I have taken a lot of portraits but very little of myself, until now. Of course there is the odd picture taken on my antiquated mobile phone and sent to a friend but nothing of substance. It all felt a little too exposing and required too much technical expertise (or so I thought). There was another reason. I look quite ragged a lot of the time and make-up and haircuts feel superfluous when your most constant companion is a cat. My vanity was preventing me from exploring that time-honoured medium of artistic expression – the self portrait.
I’m not one of those photographers who really plans a shoot. I tend to work with available light and the choice of location is much more about the subject feeling comfortable than it is about a creative concept. I’m not a big fan of gloss. I don’t use a tripod. In short I like to get close and see the light in someone’s eyes, or how the subtle change of facial musculature speaks of a whole different emotion. The face is a language we all understand.
Recently the M.E related insomnia was getting to me as was the disability benefits process. In addition to this, having only been unwell a year (although it can feel a lot longer at times) I was in the thick of grieving my past life. The tears came and did not stop. I was crushed by my own sadness and could not see an end to my crying. It also meant that connecting to people, especially my good and valued friends who also live with chronic illness, became almost impossible.
I was at a loss. Then I remembered the advice of a good friend who had told me, much earlier in the year when I was again feeling overwhelmed, to just go outside and take photographs which resulted in an entire project ‘Still Life’. This time as my anguish increased I picked up my camera, kept the focus shallow and aimed the lens at myself. I could not plan or design the shoot. All I had to do was turn up and reveal myself, in all my desperation, to the camera.
Then something happened. I was both totally in the moment and observing it at the same time. I was able to experience the extent of my terror and not be afraid of it. This photographic process had enabled me to enter in to these feelings without being consumed by them. As a result a friend who also lives with chronic illness posted these brave and unflinching images on her blog. We discussed how self-documentation can lead to self-acceptance.
Then something else happened. The oil-slick mood that had taken over the past few months of my life began to disperse. M.E symptoms are constantly in flux, it’s an illness marked by mystery and unanswered questions. Having a good day, week or month and thinking that this may signal the return to physical health is as foolhardy as planning a wedding on a first date. Instead I now have a living archive of this changing state – a brand new photographic project called ‘Pretty’ and a reminder that the creative process, unlit and unknown as it seems at times, can really save our lives.