The Man Who Should Have Been My Favorite Uncle.

Shane Paul Neil
4 min readJun 2, 2023


Uncle Butch.

This is my Uncle Butch. He’s a brilliant photographer who, in his heyday, logged more miles on his bicycle than most folks can fathom. He should have been one of my closest relatives, but family drama and hurt feelings ruined any chance of that. It was so bad that the last time I saw him, we nearly came to blows. That was twenty years ago.

I was driving up to a family event when my cousin called and said Butch would be there. I’m honestly not sure if I would have made the trip if she had told me sooner. I took a deep breath and told my wife Aliya that I REALLY hoped today wouldn’t be a shit show. On top of being excited to spend time with family, I had the kids in tow. They are just getting to know my side of the family and I didn’t want to start that journey by repeating generational trauma.

I went so far as to decide that I wasn’t going to pull out my camera. I didn’t even want to create the opportunity to bond. He wasn’t going to get to see that part of me. I began my photography journey three years ago. What was supposed to be a way to pass the time during the pandemic became a passion. I was not going to stand on that common ground with a man I cast off two decades ago.

When we arrived, my brother, Chris met me outside. “Butch is happy. Butch is healthy. He’s laughing and joking. He’s also worried about what it’s gonna be when you get here.” That ended the hurt and the resentment. At that moment I let it all go. I held on to a hurt that did me no favors for two decades.

Joseph “Butch” Guss

When I got inside I walked straight to Butch. He rose out of his chair. I remembered how tall and muscular he was all those years ago. We exchanged no words. I just hugged him and he hugged me back. We didn’t talk about the past. Neither of us apologized. We didn’t need it. We were here now.

He told me he wanted to take my picture. When he stepped away I slid my camera out of my bag. When he came back he paused and looked at the camera in my hand. He pointed and mouthed, “You?” I nodded, and he smiled.

We immediately nerded out on cameras. He’s a Fuji guy. He says the colors are better than my Sony. We took pictures of each other. Then we exchanged cameras and shot the rest of the family. I showed him the photos on my website. With each one, he asked, “You took this?” He liked my photography, and that meant everything to me.

It’s been three years since I first picked up a camera. And as much as I would have denied it before today, I thought about Butch every time. I wondered where he was and what he was doing. I wondered if he wondered about me. I had no expectation of ever knowing the truth.

At the end of the gathering, I gave Butch another hug. His heavy hands slapped me on my back. I felt what might have been the shudder of a crying man.

Butch’s photo of me using my camera.

As we drove back home, Aliya asked me what I was feeling. I didn’t have an appropriate response. “It was great seeing him.” Aliya looked at me, “But what are you feeling?” I had no answer.

Today I was able to let a wound heal. Today Butch got to do the same. People often die before they get opportunities like this.

So, what am I feeling? I’m not sure I felt much until I saw this picture. The truth is I’m split. I’m mad at the time trauma took from Butch and me. But I’m also really glad to get to know him as he is now. He, and the rest of my family, whom I’m also reconnecting with, have a history of strength and love that I am just beginning to comprehend.

I sent Butch this photo, and he texted me, “Wow!! A great shot of me! Love it!”

I cried.



Shane Paul Neil

Writer (duh) and photographer. Bylines @levelmag @complex @ebony @huffpo