Living Differently - Holding the Gaze

Wall of meBack in 2013 I did an online photography course with Vivienne McMaster. Vivienne's work encourages her participants to "discover tools that will help you to cultivate a relationship of self-compassion both through the camera and in your every day life" (her words from the website), the premise being that self portraiture can help us look at ourselves with love and lessen the hold of self-criticism. It can be a radical act to show up in front of the lens and direct that gaze, that multi-facted honest gaze towards our most bullying critic - us. We can feel the earth shift when we direct a look of love towards ourselves instead.

A year before this I began using photography as a way to deal with living with chronic illness. After feeling trapped in my body I felt an enormous sense of relief capturing what was happening to me on camera. I was both the photographer and the subject and that allowed me to explore my feelings in depth without having them overwhelm me. The camera was a tool for both investigation and validating my experience. I began my self-portrait journey wanting to record the truth and the last thing I wanted was to 'play nice' for the camera. As I continued my work with Vivienne I learnt how to enjoy being in front of the lens. I found out that I was a worthy a subject as anyone I had turned my camera towards.

A few years have gone by and I'm still adapting to a life I did not choose, still looking for  my own story in the midst of change. The past 6 months have been very tough and I've got puffy and swollen in my face. This shouldn't matter, but it does. In an attempt to self-validate I forgot one thing - the constant passing of time. When I look at the photos above, all taken and processed on my phone, posing, pouting and beaming - I can also see someone trying hard to pretty herself for the lens. Looking at these pictures something is missing. Where is my body ? It's no coincidence that I live with an invisible illness.  I've managed to hide myself from myself.

Looking  again I can see that even the most processed of them are a part of my story. Some days I let my vulnerability show, others I shine with joy and then there are the times when I feel the only choice I have is to 'say cheese', hold my gaze and face the world.

What's real ?

On Thursday 7th October I was on my way to a posh poet's breakfast, to celebrate National Poetry Day when I got hit by a car and thrown from my bike. I spent the day in hospital, left in the evening rush hour with stitches in my face, a limp, cuts and grazes, and I now have a black eye.

It got me thinking about photography and self-portraiture. As a photographer I am usually happier on the safer side of the lens, the one where I enter the story from a distance and where I capture and freeze the rapid skidding moments in front of me. My portraits are often posed but I like to think there is a moment when the sitter settles in to his or herself, the precise time when the personality expresses itself in the relaxed musculature of the face.

I knew I needed a record of my damages as a result of my fall. Here's another image before the bruise fully came out. Am I happy in it or just smiling for the camera ? I include both photos here as although the wounds are real the feelings I experienced are complex and it needs more than one self portrait to express this complexity; the immense gratitude at still being alive, the terror at being trapped under the front of a car, the sorrow I felt at seeing my mother's desperation when she walked in to A and E, the total joy at being loved and looked after by old friends, the extensive appreciation I so very seldom feel for the beautiful broad expanse of life itself, my anger at car drivers in general...the list goes on.

One of my favourite photographers is Nan Goldin whose work is an exciting and challenging mix of autobiography and voyeurism. An image of hers that has always stuck with me is Nan, One Month After Being Battered. It was taken a month after her then boyfriend assaulted her as both a physical and emotional reminder of the cost of the relationship she was in. My injuries do not compare to hers, however needing to keep a record of all the changes and chapters we live is something I do share with Goldin.

There is something quite special about being forced to do nothing or very little. These few housebound days have helped me realise that being a photographer means to be in the constant process of writing a story continually re-telling itself.