Several months ago I was invited to photograph an event for a non-profit organization called Telling My Story. Founded by a dynamic and fearless woman named Pati Hernandez , TMS uses storytelling, song, dance, theater and art as a way of breaking down the boundaries and stereotypes that exist between people living on the “outside” of society- those marginalized, isolated and largely invisible- and those comfortably on the inside.
On this particular evening, I watched as a group of women danced, performed skits, read poems and gave personal testimonials- stories of neglect, abuse, abandonment, confusion, love and pain. They recounted the circumstances that lead them to this place, a residence facility in a small Vermont community for people battling drug and alcohol addiction. The evening was emotional, the stories often heartbreaking, the women- some barely out of their teens- were vulnerable yet clearly resilient and determined to break free of their addictions. The very act of being seen, heard and acknowledged by an accepting audience was transformative.
As the performance unfolded we learned that some of the women in the group were Dartmouth College students, undergraduates taking a course called Telling Stories for Social Change. They were here tonight on this makeshift stage at the culmination of the class, to interact, learn and ultimately question their own assumptions and beliefs about who we are in society. Privileges taken for granted, unconscious biases, and the myriad ways we label others and ourselves; labels that define our roles and narrow our perception of what is possible.
At the end of the evening, as I packed up my gear, one woman approached and asked if I was a professional photographer. Without thinking much, I answered – “yes, I am”. This surprised me more than anyone. It was the first time I had ever acknowledged that I was a photographer to an unsuspecting person.
Despite years of taking images, attending photography workshops and classes, I continue to think of myself as an amateur, a hobbyist. I’ve published my images, been paid for my work, even helped start a photography-based company. And yet, when people ask me what I do- who I am in real life- my answer is always the same, “I’m a scientist”. This automatic response sits nicely within my comfort zone. This is my day job, my career, bolstered by the requisite years of education, training and faculty positions at research centers and academic institutes. There is no doubt in my mind. I am a scientist.
I believe I’m not alone in my reluctance to call myself a photographer. During my first year of attending Crossroads workshops, I met some wonderful people. I know their names, but suffice to say they are doctors, lawyers, MBAs, community leaders, teachers, even a retired IRS employee. On the first evening of each workshop the question always comes up – “so, what do you do in your real life?” No one ever says “I’m a photographer”. And yet, during image reviews, we are often blown away by the level of skill and creativity in the room.
We identify ourselves by the labels we choose to accept. We are men, women, spouses, partners, sons, daughters, parents or grandparents, teachers, students, workers, retirees. The list goes on. To call ourselves photographers feels somehow presumptuous. Maybe we’re afraid we won’t measure up or we’ll fail to deliver National Geographic quality images. Our skills and creativity go largely unrecognized, often relegated to personal Lightroom collections shared mostly with polite friends and unwitting family members.
So, here’s a proposition. What if we accepted and acknowledged our passions, skills and experience as photographers and then committed to putting that experience to work. What if we printed up a business card that says Photographer and put our name on it. What if we each contacted a local non-profit and asked if they needed help documenting an event or generating new images for their website. I guarantee there are organizations and people out there who would be thrilled to accept your best efforts and will have no trouble at all calling you a photographer. What if we did all this, and what if we started today?
Crossroads exists because of a belief in the skills and creativity of experienced amateur and semi-pro photographers and the desire to help worthy non-profit organizations. We are here to help you take the next step. If you would like to learn the fundamentals of storytelling, how to tackle an assignment, create a shot list, approach a local non-profit and donate the best of your images, then come and join us for a workshop. Now. Today.
Bring your camera, bring your enthusiasm, bring whatever it takes. If it makes you happy, bring a photography business card with your name on it. But leave any perceived limitations at home. And when David or Brenda asks what you do in your real life (and they will!), well… you’ll know what to say.
Images from Telling My Story in Vermont are not shown here to protect the safety and privacy of the women who participate in the program. If you’d like to learn more about the wonderful and inspiring work being done at Telling My Story, please visit the TMS website.