After Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who writes beautiful reflective poems connecting to elements, ancestors, childhood, and more than human family on her website and on instagram.
I find a lot of photos, deep in the front closet, that turn my stomach a bit. That tender one, me, already trying to be … I find others where I am caught in a moment of authentic connection with the photographer, or with my inner world, with spirit, with Earth. I find photos made by me, as I found my way to the safe space behind the lens. I find photos that I am in, which I also made, family – human, tree – without which I would not be, bunched around me.
When I was photographing at p:ear, I would chat the young people up who spent time there, show them my camera, see if they were interested in touching it. The light, simple plastic quality of a Holga is a ready invitation: not familiar, also not intimidating. I would suggest a swap: I make an image of them, they make an image of me.
One of my favorite youth to chat with – we, especially she, could run the words of daily pain, delight, hope and harm up the philosophy flag pole for hours – taught me a practice. She said when she photographs herself (describing dysphoria, grief, pleasure, attraction, a desire to present, a desire to be revealed – alllll the portrait wisdom), she can only get through the desire to run from capture… by taking a breath. Breathe in, breathe out, click. Tied together in the act of portraiture, we did that. Frame; breathe in; breathe out; click. She held the camera, we did it. I held the camera, we did it.
She was beautiful. Dark eyes, pig tails, sharp jaw, torn plaid dress open at the chest. I was maybe a bit in love with her. While also holding my boundaries: mentor, adult. She kept hers too, in her way, quiet then brassy, on estrogen and off, housed and not. On days that I saw her there, I know my face showed how I felt. Her willingness to let everything else disappear for hours with me, her face when I understood, showed something too. Would those faces have showed in our photos?
Turned out the camera was set to bulb for rolls and rolls that I didn’t get developed until too late to know, before my time there ran out. So everything was unsalvageably blurred. We looked at the prints together; probably I gave her one to keep. We agreed that the movement of breath was visible.
Now I sit with this school portrait – studio session? at, maybe, seven, and see how I was holding my breath. Holding my teeth. Holding a smile. Holding a plastic log or edge of a piece of furniture. At the center of attention, warm lights on me, a formality, an excitement, a little urgency. Not yet able to feel the relief when it is over and my spirit slides back in. Not yet able to give myself permission to feel the relief. Heart in throat; throat in mouth. Sit up, look here. Apple cheeks, bright eyes.
Who was I looking at, with the lights in my eyes? Aware of being seen, but floating in the blank between me and whatever it is they see. Aware of the projection, caught in the dream of controlling the narrative by fulfilling it. Not yet aware of my own tightness, trying to present, hoping to be revealed.
My face is the face of a secret. Mischievous. Holding my breath. The secret of relief, of expansion, of yelling, running, dress mussing. The secret of anger. The secret: nothing will please, everything will please. The secret of real mountains, real trees. Their bodies.
The knowing that this representation somehow matters. Like the collar: a merengue around my small neck, a wimple, a clown suit. Now I seem to recall, that dress a copy of one I had for my doll, something I asked for. In it, maybe I could love myself as I loved her? Ceremony of lights, sit up, smile, hold still. The display of a white girl child, hoping to look like a doll. Some armor I knew, from generations, how to live within, how to use.
A representation of aspens, clouds, mountains. Fall color frozen in time. A representation of childhood. A representation of a person with a secret, which is her own wild life.
Hello love. Hello me. Feel that breath? Step outside, let it free.