This is part of a series of letters I am sending to my world of photography. This is an ongoing series.
You have taken on many names, but for now I will just say,
Rebecca Solnit wrote about the process of transformation in her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, or rather, she recalled when Pat Barker wrote about it in her book, Regeneration. The two reflect on how, “the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.” When I read those words I am reminded of a consistent theme that Rilke circled around, which is the concept of growth through emotional death. This idea that our existence in states of depression is the emotional experience of the death of old, unhelpful ideas, the death of older versions of ourselves to make way for the new, an emotional process of molting.
And so I began to thing about growth and decay. I can’t remember where I read this, but a long time ago there was an article published about a study that supported the idea that states of depression were indeed the process of the human mind in some sort of transformation, taking on newer bigger ideas and doing the hard, at times ineffable, work of processing them. I remember when I was in college taking an intro to philosophy course. In the midst of my study I ran across the philosophical argument that no moment can be proven except the exact moment you are living, and now this moment, and now this one, but the previous moments that you had just proved were now no longer provable. The more I thought about this idea the more my world around me seemed a construct. The room I was sitting in began to feel literally two dimensional and temporary, my vistas coming into and out of existence as I conceived of them, tricking myself into believing that I was moving through a real world. The world became a construct, but and interesting thing occurred, as I moved through campus I began to see that behind the eyes of everyone who walked by me, completely oblivious to my activated existential crisis, lay an entire universe. A multiverse moving through a constructed reality.
I eventually came down off of this high. I was young and it was the first time I had gotten to think about such things. In many ways it may have been the first time that I began understanding my own pattern of depression and my relationship to it. Depression, the isolation it evokes, can overtake a person, but for some of us it can also be the tough love friend we need from time to time. I have begun to personify my depression as a visitor, but to do that I have learned to personify blissful joy as a visitor as well. These emotional states come and go. The experience of these states as visitors has allowed me to grow within them, like vines.
To fail, to be depression, for me has become a seasonal molt. I shed the old skin. I become soft and vulnerable for a time. And I move into a bigger space. But the thing about this molting is that you have to sit with the bad stuff. Perhaps we sit with the bad stuff so that we can eventually find our power over it and independent of it. The hard part for the unlucky of us is that sometimes the bad stuff carries a darkness without words, a darkness even those closest to us do not want to look at.
As you had hinted at one moment, you were initiated into the club of the sexually abused — the details I know little of, but that is not really the issue at hand. Rape, is a word that perfectly encapsulates an experience and I wonder at times if it should not be expanded on. Rape is also defined as theft; theft of a person’s body, theft of a person’s identity, theft of the space we carry around us; it is a fundamental kind of theft, a theft that attempts to steal the deepest part of us — that deep singularity of consciousness. And so, with those who are dealing with histories of abuse, sexual or otherwise, the process of molting bring a heavier pain that only exacerbates the less the demons are looked at.
I know a woman who has suffered greatly in every way at the hands of the people who were supposed to keep her safest. She is successful in every way but one; her relationships. She is fundamentally incapable of being single because to be single, for her, is to open the door for introspection, for molting, and the dark things in her past are too painful. Instead, she repeats old habits, she is attracted to people who carry the ugly characteristics of her own personality, to people who remind her of the very people who have hurt and left her. This makes sense, to a degree, but it is intensely painful to watch.
To not enter the chrysalis of our own pain means that we can never die in order to be reborn into a being that can fly. To not molt evokes an image of people carrying around their old skins of their body, like the chains of Jacob Marley, damned to carry extra weight, to make the same mistakes over and over again, to prevent one’s self from actually growing. I am telling you all of this because for storytellers this refusal to enter your chrysalis will rape your practice of it power.
There was a point in my life were I was at risk of becoming a truly stunted and dull human being — photography saved me from this fate. To be a good documentary photographer I believe you have to be a person. The good thing is that documentary photography can make you a good person, and the better you become the better your photography becomes and the cycle continues and grows from there. To be a good documentary photographer you have to listen to other people’s stories fully. At times these stories are traumatic and you have to learn to listen without judgment and with some form of empathy towards all sides. But to do all of this you have go inward, you have to look at yourself, you have to have an inner foundation built on something more than sand.
I watched you for a few weeks. You are very young and do not trust yourself. You do not look for your inner self; instead you define yourself based on how others perceive you. I saw this cause you immense pain. I saw this ruin your practice. I saw this make you impotent to act. You have a hard road to travel and the longer you put it off the more rugged the road will become. But the moment you begin to grow your practice will begin to bud and perhaps even blossom.