We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
-Paul Laurence Dunbar
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You might think , when it comes to writing, the easiest thing in the world would be to write about yourself. I mean, you live with yourself all the time. You are literally in your own head 100% of the time.
But it isn’t.
It’s one of the hardest things to write about.
I couldn’t count how many times I watched Simon Sinek’s TEDx talk – How Great Leaders Inspire Action. I read his book, Start With Why. I wrote dozens of pages of notes and drafts, only to tear them up in frustration. Or, rather, I pressed delete a lot since I did it digitally, but you get the point. I’m a literate person. I’m a self-aware person. There are tons of websites telling you how to write this stupid three paragraph blurb, these stupid three paragraphs that most people get wrong.
An “About” page isn’t about me. No one cares if I have three cats and play the ukulele (badly). No one cares if my favorite food is chinese food. No one really cares what got me into photography. A website has seconds to capture attention, and what really matters to you is what am I trying to say with photography. What I really value.
Simon Sinek is 100% right in saying that people connect based on what they value, what they believe. As an artist, I want people to be connected to my work in a meaningful way. I want them to say this is what I believe, too.
So I had to figure that out.
Have you ever needed to get down to figure out the value you hold most dear? It’s a hard thing to find. We all can say we value things like loyalty and honesty. Some of us value creativity. Some of us value reason. But getting past that first level, past the level with easy names… it’s a tough process. Each time I peeled back one layer, I thought “aha! this is it, this is the thing I value.” A little more digging and it was clear I still had a ways to go.
Layer by layer, slowly peeling back who I am and everything I have experienced. Everything I believe. Everything I desire. Everything I hate. Searching for that common element. The one that can’t be reduced anymore. The one that explains everything else.
The hard part, as an artist, is always feeling like the work I was doing was always a little off the mark. I knew when I picked up the camera, I liked some things. I didn’t like other things. But I didn’t really know why. So my work was unfocused. A bit drab. A bit lacking.
I think the master photographers have understood their why. I think they knew every time they picked up a camera what they were trying to say to the world. What they were trying to say about the world, and about themselves. This is why their work has continued to be relevant, sometimes a hundred years after the exposure was made.
I think most photographers are content to make pretty pictures, and never really understand why they do it. They’re happy to have a picture in a family’s home that people are pleased by. Maybe that’s enough for them.
But I wanted more.
And I did the hard work. I fell down a lot along the way. But I got there. I have a “why”. I have an “About”. And every time I click that shutter, I can explain the purpose behind it. And I feel great about that.
We’re told, from our very youngest age, that we have to live within the lines, and that it is shameful and scary outside of them.
I believe the only time to pay attention to lines is when crossing them.
Be who you are. Without shame. Without fear. Without apology. Step beyond the limits and stop listening to the voices, within and without, telling us not to.
Be who you are.
When creating images, we are facing our limits and surpassing them. We constantly strive to be better and each portrait is a marker along the way showing how far we’ve come.