On Being Vulnerable

I wrote this several months ago but have refrained from publishing it until now for various reasons.

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.

Emergent Talent

There comes a point in your life where to be considered as emergent from anything other than a deep slumber might be regarded as nothing more than a mid-life fantasy. In much the same way as middle-age men delude themselves that the interests of an attractive twenty something Russian woman on Tinder is genuine rather than just a ruse designed to play on your vanity at the expense of your fortune, entering the Lens Culture ‘Emerging Talent’ awards was one part hope, nine parts vanity and a dash of mid-life crisis thrown in for good measure.

The Lens Culture Awards are however a little different to most competitions, which are, as we know, just for horses. As part of your entry fee you also get a written review of your submission. I’ve no idea who they get to do this, they are always anonymous (because they don’t want the reviewer to be subsequently pestered), but they are never impersonal. I’ve always appreciated these reviews; as someone who is entirely self taught and utterly clueless as to whether the work they are producing is any good, these reviews have felt like a candle on a dimly lit journey. I should acknowledge at this point the positive comments of family and close friends, especially those with a sophisticated and well developed aesthetic, have always been gratefully received, but still, recognition by your otherwise more temperate peers has always felt sweeter.

In one respect, it ought to be enough to simply undertake this journey with enough confidence that the relative quality of my work is unimportant, especially when the people I meet, the experiences I have had and the sense of purpose and serenity that the journey has so far afforded me have all been so positive and rewarding. However, it is hardly a coincidence that the people most likely to tell you that the opinions of others are unimportant are also the people who have already received positive affirmation for their efforts, much like the people who tell you that money is not important are also the ones most likely to have it.

So I curated my submission, drawing on the early collection of images from the ‘Here Among the Flowers’ project that seemed to be working well and had already received a positive response from many people. At that point, the work had only included male subjects and the idea that there could also be a compelling female presence in the images, whilst still being consistent with the idea of exploring the anima, had not yet been explored. The submission review came back quite quickly and was extremely positive but perhaps no more positive than other submission reviews I had had. It did however help catalyse the development of the project to include a broader range of subjects and the concept of including the unconscious, internal ideal female archetype was the product of that diversification.

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I contemplated creating a second submission before the competition closed (you can enter as many times as you like, after all it’s your money!), with an updated set of images that included some of these female archetypes but decided in the end to save that for the Portrait Awards which will run in January 2020. I mused that the submission was good enough for an award I wasn’t going to win so better to keep my powder dry for something where I might stand a fighting chance.

The hit of dopamine I felt when I read the email telling me I had actually been selected but that I had to keep it a secret until the awards were officially announced, was palpable. It felt like a vindication for everything I’d been doing, as if some great hand from above had reached down and touched my very soul. Of course the effect wore off pretty quickly and I soon found myself clinging to the next rung of recognition; there were 25 photographers chosen but there were to also to be a smaller select group chosen for particular recognition, the ‘Jurors Selection’ that raised the recognition just that little bit higher. I found myself waiting for the next dopamine hit but it didn’t come. I had to settle for just being recognised as an ‘Emerging Talent Winner’; juror selection would have to wait.

If the rapid waning of excitement has told me anything it is that building your sense of validation and worth around winning competitions is a fools errand. But then I would say that wouldn’t I, now I’ve finally won something.

You can view the fabulous work of the other inspirational artists here: https://www.lensculture.com/2019-lensculture-emerging-talent-award-winners


Of rivers, rafts and rope swings and camp fires and pirates.

It is day one of the holiday. I have driven to stay with my mother for a night on my way up to the Lake District with my two boys. It’s quite OK to make the drive in one hit (as I will be doing on the way home), but it’s much nicer to break it up and spend some time with mother in the house I grew up in.

As this is the first day of a week of boys’ own adventures, most of which will almost certainly be spent swimming in the waters of Lake Windermere, it seems only proper to spend the day getting wet. A thin ribbon of babbling water runs through the top end of the estate I grew up on. It’s an otherwise unassuming body of water, hardly noteworthy. Its source is the runoff rainwater from Bow Stones Gate in the High Peak, a local landmark that I was always led to believe marked the graves of two plague victims from the 17th Century. The rain soaks into the grassy flank of Park Moor, Bakestone Moor and Dale Top and seeps down through underground runnels of peat and channels cut into hill side to collect in the basins around Wood Green and Booth Green. From there it is joined by more run-off from the Macclesfield Canal and then winds its way through Wood Lanes and The Coppice and Wardsend until it butts into the north end of the estate. When I first moved to Poynton, that area was all farmer’s fields.

Under normal circumstances Poynton Brook is about as benign a body of water as you can find but just recently following a deluge of rain, more in two days than has been seen before in many months, the stream graduated to a river, promptly burst its banks and then graduated to becoming an outright menace.

Less than ten days later the waters have subsided and Poynton Brook is back to its meek meandering self, It twists and turns through the sandy ground making mini deltas that then form small islands. These islands were the scene of many an improvised pirate adventure. We would strap wooden pallets together that we found ‘abandoned’ from the local industrial estate, combing them with empty barrels, lashed together with old bits of rope and twine that we either borrowed from our parents or else scavenged from the ground. Onto these precarious rafts we would then tentatively climb, our small bodies twisted into acute angles in a vain attempt to find our balance. A helpful shove would launch us into the deeper deltas and we would spend a few vainglorious moments deftly balanced between the reality of an improbably floating raft, prophetically made from flotsam and jetsam, and the fantasy of an admiral commanding on a full rigged British frigate, bristling with cannons, flying the White Ensign and sailing on the high seas to treasure and adventure.

