“I’m NOT!” I bellow. Not going to school, that is. My homework isn’t done, it’s already 9 am (school started at 8), and I’ve yet to shower. But my mother is up and worried, and my father is done yelling, and I’m about to break. Soon, I’ll remove myself from self-isolation and go down to breakfast. I’ll wash my face, talk to my father, and head to fourth period photography.
If you ask me what started the argument, I can’t remember. Instead, I remember the shouts, the vitriol, the click of the lock. I remember grabbing a blanket and rushing into the white bathroom with cold floors. I remember telling my sister – voice breaking – that she couldn’t shower there tonight. I remember screaming more, and then more and more, at my parents. And finally, I remember curling up with my blanket and crying. Crying for hours, until, eventually, I fell asleep.
In the morning I wake up. My voice is hoarse and my back stiff. I’m embarrassed. I try, as I often do, to stay strong, to stay angry, but that feeling has been flushed out like the tears. I’m hungry. It’s 9 am. The bathroom is cold. Time to move on. Pull yourself together Nathan, I tell myself.
“We’ve all been there,” my father told me that morning. “We all have our ways of coping.” He didn’t tell me I was acting immature, silly, or downright ridiculous (though writing about it now I can’t help but see the truth in those adjectives). He apologized, I apologized, and by later that night we had forgotten it. What had happened was okay. He had been there too at my age, he told me. There was something I needed to let out, and the act of locking myself in a bathroom and thinking stuff through – no matter how crazy it may seem in hindsight – was a normal part of that catharsis. For my father it was the act, among others, of running away and driving a car from Ohio to California.
This is mental health. The argument escalated from nowhere, from inexplicable fogginess. It was the outcome of my own mental instability: stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation. I didn’t tell my friends afterwards. I didn’t go to counseling. The catharsis of the tears and screaming was enough.
“We’ve all been there.” This is only one personal example.
If, now, I were asked to describe this event with a statement “I am not______”, what would I say? Would I say, I am not my anger? I am not my insults? I am not my isolation? My white bathroom? Cold floors? Maybe I’d say, I am not my tears. My angst. My aggressiveness. My hate. For the last couple of days, I’ve asked myself: in one word, Nathan, what are you not?
* * *
Recently, many students have been given that challenge. In preparation for Mental Health Week, Princeton brought the photography project “What I Be” to our campus. According to the website, “By stating ‘I am not my_____,’ [people] are claiming that they do in fact struggle with these issues, but it does not define who they are as a person.” In addition to this title, participants write a separate statement on their face and arms when photographed.
I’m sure people have seen the campaign for this. Both Princeton and USG sponsored, dispersed, and lauded the photographs. They have popped up on Facebook with much self-congratulation among Princetonians about our candor and trust. Granted, I’ve been told Princeton asked participants to post their photos as profile pictures, but still: a friend sports his picture on his profile with (as of now) 154 likes to boot. “I lost control” is emblazoned on his forehead in sharpie.
Well, in the story above, I certainly lost control. You could say that. But is that what defines my insecurities? Is that what I am not? His accompanying title is “I am not my breakdown.” Okay; this may also be true. I am not my breakdown, at least not that breakdown. But what about the other times? The other bits of my personality?
What I am increasingly struggling with is how to approach this project as one of deep long-lasting value. If I can’t even assign a word to a single event, how can that word possibly reflect my entire life? Or character? The project would formulaically take the all encompassing and (I’d like to think) complex “me” and turn it into one word. One concept. Trying to place myself in the shoes of one being photographed scares me. I’m forced to ask myself: what would you say? What would you write?
Even now, I’m scared that solely this story represents me to you as readers. I feel like I need to say more. About myself as me 99% of the time. Like right now, I promise I’m not typing this article screaming in a bathroom. And I promise I’m not in the same mood as I was that night with my parents.
And why can’t I be my breakdown? Maybe, in some ways, I am my breakdown. Maybe rejecting my problems isn’t the right approach to mental health, either.
I would not write about “What I Be” if what bothered me about the project was merely my inability to imagine myself as a participant or my fear of self-reduction. I am writing because “What I Be” flounders. Its luster is inch-deep, if that. I’m scared to say it, but I can’t drop the nagging feeling: the project is not photography, but artificial and formulaic guff.
