“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
– Mary Shelly, Frankenstein
As I drink in Frankenstein, a true classic and purveyor of great human truths such as Mary Shelly reminds me that there are mysteries of our nature that even hundreds of years ago people were grappling with. What changes with us, at the most fundamental and basic level, is universal. Time passes and science moves forward, but what we feel, what makes our essence (which is to say, in part, the curiosities which give us momentum), is the same as it always was.
The quote above gave me pause and took up a great deal of time on my flight from New Jersey to Zurich. I found myself continually going back to reread it, and to wonder what my life would have been in the event that I had listened to that advice.
I remember, growing up, that I was never a person who desired to leave her hometown. I never fancied myself a world traveler, never considered I would have a profession that dealt in intangibles and conceptual follies. I was always grounded, stable, safe. So, so safe.
My sister, ever the dreamer, couldn’t wait to get out of our town. But I wanted to stay. I didn’t want to upset my parents, didn’t want to venture into the unknown. I wanted a safe life.
What changed in me? What made me dream? What made me want more? And if I had listened to Victor Frankenstein, would I have stayed?
Once you discover that the place you’ve always known is not all there is, you cannot un-know that. It is a pervasive knowledge that seeps into your understanding of all things.
But this knowledge goes beyond place or thing. It is inside us.
I am not all that I can be. I can be more. I will be more.
That is the true knowledge that drives us forward to discovery. Perpetual discovery is the forward motion of humanity. Continued curiosity is the growth of an individual.
Now on the other side of the knowledge that there is always, always more out there, I wonder: How many people will never discover this? Like Victor says, are they happier?
I have witnessed the turmoil that some people experience at being awakened to the vastness of life. It is the weight that crushes us if our position does not match our desired rank. I have watched people cower in fear at the idea that they might have greatness in them. I have watched people deny their gifts in favor of avoiding disappointment. If you do not believe you are special, you do not have to live up to that standard.
I was sixteen when I was awakened to my potential, when I started to become aware that there was more in the world than what I knew or saw or felt.
Two things happened then.
One, I took a filmmaking class. I started to consider where films were made, the history of film, what my imagination might possess, and where that might take me. I made films about death, films that were unknowingly noir and filled with montages of darkness and turmoil. I unleashed an imagination that I was only peripherally familiar with, and I loved it. I loved my imagination like it was my greatest gift (and, I believe, it is).
Two, I met my husband. I don’t know if any one particular thing happened, if any singular event awoken me to the world, except this: I knew that I was beginning a love so great that it didn’t fit in between the cracks. It was explosive.
“…the history books forgot about us, and the bible didn’t mention us, not even once…” – Samson by Regina Spektor
What awakens us might be something small and seemingly insignificant. We might not be remembered for what fuels us. But if you find a semblance of your place in the world, and if that place exceeds what you have been taught to live within, break free.
Have you had a moment where you realized
you wanted to do or be something more?
When I began making images, it was entirely selfish. I wanted to have control over my creativity, I wanted to see how much I could learn. I enjoyed the process and soon I learned that I wanted a career. Half a year into creating, I knew that photography was becoming a much larger portion of my life than pure selfishness would allow. I wasn’t only creating for myself, I was creating for others.
For all of my creative adulthood I’ve been told by professors, other creatives, friends, etc., that you should ALWAYS create for yourself and not for others. After all, the hallmark of an Artist (with a capital A, of course), is that they create because they are compelled, because they have the muse within them, because they must.
As I became more motivated by creating for others, I started to wonder: Does that make me less of an artist? Does that mean I’m selling out?
[Which, if you’ll allow this side-note, I am DONE with the word “sellout”. Way too often we use that word to describe other people we are jealous of. Or a situation we don’t understand. Sometimes it is applicable, but it is too negative to fit into my vocabulary. End side-note.]
It took me years to reconcile these questions. And it took me years to train myself to create for the right reasons.
[Ie: Not the social media attention. We’re being honest here.]