We used to fish with our bare hands in this stream. Teams of us would find a good spot in the shade where Bullheads would hide under stones. We would squat down on our haunches in the water and gently lift the larger stones. If you were really careful the Bullhead would remain undisturbed on the silt bed, comforted by the shade. It was almost impossible to do this; most of the time the fish would immediately sense the movement of the water and dart away to another hiding place. With quick eyes you could follow their path and so move from rock to rock, playing a game of cat and mouse until you finally were able to lift a rock without disturbing the fish. Catching the fish, which were only about as long as your thumb, with your hands was even trickier but there was a successful method for doing this. This involved placing your cupped hands some distance from the fish and generally oriented fore and aft of the head and tail, and then slowly bringing them together until, if you were careful and terribly quick at the last minute, you could snap your hands together into a cup and have the fish trapped inside. From there we transferred them into buckets and from the bucket perhaps we let them go or, perhaps as small boys are want to do, we used them for dissection.

Nature wasn’t always on the back foot with us though; sometimes the leeches and lampreys that could also be found in the brook caught us rather than us them.

The thick foliage that lined the banks also made for great dens. The trees would grow over into a sort of bower and made natural clearings inside them that were unseen from the outside. I had my first kiss inside one such den, the Holly Bush Den as the girl and I who found it had called it. As we grew older we would make fires from the dead wood that was easily found, pretending to be living in the wild and scavenging for food. We would toast bread on sticks and marvel at the wood smoke flavour it would have as a result. We would wander farther afield, onto the southern side of the shore in search of rope swings, thickets to hide in, trees to climb and old outbuildings to make into fortified camps for use in wide games. It’s marvellous to think now about just how far we would roam at such young ages. I am sure, because I can date the events to specific years of primary school, that at the age of ten I would be happily several miles, numerous farmer’s fields and at least a dozen water crossings away from home.

At what point did we stop letting our children roam so freely?

Louis

I recently discovered the work of the very talented and inspirational @bryanschutmaat. I adore the work of his I have seen, especially his portraits of men in a more broken and vulnerable state than we usually see. This portrait is inspired by those portraits.
While not part of the 'Here Among the Flowers' project, this portrait of Louis is still inspired by the same values of fragile masculinity treated sensitively and with respect.

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Gregory - From the Greek word Gregorius Meaning Watchful and Alert

It’s very unusual that one of my subjects becomes a subject because they approach me rather than I them, but this is precisely what Lewis did. With an almost naive confidence he walked up to me, introduced himself and declared that having watched what I was doing he had decided he wanted to be photographed.

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His manner was immediately intriguing. He was wearing a black leather jacket with nothing underneath. His thick rimmed glasses looked like they might have misted over and he screwed his face slightly to compensate for the blurred focus. He had a ragged backpack on his shoulders and in his hand he carried a child’s foam cutlass that he confessed he had ‘robbed’ from a group of teenagers who seemed not to miss it.

I asked him what his story was and readily confessed to having been recently thrown out of college and that he was suffering from some sort of mental health challenge. He acknowledged that his mother suffered from bipolar disorder and that he himself had experienced high levels of anxiety and psychosis. His candour and honesty was immediately endearing and I was excited to photograph him.

He asked me my name. I introduced myself and in reply he told me that his surname was also ‘Gregory’ and did I know that it translates from the ancient Greek word ‘Gregorius’, meaning watchful and alert’. Despite being a self-confessed polymath and insufferable know it all, this was actually something I hadn’t been aware of before. As far as I am aware my name is simply the product of my mother’s fondness for the actor Gregory Peck. That it also foretold my proclivity for being both watchful and alert (after all what is a photographer if they are neither of these things?) is oddly serendipitous.

I asked him if he knew what I would need him to do in the photograph and again with remarkable composure and frankness said ‘yes, take my jacket of and sit among the flowers’.

Sometimes people are relaxed in conversation and then when you ask them to sit or stand to be photographed they become awkward and you can see the tension in their posture. I always try to find a way to translate that tension into vulnerability; I imagine that for the subject this can feel difficult or challenging in some way as the tension they are feeling isn’t something I’m looking to alleviate but rather capitalise on and use. With Lewis, his apparent confidence in his approach to me quickly translated into the ease with which he posed himself. It didn’t occur to me to try and reverse that dynamic until he spontaneously stretched his arms above his head. The resulting contorted shape was fabulous and immediately revealed the slight awkwardness and inner tension that I knew was bubbling under the surface but which was being so carefully managed.

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I always warm to subjects, it’s impossible not to really when engaging even a complete stranger in such a personal endeavour. But of course, some subjects I warm to more than other and I definitely felt this way about Lewis.

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Almost as quickly as he found me he thanked me and was into his next adventure. As he walked away, bag slung casually over his shoulder, I called after him to inquire as to how I might get the images to him.

‘I’m on Facebook’ he called back, and then turned his attention to the next engagement already unfolding around him.  

The Anima

I love the plurality of perception, the way that two people can look at the same thing and interpret the scene is two very different ways. For instance, a good friend of mine commented on the image below as follows:

I love that she is looking at camera, he is not. Speaks to me about a child's singular focus, and the parents always looking out beyond the edge - looking for danger, looking to the future, the past, the bigger picture.

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Much as I like this interpretation it was not what was in my mind when I took the picture, though I did direct the subjects gaze as you see here.

What was in my mind was the projection of the father’s anima onto the daughter. The anima is personified in the daughter and represented by her singular, intense gaze towards the camera, while the off camera look of the father represents his search for the anima and the male struggle to connect truly with it. The connection with the anima, especially the unconscious female archetype, is always just out of reach.