When words are not _____ enough

Something I have always loved about strong visual art is how it travels beyond traditional language; how generally, no one has to translate a strong image for it to communicate. What message the viewer receives is up to them, of course, both subconsciously and consciously, and is often shaped by their own opinions, experiences, and journey in life. Still, this image — especially with the internet — can reach millions of people across borders, oceans, and cultures. Visual art speaks to different processes in the brain than verbalized language, making the impact faster and often more efficient.

I was a writer before I was anything else. Even before I could physically write, I would create little poems, jokes, and stories using words I could vocalize. Words have always meant something priceless to me, and once I did start physically writing, I did not stop. I started writing poetry more seriously when I was ten, and it was emotionally charged, and about experiences few people admit to having. I remember even in psychiatric wards, fellow patients asking, “How do you know what I feel so well?”

But my writing has helped more people than it has helped me. My relationship with words is love/hate, filled with treachery, pain, and frustration. I’ve been persecuted for what I write, and even though the most memorable experience was only at the small scale of an elementary school, a school to an already traumatized and sick child can often feel like a prison, particularly when its personnel tries to effectively silence that child. I was told to stop writing my ‘dark junk,’ and my notebooks were confiscated and shredded. I was forbidden to write during the school day, and the counselor tried to get my mother to eradicate deep, emotional literature that I loved from our home for the sake of my “emotional safety.”

In junior high, a contest entry I submitted was called into question because “How could a seventh grader have written this?” and instead of being made into a prodigy, I was made into a pariah. My words have been doubted and misunderstood since I could form them. Exercises in writing are exercises in futility, because while I try to express my core self through them, others see themselves in them. They see their own pain and suffering or their cynicism or flaws, but they do not ever see the writer behind the ink. They either relate to my writing, are repulsed by it, or they block it out. To be concise and direct, it is always misunderstood.

Don’t misunderstand this, either: It is beautiful and I am thankful that what I communicate can help others. I remember receiving feedback from a 16 year-old girl who was addicted to crystal meth and had suffered traumas in her life that I could not imagine myself, “Thank you so much for saying what I couldn’t. You have no idea how much it means to me that someone gets me.” She said this about a sestina I wrote, depicting a dying woman recalling life events that led her to a heroin overdose.

I have never used illegal substances or even substances illegally, (except maybe a sip of wine or two on New Year’s before 21.) I also had never experienced some of the other problems that I had written about in the poem. But even at 14, I understood trauma, despair, regret, and other deep, complex, emotional issues. I had been through many of my own traumas by 14, and my personality type is keen to understand other people. But, truthfully, I did not write that poem for her or for people who have been where she had been. I did not write the things I wrote for other people, nor do I now. I never did.

I wrote them to communicate.

I wrote them to communicate and express my own pain in ways that I could better process. It wasn’t until I was perhaps 17 that my writing became more directly about my own experiences, but even then, people only saw themselves in my writing, and never me. It became frustrating, all of these people who would tell me how great it was that I put their pain into words, and then if we would continue talking, they would not understand a single piece of the puzzle that is who I am. It took me a long time to realize (and I realized this bitterly) that art is never about the artist but about the audience. When I would be told by therapists, “Writing is a great way to cope!” and I would have to make my rebuttal, “It’s actually painful for me — like chewing glass — but I have no choice but to do it,” they did not understand, either. “Why don’t you stop?” Because, I guess, I still have plenty to say.

As a kid, I loved taking photographs. I used disposable cameras as a child, mostly photographing my cats truthfully, but always noticing composition and light before I really at all understood their importance — to photography or to me.

Still, however, I did not really even think of pursuing photography until I was 12. When you have been chronically suicidal since you can remember, the future does not factor into your life. I never thought about it as a career and always assumed that if I somehow survived into adulthood, I’d wind up an addict, (because I knew many people turn to illegal substances to cope even though I never did), a ward of the state in a psych hospital, or a “writer,” (whatever that meant), and perhaps even all three. As far as I was concerned however, I was already a writer and although I joked about fame and fortune, I had long-been made painfully aware that there was no popular market for what I had to offer.

But I was attracted to photography, because I was attracted to what I felt when I saw good photographs.

