South Shore area. And, of course, I'm already daydreaming about bringing Photo Shoot for a Cure to downtown Boston and New York, and producing shoots specifically for band photos, advertising work, and corporations.

If you'd like to support us on our mission to fund a cure for Parkinson's, please like us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram, sign up for our newsletter, and share, share, share our flyer and website with your friends.

Click here to reserve your spot at the next Photo Shoot for a Cure

If you can't make the fundraiser, but would like to support us on our mission, please click here to donate to our team. 100% of your donation to Team Fox goes straight to Parkinson's research, and we appreciate your generosity from the bottom of our hearts.

We're currently looking for corporate sponsorships for Photo Shoot for a Cure. If you run a business who would like to support our mission, please email photoshootforacure@gmail.com to receive our Sponsorship Options, which range from $1 to $5000. 

Parkinson's disease affects so many incredible people around the world. Let's work together to fund a cure.