Especially in terms of photographic merit, “What I Be” fails. Steve Rosenfield, the photographer, creates a cardboard collection of humans. If I hadn’t known their faces before, I wouldn’t remember them now. And if I hadn’t known their personalities, I definitely wouldn’t now. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t care. How can you care for photographs that lack personality or variety? Each participant stares open-eyed and stoic in front of the camera. Each photograph contains a face and shoulders, and some contain an occasional arm. Behind the participants is a monotone and listless gray. Is it a wall? Computer generated? I wouldn’t know. Texture is nonexistent.
These photographs feel less like fine art and more like senior year photography. The faces are altered: acne or other facial alterations don’t exist. Hair is smoothed and eyes colored. Everything is a tad more vibrant than it should be. A participant even told me that Rosenfield electronically removed her bra strap from the final shot. I would find this unsettling in most documentary portraiture, but it’s especially unsettling in the context of a project that is “all about honesty.”
Looking at Rosenfield’s other work unsurprisingly reveals that he has a commercial background. The website hosts over-colored and over-sentimentalized photos of seniors, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings – Rosenfield does it all, but taking on wedding photography isn’t like taking on a project like this. “What I Be” tries to appreciate individuality by simultaneously stressing the shared struggles of mental health and glossing over its subtleties. It attempts to bridge issues as diverse as depression and anger, withdrawal and homosexuality. I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the goal. Very few fine art photographers would attempt a project so broad and imprecise in scope.
The scope necessitates a project that is too reductive. The two statements, mixed with the photography, have a tendency to trivialize problems. Not only this, but the mandate rejects identity. Rosenfield states that this project is “to spread awareness on what people go through due to society’s paved roads.” Isn’t the project itself a version of a “paved road”? I feel as if Rosenfield challenged himself with an unachievable project and mandate. Its reductive and formulaic nature is one most sophisticated artists would avoid.
But this isn’t the work of an artist; that’s the problem.
I say this because I so wish it were the work of an artist. Portraiture, when done correctly, is enticing. Good portraiture can elicit complexity on its own, and doesn’t require text and explanation (though it can be enhanced by it). The list of photographers that accomplish this is great, but let me suggest a few: Adam Amengual’s Day Laborers or Homies; Jan Banning’s Comfort Women or The Face of Poverty; Gillian Laub’s Girls at War. These three photographers are only the start. There is the famous Richard Avedon and the lesser-known Autumn de Wilde, manipulator Jill Greenberg and fashion photographer Marco Grob. If I’m overwhelming you, I’m glad; photography isn’t a barren discipline one can half-ass. I guess what’s important is that, as “What I Be” attempts, many photographers reconcile differences while celebrating individuality. And every project deals with its own set of insecurities, truths, and characters. That, thankfully, is not unique to “What I Be.”
The closest I’ve been to participating in a project like “What I Be” was in the eighth grade, in which my photography teacher, Liese Ricketts, took manual photograph after photograph of 13-year-olds. Yes, I was ecstatic she chose to feature me; even more, I loved the attention. In this project, though, I was an individual in a wide array of different 13 year olds. Beyond our age, nothing was formulaic about the project. It did not generalize or color, but instead the project documented. I’m placed in a background – in a greater context – and more than my face is shown. Even the fact that this is a manual photo seems to matter. It’s finite, and in one moment. Five years later, I can’t help but appreciate the characterization of my classmates and I as 13-year-olds. Is the same going to be true of people in the “What I be” project?
Some may say that these projects and photographers are far from the platforms of “What I Be.” None of the Princeton participants were Vietnamese comfort women, and certainly none are “Day Laborers” (as much as we would like to tell our professors and parents otherwise). We’re not celebrities, either. And being 13 isn’t necessarily an insecurity – though, really, who got through middle school unscathed? Consider similar subject matter, then. Jeff Sheng photographs athletes on high schools and college sports teams who openly identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in his project Fearless. His subjects—fully invested in both their sport and identity—are enticing, compelling, and unique. They are put in a context, and although in some ways these are photographs in hindsight they are also very much current. In another series, which I’ve yet to shake from my memories since finding her in middle school, Lauren Greenfield documents eating disorders and the battle to overcome them in her project Thin. She accompanies the photographs with a documentary and statements. These two projects especially are infinitely more powerful and compelling than their sophomoric counterpart “What I Be.” It can be done.