Recently I was at an event where I was chatting with someone I would see occasionally at such events. Our conversation really stuck with me. This person praised me for really creating art for myself. I countered by explaining that I actually really love creating for others, too, and that a big motivating factor in my creation process is wanting to make something someone else will be touched by. I’ll never forget the look they gave me that was surprise mixed with a bit if disgust.
Reading between the lines, the word sellout formed in the air.
We had a discussion then about what it means to create for others vs. yourself, and there was a definite feeling that if you are a real artist, you create for yourself. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered that way of thinking. I used to believe in it vehemently myself.
And, let’s be honest – I benefit tremendously from my art. On a personal level, of course, by feeling fulfilled and working my imagination. Financially, by affording a house. Energetically, by setting my own schedule. Spiritually, by traveling and learning about new cultures. My art is selfish in those ways, and I don’t want to trade that in.
But I would be lying if I said that I would have created everything that I’ve created if it was purely selfish. I am motivated by how much we can change the world through our actions. There are days when I didn’t want to create but the thought of who I might touch roused me into creative motion. If that sounds delusional, or self-centered, let me say two things:
It took me a long time to develop enough self-esteem to love my art and believe in the power one individual has to change the world.
I have witnessed how impactful art is for people, from fellow Americans in my workshops to girls in India who have never witness art like that, who understand the stories I’m telling even though our circumstances are radically different. I’ve seen art heal.
I think back often to 2009 when I had just started creating and I removed an image from the Internet because it didn’t have enough likes. Then my friend emailed asking where that image was, and I told her I removed it, and she told me I shouldn’t have because it brought her such peace after having a miscarriage.
I remember hearing from someone that they were going to take their own life, but after seeing an image of mine, they felt understood and didn’t go through with it.
These are stories I hear too often. And I’m not the only one. I’m not trying to insinuate that my imagery has magical healing powers. I’m not even trying to say that it is special in the grand scheme of the world. Who knows.
What I am saying is this: What we do with our time will touch the lives of others. We might as well create with the greatest impact for good.
That doesn’t mean what you create has to be cookie-cutter if you don’t want. My images are WEIRD, CREEPY, and UNSETTLING for many. Sometimes, most of the time, it is those exact qualities that resonate.
I remember being told for the first time, but absolutely not the last, that my work has no place in the art market. That no one would want to hang what I create on their walls. Whoever dares to tell an artist that doesn’t understand humanity. There is something out there for everyone. Right now, there is someone in the world who will benefit from seeing your art. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, how weird it is, or how normal. Someone out there needs you. Period.
1) Do you believe you have the
power to change the world for the better?
2) What value do you believe your art adds to the world?
I declared 2018 my year of NO travel, and that will be true…after June. So far I’ve spent a month away in India, Sri Lanka, and Florida (that sounds a lot less exciting after the other two). Soon I’ll be heading to Tennessee and Wisconsin before going to Greece and Maine. That’s all by the third week of March.
With that pace it is extremely difficult to keep up routines. I find myself in airports, hotels, Airbnbs, grandma’s houses. I move so quickly from one place to the next that they barely have time to stick in my memories. When your circumstances change, how can you keep a routine? I do my best. Yoga everyday, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. Lots of water. Emails every morning. Reading everyday. Outside of that, nothing is the same.
I’m home for a few days in between trips, exhausted from traveling, body aching, but all I wanted was to create – freely, without interruption. Instead of pushing myself beyond what is wise into the cold for a photo shoot, I searched my computer for long-forgotten images. There I found the spark of something interesting. I didn’t know what it was, just that it could be.
I found an underwater image that struck me as graceful and full of emotion. I had already edited those up for the most part, wasn’t interested in redoing them. I wanted something new. I started to look at the image differently, thinking that the bubbles looked like stars. And so I began creating what I knew could be something interesting. Watch the editing process here:
It is wildly important to act on our creative urges, in whatever way is available to us, in whatever way feels right. I find it necessary to keep motivated. So often we talk about what is recommend to stay healthy: good food, exercise, fresh air, etc. But something I vehemently believe we need to add to that list is creativity. An outlet for our imagination. And I would put that before most else.
