December 29th, 2022
When a person looks at a painting or a photograph, what do they really see?
I have been pondering this question for a couple months now. I have a friend, Suzanne, who is a photographer. She is also a teacher at a local tech school. She is nearing her retirement as a teacher, and she is looking at photography as her second act. So, Suzanne is continuing to take classes to hone her skills. Suzanne has a natural talent for creating striking images with her camera. She sees things that others do not.
During this last semester, Suzanne took a course on portrait photography. One of her assignments was to make an “editorial portrait”, a photograph with a message. That is an interesting concept. Can a picture say something to the person viewing it? Suzanne asked me if she could take my picture to use in her class project. I agreed to that. She told me,
“Your face tells a story. It’s a good story.”
Back in October, Suzanne came to our house and set up her camera and tripod. She asked me to sit at the kitchen table near the patio doors. We talked for an hour. Suzanne asked me about my time in the Army. She asked me about my son, Hans, and his wartime experiences in Iraq. Every so often, she snapped a picture. I don’t know what prompted her to take a particular photo at a particular moment. I don’t know what she saw that was so special. Maybe my facial expression, maybe the lighting, maybe the background. Suzanne seemed to have an instinctive sense of what would look right.
Suzanne and I both belong to a Zen sangha. For years we have practiced Zen meditation. We sat on cushions in silence and tried to empty our minds. In Zen meditation a person tries to reach the mind exists before thinking. That’s hard to do because humans are thinking all the time. However, sometimes a person can get to the point where they are no longer overthinking. A person may be able to tap into their intuition. I think that Suzanne does that with her photography.
After a couple weeks, Suzanne sent me a digital black and white photo. It was my portrait. Generally, I don’t like to look at pictures of myself. Somehow, that bothers me. The photo she chose seemed odd to me. In the portrait I am looking up at the ceiling. What made her use that image?
I sent copies of the portrait to a number of friends to get their input on Suzanne’s work. I took their feedback and gave it to Suzanne. Here are some of their comments:
“Frank! fantastic photo! you look like an Old Testament prophet, or a hermit saint! exactly what you are… Suzanne knows what she is doing.”
“Yes, mirrors can be strange as we age. I agree with your photographer friend: you do have a story in your face. I think I do too but the difference is that you look concerned, even worried about the ills and troubles in the world, whereas I look like I am ready and willing to add to them! I am getting to play music nearly every week someplace, and it feels right and good. The Longest Walk and Sacred Run events seem very long ago and very far away to me now”
“Sorry I didn’t respond sooner; I had to mull over the photo a bit. I really like it. To those not acquainted with you, I think the photo would show a man who is awake to the complexities of life, who looks for wisdom (maybe has found some), is accepting of life as it is. The knick-knacks on the top shelf suggest diverse interests. You look relaxed in your own skin. “
“To me, an acquaintance who knows something of who you are, the photo does justice to parts of you. I’m thinking of your relationships with the Jewish and the Buddhist communities, and your love of travel, new adventures; the Texas placard on the shelf reminds me of Hans. Of course, you are so much more: your life with Karin and now especially with Asher, your tutoring immigrants, your work on the loading dock with your co-workers, your Catholic faith, your standing up for non-violence, etc. Your story is so interesting, so complex, filled with graces that are sometimes embraced and other times not, characterized by authentic questioning and looking for the path. I love all that about you. It’s so much more than a single photo can capture.”
“This picture speaks to me of a man who has traveled the many miles of life’s pilgrim journey; perhaps there is some strange sort of truth to your photographer’s insistence on the storytelling power of a photograph. Your hesitation around it notwithstanding, I think it’s a good picture nonetheless.”
“I have read about Suzanne somewhere in your blog. When you have to tell a story in a glance, photography is a big task. I don’t like to look at pictures of myself either, but I have the advantage of not having a mirror. When I looked at your photo, the first image that came to my mind was Ram-dass. Hahaha!”
“As I was looking at the picture she took of you, I can see the face of good man. a man who is willing to be there for you no matter what. A man who is really loves God. I think not seeing yourself is a mistake. Looking in the mirror could always help you see the reflection of yourself, will help you see the good man.”
” The first word that came to mind seeing your photo…, Tolstoy 😉 Sorry, I just happened to see a photo him not too long ago🙂But I can see what Suzanne is seeing.”
“I love it! It looks like you are thinking about a story you are about to tell. You are a great storyteller. 🙂 P.S. Your face shows suffering too- maybe you are looking at God saying “….really?”
“That is a great photo. But it looks less Zen than Orthodox Christian to me. No matter. Your friend Suzanne is right, a face tells a story and yours has much to say. Does she have a show or some way she plans to publish this picture? Hope so. Thank for sending it.”
Obviously, my friends know me and probably were not terribly objective. I suspect that the folks who did not like the portrait simply remained silent.
What struck me was the fact that each person saw something different. The portrait told a story to each observer, but each person got a story unlike the others. Did they actually see the photo, or did they look into a mirror? Did they see me, or did they see something from within themselves? Was it really a Rorschach test?
What do you see?