I saw photographs on the internet, particularly on sites like deviantART and flickr, that spoke to me. My foray into the art was confusing and littered with poor experimentation, as I couldn’t identify what about it was so important. I knew what I liked and what I didn’t like, and often I regrettably produced things I didn’t like. I was very much trying to get a strong hold on conceptualization, and it made me neglect what I really loved about photography in the first place: the visual depth.

Many of my first photographs were desaturated messes with powerful concepts behind them but executed poorly. I had a good eye for composition, but it was stilted by my limitations and need for there to be a meaning or symbol behind the piece. I was so obsessed with making the meaning matter most that I lost the image completely.

It didn’t help that oftentimes the poor image that has an appealing, universal concept behind it is what gains popularity: that image we see everywhere of two book pages being folded to cast a shadow of a heart or “hope” being written in a car mirror. I tried to understand what the audience wanted and although I understand people well, my meanings were often related to mental illnesses, trauma, pain, not hope or love or common, socially acceptable feelings. I have always been myself even when I have tried my hardest not to be.

Eventually I realized what the photographs I loved all had in common: there was a strong presence of light and darkness; of bold shadow. The light and darkness in each photograph I admired had a tragic relationship that mirrored my own relationship with writing and with people. It made me reminisce on how I took the concept of parallel lines in school — with great sadness, knowing that two lines that were the same and going in the same direction would never meet each other and could never bond. I started seeing the light and darkness in photographs as souls, reaching for each other but never truly bonding, and creating shadows from their tragic almost-union. This created what photography is to me now, and upon learning the etymology, the meaning solidified. I tell everyone when I talk about photography that what it means literally is “light writing.”

So when I make my photographs, I am also writing, but I have the convenience of what is already there and visually perceivable to communicate what I am trying to express. I feel then that my photography is more indicative of who I am than my writing. People see more of me in my photographs than they do in my words. They see the bold contrast and vibrancy, and whether they understand what that means or not, it is there for them: I am strong and colorful when I see color in the world, but I am still strong and bold when the color is gone. I often use isolated light, and perhaps this is a reflection of how what little hope (and however little) I’ve ever had is ultimately what creates the picture and produces both the mood (with its deficiencies) and communication (with its strength).

I spend hours analyzing myself and the world around me, listening to myself and others, absorbing information both internal and external, and I am so aware that it is painful and maddening. I become physically numb, deaf, and blind to senses sometimes because I am so brutally exposed to them. In my photographs, I try to say what words cannot say, and while I often find great similarities in both my strongest mediums, my photographs say more that is intimate and true to me as an individual than my writing ever could.

The introverted artist’s greatest tragedy, I believe, is that while trying to express themselves to the world, the world ultimately expresses itself using the artist’s expression. What we try to do for ourselves, we do for the audience, or at least, this is what my experience has been. Photography is a better channel for me. As I’ve expressed before, I can use it to visually relay emotions and experiences even if not exactly replicated but in a way that is more effective than it is in words. With words, I write horror stories inspired by my own life, symptoms, and nightmares. I write articles regarding pain I have witnessed in others and have experienced myself. I write blog posts that illustrate healing and recovery from lessons I’ve learned and information I’ve obtained through my life. I write poetry about my experiences and emotions whether directly and autobiographically in first person or through imagined narrators and characters. I write, and I write so much. I talk so much, express so much, and at the end of the day, little is truly communicated. Through words, people are likelier to receive the message they want to receive or are expecting to receive. They use verbal language as more of a mirror and not a window. Images offer less of the opportunity for someone to apply their own personal filter. It still happens — everything we see and perceive gets filtered personally — but the filter is clearer (or less muddy anyway) through visual art.

So when words are not strong enough, concise enough, loud enough, clear enough, or accurate enough, images can sometimes do what those words cannot. I write that I am real, that I am sick, that I am hurting, that I feel alone, and people see their own experiences in those words and thank me for helping them process their agony. I shoot my self-portrait in low light in my hospital gown and a soiled bandage around my wrist. I am crying and look ugly, makeup soiled, scars visible if you look closely enough, and I am holding my hand to my ear. This photograph is both staged and unstaged as the horror of photographing myself so vulnerable and knowing what I was trying to express was painful, and I did actually cry, and while the gauze has paint and not blood, there has been plenty of gauze with blood before. I communicate here what I cannot in writing: There is pain present here that is too intense and too complex for words.

This photo was featured on dA’s Daily Deviations page on 3 December, 2015



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