Self-Reflection through Portrait Photography
My Year in Photos
2015 was a busy year. I travelled across the country from New York to California through sixteen states and ten film locations over twenty-three days. I saw the dam Harrison Ford leaped off of in “The Fugitive” and the crossroads Tom Hanks stood at in the finale of “Cast Away.” I saw the Grand Canyon and peered dangerously over its vast expanse of which no photo could ever capture. I moved to Los Angeles and hiked up to the Hollywood sign and had burritos at Cactus Taco and somehow managed to land a wonderful job at a non-profit where geeks are gods. I became a volunteer tutor and ran a beat-making workshop. I handed out food to the homeless on Skid Row on piss-stained streets. I volunteered as a photographer in Mexico and fell in love with Mexican culture and met a Mexican woman who can see into souls. I travelled Japan via Shinkansen and listened to live jazz in Kyoto with a table full of Internationals and fed deer at Nara Park and saw how Mochi is made. I took a writing course at UCLA and found my voice and I quit drinking alcohol. To say that this year has been transformative would be an understatement. I came to California indulging in the idea of driving down the PCH with an award-winning script in the back seat of my convertible, a 35mm anamorphic print of my Sundance-premiering film in the trunk and a cute girl in the passenger seat doing things cute girls in passenger seats do but instead found myself involved with my own life in ways I never could have predicted.
I decided to try and do a “Year in Photos” after the Greeting Cards started coming in this holiday season; beautiful family portraits with their children or loved ones well lit with the sun setting behind them in some far away fantasy land where life still buzzes with possibility and neighbors still wave to you. Now, I live alone in a small studio apartment in Hollywood, I am not married or dating anyone and, if I’m being honest, haven’t had the best of luck with that part of my life. And even though I know that these cards are meant to bring joy and spread holiday cheer, there’s a bittersweet feeling I get when I find them in my mailbox and I’m almost reluctant to open the card knowing that what’s inside might just be another reminder of the life I don’t have. But then I started thinking: what do I have to share? What would a holiday card from me look like? And so began the painstaking process of looking through the thousands of photos I’ve taken this year, searching for an answer to my question.
Of course I had no idea what I was getting into. Whenever I start a new project like this, be it a short story or a feature-length script, it’s often after some sort of manic-fueled delusion of grandeur, a chemically imbalanced idea or maybe some type of indescribable cosmic inspiration that makes me believe I’ll be able to accomplish the near impossible in record-setting time without food or sleep like I’m living in the Sorkin-verse where ideals hold true across time and space and this would be the point where’d you start clapping for me as I’d be heading off on my Quixotic adventure.
I literally had thousands of photos, some I hadn’t looked at since January, and yet I imagined myself flying through them with an acute autistic accuracy, lining them up and arranging them in a way so as to solve some deep, humanitarian photographic riddle that would make any layman onlooker see the truth in the Universe, whatever that truth was. I even fancied up a soundtrack to go along with it to help facilitate the process, believing that the combination of both would create a Molotov cocktail of inner wisdom and awakening. I first attempted to make a video slideshow scored to something inspirational yet friendly and safe, but the idea began to feel too marketed, too much like something Zuckerberg would do. It didn’t feel real or honest. And then I thought some kind of personal essay might go well alongside a curated selection of photos, but what the hell would it be about? Which photos could I possibly choose out of thousands? Would I try and spread some kind of message of compassion? A cutely-worded Anti-Trump/Pro-Sanders piece with honest hopes of viral sharing? Or maybe I’d just let the photos speak for themselves and remove my voice altogether. After all, no one’s going to read this anyway, and there’s another cat video or police shooting to watch.
To make matters worse, none of the photos seemed to go together, they didn’t match up. Working in marketing and advertising has trained me to be acutely aware of being “on brand” and these photos certainly were not. They were what we call “off brand,” the telltale signs of a perfunctory PR department. I wanted to be one of those Instagram sensations that seemed to use the same SLR camera and film stock or VSCO filter for every photo, a non-wavering sentient awareness of their voice and vision. I wanted those photos of me traversing Icelandic volcanic rock posted over some inspirational caption with thousands of likes and dozens of emoji-filled comments. I wanted to go back in time to each photo and take them the way they should’ve been taken according to the brand guidelines I was now setting for myself: 10 lbs. lighter, Ray Ban Sunglasses, full hipster beard, lack of expression, mouth slightly open, look like you’re doing something else and bored with it, hold it, one more, print.
