On Being Vulnerable

I’m a whirlwind of emotions right now and not at all unsurprisingly. Since I published ‘Temptation’ (http://www.tearsinrain.co.uk/blog/2019/5/5/temptation )  and came ‘out out’ (as opposed to coming ‘out’ to my wife, I came ‘out out’ to the rest of the world and am now metaphorically stood in a night club at 2am, in my carpet slippers and holding a cut loaf and a pint of milk. Micky Flannigan fans will understand), my marriage has somewhat disintegrated and the decision has been made to divorce. Ironically it wasn’t me who jumped off the cliff first. That was, at least superficially, my wife’s decision, but in doing so she took me with her. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while (jump off a cliff) but have either lacked the courage to do or else have been overpowered by a sense of duty. Whatever the reality of the situation is, we’re now in free fall and the unwinding of 14 years of what was on so many occasions, an ‘incredibly challenging relationship’, is now bubbling to the surface and being downloaded directly, and rather compellingly, into my limbic system.

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As these emotions flood in I find myself crashing into people. I acknowledged to a therapist this week that there was a lot of anger coming out as a result of this download and she asked me, quite reasonably, where that anger was going. It was the obvious question and it didn’t take me long to realise that it was probably at work (my day job) as that was where I found myself crashing into people, in particular a couple of people I really care about (sorry Rosalie). Acknowledging this phenomena is of course the best way to fix the problem and I feel somewhat rehabilitated already, but it did start a chain of thinking that I wanted to share.

I have for a while now intuitively felt that it is in our vulnerability that all our humanity lies. In acknowledging our vulnerability two things become possible.

First, because your vulnerability is inherently empowering to others, by being vulnerable in front of someone you bring that person closer to you; and the more you can make a real connection with that person, the more the humanity between you and the other person is likely to flourish.

Second, since anger is simply the mind’s way of coping with being vulnerable, by acknowledging and being comfortable with our vulnerability we dissipate our anger. It’s not that I think anger is a bad emotion (though I believe it is a largely negative rather than positive emotion, it is also entirely necessary in many instances), but it is at best just a precursor to something more constructive and at worst, an inhibitor to that. It’s almost like you have to pass through the anger in order to move forward, but sometimes the anger is hard to let go of;  it pulls and tugs at us and so we are held back. It is the emotional equivalent of running through treacle.

All of which sounds like cloying, new age sentimentality until you realise that there is some empirical research to back this up. A new acquaintance recently pointed me to a wonderful Ted talk by an even more wonderful woman called Brené Brown, who as a social scientist has done extensive research on the topic and articulates the concepts I have myself felt intuitively, in a more empirical way. You can see the talk here:

So, I acknowledge my vulnerability. I realise that my anger is just my way of trying to cope with the feeling of inadequacy and that my sense of inadequacy, of not being good enough, takes me on a fast track right back to the darkest places in my memory where I am eight years old again, sitting in a classroom of other children who hate me and listening to the teacher explain to them how they should just pretend that I am a ghost, pretend that I am not there and just ignore me. It’s a terrifying and hurtful place but it’s not a place I have to be if I can be OK with my vulnerability as an adult.

Of course, this is something that will also find its way into my photography work. It’s a concept I want to explore and is already starting to develop. Since mine is an inherently masculine perspective, but since vulnerability is perhaps more readily associated with the feminine, I will try to explore the masculine experience of vulnerability through as feminine a perspective as I can. I will say more about this in my next post but the image presented here represents the genesis of these ideas and the start of a new direction.

Valerie - Brighton Pier

At the end of Brighton Pier, on bright, clear but cold November day, just as the sun is dipping down towards the horizon, a mother dressed in a Niqab strolls easily with another individual, their arms interlocked in a precious way that suggests the maternal nature of their relationship. They are laughing and taking photographs of the sunset with their mobile phones. The young person has the most serene and easy beauty, with large bright eyes and angular cheek bones. Her presentation is strikingly feminine but also, ultimately, androgynous and challenges conventional heteronormative rules of beauty and attraction. Valerie presents us with the possibility for other ways in which traditional notions of beauty, attraction and gender identity can be interpreted and represents the growing awareness in our culture for such alternatives.

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Grab n Go - Dreamland, Margate

I had found the boy in the blinking neon lit pleasure dome of Margate’s Fun Land engrossed in the game of ‘Grab n Go’. I had watched as he became utterly absorbed in the futile task of trying to win a prize and recalled with some fondness my own captivation and failure with this very same game.

