It all started on Instagram. Anjali Pinto and Jacob Johnson first met on the app in 2012, in the years before direct messaging existed.
He began commenting on her posts, dropping “by often to check-in, offer encouragement or make me laugh with the perfect combination of emojis,” recalls Pinto, a photographer who has documented her everyday life since she was a teen. “We had no mutual friends, but I could see from his images that he was special, and I wanted to know him.”
Commenting back and forth on each other’s posts, their online friendship blossomed into a crush, and later, a thriving relationship. As their bond grew, Pinto felt inspired to use her camera in a more purposeful way, documenting the intricacies of their larger-than-life connection as it evolved. The couple moved in together after eight months of knowing each other and married in 2015.
Over the course of their relationship, they took hundreds of photos of each other and their life together. As Jacob regularly tagged along on Pinto’s photography jobs, acting as a stand-in for portraits and operating as her second photographer during events, he too developed a skill and passion for the medium, dreaming of becoming a professional photographer himself.
Then, Jacob died suddenly on Dec 31, 2016 due to an aortic dissection, an unknown defect in his artery wall. He was 30.
In the weeks following his death, Pinto, who was shell shocked by the loss, turned to Instagram to share the immense archive of images they had created together. Why? Simply put, because it made her feel better. “I wanted to talk about him, to hold tightly to the good memories we made, and to invite our friends and family to feel comfortable in grieving openly too,” she says.
Every day, Pinto posts these beautiful, intimate portraits — alongside written reflections on a world without her husband — with her now 51,000 followers. She turns to these photos as a way to remember Jacob and honor their loving relationship, curating the images and writing about them as a way to heal.
Pinto, who studied journalism in school, has always been interested in storytelling, citing documentary photographers such as Matt Eich, who uses his lens to document deeply personal narratives.
“When Jacob died, I felt that our love story and his untimely death was worth sharing with the world,” Pinto says. “I felt empowered by telling our history and my circumstance as a surviving spouse.”
In the photographs, the magnetic energy shared between the couple is palpable. Glimmers of their romance are frozen in time as they took turns shooting each other against lush, natural backdrops and cityscapes around Chicago and on their many travels across the globe. The images capture the softness and sweetness of simple moments: How the couple relished in their peaceful and joyful adventures, and the special life they shared and documented together.
For a couple who met online, this is a stark contrast to the stories we hear of today’s digital romance, reminding us of what really matters: to truly love and be loved, and how fleeting and fragile life is. Interestingly, there are more photos of them separately than together, but what we ultimately see is what they saw in each other — abundant love.
In a time when grief is still stigmatized and largely hidden from public view, Pinto shares these photos with heartbreakingly honest captions — ruminating on the ebb and flow of emotions emerging from this life-altering event while tracing the lines of their shared history. A post shared in the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of his death shows a photo of Jacob taken from above as he lays shirtless on the bed.
Another photo reveals an intimate portrait Jacob took of Pinto’s naked figure with her body echoed in a reflective surface below. In the caption, she divulges:
These vulnerable posts give Pinto a renewed sense of purpose and a space that inspires her to keep going in times when she feels like there is nothing else left.
“When he died, everything I knew to be my life and my sense-of-self had been ripped away,” she says. “But with the photographs, and my journaling, I began to feel more like myself and the woman that Jacob fell in love with.”
By being true to herself and sharing her story, Pinto is simultaneously breaking down taboos around grief, especially that of being a young widow at age 28. Her posts receive thousands of likes and comments daily. Most offer encouragement while people share their own stories of loss and tragedy. Her comment section has thus become its own community of kindred spirits relishing in grief and healing together.
The positive response has inspired Pinto to launch a print shop of Jacob’s work, a memorial art show of his photographs and a grant program that will assist other emerging photographers. The upcoming show, taking place from Jan. 20 to Jan. 22 at Low Res Rec Room in Chicago, will celebrate Jacob’s knack for photography and showcase portraits the couple shot of each other.
“Jacob Johnson may not have introduced himself as an artist, that did not stop him from being one,” Pinto says. “Each of his pictures represents a moment in which he stopped and took pleasure in noticing the world around him. His photographs are an extension of the thoughtful, meticulous and visionary man he was.”
In a world so consumed with swiping left and right, photo filters and hashtags, Pinto’s practice is a breath of fresh air, reminding us why we should celebrate the love we feel for each other — out loud, every single day, even after a loved one is gone.