The Ghost in the Machine
Dinner last night led to an interesting encounter with the 'ghost in my machine'...
I was out with a few of my Oxfam cohorts at a wonderful Eritrean restaurant called Mu'ooz at their new spot in West End. You may remember it from a very early blog post here when I first started shooting for Oxfam way back in 2011...
On the way home, I was thinking about how fantastic dinner was and it occurred to me that (although I always love eating there) it certainly isn't the best food I've ever had... So why do I enjoy it SO much?
Now, your brain will already be offering answers... The conversation, the neighbourhood, the decor, a few beers... lots of other factors that create the overall impression of an evening well spent.
And I realised it's all just the story we tell ourselves. That's no great realisation I suppose... But what was interesting were the layers of stories I started to discover as I began to look closer... So many stories.
Why did I even try Eritrean the first time back in Washington DC? I know I felt very international and worldly... Going to such an unusual, foreign place that I knew most people in my sphere had never tried. I guess that made me feel significant. I even ordered the most 'traditional' food on the menu... It was a raw meat dish of some sort in some super-spicy, thick red sauce.
Was it amazing food? I don't know. Did I love it? Yes.
Another story is the association I feel because of a shared history with Oxfam and all the 'warm fuzzies' contributing to a worthwhile cause.
Then there's the whole story of the Mu'ooz itself; which an amazing lady named Saba started in order to give work experience, training and employment opportunities to African refugees (mainly women). Helping to break down cross-cultural barriers.
This rabbit hole goes deep! I like sharing dishes of food... I love eating with my hands... I like trying beers from places I've never been...
It was just dinner! But there are infinite associations I have that stem off of each of these examples!
The real kicker is that all of these stories we tell ourselves adds up to the story we believe ABOUT ourselves.
It's the same reason we stand around feeling very proud, grinning ear to ear, drinking bullshit like Moet when there are sooo many better options out there... We enjoy it because it's synonymous with celebration, wealth, significance. Not because it's actually great. But you tell all your friends about it the next day... genuinely believing that it was great.
So what does any of this have to do with photography? Or more specifically portraiture?
I realised in one complete instant that I am not making portraits OF people. I am making portraits FOR people. And interestingly, it's not for the people standing in front of my camera.
Nothing is more important than the stories the VIEWERS tell THEMSELVES about the expression and authenticity they see your image.
Human beings are interpreting machines. We can't stop (unless we are deep in meditation).
As an artist, I have been pushing people to transmit something in the images we create together that tells ME the story I want to see in other humans... Strength, confidence, knowledge, depth, integrity, foresight, empathy, joy, wisdom...
Lots of people want to stop when they 'look good'... When they look like who they think they are... The Mask But too often we get distracted from the profound depth of who we truly are.
Too often we settle for the briefest, flattering interpretation and think to ourselves, "Well, that's pretty good. I like that." and decide to stop there.
But that is really the very beginning of a great portrait. That's the lower Maslow-type shit that needs to be achieved in order to move up the pyramid...
Now I don't know if I can actually capture Self-Actualization... I suppose that's my ultimate photographic goal. And realistically, I guess I could only capture it once I've fully realised it within myself on a moment by moment basis... But I digress.
What I'm saying is that there's no conceivable reason not to try! If the viewer can see you and experience Safety, Love/ Belonging, Esteem, and yes... maybe even a hint of Wisdom then it's our responsibility to create that experience for them.
Just as it's our responsibility to provide the same example for the people we care about in order to continue creating a better world around us.
So as you go about your day, remember that everything we know... everything we believe comes with an endless stream of associations that stems from the layers upon layers of stories we have told ourselves through the decades...
...And be more kind to ourselves. Because we all have greatness within us. But recognise the 'ghost in the machine' for what it is.
And continue to craft your story with insight and intention.