I wouldn’t reserve the possibilities to solely documentary photography. Mental health week, after all, is supposed to highlight and normalize mental instability. While there are a variety of insecurities that appear in “What I Be,” none of these photographs elicit the hard-to-describe and unanswerable emotion I like in photography. None make me think, Oh, that’s how mental health feels for them. Instead of being in the moment, these photographs are presented in hindsight. I yearn for a representation of mental instability that remains truly vulnerable and conceptual. Something erratic. Though I don’t require representation of such instability—this isn’t what Amegual or Sheng do, either—what would that be like? Certainly it’d draw me in. So if the photographers listed above weren’t enough, consider the work of Lin Zhipeng. His work, to me, is gripping. In one photograph, a man lies undressed on a couch as leaves fall around him; in another, a woman sits in an empty room, legs stretched and face down; in a diptych, on the top half a woman sinks into a bed next to laid out clothing, and in the bottom half the photo is the same but the woman is gone. These are photographs of mental instability. They are honest and, although maybe too controversial for a college campus, they are compelling. Photographs like these could spark conversations not just about the candor and strength of students, but also about the idiosyncrasies of mental health.
Part of the reason I wrote this article was a post on PrincetonFML. The original poster wrote, “I admire the intentions of the ‘What I Be’ project, but sometimes it seems a bit vain and narcissistic, especially for some of the people involved. MLIConfused.” In the heat of the moment, I thought other people feel like I do. Go for it Nathan. Write.
As I refine my views, though, and increasingly discuss the project with peers, I realize that I cannot speak to the vanity of the project. Though I admit to seeing the validity, I want to highlight an even more valid response. An alleged “participant” responds on FML, “It kind of hurts that we’re putting ourselves out so vulnerably and getting this kind of reaction.”
* * *
So listen. Participants, wherever and whoever you are, I understand. There’s a reason I started this article with an example of my own vulnerability. You’re right, it’s scary. It’s unsettling. I generalized some aspects and glossed over others; it’s not much different from fixing up acne. The fact that I see your familiar faces on such a well-meaning campaign gives me at least some confidence to write about my own mental health run-ins (seriously). It gives me the confidence to get myself out there. Because we all have insecurities. That’s a generalization I can agree with.
But I can’t help but blame Rosenfield for failing you. His intentions may be admirable but his execution is disheartening. He asked you to generalize your situation, to boil it down. Instead of highlighting your uniqueness, he eschewed it. Each person is supposed to have a 500 word statement attached to their photo, but on the website, under each of the hundreds of photos, there is a line: “statement coming soon.” I wish not every single one of your of photos said this—maybe it would’ve cleared things up. Maybe this would’ve given you the face and voice I don’t think the photographs did. I can’t see the people I know in a string of words and an overly photoshopped photograph. You’re too complex.
Good portraiture can abandon the extras while remaining amazingly complex, but “What I Be” is not good portraiture. “What I Be” is not compelling. “What I Be” does not convince me that you can amalgamate depression with bossiness, sexual abuse with anger, or bulimia with a misaligned nose, although that is what it purports to achieve. “What I Be” is not art. It is not nuanced. It is not subtle. It does not have depth. In a project I want to be thrilled for, I find myself disappointed. And in ten years – when I still grasp Greenfield’s portraiture in Thin to help grapple with the struggles and vulnerabilities of people with eating disorders – “What I Be” will not be in my memory.
I will also always remember what my father said: “We’ve all been there.” Perhaps, you should remember this too. Then remember the there is unique for each and every one of you. It’s weird. It’s off. Sometimes, it’s breaking down and crying in a bathroom. Sometimes, it includes a little bit of acne and a whole lot of context. Though you are not just that event, or that feeling, it is – in one way or another – a part of you. Don’t reject that complexity in an unsophisticated photography project.
I am not “What I Be.” And neither are you.