I ask “Why?” a lot when I am interviewing artists, non-profit directors and staff, social entrepreneurs. “Why?” peels back the internal layers more than What? or How?. Why gets to the heart, causes a pause, sometimes pain, and typically reveals a personal mission and belief. And, it’s the “Why?” in life that really keeps us going, centers us in times of chaos, re-energizes when on the brink of exhaustion. At least for me, Why is what inspires.
Surprisingly, “Why?” is sometimes the hardest question to answer. It gets lost in the What and How? When? For Whom? How Much?
At least it’s made me stumble a bit when asked lately, which encourages me to return to my photo roots in High School with Janet Moore-Coll as my teacher (she is still inspiring young photographers today). Magically photography connected me to my community and myself in a way I hadn’t felt connected before. Instead of just blindly going along, I started questioning: What is this (Easter egg hunt)? Who are these (fox-hunter’s)? What’s really happening here (the HS party/ drink fest), and Why? I’m not sure I found the answers, but I learned to ask the questions. And, it was fascinating to undulate back in forth from a participant in the action, to an observer, from an insider to an outsider.
After High School, I put the camera down until my junior year of college when I went to Nepal for a semester abroad. Of course, the camera came back out – I knew I needed to sketch what I was seeing so that I could research, explain, and share it later. I used photography in my senior thesis in college, to capture community supported agriculture in Virginia. I gave the images to a nonprofit organization educating the state’s farmers about organic and biodynamic farming and CSAs. Photography gave me a way to participate in and advocate for what I believed in, and be of service to a cause. (Wish I could get my hands on all of these photos I am referring to to post…, that’s a box opening, scanning project for another rainy day!)
These are still the key components to my work and my why:
Photography connects me to myself and my community, and I need to feel connected.
Photography is a research tool, for my own life-long learning, and I need to be inspired and keep learning and growing.
Photography allows me to participate and observe, question and document, and helps me feel alive, present, engaged.
Photography gives me a voice and is a way to be seen, and I also need to feel valued and heard.
Photography allows me to participate in and advocate for what I believe in, and there are many things I believe in.
Photography allows me to be of service, and I need to contribute and give back.
Photography helps me to remember and share my story and experiences, and I need to know the importance of my own story and share it.
I have added a few skills to the visual storytelling toolkit since high school, most notably the addition of audio and video to my work. The WHY behind audio and video is really important to me too. I realized that with still photography I was still imposing my judgement and personal filters on the story. And, when other people looked at the images, they brought theirs. So, I wanted to give my subject the power to tell their own stories in their own voice, from their own perspective, culture, accent, and heart. I believe that when we listen, we connect on a much deeper level. I have experienced it every time I have sat down to ask questions, and then didn’t interrupt and chime in with my opinion or reaction. Listening, being receptive and open to another, is transformative. Listening encourages me to let go of judgement, criticism, the idea of right and wrong.
So my work is now a spiritual practice – a practice that I believe will heal myself and others. Yes, my work and my why is about healing. It’s about peace-making. It’s about optimism and celebrating what’s beautiful in the world. It’s about being connected and feeling connected. It’s about learning to listen and to communicate without judgement or expectation. It’s about letting go of shame and embracing vulnerability. It’s about being present in the moment. It’s about learning and growing, seeking and accepting. And, it keeps evolving. But, it’s what underlies all of my projects. Whether I am successful or not is another story, but I’ll keep trying.
What’s your WHY? I would love to hear it!
photo by Norah Levine Photography