I started my photography journey on Flickr, back when it was the behemoth of the photo-centered social media scene. I started posting odd, creepy, uncomfortable self-portraits and that triggered some conversation. And then, without understanding, I started to see comments on my pictures that said “congrats on explore!” When I first saw this I had no idea what it meant. “Explore what?” I thought. I quickly came to learn that somehow, for whatever reason (and these things always seem to be vaguely explained), my pictures fit the then-algorithm of Flickr. I was being promoted for free in a place where thousands and thousands of people looked.
I got used to my pictures being in Explore, and, for that matter, the same few photographers constantly being there. I watched careers blossom, including my own, in large part due to that algorithm. And then one day, it stopped. Without explanation, without understanding (and really, it is too vague to nail down), I stopped getting promoted. I was very fortunate for my career to have been started and to have a client base that was feeling secure, but it was confusing at the time.
I have never mastered social media. I choose, very intentionally, not to dive deep into the depths and utter emptiness that is the rat race. So, I took it with a grain of salt and moved on, ever confident (whether I should have been or not) in my ability to self-actualize my dreams.
A few days ago I uploaded a video to Flickr and I woke up the next morning to see those familiar words: Congrats on Explore.
It was like an explosion of memories to the beginning of my photography passion. I assumed I’d never be chosen again. I remember fiercely adhering to my expectation of creating something personal, but still feeling a sense of pride at being chosen. How wrong I was to think that way, at least in my opinion. We can continue to chase the newest algorithm or we can ignore it, and, likely experience similar results.
I hear a lot of complaining these days about algorithms being changed so that you have to pay for your posts. It. Sucks. I agree completely. I have done my share of grumbling that I need to pay X amount of money to reach even a fraction of my “followers”. But I like to go at it with this attitude:
Things will change.
You have to keep creating what is true to you.
It is the way that it is. Roll with it.
Reach those who are looking with the greatest intent and passion.
I won’t lie – I am really proud of the community I’ve tried to build. Here, on Instagram, on Facebook. Social media changes, but the connections we make do not. They grow and are cultivated and are the true, real stuff that the Internet is made of.
You may be thinking that it doesn’t matter what I say on the subject because “Congrats on Explore” used to pop up on my Flickr site, and because my numbers are big enough, and because my career is strong enough. I have been told many times that it is all luck, that it’s random chance that someone builds a career online, that I probably got featured by some entity or fit the algorithm or tricked the system. Luck is always at play, random chance works in both ways, and all of that might be true. But another thing is certain – nothing is certain. My career is not certain, my community, my long road to big dreams. None of it.
This is why I have to actively choose not to focus my energies on what has been. I can only do my very best to cultivate community and shape my future (and indeed this present moment) into what matters most to me. Those things, unequivocally, are kindness and passion. You might say I have an unrealistic, naive sense of my situation, but I believe that authenticity and genuine concern for others is the basis on which our lives and careers are built – in the “real world” and on the Internet, too. It is the algorithm that never changes. It is the currency I trade with exclusively. It is, in my perhaps innocent views, what launched my career and community. And I believe in it, more than you know.
I’ve been to Kolkata, India on 8 separate trips since 2013. It has become a second home for me. Even the parts that make me uncomfortable – the constant cacophony of blackbirds, or the scents that I’m so unused to – have become a beacon of home. The blackbirds especially. I used to stay awake listening to their sounds; now they lull me to sleep and awake again in the morning.
I shot these images in Kolkata. I remember the day so well because we laughed the whole way through it. We – my partner in India, Laura Price – scouted a location. We had to do some begging to get this establishment to let us shoot here. The location: a horse stable. They were very wary of our presence… both the horses and the business.
I needed sticks. So, after securing our location, we scoured the grounds looking for sticks. But, it was so well manicured that that, despite the myriad of trees, they had absolutely no sticks laying around.
I’m a DIY kind of girl. When I need sticks, I find them. But being in the middle of a city with an extremely small car, I was out of luck. So, we went to a stick vendor.
Yes, that’s right – a stick vendor. And low and behold, we were able to buy many bundles of sticks. We had to hire a tuk tuk to get them to our venue, and everyone thought we were psychotic.
