Photography offers the potential to document truth and to represent beauty. My MA project is a search for ‘The Truth & Beauty of Me.’ I have created and collected a number of images inspired by this project title. I have printed them off, spread them out, looked at them, thought about them, reordered them and taken more images as a result of this process. It is time to take stock of what I have and see if any meaning is emerging.
Photography isn’t about seeing, it’s about feeling. If I don‘t have some kind of feeling for what I’m shooting, how can I expect the person who looks at it to feel anything? I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. Don McCullin source
This quote stuck with me as I started out. The project initially was seeking to express what it is like to live with someone who is chronically ill. My wife, Karen, has advanced Multiple Sclerosis. We have been married 39 years today but the advance of the illness over the last 15 years has been relentless. She is in a wheelchair all the time now and has carers to get her up and put her to bed each day. As I enquired with my camera I realised the interesting story was not to point my camera at Karen and the things that distress me there. This was painful to do. Eventually I realised the interesting story is to understand why I was in so much pain. I have progressed from this to the deeper question of what do photographs of me tell me and others about me?
The image below was taken following Don McCullin’s advice. I had experienced a difficult couple of weeks caring for my wife in which everything I did still lead to tears and pain. This was a Saturday evening when I felt drained, defeated and emotionally black. I reached for my camera and took this image.
What truth does this image offer in itself? A healthy man with a pink shirt, tanned, with thinning grey hair looking at the camera with muscles relaxed and a suggestion he is thinking something. I see a lot more because this image reminds me of the bad state my emotions and thoughts were in at this moment. Those who know me could see sadness in the eyes but this is probably a projection. It is an image that captures a beauty of me. It could be used to create a thousand different stories if given to a thousand different people.
The only truth this image offers is the mechanical representation of me in that moment. The rest is projection from our own minds on to this image. The projection will be determined by our own experiences of seeing other people with this type of expression and demeanour in our lives. My own projections capture my own experience of the moment which makes it a painful image to look at.
Under this mask, another mask. Claude Cahun. Source
Pursuing the idea of projection the following two images interest me. Before you read on consider each image and in your own mind articulate what is different about each one.
I find these two images a little disturbing as they illustrate how difficult it is to read truth in an image and how strong projection is when considering what an image means to us. The first image on the left is when I was in a similar emotional state to the man in the pink shirt image above. However, I shape my face in to a false smile as I look at the camera. In the second image I am very happy as I prepare to go to watch Valencia play in the Copa del Rey. This is a natural smile. Close as I look I can see no discernible difference between the smiles.
Thoughts are mental cognitions—our ideas, opinions, and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. … While thoughts are shaped by life experiences, genetics, and education, they are generally under conscious control. In other words, if you are aware of your thoughts and attitudes, you can choose to change them. Source
One difference between the two smiling images above are the thoughts being thought at the moment the picture was taken. To illustrate this point I took a black pen and drew around the thoughts to capture them. The thoughts are on the inside of the black line. ‘There is nothing there’, you say. That is right. Thought’s are nothing solid, cannot be captured but lead all of us to experience happiness and sadness and everything in between. I question if thoughts are under our conscious control in the definition given as I believe all actions are taken in the unconscious layer of mind. For me the conscious layer is a post event story teller capturing a tale for easy filing to protect us quickly should the situation arise again to threaten us. We are stimulus response organisms but that is for another essay.
What this all means is that when we look at a picture it is our own thoughts that give meaning to that picture. I can never represent in a photograph what it is like to be me. I can select from some images those I feel best represent to me who I am and what state I am in but it will be unbelievably sketchy versus the reality. ‘The reality!’ There is no such thing. My reality is the only reality for me and yours is the only one for you. Both are ‘true.’
What about moving away from the face and looking at the whole man in the world? Can this help?
The idea in 1 and 4 was to create images as metaphors of my state. In the first I stand behind an abandoned and wrecked house. If we think of a house as something lived in we all prefer a thriving house with happy faces to an empty derelict place abandoned. Houses show more readily their state to the world. Putting me with a wrecked house can illustrate my own wrecked state after years trying to help care for someone chronically ill. In image 4 the metaphor is to stand against a surface that has had many bullets shot at it. My life has experienced many bullets and my state is what is left after that experience. I think these two work quite well to help a viewer call on appropriate thoughts to understand my state.
Images 2 and 3 evoke something different for me. They set me out against the wider context of the world out there. In fact they make me consider that there is no boundary between me and the grass and the air around me. All is one. Only thoughts, refer to image above to remind yourself what they are, tell me there is a boundary between me and not me. Another way of putting this is ‘I am nothing’ or ‘I am everything’.
Finally I go closer and closer.
Surely as we go to this level of detail we can see the real ‘Truth & Beauty of Me.’ I did look at these images and think how beautiful the human form is and how amazing it is that it exists and experiences what it does. The eye and ear as sensory devices. The tummy button reminder of origination from other. Skin and hair doing what they do with no direction from ourselves.
It seems something is taking shape in my project. There is no ‘I’, thoughts are nothing, projection is everything and the camera can do little by itself to create meaning. Maybe life is clearest when I am asleep. Time to sleep on it and see what happens next.