One of the most critical things any person can do is to have a sense of authenticity and self-ownership: to not only recognize the traits that define yourself, but also be willing to display those traits openly to a society which seems keen on wounding us. How far must we go in order to fit into a society that has such narrow expectations of us? How much of our individuality must we compromise?
This, admittedly, is something everyone struggles with. Society encourages us to do our best to fit nicely into pre-arranged holes. Some of us can fit in to these roles without a problem, but for the rest of us, we’re stuck uncomfortably squeezing our personalities into uncomfortable molds. It’s also pretty easy to confuse one for the other, seeing a person who seems to fit neatly who’s actually just really good at looking like they do. Between these two groups of imperfect fit, I’m fairly sure that this division of ill-fitters in hiding is actually a majority.
I’ve recently been reading Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. This wonderful book discusses the idea of vulnerability and what it actually means to our society and to our mental health. Society can seem to shun and ridicule anybody who dares demonstrate vulnerability, and that tendency makes it even harder to actually embrace vulnerability as a practice. She carries a concept of “living wholeheartedly” that speaks to me not only as a photographer, but as a human. If anybody is reading this and thinking “yes, I’d really like to find myself and begin living wholeheartedly,” go out right now and get that book. And when you’re ready to visualize your wholehearted self, give me a call.
I’ve always felt frustrated by the idea that I should repress aspects of my personality in order to better assimilate into society. I’ve also always been really bad at it. I wear my heart on my sleeve because I don’t know where else to keep it. Learning how to put my feelings aside to accomplish what’s expected of me has been the most difficult lesson I’ve had, and one I still struggle with regularly. That’s one reason I feel compelled to work in the arts, where open and honest self-expression is valued. It’s also a goal when I’m working as a photographer to help other people portray that representation of themselves, so that their portrait can be a reservoir of personal strength in times of difficulty.
“Self-ownership” is about being authentic towards everybody around me. After all, I’m a liberal-leaning agnostic living in an area which is home to a religious conservative majority. In today’s divisive society, it’d be easy to imagine that being authentic would mean putting myself in conflict with most of the people around me. Ironically, that wouldn’t be authentic, because I also value individualism, personal freedom, and peaceful conflict resolution. I would no more expect anybody to agree with my own political, spiritual, or philosophical ideas than I would look for snow in April. It’s possible, and I’ve even seen it before, but I’m not trying to make it happen.
Self-ownership is me acknowledging to anybody who cares to look that I’m done with ill-fitting disguises. I’m willing to say that I value love over strength and compassion over power. I’ll cry when I’m moved to cry, and sometimes I’ll still feel shame in having cried because I’m a guy and guys aren’t supposed to do that. And then I’ll feel a different shame that the shame I just felt was about a social fear and not about being authentic, because practicing authenticity is just like practicing anything else and I know I’ll screw it up occasionally. Sometimes, I write run-on sentences. I admit freely that I’m imperfect, that I don’t always follow my own advice, and that rejection scares the crap out of me. But it takes more than admitting things. You admit faults, things that you wish to be forgiven for, things that need to be fixed. When I own these traits, I am telling the world that these traits are mine and are a part of who I really am. That’s the path of authenticity.
This idea of self-ownership also carries a slightly more difficult path of authenticity: my photography business. For most businesses, it’s easy advice to keep your personal ethics and your business separate. As a business owner, you wouldn’t want to narrow your customer base by alienating anybody. Focus on what you do and how you can serve your customers and you’ll do well. More lately, though, I’ve realized this sort of anesthetic approach makes it more difficult to define and differentiate my photography. The things that make my photography different from me being “a dude with a camera” is all about that personal authenticity. How can I expect anybody to believe I can portray them honestly if I’m not giving myself that same courtesy?
That point is, I believe, at the heart of most objections to a person being photographed. A photo creates a representation of who a person is. Trusting another person to create that representation for them is an act of vulnerability. Building that trust with a patron means I must be vulnerable as well. My own authenticity must serve as an example of what I want to see from others. This isn’t so much about alienating anybody as it is about welcoming those who want to see themselves in a wholehearted and empowering way. The only resolution I can come to is to say that I’m happy to work with people who feel drastically different than I do, but I’m not going to try to be a blank canvas for others to paint upon with whatever personality traits or opinions make them feel comfortable.
What I am at my core is a storyteller. What I try to do with every client I have is to find a story of who they are. This can be portrayed through a fiction or non-fiction, but as avid readers know, truth can be found in the crevices of the most outlandish stories. It’s what drives us to stories to begin with. Whether we’re creators or consumers – and I can tell you, you can’t be an effective creator without being an enthusiastic consumer – story lays at the heart of our being. It just so happens that the medium I’ve chosen to tell stories through is a photograph.
That isn’t entirely true. Obviously, I enjoy writing quite a bit as well. Writing is often how I choose to express myself. I’ve found that photography is an effective way to help somebody else express their selves. It offers an immediacy that written stories can’t deliver, a flood of self in the guise of pixels and ink. And if I can turn the entire experience with them into a blog (see: Fight, The Best Moments), then it’s all that much better.
I can’t say that the idea of doing this hasn’t scared me. I’m afraid that my openness will discourage others from seeking me out as a photographer. But I also can’t be the photographer I want to be while simultaneously denying who I am. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be able to work with people who stand their eggs on the opposite end as I do. As individuals in a society, we all wind up with differing convictions, but we don’t have to try to organize ourselves according to political, spiritual, or philosophical belief.
The bottom line is that I hope I can encourage people to be authentic by demonstrating the authenticity I want to help them portray. That trait is the single most defining value for myself and my business. The way I’m rationalizing it for now is that I might not be my business, but my business shares a lot in common with me. I don’t want to simply operate a camera. That’s no more interesting than driving a car. I want to create portraits of people from all sorts of different walks of life, portraits that convey them as they really are, or as they see themselves, or perhaps even in a way that they want to be seen. I want to create mementos of the important parts of their lives, treasures to survive generation after generation. But if I’m too busy trying to hide myself behind a curtain of generic acceptability, there’s no way I can achieve that