Friday, May 21, 2010
The power of being Seen (or why I take so many pictures)
A little over 10 months ago, I decided to commit to a project of where I would take a picture of myself every day. I’m not even sure I knew then why I was taking on a year-long commitment to capturing my image on a daily basis. I had been thinking about this notion of a daily journal in images and what it would be like to have that type of record of my life. I felt pretty certain I could manage to take at least one picture a day. Whether it was good or not seemed secondary to the documentary nature of the project. In addition to sharpening my photographic skills through regular practice, I had hoped this project would provide some insight into my own process: where I have been and where I might be headed.
At first the practice seemed silly. As I snapped pictures of me in public or in front of friends, I would say, almost embarrassed “it just part of a this little project I’ve set for myself.” As the months have worn on, I have been annoyed, stunned, inspired, bored, but consistent in taking that one picture a day. It may just be part of my hand, foot, face, shadow, or reflection but somewhere I am there, in the photograph documenting one moment, one day of my life.
I only recently considered the irony of amassing 365 images of myself. As an adult, I never liked having my picture taken. I cannot recall how I felt as a kid, but I do know with the exception of school portraits, there is an absence of any kind of photographic record of my life. A handful of slides of me as a baby and toddler; vacation shots where seagull photos outnumber pictures of people; summer camp (where I was miserably lonely); high school & college graduation; and eventually, my wedding. By that point I was taking my own pictures and I would run screaming if anyone tried to turn the camera’s lens upon me so my absence continued into my archive of images.
I’ve been thinking about what this all means – my absence – and also the absence of any single image containing my entire family (with the exception of wedding photographs staged by the professional photographer.) It saddens me to realize there is not one picture that I know of which captures my family experiencing ourselves as a tribe because, well, we never thought about family in that manner. And in the absence of any collective identity, I think I felt uncertain as to who I was and where I belonged. So tenuous was my sense of myself, I reacted not by demanding to be seen or acknowledged, but by an act which clearly was an attempt at total erasure: an eating disorder.
What has become apparent to me through this process of self portraiture is the power and the primacy of being seen. This I have thought a lot about. When Cowgirl came to us, she was 23 months old. There is a period in the adoptive parent’s life which feels like the search for the Holy Grail: it is the search for any images of your child before she was your child. I have 6 images of Cowgirl from those early months; 3 of them I found through exhaustive searching online. I haven’t given up hope of one day finding more. But it breaks my heart to think of this hole in the record of her life. And it makes me think about the natural act of celebrating the primacy of someone in your life by taking their picture. Like any new parent, I went wild taking pictures of my child in every possible situation. The husband smiled and indulged me, believing that like other parents this phase would wind itself down naturally. Except it hasn’t and I don’t believe it ever will because I am forever attempting to make up for that 23 month gap.
I know my child was well cared for before I became her mother and I know she must have been shown affection because she easily showed affection towards us in our early days as a family. But I am certain she was not seen. She was not celebrated as an individual; she did not know the experience of being witnessed as a miracle. Not that taking a picture is the only way of seeing someone (and you can take pictures and still not really look at what is before you) but it can be a powerful one. I take pictures and I hang up pictures of my daughter in which she is photographed with family and friends. I frame pictures that capture the essence of her spirit; I incorporate pictures of her into my artwork because that spirit inspires me on a daily basis. I want her to grow up surrounded by images of her family celebrating our union. I want her to know her presence here matters, that who she was and is has been recognized, recorded, honored and celebrated.
And I want to leave this record of our love for future generations to know us by. When I was younger, I took a lot of pictures but was very shy about including people in my shots, never mind including myself. I think I believed those empty images to be more artsy without people cluttering up the scene. Now I find those pictures sterile in the sense I have little connection with that image or that moment. I took it, I was there, but the photograph is more like a shell or a flower collected on a vacation and brought home as a memento. I don’t want to collect images anymore; rather, I want to live those moments fully as a participant and not simply an observer.
This is what I have discovered by taking over 300 pictures of myself: by picking up my camera and deciding how I wish to record this moment in my day, I am acting as both the subject/protagonist and the author of the narrative that is my life. By choosing to place myself in front of the camera, I am declaring my life is worthy of examination. By taking that picture, I am insisting my viewpoint, my perspective matters. Each picture I take is my way of laying claim to my life: I am here, this matters, this counts, this is who I am and how I wish to be seen and understood.
This is the mirror that hung in my bedroom when I was a girl. I would stand in front of it, looking intently at my reflection and think to myself “if someone would just take the time to look at me - really look at me - they would see I am beautiful in my own way.” I can vividly recall the surprise and sadness of this realization. What I remember as loneliness was really deep desire to be seen.
One of the most powerful healing experiences I have experienced has been at yoga retreats where we are to share what we are thinking and feeling within a small group who do not respond except by looking at the speaker while they are talking. In one exercise the listeners were instructed to say at the end “thank you for sharing with me. I heard everything that you said.” Unspoken, but understood and equally powerful was their presence as a witness, seeing me as I unraveled pain and sorrow and arriving at a new place of understanding and healing.
This topic – the power of being seen – has been brewing within me for quite awhile and has been inspired by the work of a portrait painter, Mark Gilbert, whom I’ve had the good fortune to get to know. Several years ago, our University Medical Center hired Mark for a project painting the portraits of cancer patients and their caregivers. The aim of the project was to examine the impact upon the patient's healing process by having their portrait made. What comes across when looking at the images and hearing the sitters talk about their experience is the power behind being seen and in that process, being accepted and experiencing acceptance for themselves and their situation. (Watch this 3 minute video clip from CBS Evening News to see and hear the artist and the subjects talk about this amazing project.)
What we all seek, it seems to me, is the affirmation that we each matter, that our stories are worth listening to, that our words, our image, our SELVES as we are counts. The author Katherine Center writes that when we love someone, the act of loving makes that person beautiful to us. I would also say being loved - knowing I am loved and seen and accepted as I am - allows me to recognize my own beauty and allows me to experience the wholeness that I always carry, but all too often forget. So whenever I pick up my camera, I am honoring both my subject – my daughter and myself – as something whole and inspiring to behold and worth taking the time to understand. And I am honoring myself as an artist defining and capturing the beauty that is my life, my world.
This is why I take so many pictures. Each snapshot is an act of healing and an affirmation of my love for myself and for my family. Brené Brown writes: "We can only love others as much as we love ourselves." My camera has taught me how to love all of me and all of my life. Through the lens, I experience myself as complete and in that process I am healed.