I had to figure something else out. I had to keep looking. The truth was they had been taken during one of the most transformative years of my life and that transformation was evident in the photos along with the inner conflict, reverence, love, lust, confusion, et al. How could I hide this? How could I blend this into some Home Depot–approved color swatch that would soothe viewers and not agitate them? Or at least give people the appearance that I knew what I was doing, that I was ready for the ranks of “serious artist,” finally graduating from “up-and-coming”; the locker-lined hallways of which I’ve loitered in for too long.
I even tried walking away from the project, unsuccessfully telling myself that I had better things to spend my time on, that I should be working on a new script or short story, or that I should be meditating atop a mountain in Ojai on Jean-Paul Sartre or updating my online dating profile (I don’t currently have one though I’ve tried several in the past). I tried to tell myself the internet wasn’t real and that I would need to reduce my reliance on it if I were to ever become successful, because successful people are focused and don’t waste time on inspirational YouTube videos, I told myself. I sought the council of a few trusted compatriots to make sure I wasn’t getting lost down the rabbit hole, as I tend to do these days. Whereas in the past I took comfort in my self-imposed righteousness, juiced up on my cycle of anabolic arrogance — I was always right and in the unlikely event I was wrong I could always rationalize the blame off of myself and onto the nearest patsy — today I am beginning to take comfort in not knowing.
The one consistency of 2015 was that everything was always new. By the time I arrived in Los Angeles I was exhausted not only from being on the road for almost a month but also from constantly adjusting to a new time and place, from never knowing where anything was, and I mean the simple things like food and water. Google and Yelp reviews notwithstanding, I didn’t realize just how much I took for granted the kind of environmental awareness I had going on in the background of my consciousness, unseen calculations constantly clocking familiar roads or avenues, hills and valleys, even the smell in the air was logged somewhere deep inside my cognitive processes. And now that was all gone. I had no inner compass. After a few months I realized I was homesick without option for escape. I no longer had my parents’ house upstate for an impromptu country retreat or the familiar New York City venues like Union Square or Grand Central Station. I had my brother in Culver City and a few friends scattered throughout Los Angeles, but neither were familiar in the kind of way a person goes to take a piss in the middle of the night in their own home. I would just have to wait until I got used to things. But how long was that going to take? I became very aware at how habitual I was, at how I took a certain sense of comfort even in the things I disliked. People kept asking me how I was liking California, a completely reasonable question, but I didn’t know how to answer them. I wanted to say something that sounded like “I had no idea how much I’d love surfing!” or some other committee-approved endorsement. I didn’t want to tell them that I mostly just wanted to run as far as I could, to get back on the road where anonymity reigned supreme and I would keep driving through serpentine mountain passages and over the exhausting miles of middle-country flatlands until things started making sense again or until I simply disappeared into obscurity.
But then things started to change. I started thinking: whatever plan I had for myself obviously hadn’t worked out. I realized that I’d been holding onto an idea — some warped and disfigured version of an old faded copy of the American Dream — for so long that my heart was in physical pain from the constant anxiety of personal failure, of not living up to the expectations I’d set for myself way back in the classrooms of my formative years. Without booze and prescription drugs to dull the adrenalin constantly burning through my arteries, through my shallow, labored breaths and manic thoughts I could hear, echoing deep within the recesses of my mind over and over again, that something was very wrong. And maybe, if I was ready and willing, it was time to let it go.
I started noticing that even though I no longer had the comforting familiarities I had relied on for so long, I was, in fact, having new and unique experiences. And those experiences, when looked at through a clear lens uninhibited by the crushing weight of my own ego, were profound. I found myself constantly extending beyond my comfort zone and crossing into new boundaries, learning about new cultures, new languages, and forging new relationships with people I previously would have ignored.
And then I saw the common thread through my photos: the people.
It was the people that tied each of these experiences together. By learning to step out of my own way, the more I learn to accept myself and, as I’ve been finding quite unexpectedly, accept others with a newfound tolerance and compassion. I find myself asking a lot more questions today, hungry to learn beyond that which I’ve always known understanding that even though my own knowledge and experience has limits, those limits can be reached and surpassed. For me, change can be challenging. It can be scary. It can be painful. But, on the other side of that discomfort, I have found tolerance, acceptance, compassion and love.
Best Wishes in 2016.
HP, AA, Danny A, Jeff S, Hanzohattori & the Tribesman, Darinka C y la Fundación Gaia, Linda N, 826LA, Noé M, Lexi Zeppelin, David Z and the Prizers, Franck D, Batoteee, Dave C, the Wolfpack, Nao S, Melina R, LaMae C, LoAnn F, Amber M, Irina the Russian, Kristin Z, Slomama & the Fam, Ward R, Tim P, Leslie E, Nanny J, A & B and Baby J, Julie-Marie and Greg N. and, of course, April & Joe