Just because it’s invisible doesn’t mean it can’t be seen. Our souls sparkle like the wet sand when the tide is out. The little bits of mica are a billion mirrors in the hardpan. You’ve got to tilt your head to see it. Sometimes you have to squint. These are not declarations they’re confessions.
Photography is a holy communion. Every portrait a visitation and a return. When you meet a person for the first time to photograph them there’s a certain energy, a certain charge. The impending reveal. There’s a newness to every person but also a sameness. There’s a gravitational field that you enter. It has a magnetic quality to it that’s beyond anything I can explain. It’s spiritual.
Every person has a wall around them that they blame on the camera. They blame the photograph itself. They’ll say, “That’s a bad photo of me.” But it’s not about that. It’s about intimacy and being seen. It’s about vulnerability and masks. People don’t understand that looking good in a photograph has very little to do with how you look. It’s not physical at all. Being photographed is not a product of vanity. It’s not about the ego. It’s about acceptance. It’s about coming out to one’s self. You can be false in a photograph just like you can be false in life.
When you are photographed you become aware of yourself in ways unlike at any other time. Your only reference point is other, older photographs in which, most of the time, you were caught in your mask. If not that, you are equally turned off by what might even be your authenticity. Either way these are the memories that return whenever a camera is present, and only serve to emphasize those qualities you seem to despise in yourself in photographs.
We carry with us all the photographs we’ve ever seen of ourselves, if only subconsciously. Discomfort in front of a camera stems from an accumulation of perceptions – not just of the memories of the photos themselves but in the reactions to them – ours, and anyone else who has ever chimed in. We carry all those reactions but mostly we carry our own. We blame the photographer but we blame ourselves most of all – and we trust neither.
In order for a portrait to be true we have to be willing to be seen. We have to be willing to see ourselves. You may never have truly seen yourself, not even in a mirror. But a true portrait shows us who we really are. A true portrait reveals our true selves. Authenticity is a quality of energy. It’s a state of mind, not something you put on like a coat. It’s a decision. I’ve been able to help people make that decision by revealing my self and by building a bond of trust. I have to make a decision too, as the photographer, as a witness. I have to believe in you, wholly, as a sacred being. In this way photography is a form of worship, a recognition of our divine unity. We are all very much connected. Every portrait is a link in that chain.
Every time you take a picture of a person you connect with them. The quality of that connection lies in the photographer’s intent. What you hold in your heart will be transferred or transmitted across the chasm between you. The photographer is not neutral in the dynamic. A photographer holds space.
I can remember every person I’ve ever photographed, vividly. Simply looking at a photograph stirs the most concrete, lucid memory, as if each moment was precious, as if something remarkable occurred every time. And perhaps it had. And it’s because I fully put myself into those people, those moments, those pictures. I was present and very much alive for them all, as if each was a foretold meeting, a destined encounter. And thus they left a mark on me. I of course encountered myself, hidden, in each person. That’s another secret. On some level I am always looking for and revealing myself. But not selfishly. Again I come back to communion. It’s about sharing. It’s about an exchange. We intermingle, each person and I. Mostly it’s they who show up in the picture but there’s a little bit of my dust in the air. My molecules. I sort of throw an invisible cloak around them. It’s not the cloak of me it’s the cloak of us. All of us. I know that I risk alienating people when I say this but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s powerful and it’s true. It’s love. What I am talking about is love.
When you see a really great portrait, a powerful portrait, what you are ‘seeing’ is the manifestation of love. Agape love; which Martin Luther King said is “the love of God operating in the human heart.” That really is the secret to a great portrait, to an image that transcends physical beauty yet also contains it. What you’re seeing in these pictures is evidence for the soul.
o O o