How often do you exercise your imagination, release your creativity and make something for yourself?
I’ve spent a long time letting go of the word “good” in this context. I bet everyone here has had the experience of not creating because what you were making didn’t seem good enough. Now that I’ve had some distance from my process of creating, from my body of work, I can see much more clearly. There are works I create that are good and bad. Some that will remain, others that will be forgotten. In the moment they all feel so important, and they are. But what is important is not how they are judged, but how they made you feel while creating them.
When was the last time you did
something completely for yourself?
Do you notice a change in your health
when you set your imagination free?
I am a selfish artist. I have no problem admitting that, as well as the ways in which I am selfish.
I create for myself. I am interested in satisfying my curiosity.
I create by myself. I like to work alone.
I create because I love to test my potential.
I create I hope people will like what I contribute to the world.
Up until a certain point, those were my reasons for creating. I started noticing a pattern in how I was working. I was rushing to get an image finished, excited to see the finished product, ignoring the idiosyncratic pieces of the process. I was addicted to sharing.
When that realization hit me, I had to take a step back from what I was doing. I realized just how un-lasting that finished product truly is. It may stand the test of time, or it may be gone with a hard drive crash. It may be remembered in museums or forgotten in a matter of days. Once you finish your art, it is released. It is not yours to control, it is for the public (if, of course, you are sharing your art at all). What remains, despite anything, is the process.
That was when I began thinking about CREATION in a different way from CREATING. One puts emphasis on the product, the other on the action.
In no way do I think it is bad to enjoy the product of your efforts. You should.
ART SHOULD BE SELFISH.
But, what about cherishing the in-between? What about the moments, minutes, hours, days, months, years it takes to create your art? As time moves on, even the mundane experiences build up to influence what you create and how you create it.
How often do you find yourself rushing through the creating process to get to the creation? I’ve done it hundreds of times. Hundreds. I’ve rushed through thinking deeply, rushed through creating with care, overlooked editing mistakes, and all so I could congratulate myself for making something. Tangible. Physical. Finished.
What an error in my judgment these years past. What an error in my life.
Over the past nine months I’ve been planning a new photo series. For most of that time I didn’t have a single vision that stuck, not a single sketch made that would lead to something finished. It scared me. I felt like a fraud. I felt like a lair of an artist. I felt like an imposter.
I mean, look at the facts. I am an artist who has created quickly, churning out a lot of work in short periods of time. I became addicted to the pace, to the praise, to the CREATION. It was time to learn how to love CREATING.
So I had a talk with myself. It went something like this:
Brooke (Subconscious):Slow down. Let’s take a while to think through what you need to say as an artist. Brooke (Conscious):Nope. Let’s make something every single day to prove my worth as an artist. Brooke (Subconscious):Wouldn’t you rather find your worth by creating meaningful art? Brooke (Conscious):Nope.
It was somewhere around month 5 of thinking about my new series and coming up empty that I had a breakdown. I felt like such a failure as an artist. I felt I had let myself down.
What I had really done was let myself go.
I let go of the artist I was. I let go of the expectation I put on myself. I let go of the expectation I felt from others.
And I opened my mind to the idea that thinking is an art form in itself. That being with my thoughts and letting them play their course is just as valuable, and often more so, than churning out work.
That was when my mindset changed. I no longer wanted a CREATION, I wanted to CREATE. I have never felt more clear in my intent, more centered in my message, more secure in myself as an artist.
Do you create for the product or for the experience? (This is a really difficult one to admit.)
I’m in a small room in India – West Bengal. Outside the horns are blowing like crows, attacking. People are yelling down the street, their voices drowning together, indecipherable. This is a place that envelopes me the moment I step foot outside the airport, but it challenges me, too. The sounds, the people, the food, the smells, the stories. The stories.
When I listen closely through the mountainous shouts I hear cross-sections of lives; one man tells another to be careful crossing the street, not through his words, but through his body language. A woman kisses her child while a hundred people push past her, tenderness going unnoticed.