The funny thing was that it felt like normal life to me. See, I’m used to doing weird things for self-expression. Others aren’t, and sometimes I forget just how weird I seem to people. My everyday experience means dressing up in strange costumes, crawling into dirty places, or smearing myself in paint. I don’t think it’s so much the things I’m doing that freaks people out – it’s that I make time to do weird things for self-expression. Even the things that take a long time to clean up, or are inconvenient.
I know how important self-expression is. I know the value of being able to create something and say, “That’s me. That’s really me.”
And so I pass those lessons on when I go to Kolkata. I teach self-expression. I teach the value of doing weird things purely for yourself.
On this day, I got to work with some very experienced individuals. These women are Dance Movement Therapy trainors. They have done extensive work in how to move your body to heal. And they have done work to ensure others find that same empowerment. Their organization is called Kolkata Sanved.
The girls and I had been working together for years when I shot these images, so they only thought I was mildly crazy when I asked them to come in their best saris and cuddle up in a horse stable in a pile of sticks.
I did get a lot of long stares, and questions of if I was serious, and then a lot of laughing. And a lot of selfies. Obviously.
The program that I run in India (and other countries, like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Greece) is called “If I Could Fly”. It is a workshop that asks the question, “If you could fly, where would you go? What would that look like?”. I teach how to use a camera to express your deepest emotions. We often deal with themes of freedom, dreams, and emotional pasts.
These images were inspired by that title. These women are exemplary of the mission we are all trying to uphold: to empower those who have been through hardship to rise up and fly.
I hope you enjoy these images. I hope you inspire someone today.
And I hope that, if you’re feeling down, you remember these women and all they are doing for their community. They regularly build up women who have been trafficked and have been through abuse to help them fly.
I’ve always loved that my name is Brooke. I’ve identified with streams and creeks my whole life, felt such an affinity with little moving rivers. I love creating in water. I love the shock of it, the abnormality of it. I love the organic movement, the softness of it, the tremendous power of it.
Create in or with water for this challenge. I’m especially eager to see what this brings.
I’ll pull some of the art that I see this week to feature! Use the hashtag #PromotingPassionChallenge so I can find you!
Here is some food for thought. Enjoy the challenge, and remember to push yourself creatively!
Let us open with one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver, “A Dream of Trees”:
There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees, A quiet house, some green and modest acres A little way from every troubling town, A little way from factories schools, laments. I would have time, I thought, and time to spare, With only streams and birds for company. To build out of my life a few wild stanzas. And then it came to me, that so was death, A little way away from everywhere. There is a thing in me that still dreams of trees, But let it go. Homesick for moderation, Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away. If any find solution, let him tell it. Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation Where, as the times implore our true involvement, The blades of every crisis point the way. I would it were not so, but so it is. Who ever made music of a mild day?
In these words we see the brilliant struggle of an artist laid out in beautiful words. How, Oliver asks, can an artist create the important work of their life if they live outside of what is important?
Here she likens this to moving outside of the action where everything is slower, calmer, and less dramatic. But how, she wonders, can she do such a thing when an artist must engage in “true involvement”?
In my favorite line of this poem, she says, “Homesick for moderation, half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.”
I feel that I am one of those artists, in many times, and in most cases. I do shrink away – not falling, yet, into obscurity – but I do shrink. Intentionally, out of fear.
I navigate safely away from controversy, from high opinions and lofty statements. From divisive rhetoric. From the guts of our world.
Instead, I navigate inward. In this, I live in the crisis point. I am constantly meeting a new edge within myself. There I thrive. But in the world, I cower.
I say this because you do this, too. In some way, you cower. We all do. It is the experience of the artist. We touch certain issues, topics, ideas and ideals. We push ourselves, but there is always more to explore. I know of no entirely courageous artist; I only know of those who try radically hard, and others who do not. Many who do not.
It is the job of an artist to always explore. This is what Mary Oliver means when she tells us that artists are homesick for moderation. We are homesick for safer limits. We are homesick for ease. And many of us take that road. I have lived on that road too many times, slept under its branches and bathed in its creeks. I know the comforts of familiarity.
Only this, I say in conclusion: Who ever made music of a mild day? Create a windstorm that you can dance in. Show the world your soul.