Walter Mencken 7 p.m., Dec. 10
One day last year, when I was frustrated about the lack of momentum in my photography business, my friend Chelsea suggested I apply to Groupon to be a featured merchant for one of their daily deals. It was not a quick process. I had to think long and hard about the pros and cons, and check my level of commitment. The profit would be minimal, if anything. The obligation would be ongoing. The time and energy spent would be considerable. In a service industry where there is no overhead, no storefront, and the opportunity to build a larger customer base, however, there was no real reason not to. So I did. And the rest is history. On a good day, I thank Chelsea for her casual suggestion that launched me into a year of compelling personal growth. And on a bad day, well…there really aren’t any bad days. There are anecdotes, hurdles, minor frustrations…no bad days, though-not really. When I take inventory of the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, the successes, the criticism and praise, and the wonderful people I met as customers, and now call friends…I find that the experiences have evolved a whole other dimension to the person I am. I’ll be honest…I wasn’t a huge people person. It was a conflict of interest, my desire to photograph people for money, and my general disdain of strangers. It wasn’t an easy thing to reconcile. In order to have a business, and especially one that puts you behind a lens, teasing smiles from people you’ve only just met, it helps to be nice. It’s downright necessary, in fact. I had to step outside my comfort zone, and tweak my rough edges to order to accomplish this. What I learned was, you quickly become who you pretend to be. So you may as well pretend to be happy…welcoming…pleasant…cheerful. Before I knew it, in spite of my inner grrrrr, I was giving and receiving good energy, and it felt so natural, so gratifying, it became a habit. I soon realized that I may well encounter any type of personality on any given day, and that the sooner I could help people feel comfortable enough to relax into the photo shoot, the better off we’d all be. I also learned the humbling flip side to this particular reality—not everyone you meet will want to be your friend. Some will keep you at arm’s length the entire time. So you roll with it. You continue to be amicable. You work with whatever personality you are met with, as best you can. You intuit the level of intimacy they will appreciate, and operate on that. In the beginning I always had butterflies in my gut…standing at the fountain in Balboa Park, where ninety percent of my shoots happened, waiting for my customers to show up, wondering what they would look like, what sort of people they would be. It was an odd kind of excitement, anticipating the arrival of strangers. Would they be fun, eager, no-nonsense, enthusiastic? Would it be easy, or like pulling teeth, to get natural expressions of joy from them? I am happy to report that after 153 shoots, the small but very diverse sampling of humanity I have encountered has been a pleasure to work with. And the ones that have proven difficult have taught me still more about myself. Much of my own mythology regarding culture, gender, religion, disability, race…has been forcibly blown to bits. The generalizations and stereotypes I was as guilty as the next person of secreting away…like a golem in a dark cave, feeding on tiny crumbs of prejudice and cliché…have been eroded away to nothing. People rich, poor, white, people of color, religious people, military, academics, conservatives, granola types, old, young, single, married, families of every shape and size and mannerism… people who hug me hello, and people who feel inaccessible no matter the attempts to kill them with kindness. My memories are a blur of odds and ends, now, bits and pieces of conversation, poses and quick confessions, shared interests, kindred awakening, the constant desire to take really good pictures for whomever it happened to be, at that moment, no matter if I liked them or not, or if they liked me or not. The job, the art, the memory, was the whole purpose, at the end of the day. It was challenging, at times. There was the uptight father who opted for a beach venue, then did not want his toddler to sit on his shoulders, afraid of the sand…there was the drunken patriarch of a large family who wanted his picture taken while he posed in a stroller, pretending to suck his thumb…the woman who got down on one knee to propose to her unsuspecting girlfriend…the monarch butterfly that landed on the head of a giggling little girl, a living barrette, just long enough for me to capture it. In the capacity of photographer, I have known couples who could not stop kissing, couples who had almost forgotten how to kiss, owing to the exhaustion of parenting…men who exasperated me no end for their refusal to be part of the picture-taking process, while their wives beseeched them pleading…I have photographed Mormons wearing all white, Hindus wearing beautiful Saris, architects, teachers, doctors, lawyers, parole officers, Asians and Italians, Jewish families and Lutheran families and same-sex parent families, Brits, Mexicans, Germans, Hungarians, Georgians…I have posed people in wheelchairs and gotten close ups of undulating pregnant bellies…watched an autistic boy follow big bubbles, never wanting to pop them…heard heart-rending stories of deployment, and illness, personal tragedy, hardship, near death experience, resilience…have seen immense emotion emanate over new babies, and from newly engaged couples. I have enjoyed my job tremendously, and been tipped over generously…I have worked strenuously at times, and been tipped not at all. I have been calloused by criticism, set aglow with praise, and learned that in either case, it does not do to dwell on one over the other, but only to be gracious, and accept a teachable moment. I have felt equal parts humbled, responsible, and honored, to be of service in the capacity of photographer. Along the way I have used wrong lenses, committed faux pas, unwittingly spilled the contents of my bubble machine on my customers (who told me this after we became friends), have chosen inadequate lighting. I have first endured, and then learned to be Zen about, unapologetic late arrivals, apathetic husbands, and dictatorial wives.
I always come back to the Little Prince, and what his fox told him “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” I count it among the greatest personal ironies that I would find that true, given the import I place on photographs. But there it is. I have learned to see through the lens, I have learned to catch the all the details of the physical world, but what I value most is the second sight that is a gift from a higher power…the sight that recognizes what it is to be human, and fallible, and vulnerable, and joyful…nervous, hopeful, in earnest to survive, to love, to wake up each morning and do another day, feeling not just awake, but truly alive. What is left is the fact that we are all of us only human…we breathe, we touch, we exchange compassion, and connectivity. It is only standing outside at a distance with our arms folded and our eyes jaundiced that we are able to continue our sanctimonious judgments. When we dive headlong into the confetti-colored throng, we realize what binds us all is an amazing beauty, an amazing love, and the humility and respect that come of realizing we really are connected, after all. This isn’t hippy-speak…nothing soft and artistic here, because I am talking of tangible commonalities, basic human desires that are a tremendous equalizer, and make forever extinct any private notions of greater or less than. There is no real disconnect, not culturally, not socioeconomically, and if there is, it is entirely superficial and of no great consequence. We all want our kids to behave, to be happy…we love when our extended families show affection to us, and one another. We all want to be embraced, accepted, to be invited in. We want to feel secure, and in control. We all want to be comfortable in our skin.
Almost always, heading back to my car after two or three successive photo shoots, in Balboa Park, I am all smiles, feeling empowered, feeling free, feeling blissful about following my bliss. I pass the musicians, and the vendors, the artists, the palm readers…I see the kids in the fountain, romping with the dogs…and the photographers setting up their shots with newlyweds, or quinceanera escorts…I see the signs being shaken in protest over war, see the tents one beside the other, inviting salvation, welcoming atheistic points of view, chanting hare Krishna. I have stopped many times to fall into the trance of the didgeridoo, to appreciate the violin…have gotten to know Melissa, the balloon animal artist…the people behind the counter at the cafes…have found myself initiating conversations with tourists, and homeless people, and gardeners. I find that I am now equally content sitting by myself, watching the world go by, or being in the midst of all I see, having a lively discussion with anyone willing to take the time. Because now I am just happy to be here, to be a participant…I have ceased casting aspersions on strangers, I sit in judgment of no one. I stand by the fountain, wearing my Nikon necklace, with butterflies in my belly, wondering if my next appointment is a friend I have not yet met. Thanks, Chelsea.
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