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Having metered and pre-focused I watched him for several minutes, waiting for him to turn around and make eye contact before opening the shutter. In the brief moment he looked at me I felt his sense of surprise. It was as though the time he had spent engrossed in his game had been held still and stretched like elastic, the release snapping the elastic back into place with a jolt.

As a small boy I would be taken to the seaside town of Blackpool for days out and I vividly recall the intense sense of excitement I would feel in my tummy when the sea finally came into view over the dashboard of the car.

On Becoming a Father

I found him playing the slot games on Brighton Pier with his daughter. His bright blue eyes, white hair and colourful tattoos caught my eye but he didn't seem to understand why I was interested in him. A moment earlier I had seen him having a quiet moment alone on the pier, lost in thought. I was struck then by his vulnerability and imagined he had been thinking about his daughter so I asked him to think about the very first moment he held her after she was born.

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Venus Emerging from the Sea

I have always loved finding subjects on the beach; as a small boy growing up south of Manchester. I recall the vivid sense of excitement that trips to the seaside at Blackpool and Southport would hold and the wild whirling butterflies I would feel in my stomach as the sea came in to view over the dashboard of the car.

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The seaside for me represents that sense of ‘other’, of carnival, freedom and sometimes hedonism. It is a place where we are able to be freer with ourselves and in particular with our bodies. In this way, finding and engaging subjects while on the beach introduces the potential for vulnerability in a subject without that experiencing overpowering the resulting image.

This portrait of Sue, a member of the titular ‘Silly Old Farts Swim Club’, was taken shortly after the club’s daily swim on Vazon Beach, Guernsey. I was drawn by the vivid colour of Sue’s cap, which served to frame her beautiful features.  It very deliberately recalls the beach portraits of Rineke Dijkstra as well as Botticheli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ (which was itself the inspiration for a number of Dijkstra’s own portraits) and aims to portray the serene beauty of a full life in older age.  

Temptation

This portrait of Joe, a young man I met in passing one evening in my home town, asks the viewer to explore traditional notions of sexuality and attraction. It was shot using natural light in a way that aimed to accentuate his sublime and gentle beauty. The very direct look to camera aims to draw the viewer in and forces their attention on his features, in particular the mouth and eyes.  

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I have always been drawn to people whose physical presentation and appearance epitomised such epicene beauty as previously celebrated in classical antiquity. Until very recently however, the rules of physical attraction were innately bound up with relatively binary definitions of sexuality and the unambiguous beauty associated with either the clearly masculine or the clearly feminine. Of course, preferences for both have always prevalent though far less understood or celebrated. This is changing of course and in addition new terms such as pan-sexual have started to acknowledge a much less constrained notion of physical attraction, perhaps even less connected with physical appearance and much freer in its interpretation of the rules of attraction.

It’s partly as a result of finding and photographing individuals with a beauty so utterly natural and androgynous as to make their masculine gender almost irrelevant (to my attraction to them), that I have come to acknowledge what I have suspected for a while now.

I am (almost certainly) bi-sexual.

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I say ‘almost certainly’ because I have never actually put this notion to a practical test and coming to this realisation at this point in life does rather the limit the opportunity to undertake that kind of exploration. But the realisation and acknowledgement does rather help explain a number of things, in particular, the nature of some friendships that otherwise went awry. Perhaps the awryness was the result of that friendship beginning to feel like something more and the subsequent disengagement (on my part), was a way of avoiding a more difficult reality.

This isn’t really a big deal although I am well aware I just ‘outed’ myself. For now, at least, my contentment lies in knowing that people like Joe exist. That they have the potential to throw even the most previously staunchly heterosexual man into a maelstrom of sexual desire (and of course temptation), is both fun and deeply appealing.

Fatherhood

There are too few positive images of fathers and fatherhood; this portrait aims to shows the simple and unalloyed love of a father for his children. It is unashamedly naïve in this objective.

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Although only 24, Matt is already married with two young children and demonstrative of more poise, maturity and earnestness than most people I know twice his age. When I first met him, I was struck by how readily and openly he expressed his love for his wife and children and his sense of responsibility to them both. In the context of our meeting (Matt works as a labourer in the building trade) I was awe struck with by his honesty and candour, a fact emphasised by his willingness to be photographed in this way and for this image to be shared in such a public place.

I chose to photograph Matt in his flat, the place that he and his wife have made home for their two children. This particular image is located in their bedroom and shows the simpl3 and unadorned way in which they live. There are few material possessions, their bed is a mattress on the floor, the children are content to play with him and a simple purse rather than computer games or phones.

Matt’s lack of a top accentuates his physical and emotional bond with his children by allowing his skin to touch theirs, but it also suggesting of his vulnerability, hinting to the viewer as to the gentleness of the subject.