Who are you?
I ask a lot of women this question lately as I’m working on my long-term project, I Am She. And most cannot answer without listing off the external contexts of their life. “I’m a wife. A mother. I’m 28. I’m 45. A physical therapist. A photographer. I paint. I write. I regularly volunteer. I’m a foodie. I love wine, chocolate, sushi. I’m a Catholic. I was raised Jewish, but I’m an atheist. I love travel. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a California girl. I’m a VSCO girl. I’m athletic. I’m a vegan. I play piano. I plan to go back to school for a Ph.D in social work. I’m fashionable. I wear yoga pants 99% of the time.”
But if that were all gone tomorrow, then who are you? If it’s just you, stripped down, naked in nothingness, no country, no career, no family, no relationship, no religion, no past, no future, you do in fact still exist. You have a body suspended in time housing a soul that is timeless. So who is that person at their essence? Without the empires you have built or the people you have loved?
Here is where the conversation gets interesting… or almost always stalls. I know that place. That kind of lost feeling, oh fuck, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I have been working through that too this year, both personally and in therapy, and still find myself trying to separate from parts of the external that cling to my identity like pieces of clothing that were put on me but aren’t my style. Some of it is like layers of body paint that I have to painfully scrape off until I can find my own skin underneath. This is a process. This is work. I understand.
I’ve been wanting to try one of those sensory deprivation tanks that you can get into. No light, no noise, complete darkness. Just floating in a saltwater void. I think this must be the closest thing to experience this intangible process in a physical way, besides the challenging task of trying to bring out one’s innermost being in a portrait. I ask women sometimes if they’ve ever thought of trying the tank. Most say they are terrified of the idea of being alone with their own thoughts, without the comfort of distraction and a familiar life context.
I find however that every woman I have spoken to has a deep longing to be seen. To understand herself and to make others understand. To be gazed upon, perhaps even worshipped. Most women feel narcissistic and self indulgent about taking a self portrait but will gladly pose for someone they trust, especially another woman. They feel a little apologetic about wanting attention (what’s wrong with attention, I ask?) Many have very little inhibition about posing without clothing, even though this project will likely end up exhibited or published in a book. A lot of these women come from conservative religious backgrounds where this type of thing would have been frowned upon.
What I’m also discovering is that this project will take a whole lot more time than I thought, because it takes a moment for a woman to get to the heart of herself and then figure out how she can make that visual. And then it takes time to bring that to life. But the ideas they come up with, the creativity, the peek into their soul and psyche! I am in complete wonder. I share their excitement, I connect with the child inside who wants to come out and play. That is a gift to me.
I believe we are free souls, born good and unique, with an inner wisdom and a desire to express freely, to question and to create our own realities. Talk to a young child and you will find that’s true, before people fuck them up by telling them to be nice, to conform and fit in. We each have our own truth and truth is, in fact, a fluid thing. Even an objective reality through your eyes will look different than through mine. My brother can tell a story about our childhood and his memories are different than my own. So what? We are both right. There are so many shades of gray and I feel very little black or white anymore.
It took me a long time to realize I don’t need to compare my self to certain religious teachings that were drilled in my head, to the opinions of people who were close to me, or are close to me, or people who aren’t at all. I want to help other women work through their layers (whatever those might be), find their inner child, bring her to light, give her attention. My portrait series has led to long conversations and depth and that is a wonderful thing because it’s not just about making a photograph, it’s about seeing, and about supporting women in their healing. If you refuse to be shamed and you are willing to be vulnerable, you are well on the way to discovering your essence.