Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Healing Art of Photography

Lately I've been bothered by a space inside me that has developed as a result
of not knowing what has happened in the greater world since I went to "sleep" on Sept. 11th of last year.

I can feel this emptiness. It's a dark chamber within where a tiny metal ball is bouncing around.

Let's call the metal ball "frustration" and "anxiety" and "disconnectedness."

Recently, though, I went on a photo workshop weekend and made a discovery.

I found that I felt reconnected to the world every time I raised a camera to my eye. My empty space began to fill up with a sort of "news" I'd been overlooking. The news of shadow and light and shapes that are right in front of me.

The prescription goes like this: I look intently at nature or people or the things people have made. I snap a photo. I feel better.

I wonder why?

A Book to Spend Time With
Years ago my wife gave me as a present a book entitled God Is at Eye Level by a woman named Jan Phillips. Rather than a "how-to" book, it is a collection of Ms. Phillips' fine black and white images, quotes by famous people, and her own narrative of how she has profited from a life of making photographs.

She begins by telling how way back in 1967 when she was 18 years old she wanted to devote her life to God. She entered a convent. Two years later she found herself dismissed for "lack of a religious disposition."

The situation was handled brusquely. One night Jan's parents came to take her away. She was not allowed to say goodbye to anyone, and she was told she that hereafter she could not communicate with any of the sisters. The novice director ended with, "They will keep you in their prayers."

Jan Phillips first camera,
the humble Kodak Instamatic.
Nine months passed and Jan realized that the birthday of Lois, her best friend in the convent, was coming up. She couldn't write Lois a letter or send a card, but perhaps she could send her a present? How could she make it personal and still have it get past the order's superiors who were censoring all the mail?

Jan decided to make a photo album. The only words she included were quotes from authors she and Lois loved, songs they'd sung together, poems and prayers they'd shown one another.

As for the photos she used a Kodak Instamatic to take pictures as a substitute for the words she could not write.

She took a picture of her own footsteps being washed away by the tide and one of a collapsed sand castle. She photographed her body against a twelve-foot cross. She captured her shadow on the steps in front of a locked church door.

Each photo, including one of "birds soaring into a golden sunset," was a coded message about what she was feeling. The images were visual metaphors. They were signposts pointing to her emotions and her shadowed soul.

They didn't let her become a nun and that
led to a journey...
When Jan's photo album arrived at the Motherhouse the novice director called Lois to her office and told her to read it aloud. Lois did so without revealing the personal implicaitons which she very well understood,. Thus, she was allowed to carry the book back to her room.

Even more than this story of an artist's craftiness that allowed truth to penetrate the walls raised by implacable authority, I am impressed by something Jan says about what happened as she selected the photos and fixed them into the album:

     "Making that album was a healing ritual from beginning to end...
     As I glued each photograph onto the page, I was touched by its power,
     its ability to give voice to my silence, to shed light on my darkness."

An Eye Behind the Viewfinder
The subtitle of God Is at Eye Level is "Photography as a Healing Art." I've begun thinking of photography this way, too. Taking pictures heals some of the loss I feel at stepping away from the stories and developments affecting humanity. The pictures I take become my own coded messages to myself about what I'm looking for in this world that for me temporarily seems full of emptiness and echoes.

Sometimes my pictuers have surprised me. Three themes seemed to choose me, rather than the other way around, during my photoshoot last weekend.

1 - Craving Form:
Ah, to find structure and order in a sometimes chaotic, randomly arranged life!

2 - Loving Texture:
The varieties of bumpiness and smoothness and in-betweeness call out to the attentive eye ("I") .

3 - Desiring Peace:
In a world of troubles and a relentlessly fast pace, it's nice to be reminded that there are pockets of calm that yield quiet moments as the river of cares rushes past.

- V.W.

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