Watching “Five Broken Cameras” and “How to Survive a Plague”—two outstanding documentaries nominated for yesterday’s Academy Awards—it’s easy to be reminded of what a gift this kind of attention can be for the community or person being featured. Yet watching Emad Burnat’s young son Gibreel stand center stage with his own camera, filming the Docuday audience during Saturday’s question-and-answer session, it’s also hard to shake the reminder of the power struggle that remains at the heart of many documentary processes. This week, we’re proud to feature an essay by artist Stacy Elaine Dacheux on the confrontational and collaborative capacity of that most old-school of documentary art forms, the portrait.
In the 1980s, Nan Goldin used photography to document her life and empower her own history.
In 2012, I resisted purchasing an iPhone for fear of having too much access to the world at all times. I did not want to think about sharing and likes in relation to worth. I did not want to worry about friends, following and being followed, and I definitely did not want to grow an extra limb in order to show the world I existed.
However, I did not want to be left out of the world either, so, last week, I broke down and bought one, an iPhone, and now I am stuck, specifically, on Instagram.
“It’s as if my hand were a camera. If it were possible, I’d want no mechanism between me and the moment of photographing. The camera is as much a part of my everyday life as talking or eating or sex. The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party.”—Nan Goldin, 1986
Dear Nan, FYI, it’s not always fun to throw your own party.
Sometimes, it can make you feel pretty shitty.
“The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.”—Diane Arbus
At 21, in the darkroom, I dipped my fingers in the fixer to pull out a print.
“Don’t do that.” A classmate reprimanded. “Your hands are like sponges.”
At 28, outside The Good Luck Bar, I tried to remember my father’s hands. They were thick, dry and chalky—he bit his nails to the bone, sometimes they bled. I was drunk, and unlocking my bike from the stop sign. A hipster kid with a camera took my picture. I told him not to do that. So, he took another one.
“Why are you doing this?” I wanted to know.
“Hey, why not?” He was flirting.
“I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do—that was one of my favorite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse.”—Diane Arbus
I shoved the camera into his stomach, pushing him out of my way. My father was dead and I was depressed. I wanted that night and that horrible feeling to be mine, only mine. He got caught stealing and I needed him to know that acting cutesy and suggestive about it all was not cool.
Tonight, I am performing my “future portraits” piece at Concord Space.
I am performing this particular piece because I am scared of and interested in confrontation—how we talk to each other non-verbally and where our minds go based on first impressions and certain visceral judgments. I am especially scared/interested in the documentation process. How will my muse feel about my power to document him or her? How long will I allow them to sit before I feel uneasy about my power to document?
Portraiture is as much about control and systems as anything else.
Portraiture has its own emotional frequency or government.
I hope to remember that it is my responsibility to be fair when designing future portraits, to look at my own preconceptions and push past these into the future.
This is not just about the subject, but myself as well, trying to move past my preconceptions. What does the subject bring up in me? Where does my mind go, and how do I fantasize about the subject? What makes me feel uncertain about him or her? What do I admire? How can I push past these personal biases and try to get to the heart or dream of the subject? Can our imaginations be objective? If so, how?
No matter where my subjects go, I will go too. This is a promise: not to judge or capture, but to hold hands. It is my world they will inhabit and I need to remember this in terms of building another space for us. I want to be a pleasant host in the dream.
My little portrait studio is situated in a cozy corner of the art space and consists of a backdrop, stool, “future portrait” signage, lighting, and desk. I use the following materials to create each portrait: typewriter, personalized stamp, blue twine, archival ink, newsprint, 4″ x 4″ paper with matching envelopes, pen, pencil, glue stick, scissors, square stencil, ruler, thesaurus. The rotary phone is present for mere aesthetics.
Once the event begins, I sit at my desk and wait. When a possible participant approaches, I welcome them into my space, ushering them to sit on the stool in front of the backdrop for me. I tell them they can leave at any time and that this might be a while.
If they agree, then we start the session.
I place a small square of paper into the typewriter and wait for inspiration.
Sometimes the subjects speak to me and sometimes they do not. I always try to meet them where they are at—to give them what they need to feel safe and secure—so, if they speak, then I speak back. If they are quiet, then I am too.
The typewriter is always lingering between us, governing us. At times, when the subject and I connect on a personal level, I feel guilty about how the typewriter confuses our relationship, or I don’t want to capture the subject. I don’t want to document, or have that control. I just want us to sit with one another and be here: honestly communing. Then, I remember that the portrait is the reason for the relationship—that we wouldn’t be here otherwise. So, I suck it up and take responsibility for the space that we share. I embrace this idea of hosting an experience.
I start by questioning my own intention: Who do they want to be for me? Who are they to me? Can I please them? Is this about pleasing them or seeing them? Who owns the daydream of a portrait? Is the portrait for me or for them?
Then, with my fingers perched above the keys, our eyes meet one another, and slowly these questions soften into playful daydreams. I imagine that I am their mother, new lover, or sister. It’s no longer academic; I just want to take care of them. I pass by judgment, looking for a loving place for us no matter how different we think we are from one another. No matter if the initial meeting feels dark or troubled. No matter what our differences are on the outside, in the moment, together, I want to make a warm bed for us to share. When the subject’s body shifts into a posture that reflects this feeling of warmth or comfort, I know it’s time to type. Portraiture, as I’m discovering, is not just about identity, but where our ephemeral projections collide and collaborate.
Everyone who sits for me is memorable—lovely—and I am humbled.
After I have typed the subject’s future in the small square of paper, I paste it on a larger one. I outline another square around the paper, to give the appearance of a matted frame, then I seal it in an envelope and wrap twine around it like a gift. I present the portrait to the subject, hug him or her, and say thank you.
No actual cameras are used to take future portraits, although subjects can photograph me if they desire to do so. It’s only fair. Photographer Jason Gutierrez sat for me and took photos before and during our session. These photos posted here are his documents of the experience.
At the end of the night, after three hours of taking future portraits, here are my findings:
Portraiture is not about manipulation. It’s about letting go.
When we let go, our faces tend to crack in the most beautiful way.
A subject’s face will not crack unless your face cracks. So, the letting go must be mutual in order for this to occur.
A dual cracking is simultaneously intimate—you will both feel it. It’s heavy and soft. You will want to sleep in it.
As a designer of possible futures, it is your responsibility to not just witness the crack, but to catch the crack, to nurture it, to love it.
The crack is the core. Never exploit it. You are not great because you found it.
I have experienced this feeling on only two other occasions—both of which involved caring for a terminally ill person.
Portraiture is not just about confrontation, as I had thought previously—it’s not aggressive—it’s more about being a caregiver of imagery, ideas, and embracing a dualistic sense of self (what is reflected/where we meet). It is also about being awake and attentive to collaboration and being a sensitive steward of emotion.
The future is bright.