By Stephanie Agresti
Just four years ago, when she was in high school, Stephanie Needham met Brandon, a man destined to join the Marine Corps. In the four years since, Stephanie and Brandon did what many experience over the course of 10. They fell in love, got married, moved across the country, built a home, started their careers, and just recently finished making it through their first deployment. All the while, Stephanie explored her love for photography, making into a business. In her new home in Oceanside, California, she has created her own company, Stephanie Needham Photography, taking family portraits for military couples. For her, photography is so much more than simple images on paper.
Spending time behind the lens was an escape and a form of artistic expression for Stephanie. “I do the sessions on the weekends, so instead of just sitting in my house and sulking, I got to go out and do something that I love,” she says.
While her husband was away fighting in Afghanistan, Stephanie sought comfort in her photography, her dog, Brody, and her best friend, Tasha, a young newlywed whose husband was also overseas.
“I believe it was the length of time that was hardest for Stephanie. A year is a very long time!” says Tasha. “She was there for me when I hadn’t spoken to [my husband] in weeks, waiting for him to come back to their base from long missions out of the ‘wire,’ away from the safety of their camp on missions to find Taliban, etc.” They supported each other through their first deployment and, as Tasha puts it, “learned how to live with the fear by staying hopeful.”
Stephanie’s story begins like many other small-town girls searching for something more. For her, life in rural Califon, New Jersey was very typical. “I grew up with the same 16 kids my whole life until I went off to high school,” she says. Stephanie always had dreams of pursuing a career in fashion, but it was in high school that her passion for photography flourished. She began exploring photography both in and out of the classroom.
“My dad really, I think, sparked my interest. My dad has taught me more about photography than anyone else. He’s pretty artistic, and he was always taking pictures.”
Soon, Stephanie met Brandon Needham who sparked a new passion in her life. At first, their relationship was hardly perfect. “We were on and off for a while, really, until he went off to officer school in college. About a year into our dating, we kind of just stopped the fighting and kind of got ourselves together and started really just having a good relationship,” says the now 19-year-old. While Brandon was pursuing his dream of becoming a Marine, Stephanie focused on finishing high school and supporting her boyfriend. She couldn’t picture their relationship any other way.
“I couldn’t imagine where we would be if we were together everyday, and it was like a normal relationship. But I mean, when he went off to boot camp, it was only communication through letters which was the first time we were really apart and not talking. I think that just made our relationship so much stronger,” she says. For the three months he was away at boot camp, Stephanie wrote him every day.
In March of 2011, Stephanie and Brandon got engaged. “Oh this is a good story,” she whispers, followed by a sweet laugh. Brandon was in school in North Carolina, many hours and many miles away from her in New Jersey. She and her high school friend were spending the afternoon together when her friend suggested going to Round Valley Reservoir in Clinton, New Jersey to hang out.
“We get out of the car, and Brandon’s standing there in his uniform. I was completely surprised! I ran over to him, and he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him,” Stephanie explains.
While she was excited to get out of New Jersey and start a new life, her family was skeptical. “My family, honestly, was not very supportive at first. Of course, my Dad was kind of not really into it because I was so young,” Stephanie says. “When people aren’t in the military, they think it’s crazy that I got married so young, and I mean, I guess I kind of learned to ignore it.”
Following her engagement, she knew that her wedding would have to be planned soon. After finishing school in July of 2011, Brandon knew he would have two weeks of leave to spend time with Stephanie. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to plan a wedding!’ We got married in a little church in Califon, and it was only about 50 people. It just ended up being a cute, small wedding. It was really nice.”
In the summer of their wedding, when Stephanie was 18 and Brandon was 20, they moved to Southern California with nothing but five suitcases. Newlywed life presented challenges. “We had never really actually lived together,” she says. The most difficult part of marriage is figuring out “who’s going to do the dishes, because we never agree on that,” Stephanie chuckles. “He’s a neat freak, and I’m not a slob, but I’m not a neat freak like him, so we kind of disagree on things. But you kind of learn to just deal with each other, and you have to really compromise. I mean, that’s kind of like the biggest thing, learning to compromise with each other,” she shares.
In January of 2012, after beginning to adjust and enjoy married life, Brandon was deployed to Afghanistan. “I cried a lot. It was hard. There were a lot of things going through my mind. I knew that he was going out on missions and that there obviously was danger in it, but I really just tried not to think about it,” Stephanie says. She sought comfort in her friendships with other military wives.
When Brandon was overseas, Stephanie embarked on a personal journey of her own. At first, she worked as a nanny for a little girl nearby the base in Camp Pendleton, California. On the side, she began her photography business. “There are a lot of other photographers out here that I really was just inspired from, and I figured I might as well just try it out. So I made a Facebook page, and I kind of just tried to get my name out there. I was doing sessions for really cheap, and I finally started getting a lot of people with sessions. I mean, each session that I have, I feel like I grow and learn more from,” she says.
After Brandon deployed, Stephanie delved into her photography even more. “It’s honestly just really about capturing moments for people and giving them something to look at and to be happy about. The most rewarding part is just getting feedback from people saying how happy they are to have good pictures to look at and just being happy making my customers happy,” she says. “There’s this little girl that I’ve taken actually a few sessions for, and this past one with her family, we did a really cool location. It was a barn out in wine country out east. It was my favorite session. The little girl, she loves being photographed, so it always makes it easier,” she laughs.
It was one of Stephanie’s customers who got her a new job as a photographer and assistant manager for a rustic chic wedding décor boutique on Etsy.com. She works at their headquarters in Southern California, taking pictures of their merchandise to upload to their website, and she loves it.
A year later, Brandon returned from Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan to California. “It was amazing. It was so nice to have him home again and be able to just kiss him and everything and not be alone anymore. He got about a week off, and I took off of work, so we really just had time to spend with each other,” she shares.
Stephanie continues to photograph military couples, a subject close to her heart. Throughout Brandon’s deployment, Stephanie decorated their apartment with photographs so that she could see Brandon every day. She hopes to provide that same comfort for other military spouses with her work and plans to expand her business over time once she is finished with school and has more time to devote to it.
The couple realizes Brandon will be deployed again. He has six more years in the Marine Corps, but Stephanie is excited for their future.
Photography has been the thread woven through her life, and she takes photos of military couples because that’s where her heart is. “I’m really just interested in taking pictures of people and capturing their family together. Their husbands or wives could leave at any point. I think pictures really help people get through a lot.”