Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the doors and was readily welcomed into the villagers’ houses. They invited her to eat at their tables and warm herself by their fires. — Jewish Teaching Story
The parable above demonstrates the very reason why I tell stories the way that I do. In my youth, I experienced firsthand the varied but often very limited effects of getting on one’s soapbox and preaching to the masses. All may hear, but who will listen? This lesson occurred during my early 20s and I found myself having more than a few conversations around beauty and identity for ethnic minorities and women. Most of those conversations ended with me trying to patiently explain (though alternately fuming or saddened on the inside) why some particular harmful standard, judgement, or idea was not helpful for humanity — and the crowd on the other end was either disinterested or silently staring at me with glazed eyes.
And then I began to make art.
My primary medium is portrait photography, and during my sessions I draw people out by asking questions about their very literal story. What is delightful for you in this season? What is hard? What I’ve found happen in these conversations is that decades of untended pain or suppressed pleasures begin to break forth, find air, and heal as needed or grow.
The resulting photographs were much less “Instagram-able” but a lot more beautiful and real.
I’ve seen this beautiful realness reflected in these initially nervous portrait sitters, now become ambassadors of authenticity and courage in their own communities. This has been true for my 68-year-old shut-in neighbor who never saw her dark skin or the story that came with it as beautiful but is now going door to door to other neighbors and caring for them, asking for their own stories. It has been true for an anxiety-prone working majority culture mother of three who was too unsure of what she had to offer her community, but now proclaims “everything matters” to the young adults she mentors into their own safety and peace.
And everything does matter. What we look at and how we give attention to it matters. How we see ourselves matters because it influences how we see others, and how we see others also matters.
Addressing how we see others is the other prong of how I tell stories.
I am often celebrated for how I photograph people of color. I am told that there is so much light, so much energy, and rich insight in how these individuals and communities are portrayed. That has been intentional.
For years I have been working with a group called The Voices Project, which sponsors a tour to a variety of historically black colleges and universities in the spring. I photograph this tour with a specific goal to showcase the life and humanity that is in black gatherings. By showcasing scores and scores of little tastes of what it looks like for black people to eat out in restaurants together, to share a laugh, to be a little tired after a show, to sit pensively while listening to a speaker, it allows one who starts out as simply a looker to one who can suddenly see.
This seeing has its effect on people of every side of a particular perceptual divide. The person who has two black friends from church gets a little more clarity and kinship in the way those gatherings remind them of their own families or the palpable emotions that run through their own friendship hang outs. The young student follows yet another Facebook page on leadership development and suddenly is immersed in a story rich with images that emphatically exclaim “yes! and you too!” It’s a surreptitious way to subvert a prevailing idea and introduce an additional but oft ignored other narrative: a narrative that says that these people also matter.
These are the stories that I tell: “yes and you too” and “yes and they too” stories. They are stories that open the heart to the similarity in the other and stories that open us up to the yes and amen in ourselves. When these stories are embraced and emphatically proclaimed one by one, each community — and eventually, the world — is changed.
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