Being Seen


For the longest time I existed in a world focused solely on physical perfection. I looked at my own reflection and those of my peers most of the hours of my day.  We compared calories and workout regimens and waist sizes like those are interesting facts. As if those say anything about the quality of our time or imaginations or relationships. We were full of hope and ambition and fear. Fear of gaining weight, of not being enough in myriad ways (mostly physical), of spending time doing anything but practicing, of not being enough. When I began to feel that I could not stand any more time in front of that enormous mirror, I skipped class to go to the bookstore. I sat in the aisles with my forbidden latte and read poetry, let my eyes pour over volumes of photography and painting. And I found that I could hear myself a little in those stacks. I began to take my art out of the classroom and into the sun where I wore headphones and danced as if no-one could see me. And slowly it dawned on me that no amount of hard work was going to transform me into the ideal, perfect-bodied, blank slate that my training so wanted me to be. Then, though I ran from it, the truth pursued me that all I had left to do was stop. Even though it broke my heart I stopped. 

We have this gap, us humans (especially women, but I think it's true for all), between what we feel we are and what we see when we look ourselves up and down in the mirror, or as we reflect on photographs of ourselves. And that gap is painful, so painful that many of us decide we have no use for photographs, no use for mirrors. But I know that the most valuable things about being alive are being yourself, knowing yourself, asking questions of yourself, expressing yourself, finding yourself in relationship. And these things can't be done while we deny ourselves or hide ourselves. It can't be done if we destroy ourselves with a million tiny cuts of hatred or fear or not-enough-ness or regret or shame. You may not be able to see a photo of yourself from today and love it as hard as you should but know five years you will want that photograph of you ugly laughing with your best friend, or making silly faces with your tween, or soaking in the sun with your belly rolls on display. You will want that photo of you dancing, or staring straight down the barrel of the lens, of you alone feeling yourself. You will want that photo because it shows a piece of you that is true and undeniably beautiful and it will mean something to your people. Your kids will want that photo. Your dad will too. It will tell them about you. About how you loved, how you wore your hair, what made you smile or cry, how imperfect and lovely and just right you were. So print those photos! You don't have to look at them now, you certainly don't have to post them to social media or hang them on the wall. Print them so you can tuck them into an album and let your kids or your parents or your best friends look. Just don't delete them, don't hide them or forget about them or tell yourself they aren't valuable. Print those photos love. 

I look back on photos of my parents when I was young, and photos of them before I was born and I learn things I never knew first hand. How my mothers long hair shone in the sun and was so dark, how her eyes twinkled and how she threw back her head to laugh even long before I came along. And I see how she was loved by the people around her, how they treasured her and held her up, how she was a person who mattered before she mattered to me. I see my father looking unsteady and young, gangly and effortful. I see him before his hair was long and gray, how he always loved standing in the sun. How he was once upon a time a rowdy child with blonde hair (who knew!) and parents who adored him despite all their imperfections. We all have limitations. We all have gifts. We all give what we can and we can't give it all. We owe it to ourselves to look at our parents through the eyes of compassion. To see them as fully human with their own foibles, quirks, passions and missions. And we especially owe it because when we see these icons of our lives as individuals apart from us we can begin to see ourselves compassionately as well. Our worlds are full of so many desires for perfection. The greatest compassion would be to step out of that race which is never won and see what we are, what we have, what we can truly offer in this short existence. I want photos of myself not for vanity, not because they only depict my greatest physical qualities or exaggerate my beauty, but because my children need help imagining that I am both imperfect and good. That I was a person before they existed and that I have my own life to live, my own qualities of struggle and triumph, my own imperfection and that I am valued by other people. They will have these photos to look at and see me, who I was, and I hope it helps them see themselves.

I choose photography for the way that it lets me see people and reflect what I see back to them. I don't choose it for it's lucrative - high demand - money bags - easy lifestyle qualities (they don't really exist anyways). I choose it because it is the right thing for me to do. The thing in front of me. The thing that is happening now. And part of the intensity of the challenge I have before me is to transform the way people see themselves. I don't photoshop features, smooth rolls, eliminate bits of the people I photograph. I look for their beauty that speaks to me and i try to capture that over and over again. But the thing I can't do with my camera is to change the way people look at these images of themselves. We are so trained to look for imperfection that usually that is all we see. Our uneven nostrils, laugh lines, freckles, dimples, belly rolls, the roundness of our legs or the flatness of our bottoms, the wrinkle in our nose when we really laugh. The tragedy of it is that we all have things we think we'd rather not have, and we all really look like humans, and our people love us anyway, they love us still, they love us including all those things we'd pick off if we could. And we can't see the thrilling wholeness of how wonderful we are because all we look for is the minutiae of our fears. So the truth is that I cannot change that. I cannot rewire each persons brain and create new pathways of loving ourselves. But I can say...please stop tearing yourself apart. Your people, the friends and lovers and children and family who love you, they need your whole self, arms and hair and flat chest and all. 

You are lovely and human and true friend. Believe me, I have a lot of practice with this, you are valuable and good and worth remembering right now. 


Poetic ImageryYola Owens