In October 2013 I wasn’t in a very good place at all. One evening my little “inner voice”, the one that tends to speak up when I’m very unhappy about myself or my actions, muttered something that totally shocked me – and I raised both my hands to my mouth. I realised my hands had moved not because I was gasping – instead it was as if they had meant to silence me: “Do not say those words!” even though I wasn’t speaking out loud. My body had literally told my mind to not think ill of myself. I thought it was interesting – and I stopped my train of thoughts in its tracks. I remained stunned for a while and my hands were still covering my mouth when I started to smile “Well, don’t I look like the “speak no evil” monkey?!…
I went on to read more about the three wise monkeys – how in the western world the phrase “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” nowadays means turning a blind eye, while originally for the Buddhists, the idea was to stay away from evil thoughts on your way to enlightenment. I learned that there was sometimes a fourth monkey, “do no evil”, which is usually represented with his arms crossed. The next morning, I don’t know why, but I thought I should try to make my own version of the three monkeys. What did it mean at the time for me to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil? I set up the tripod and created auto-portraits. For fun I thought I’d try to represent all three at the same time as well. Then I finally portrayed the “do no evil” – since I read somewhere that the fourth monkey might have been a “better” monkey, I decided to give it my own twist of the stronger -as in “more at peace”- Me. When I looked at the results on my screen, I was intrigued – the “speak no evil” photograph certainly looked like I had stood the night before and I felt pain remembering what I had been about to say to myself. Looking at the last one with the arms crossed, I noticed it seemed I was hugging myself. I wondered how different those photographs would have been had I created them 5 years ago or 5 years later. That is when I decided to photograph other people in that same way – I wanted to see how far apart or how similar we would all be when it came to interpret the proverb in its original meaning.
I placed a casting call – whoever was willing to come on a Sunday to the studio with a food donation to participate to my personal project without knowing anything about it would also get a “normal” portrait my way (I showed some of those here). I ended up shooting back to back to back the entire day and had a car loaded with food to donate on the Monday! I hadn’t told people about the project itself ahead of time so they wouldn’t over-think it – I just wanted a raw reaction. In the end I photographed 20 series. Some folks I knew and had photographed before, some I had never met in my life. They each came in at a set time, I told them the original meaning of the proverb and then gave them 5 minutes to think about it. The reactions were quite funny. Anything from “Are you nuts?” looks to “That is so cool” via “What on earth did I get myself into?”.
I expected that there would be quite some differences between people – but I did not expect that many variations! I had purposely given very little instructions as to keep everyone’s mind as open as possible. I just had picked the spot they had to sit on as my camera was on a tripod there – I wanted the split lighting on their face so only the framing was restrictive. I also told them that I would give them ZERO directions – me, the queen of posing from head to toes, I let people do whatever they wanted. All I cared for was their facial expression. Many people said “I’m not creative, I’m going to be so boring and do something that everybody does. I’m sorry!” It turns out that everybody did at least one thing that no-one else did… Some started to look around the studio for props. As I went through the day, I still got surprised at every cycle of people showing their version of 1) see no evil 2) hear no evil 3) speak no evil 4) all three at the same time 5) do no evil/ your serene self. Watching this happen in such a short time frame was fascinating.
Looking back on the entire set, I am taken aback by how much expression I actually see in all the faces. Usually when people come for a shoot they need a little time to relax before I get what I call “truly credible” imagery. That day, people sat on the ottoman and I pressed the shutter – no easing in! Yet I see no “deer caught in the headlight” looks… Maybe people were so focused on getting their message across that they stopped worrying about the camera? What I see mostly though, scrolling through every frame, is the striking variety. I don’t know what everyone’s story is but when I look at those photographs, it makes me want to know. But also, everyone acted very differently yet we were all equally expressive and creative in displaying what’s inside us. I couldn’t tell without knowing them who the accountant is vs the photographers, the teachers, the stay-at-home parents, the electrician or the lawyer… And maybe in that photography is a great equalizer – when you photograph people on a black backdrop and they show a little piece of their true selves to you, what choice is there but to acknowledge that we are all individuals yet we are also such similar human beings?
Yesterday and today I went about editing 100 photographs, presenting them as 100 black and whites as I just did, the way I had imagined it when I first conceived this project. It took me 1.5 years to get here. In 2013 I just wasn’t in the right state of mind, the truth is it still hurt me to see my own series – I saw too much pain and I didn’t like it. Then I didn’t have time. Then James passed away and it was too hard to work on his photographs. Then I kinda forgot about the project. Yesterday I came across the folder and somehow I felt it was time. I was right – I no longer feel pain looking at myself, the sadness there has lifted. For a second I thought it’s a shame I have photographed only 20 people and not 30 other than me – I could have made a parallel with Bach’s Goldberg Variations! The piece starts with an Aria, then come 30 variations of the theme. At the end, the Aria is repeated. They say that if you listen to the whole work in one go, the Aria sounds different at the end than the first time you hear it even though not a single note has changed – but all the variations will have affected your ears and heart and likely the pianist’s as well. I thought if I were to recreate these 5 auto-portraits now, they would look quite different. So I just stood in front of my mirror and I acted out my interpretation today. It strikes me how the anguish is gone. I didn’t have a camera set up to show you that series. Suffice to say, I liked what I saw.
With huge thanks to James, Trudy, Erin, Cheryl, Tanya, Jeff, Janay, Alyssa, Fritz, Jamie, Dieter, Sarah, Ashley, Marlene, Daniella, Sara, Nancy, Gene and Brad.