In my workshop I’m teaching self-expression through photography and movement, aided by Kolkata Sanved. The young women that sit in the room with me have pasts that I cannot imagine. I try, but it feels wrong to imagine my life with the same difficulties; disrespectful, somehow. I am ill-equipped to feel what they feel, at least precisely. My life has been vastly different and that shows in every minutiae when I travel in India. In the ways that I get irritated by people bumping into me, when I feel exhausted by the crowds, and especially when I feel trapped by the buildings and pollution. That is life here, though, and I am unaccustomed, even after five years of coming.
Today in the workshop we are learning storytelling. I explain why this is important – because, after all, their story is theirs. It is for them to tell, not me. I never felt comfortable photographing people whose lives have been so uniquely different from mine, using my way of telling stories to tell theirs. This is for them to share. Instead, I teach storytelling. I teach how to use a camera. I teach self-portraiture. I teach them how to tell their own stories.
And so they do, effortlessly.
Because storytelling is the culture here. This is a place where stories pile on top of stories so that every object, every location, is imbued with the deepest stories.
Even more than stories, though, is the hope that permeates.
I’m in the Kolkata Sanved office and day one of my workshop is almost over. We are talking about our stories, but not in literal terms. I never, ever ask someone to share their past. Instead, we speak in symbols, in emotions. I ask them to bring me an object that represents their past. We learn symbolism in art.
They bring me water, as a symbol for constantly moving. They bring me a rock, a symbol for heaviness. They bring me a dead tree, a symbol unto itself. A box, to show entrapment. A match, to show danger.
We photograph those objects, and they learn the camera.
I ask them to choose an emotion that represents how they feel now that they have had education, now that they have found safety. Shanti, they say: peace. Aasha: hope. Curiosity. Learning. Happy.
As I listen to them sharing a symbol from their past, I do not have to use a lot of imagination to understand where they come from: darkness to light. The story is there, the details are not important for me to hear.
As I hear them share their emotions, representing who they are now, I see the shift from sadness to joy.
Everyone that I meet here is so open.
YES, I have had hardship. BUT, now I am free.
This is not true for so many. This is why the power of self-expression is so vital. When we give voices to those who feel they cannot speak they realize that their story matters.
It breaks me to think about how many people are living in poverty, enslavement, abuse, and more. How can we help them? I don’t know, myself. It is a problem the world may still be trying to solve a thousand years in the future. But, how can we help those who have been rescued, who have come out the other side? How can we heal them, give them strength, hope, determination? Empowerment. Education.
We give them a tool to tell their story. Because, so many – too many – have had their stories taken from them. Here, in this workshop, we try to give it back.
I have done many of these workshops over the past five years. Always, they say the same: we have come from ash and we have rebuilt ourselves. They tried to break us but we would not be broken.
There is hope. There is always hope.
This is a culture of light. Where there is darkness, light permeates.
I show them a camera. I show them a window. I show them a dark stairwell. The choice is theirs. Always, the image is the same: we reach toward the light.
They take their self-portraits. “Represent your dream for your future in a single image”, I tell them. A heavy thing to portray. They have never taken pictures before. And yet – beauty, hope, determination. The word of this workshop is: POWER.
“I am powerful!” one girl shouts as she takes her self-portrait.
“I am confident!” another girl says as she poses.
And finally, at the end, someone says: “I have learned how to tell my story. This is my story to tell.”
It is a culture of light.
And, can’t we all use that? No matter where you are right now, remember the beauty I have seen here. I need you to see it with me. I need you to feel this. The light demands it. Their stories demand it.
Will you try to reach for the light,
even when it is difficult?
What do you consider to be ethical storytelling?
How do you prefer to tell your own story?
I am currently in India teaching self-expression workshops to underprivileged communities. These workshops were developed by myself, Blossomy Projects, and Kolkata Sanved to blend movement with photography. I travel here to Kolkata, India once a year to help end gender-based violence and aid in the education and empowerment of those effected.
I am leaving for Sri Lanka in the morning to continue this work before returning home on February 2nd.