Thursday, August 1, 2013

Transforming my life, one photograph at a time

“The wound is where the Light enters you.” 
~ Rumi

In the early spring of 2013 and again this past month, I took an online photography class called “In Plain Sight.” Led by photographer Catherine Just, “In Plain Sight” is a 30 day photo ritual “to help you experience the sacred in the everyday.” Catherine says: “What you put your attention on gets bigger. When you focus on Love, Love grows. When you focus on what makes your every day moments really sacred to you, your life becomes holy. When you document the moments that matter, you realize how expansive your life already is…and you treasure it.”

In March I chose Mark as my subject. This past month, as I’ve mentioned recently, I chose Ben. And he agreed to be my subject. My 15 year old teenage son agreed to be in the viewfinder of my camera for a month. My intention was to stay very connected to my boy as we got closer to his surgery day. At a time when it might be easy for each of us to pull into our shells, or to hide away in our rooms, to live in a state of semi-denial, I decided it was the right time to make sure I was really seeing him and being present in his life.
It was only after finishing this photo that I realized it was almost a mirror image of the Mona Lisa.
Catherine sent us an email prompt every day and we, the students of “In Plain Sight,” connected on a private
Facebook page, introducing ourselves, posting our photos, having conversations about our process, our stories, our insights. At the bottom of each of her emails is this line: “Don’t leave before the Miracle Happens.”

What kind of miracle happens when you are photographing the same thing over and over and over?

Well, you catch a moment you would have otherwise missed. You see the beauty in the potentially mundane. You laugh. You cry. You share a story you never knew was there.

You are transformed.

I began the course creating portraits of Ben. So much beauty came of that. My eye improved. My craft improved. I matured as a photographer.
Ben poses with a my self-portrait, painted in college at age 19...the resemblance is startling.

I also had a different kind of opportunity to tell Ben’s story, our story. Many of the descriptions I wrote to go along with the photos included details of his difficult journey with many surgeries.

Ben approached this project as a partner, which actually surprised me. I didn’t expect him to say, “Hey, have we done our photo yet today?” and yet he did. He was enjoying it as much as I, I think. Contrary to what you’d expect from a teenager, when I said, “Hey can you put on a solid colored shirt?” he would look down, assess the shirt he was wearing and say, “Yeah.” And go do it. When I said, move here, no here, ok, turn this way…he would. No complaints. The results were amazing. I’m so proud of the work that came from it.

And when one day I said, “You know, I think I’d like to take pictures of your scars and your back,” he thought about it and then agreed and what came from that, is still coming from that, has been transformational for me, maybe for him too…

The Scar Series

“Chicks dig scars,” is what he was told by his favorite teacher when he was 8 and going in for his first brain surgery. Even at that tender age that message resonated with Ben. He’s never had much inhibition about showing his scars. (And he’s been into chicks for a long time!) Scars are cool. They’re something to show off. That’s a blessing, if you ask me. Comfort with his body that’s in some ways a road map of a very painful journey? I think that's enviable.

My goal with this project was to create beautiful and brutal images, not pull punches, and tell the truth.

And that was it. That was when it happened. I stopped being offended by the reality of his scars, his rib hump, and his curved back, and started to see the beauty there. I found myself in a kind of détente with these slashes and jagged, puckered lines. I found myself seeing where the Light entered him.

Until I started making these images, I didn't want to look at his scars. I did look but I didn't want to see. Looking at his scars actually caused me great distress, a physical reaction, a rush of discomfort, a pulse of adrenaline. But in making all of these images (and I'm not talking about just the shooting of the photo, but also the “processing” part...the filters and colors, cropping, light textures, etc. on my iPhone app) I have had a shift in my perspective of them. For me it was a road to transformation. Making something beautiful out of something pretty downright awful.

In the words of William Butler Yeats: “Transformed utterly, A terrible beauty is born.”

Soon after we started the portrait project I asked Ben if we could keep up the project all the way through August, through his surgery and some of his recovery. He gave me permission as long as he “felt good.” I can honor that. I asked Ben the other day if I could share the Scar Series photos on my blog. And he said yes.

Perhaps they will help someone who has scars see themselves in a different light. Perhaps they’ll educate people about what it is to have scoliosis surgeries. Perhaps they will just be his truth, shared here, to go along with all the many, many stories I have shared with you about his journey. 

There's something else I need to tell you about "In Plain Sight" and that's community. The learning, sharing and growing as a photographer I experienced just wouldn't have been the same nor as deep had it not been for the wonderful and amazingly compassionate and open people I met in this online community. We came from all over the globe...the US, Canada, India, Saudi Arabia, Australia, China...I found it incredibly comforting to connect, often immediately, with people in so many distant places, and to find so much overlap and resonance in our stories and our lives. 

In the end, I have one word to say about “In Plain Sight”: Tranformative. It was so much more than a photography class or a photography project. It is a meditation. It is a practice. I have been moved and changed and cracked wide open. I have found exactly what Catherine said I would find: the holy in the every day, the sacred in my life. 

What a gift, what a blessing. What a miracle.
And p.s.: I will continue with the Ben series, the Scar series and a self-portrait series that I began this month as well (you’ve seen two of those photos on the two previous blog posts here and here). I also plan to do a series on Harry and one on Toby, too…everyone needs to get their time in my viewfinder.


Patricia Ross Lacroix said...

Beautiful Susie <3 I was cracked wide open too ((<3)) Ben is so amazing, what a soul he has! And lucky you... my 3 boys flinch when I take a picture of even their hands! lol (they do NOT want to be put anywhere online... yet ;D) God bless you <3 xo

Between life's doings said...

I LOVE you Susie. I'm in tears reading this..and so so privileged to share this journey thought the course. Did I say...I love you? Oh love you and Ben .

TCarver said...

Simply Amazing! I love your work Susie! What a blessing. <3

Barbara H said...

Not to be redundant, but yes, love, admiration, awe, poignant, struck dumb.
The Mona Lisa portrait! wow.
The intimacy and yet the artistry which makes the whole thing way beyond just a lone person's story.
The power of art, the power of truth, the power of you two, mother and son, artist and subject, I am so lucky to know you and be a witness to this process.

sheryl said...

the transformation of your images from the being to the end (of what we see at least) was compelling. thank you and ben for sharing the journey!

Lucy Chen said...

Susie, you know how your photos of your son moves me deeply. I don't think I can accurately imagine how a mother feels when looking at her son's scars. My heart hurts even when I type this.
But on a lighter note, I'm so happy to have met you! And be careful with whom you show these photos, girls may fall madly in love with Ben and all come chasing after him.