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Every face is a story

No, you can't take my photo!

At the moment I am reading one of the journals of May Sarton: Journal of a Solitude. In it she writes of the dichotomy of needing to be with people while at the same time needing to be alone with her thoughts in an aesthetically pleasing environment.

I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange – that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and “the house and I resume old conversations.” (Journal of a Solitude, p.11)

As I read Sarton’s journal I discover a woman who views people as interruptions because they take her away from her creative pursuits. Ironically her “solitary” life is filled with interactions with people. She acknowledges that her relationships with others are both an emotional imperative and an emotional drain. What matters most to Sarton is her writing, and she needs to be alone for her muse to appear and for her to be able to create. I can certainly identify with that sentiment. After all isn’t that a key requirement of any kind of reflective practice or creative process.

For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose – to find out what I think, to know where I stand. I am unable to become what I see. I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt, “won’t go,” or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person’s face. (Journal of a Solitude, p. 12)

There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over any encounter and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it. (Journal of a Solitude, p. 195).

My great love in life is people – yes, even the ones that irritate me and make life difficult. People inspire me in different ways. Some leave lasting imprints in my heart while others I would rather forget. The resultant emotional response our connection evokes in me is a constant reminder of our uniqueness as human beings.

I love connecting with people. I love spending time with people and finding out more about them and their lives. I love learning from others and learning with them. I love having the ability to listen and to share with others. I believe being there for others through thick and thin differentiates us from other species. We nurture and support each other in ways that connect deeply to our inner core; with our hearts, minds, and souls. Why else would we care so deeply about people we have never met before when tragedy strikes, for example? Why do people lend a helping hand when they are not being asked to do so? Why else would we care what happens to anyone that is not associated with us or close family?

Trevor and Lynsey talking online using Skype

I always feel energised through my interactions with others no matter what medium we are using to communicate. When I am fortunate enough to be able to see people’s faces I learn so much about who I am communicating with. I believe there is a story behind every face. A story that connects to who that person is.

Definition of face
The front part of the head that in humans extends from the forehead to the chin and includes the mouth, nose, cheeks, and eyes
Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online

Over the last year and a half I have been taking photos as a way of seeing my world and experiencing my place within it. The process of taking these photos and reflecting on them has elicited major changes in me, my life, and the lives of those connected with me. Yet as I look at all my photos I am shocked as to how few are actually of people. The typical reaction (especially amongst adults) when I asked if I could take a photo was an unequivocal ‘NO’.

As I now spend time exploring photography further I have come to realise that my real passion lies in taking photos of people because I’m interested in the story associated with that person. Yet in my experience people can be very elusive subjects even on an impromptu basis.

Niko hiding behind a mask he made

Why is it we are so afraid to be seen as we really are? What is so wrong with us as we are? Is it because we don’t really ‘see’ each other in a face to face situation; do we merely see what we want to see whereas a photograph picks up on everything and therefore we feel exposed and open to the criticism of others? Is it that a photograph is capable of penetrating beyond the mask we are so busy trying to present to others? Is it because we think we look old or we are not beautiful enough? Is it a privacy issue? Is it simply because we are dealing with people and we all know how complex we human beings can be.

Wake up Tiger had an interesting post recently that caught my attention: What story does your face tell? Our expressions can say so much.

The face is the soul of the body
Ludwig Wittgenstein

My beautiful niece Elena and her cat Liquorice

Maybe Pablo Picasso has the answer. We don’t want others to see our faults so we make every effort to present ourselves in a way that others will see us as we want to be seen. However, a photograph could tell a completely different story; the one we don’t want told and this makes people uncomfortable.

What is a face, really? Its own photo? Its make-up?
Or is it a face as painted by such or such painter?
That which is in front? Inside? Behind? And the rest?
Doesn’t everyone look at himself in his own particular way?
Deformations simply do not exist.
Pablo Picasso

About a month ago I undertook to help a colleague prepare for an upcoming family reunion by creating a movie for him from a series of about 50 family photos. He gave me this pile of photos with no other information or guidance. I first had to scan them all and convert them into digital files. Some were really old and damaged photos. I then had to look at them carefully to see how they fitted together and how I would organise them. I knew none of the people in any of the photos, apart from my colleague, but as I worked on this project I became deeply moved by what I was doing. I felt I was an outsider starring into a window of their family home and I was sharing many important moments in their lives. The faces staring back at me evoked so much emotion in me. There were so many stories in those faces. Some of the stories were really obvious whilst others I could only guess.

