institute for documentary studies

{Week 3: Photo}

Week 3: Photo


One of the radio kids said it best: Things are starting to get real.

Final project ideas were due this week, and in the aftermath of a long and embarrassing pitch session, stories got trashed, idea babies killed, and hustling ramped up to a new level. This week for me is a limbo state, with the intense highs of weeks one and two now tempered by the conundrum of week three: Your work and ideas are terrible; you know it; and yet you have no idea how to make them better.

Earlier this week, I took a portrait of an artist. Feeling desperate and unlucky, I emailed someone I’d met at the laundromat, acknowledging the precariousness of the situation with my usual “I know this is crazy, but…” prelude, asking if he would invite me into his home so that I could complete my school assignment. Sometimes I get more good fortune than I am due, and this guy, an art student, was of the understanding and non-vigilant kind, generously allowing me to spend an hour in his home, most of which I spent moving his furniture and telling him to look at me.

I left his apartment under the influence of a rare high, energized from the experience of playing photographer for an hour, during which I felt I had channeled my best, bravest self. I spent time with a virtual stranger in his home, taking his portrait, and learning about his life, his parents, his siblings. What I’m beginning to appreciate, after various assignments that have struck my introverted heart with fear, is that photography allows for so much access.

It was an elation so rare. And fleeting, because then I saw my photos.

They flopped for a variety of reasons: I was trying so hard to be amenable and to make conversation, to make my subject feel comfortable as I invaded his home. I socialized intently, so as not to outstay my welcome — so much so that I wasn’t able to focus on the photos I was taking. Because he spent so much of his time responding to my questions, his mouth was open in a majority of my frames.

I sought advice from Anne Bailey, multimedia instructor. ”You have to let it be awkward,” she said. “You’re there to work. You have to be like, ‘I’m a photographer, and I have to do my thing.’” I’d been more concerned with the situation I was in than the work I was producing.

This week has been a tough one for me, and marked by uncertainty and doubt. Nelson assigned us to follow someone home and document it, and while I’ve completed the work — having targeted with specificity dog-walkers, those who walk more slowly than me, and other, non-threatening individuals – I’m not proud of it. It feels like the product of something uninspired and hesitant, abiding to the narrowest, easiest parameters of the assignment. I’m grappling with an intense anxiety and dread at the thought of approaching people blind, and of invading their personal space, and it shows.

I tell myself that making mistakes is vital to the learning process, and that the anxiety and fear aren’t indications of anything, but only hurdles to overcome – it’s sometimes difficult to remember, when shining examples of past students’ success surround you. But part of Salt, for me, is a process of faking it until I get there: Tomorrow, like yesterday and the day before, I’ll be out there again, trying to follow someone home.