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.

Continue reading When words are not _____ enough


The Analog Identity

I never rest. Dreams are fragments to me of undercover lives; these lives lived, under covers, atop bedspreads, wear worlds only slightly off from the world in which I am writing this now. The realities are difficult to separate sometimes, twisting in me like bedsheets enduring a sleeping nightmare or a white-knuckled waking one. I have dreams from which I wake only to find myself in others, retelling earlier journeys into my subconscious. So the layers go and fold and fall into and unto themselves—a labyrinth, a maze. Amazing, how at the heart of all these corridors I have not yet found the minotaur.

Or maybe it has found me.

Sleeping has always been contentious for me. Lullabies, warm milk, tea, little drew my little eyes closed. Most of it is sickness; I know that. I experience the world differently than most people, afraid to sleep, or too restless or too agitated to sleep, and I see things other people do not see.

Acknowledging a world invisible to most regardless of reputability understandably creates a rift between the world and myself. I have been outcasted my entire life, desperately trying to draw bridges to connect with other human beings or differences that made me “special” instead of a “freak” in other people’s eyes. Developing my skills as an artist helps with this, but the bridge never quite lands the right way.

Still, photography, in particular, is a channel.

Photography is a channel in which the ethereality of my vision can explode. I can’t replicate the hallucinations, but the art is where my dreams meet the horizon of this world. I can catch glimpses of old things here: ghosts and shadow men, the signature of self that remains in space after one moves—I can see the hauntings of reality here, skulking in the darkness, hanging in the corners of my bedroom walls, greeting my mind’s eye in an instant image or a 35mm frame.

Analog photography seduces ghosts like nothing else. It woos them into the photograph and holds them there. They try to escape, but it’s often too late: The film has captured the ghost’s very essence; its light; its being; its soul.

It preserves the fluidity between my dreams and realities in a way that I can safely lose myself in. It keeps the boundaries flexible enough to bend, but they do not break; and that is an asset to me that I crave and need in my creative, professional, and emotional life.

Photography, too, particularly analog, is an expression of light in a world of darkness or, moreover, like in my life, a catch of light in an almost-black room. If you hold the shutter open long enough in a very dark place, light will eventually get in. That might be what attracts me to it so much: The idea that with patience and observation—almost like with the right cognitive patterns, as suggested in therapy—I can find hope in the murky thicket of my illnesses, my trauma, and my world.

Perhaps to take film photographs is to sleepwalk. It feels like it sometimes, moving through dreams; running through heavy water or sand—do you know that feeling? It is like a slow-motion film taken during an August dusk when everything is slow and muted. I hear my heartbeat when I shoot sometimes. I feel my pulse. I hear my breath. I feel every bone and muscle in my body, but it’s stranger than that. It’s a sleepy hyperawareness that leads me to believe I am alive but part of some other world. I am not here. I am drifting between realities and dreaming many dreams.

I will say it again, then: I never rest. I go from one world to another, whether asleep or awake. I am always moving from dream to dream to reality to dream again. Photography is an art, an expression, a coping skill. It is an identity, and analog photography even more of myself. What we live with is not always our choice, but what we do with it is what makes us who we are, and a large part of me is a photographer.