Memories more often than not include faces. When we store these pictures in our minds they tend to stay with us and we can recall them as needed, but this is not true for everyone. I remember when I first heard about prosopagnosia (the inability to recognise faces commonly referred to as face blindness). As this Wired article points out prosopagnosics can see your eyes, your nose, your mouth – and still not recognize your face. Imagine that!

I can vividly remember the first time I heard about this brain problem. I was doing a paper at university in neuropyschology. The lecturer related a story of a young client who said to him at the end of a therapy session that he wouldn’t recognise her the next time she came to see him. He asked her why and she told him in a matter of fact way that she was getting new shoes and she would be wearing them the next she came to see him. It was then that he discovered that she was unable to recognise faces. This young girl sorted all the people in her life by the shoes they wore.

Cecilia Burman has always had a problem with faces. As a child, she struggled to pick out her own face in school photos, and she is hard-pressed today to describe her mother’s features. Over the years she has offended countless friends, passing them on neighborhood streets or in office hallways like strangers. “People think I’m just snobby,” says Burman, 38, a computer consultant in Stockholm. “It makes me really, really sad to lose new friends because they think I couldn’t bother to say hello.”

For the vast majority, the problem is not so much about detecting a face … as it is about recognizing the same set of features when seeing them again. It’s a disability that complicates everything from following a movie plot to picking a perp out of a lineup. While mild prosopagnosics can train themselves to memorize a limited number of faces (it’s said to be like learning to distinguish one stone from another), others grapple with identifying family members and, in extreme cases, their own face.

Source: Sora Song, Do I know you? Time Magazine, 10 July 2006

Then today I came across this TED Talk from February 2008 where Siegfried Woldhek reports on his attempt to uncover the true face of Leonardo da Vinci. Apparently no one really knows what he looked like. Siegfried explains the process he used to deduce the face of Leonardo.

Please don’t let this happen to you.

Don’t leave people guessing as to what you looked like. Future generations will want to know. It may be really important to them. Photos of you will be their legacy. As people look at these photos they will see the story of you. They won’t look at you and say “gee she was fat” or “gosh look at her wrinkles” or ” wasn’t she ugly?” They might laugh at your haircut or what you’re wearing – so would you if you were still around. The reality is though that they will see the beauty of the person emanating from the photo. You will become real even though you may be long gone. They will connect all their stories they have heard and all the information they have gleaned and they will look at the photo and focus on the treasure of the wonderful you.

See that wonderful you for yourself. Don’t deny yourself this. Let people take photos of you and use them to reflect on who you were, who you are now, and who you are becoming. This is the journey of life.

There is one more thing I want to say. If I cross your path with my camera in my hands please don’t shun me. If I ask you if I can take your photo please say “yes”. Our paths will have crossed for a reason and me wanting to take your photo may have implications that neither of us ever imagined. Be open to possibilities that go beyond the here and now.

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3 Responses to “Every face is a story”

  1. on 18 May 2008 at 9:39 pm lynsey

    Once upon a time… I used to work in a factory that made mirrors. Part of my job was making sure the silver was good. This required me to look closely at the silver, not any reflections, including the reflection of myself. After a while I noticed I’d stopped looking at myself in the mirror when I shaved. I had become the invisible man. Twenty-plus years later I still don’t use a mirror to shave with. And no, I haven’t grown a beard or ended up looking like Cousin It. Yet.

  2. on 18 May 2008 at 11:17 pm Marica

    I have always wondered why you never shaved in front of a mirror. Now I know
    Love you
    M xoxoxo

  3. […] on Parker refers to another author I have recently discovered, May Sarton. I have become a fan of May’s work after reading one of her published journals, Journal of a Solitude, and I have […]

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