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Woods, stories, wounds, and blessings: Notes from 2018

Woods, stories, wounds, and blessings: Notes from 2018

Happy end of January. Here’s what I’ve been up to this past year, what I’ve learned, and questions for 2019. Pull up a chair!

This summer, I took a two-week intensive course on theatre, ritual, and healing, taught by Hector Aristizábal, at the CUNY SPS MA in Applied Theatre. In the course, each participant went to the woods and performed a meditative ritual, then returned to the group and created theatre about what they’d found.

My experience in the woods was a turning point for me, and also a point of reference for my other work in the year.

In an opening in the trees, I found an old boulder bathed in light. I climbed up on it, lay down, and listened. After a while, I got the message, from the light, “everything is okay. You’re following your calling. You have everything you need.”

Framing the Shoot, Part 2

Framing the Shoot, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about the power of photographs to liberate and oppress, from Frederick Douglass’s Daguerreotypes to a Manhattan photo instructor’s fraught relationship with his model.

I am concerned to be on the liberatory side of photography history. Goodwill alone won’t take me there. So, this week, I am articulating what had been my nascent principles for portrait photography.

As I developed my thoughts for this piece, I found familiar influences from my coaching training. This didn't surprise me, because I've been thinking about those connections over the last year. I was gratified to also find the influence of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire. In his text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire lays out a philosophy for a democratic relationship between an educator and students. He theorizes a “co-intentional” relationship: the educator and students share power. They negotiate together what they will study and how they will learn, and the educator teaches by posing problems and questions about lived experience, rather than coming to the classroom with ready-made answers. Nonetheless, the educator is still responsible for being an expert in the issue at hand and for setting a course that will best serve the students. Thus, the alliance remains dynamic, supporting students in taking risks and making new discoveries.

Framing the Shoot, Part 1

Framing the Shoot, Part 1

The other day, I stopped in at a free flash photography class in a Manhattan camera store. More than flash, I learned about how not to treat the people I photograph. Here’s a telling moment from the class:

Photography Instructor: Shoot her from here.

Model: Shoot me?

Photographer: Yes, shoot you. We’re both going to. The two us are going to shoot you at the same time.

Student photographer: Nervous laugh.

Audience: Silence.

Photographer: Okay. Let’s go. To model. Don’t screw up.

Photo turns out okay, not what the instructor was going for.

Photographer: Self effacingly to audience. In studio photography, if something goes wrong, blame the model!

Video: Photos with Ruby

Video: Photos with Ruby

Hello friends! I am proud to release this video about my photo work with the impeccable Ruby Gertz.

See how fashion designer and sex educator Ruby Gertz partnered with Michael to show her "unapologetic truth" in photographs.

Photographing #myvoicematters at the LGBT Center: floating signifiers

Photographing #myvoicematters at the LGBT Center: floating signifiers

I wrote earlier about responding to the presidential election. Last week, I had the privilege to take portraits at the LGBT Center for a response of theirs, #myvoicecounts.


Participants gave permission to the Center to share the photos, so I’m not posting all the photos here. My friend Chris McNabb said I could use his photo, though, and he is resplendent as a sassy seminarian:

The photos show people’s responses to Trump’s election. Participants posed with written responses to why “my voice counts,” in spite of Trump's campaign promises and cabinet choices. The participants’ presences in front of the camera spoke additional volumes. “because my ancestors fought too hard for me to be free,” wrote one black man. He regards the camera directly, shoulders relaxed, jaw squared, eyes simmering. Another black man wrote, “because my grandparents came from South Carolina and didn’t have a choice. I have the right vote for whoever I choose.” His lips are a flat line that I see tenderness in, grey in his eyebrows and wear around his eyes suggest experience, and a polar bear hoodie makes me want to ask him to go sledding. A bronze and black wedding band speaks of commitment. Taken together, these two remind me of the US’s journey through slavery and the Jim Crow era. Trump’s election raises the specter of sliding backward toward those times. However, too much has been fought and won to let that happen. The ancestors these two evoke won’t stand for it, and from that they draw strength.

A white woman stands with hips cocked, her hair businesslike, and proclaims “I refuse to go backwards.”

I am drawn in because she looks so sure, and still playful, and because “backwards” could be anywhere. Is she also talking about racism? Immigration? Gay rights? NATO? Is she even a lesbian? Who knows. I want to know her better. I also like not knowing, and imagining her championing every cause. A concept from a sociology course flickers back to life for me: the floating signifier. Floating signifiers are so empty of meaning that they accommodate all meanings brought to them. Claude Lévi-Strauss coined the term and Philosopher Roland Barthes elaborated the concept to flags: even if people would knock over a table in an argument at Thanksgiving about their values, they can all unite under one flag, because the flag can accommodate all of the different values that people bring to it. And so our friend here with the sass and the determination to move not backwards offers herself as a flag for the people gathered at the Center: to be the perfect white ally, to be the perfect professional lesbian (if that’s your thing!), to be the perfect straight ally, to be the woman breaking the glass ceiling, to stand for decency in public discourse, and, of course, to show the queens how to wear mascara.

Thank goodness for all that, and for the even broader welcome implied in #myvoicecounts, because people who came were so multiple that we couldn’t have agreed on everything. Indeed, I overheard people argue about what activism actual demands, and when to draw limits for comfort and safety. I heard people dissing and defending Hillary. I heard people trip on their privilege and sound as clueless as a presidential debater. Nonetheless, people continued to participate fully and passionately, generously addressing camera, with more rich ambiguity: “because I’m human,” “because WE MUST KEEP FIGHTING,” “because I believe our LOVE overcomes evil!” Their frankness and presences kept the words—which are also floating signifiers—alive and urgent and inclusive of everyone.

Also, thank goodness, some people dared to be specific about their commitments, or we wouldn't have any direction to move in.

A duo strike a pose Madonna would commend and observed their voices count "because I’m a kween” and “because I’m a quing.” The two avoid easy categorization as male or female, and their fist-letter swapping emphasizes their gender liminality as well as their friendship. Mike Pence, don’t try policing the restrooms, here.

 “Because we have disabilities” one young person wrapped in purple seethes into the camera. No more mocking disabled reporters.

 “BECAUSE I’M / MEXICAN / QUEER / FEMME” says a participant in a retro jacket over a button down, claiming identities that Trump maligns as sources of strength. Also in the frame, a young person with long lashes, impeccable foundation and lips, who needs to stoop to stay in front of the step and repeat, flexes their curves and says “because Im My Protection.” The two stand close, communicating affinity. They have each other’s backs.

“because its time for white people to show up and speak out. Ally is a verb, not a noun.”


“because after the president elect mocked the disabled reporter I began to question my abilities and the way folks would treat me as an autistic queer woman!”

And many more. 57 people posed for photos.

Me too:

Taking the photos reassured me, because it is a way that I can contribute. Being a part of the day nourished me, too, because I felt connected to so many people united for moving forward. We were all together under the rainbow flag, floating signifier that it is. Now let's take good care of each other as we develop what moving forward means.