The Essence of Identity

Tonight, I attended a literature event: Adam Gopnik interviewing Meg Wolitzer. As to be expected, she spent most of her time talking about the process of writing, her personal experiences as a writer, etc.. They were somewhat offhand, but she offered two wonderfully helpful nuggets about how to write that could easily be applied to anyone working in a creative field, and I’m sitting here, savoring them, letting them roll around my head, trying to suck every last ounce of goodness from them:

  1. You don’t have to offer all of yourself into your work, but at least a little part of you should always be present. Your "identity”, your “label” in your friend group? That’s the part of you that should come out in your work.

  2. Editing is like Jenga. If you can take something out and the structure still stands, you didn’t need it, you were right to take it out.

The second point is easier for me to wrap my head around, and is something of which I need to be highly mindful, since I have a terrible time paring down...anything. My work, my words, my wardrobe, etc. I like to have maximum flexibility and offer as many possible options as possible. I can still Marie Kondo my life and get rid of anything that is truly unnecessary, but I’m energized by potential. I find comfort in knowing I can consider something from all sides, that I have flexibility and options. It can be overwhelming for sure, but once I make my decision about something, that’s it. I don’t waffle.

The first point is trickier because it asks me to identify my role to my friends. Not why my friends like me (which could easily dissolve into a pathetic grab for compliments), but what purpose my existence in their lives serves; why I *specifically* am kept around. To put this in a professional context, my work could appeal to you (or not) for a myriad of reasons, varying from person to person. But I can’t know that in advance, so I have to go on past critiques/comments about my strengths and weaknesses and offer you as much as I can to appeal to you as much as possible. I have longed for the freedom to say, “this is who I am, this is what I want to offer you, take it or leave it.” But in a hyper-competitive field like photography, “leave it” is a luxury, so many photographers (myself included to an extent), err on the side of maximum appeal and offer up way more than they should.

Part of this creative metamorphosis I’ve been working on the past few months addresses both of Wolitzer’s points. I spent too long trying to appeal to too many potential clients by showing off too many different styles, and in the end, it wasn’t even enough, it was all diluted. It never really felt like I took a creative stand for anything. The work was beautiful, elegant, and clean, but it was safe. I’ve been marinating on the concept of “risk”, at least in the context of my work, and I realized risk wasn’t something that would show up in my subject matter or style. Risk for me means thinking about how to work differently. I need to get comfortable with taking a visual stand and risking potential alienation. I need to not consider “potential” at all, only think in yes or no, never maybe; the burden of potential will kill you if you let it.

I had a reviewer once tell me my strongest images were the ones that felt authentic, but only half the images in my portfolio actually showed that. I was only half revealing something. I was only taking half a risk. She was absolutely right. It’s funny, in my personal life, I have never cared one iota if someone liked me or not, or if I fit in. It’s the only child in me—I’ve always been fine on my own. But as a photographer? It always felt like I was trying too hard to get people to like me. A little too eager. A soupçon of obsequiousness.

That ends now.

Mixed media pieces? Why not?

Mixed media pieces? Why not?