I speak because I can, to anyone I trust enough to listen.
Sharing emotions and troubling stories with family members or close friends is difficult for many people. We are afraid of what another will think of us. Society tells us not to burden another with our troubles.
Instead, many of us internalize them, blow them off when we need to share them, even tell them to an inappropriate person. It affects our moods, our outlook, our day to day life, and our relationships. Some swear they will take these feelings and stories to their grave. Unfortunately, some do sooner than later.
People tell me their personal stories and I listen to them without judgment. In telling their stories, I use unique images. My work shows sharing personal, emotional stories can be safe. Yours can be too.
Michael Austin Stevens
Mr. Stevens, who used his middle name, at least with me, contacted me to photograph his business headshot for LinkedIn and other social media. At the time, Austin was a lifelong Military man transitioning into the Civilian work world.
The photo session was very straight forward. Austin knew what he wanted, and the session was completed within 10 minutes of the first pose. During Austin’s time on the posing stool, he was able to see his image right after I took each shot. I have a large monitor in my studio. Not only do I see the images right after each shot; so do my clients. After a few shots, Austin and I agreed we had the right image.
After each session ends, the client pays for the service by check or credit. If not for a quirk of fate would the image that became the genesis for My Picture Tells A Story be taken.
Me: “Austin, would like to use check or credit card?”
Austin: “How about cash?” “No one ever gives me cash, Austin.” I replied. “Well, you’ll take it won’t you?” Austin asked. “Of course.” I responded.
He gives me too much money and… “Austin, this is too much money. I don’t have change for this. No one ever gives me cash.” I said. “Can we take another picture?” Austin asked. It was less than what I’d usually charge for a second image but… “Sure! Let’s go back into the studio.” I responded.
I asked Austin to take off his coat and tie for a more casual look. The first 2 shots were not to my liking. I decided to do something very different… something I’ve never done in a portrait session before. Standing in front of him, I asked him to put his coat back on. Then I asked him that whatever was in his head, whatever he was feeling right then, go there. I asked him to wait a moment until I turned around and walked back to my camera. When I got to the camera, I said I’d turn around and press the shutter release immediately. That image came up on the studio monitor. We both thought it looked interesting and decided to stop there.
One day later, I started the post photo session work in Photoshop. The business shot of Austin was a straightforward, classic business image. The second shot was a very different story. I stared at it for 15 minutes. In front of me was an image that as a business portrait photographer, I had not photographed before. It was a spontaneous, emotional response for me to capture in a portrait setting. Long ago, my beginning days as an artist were using charcoal and pastels, not a camera. I let the emotion of the image carry my artistic instincts.
Along with a note, I sent the finished images to Austin. In the note, I mentioned that I had never finished an image the way I did with his second portrait. I also let him know that if he did not like the way I did it, I’d do it over.
His response was “Don’t you dare touch it.”
Including the back story, I posted the image on a photography Facebook page. I was expecting feedback on the quality and technical side of Austin’s picture, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I got a string of personal comments. Some by people that were in the same situation, had been in that situation, or were close to someone going through it.
I continued to receive emotional responses to Austin’s image and the story it told. Before I showed the image to someone, I always told the story behind it. The story was simple, “This is Austin. He’s a lifelong Military man transitioning into the Civilian world.” The most compelling reaction came from an acquaintance and fellow photographer. I didn’t know he was ex-Military prior to showing him the image. When Dan saw the image, his response was emphatic. “I know exactly how he feels. That was me.”
Although I continued the business portraits, I soon started doing street photography, but the desire to photograph spontaneous human emotion in a portrait setting stayed with me. It would become a driving passion to create human images that people could form an emotional connection with.
I was photographing randomly throughout when I noticed my cousin Bunny starting to tell a story. She was telling it to a few cousins across and slightly to the right of me. Bunny was seated directly across from me. She is very animated when she talks, especially when she is relaying a tale. I started shooting and captured about a dozen images. The thought was that I would have one or two images out of this group that I really liked. When I put the images up on my editing viewer, my reaction was something entirely different. What I saw was an old-time film strip or story board. What would it look like if I took five of the images and put them together on a single canvas or print? I let my creative instincts take over; I created a complete story on a single print using multiple images.
Over a period of time, I showed the print to a few fellow photographers. Their responses were positive and encouraging.
In 2016, LensWork Magazine introduced the Seeing in Sixes project. The concept was simple: create six separate interrelated images. The idea was to stimulate photographers by using this concept. It was a way to jump start the creative process. They would publish the 50 best projects they received. The submissions were worldwide. Several of my colleagues used the concept simply to start their own projects. A few submitted theirs for consideration. The publication is annual with the last one in 2019.
I met with Patty Hankins, a fellow photographer to discuss my first solo exhibit set to open in October 2018. We discussed much, but the one thing she emphasized was a centerpiece or anchor for the exhibit. The exhibit was titled The Color in Black & White, an exhibit of only black and white images. Towards the end of our discussion, Patty challenged me to do a Seeing in Sixes project, maybe something that might end up in the exhibit. Since I was familiar with the concept of Seeing in Sixes, I found it intriguing if not thought provoking.
Towards the end of September, I was struck with an idea that would later turn out to be the centerpiece for the upcoming exhibit and go on to become My Picture Tells A Story. What if I had six people tell me their story, using six images on each canvas? Six people, telling six stories, with six images on six prints, the ideal Seeing in Sixes project.
Once the concept was born, I needed six volunteers. I decided to take a chance and seek out volunteers where I work (my day job). That October was my eleventh year at the wonderful and supportive company, Payroll Network.
I sent an email to all my fellows at PNI:
6 Volunteers For A Photography Project
I am looking for 6 volunteers to help with a photography project I am undertaking.
It will take maybe 10 to 15 minutes to complete this with each volunteer. The photographs would be shot during a lunch period, before work or after work….your choice.
I am only looking to do one volunteer on any given day.
What it entails is this:
My Picture Tells A Story
… were originally six volunteers, telling six stories, on six separate canvases, with six images on each canvas. Each print tells a complete story.
Over a period of seven months, Billy, Tim, Skyla, Erinn, Fekadu, and Johanna each told me their very personal story. For the story sessions, each dressed, sat, spoke, and moved as they chose. They were never rehearsed, prompted, or interrupted. I never spoke. Each story took 30 to 90 minutes to tell. For each story, I took 500 to 1,500 images. From those images, I chose six in chronological order to tell you, their story.
From January 2019 through December 2019, fourteen more stories were told by Lisa, Shanae, Amanda M., Heather, Brian, Allen, Cristina, Jenny, Sue, Connie, Beverly, Jeremy, Amanda S., and Robin completing the First Twenty Stories.
In November of 2020, the Kamala Harris Inspired series was launched. Yuqing, Harlene, Andrea, Barbara, Cora, Mary, Ethel, and Michelle each told their story of what the election of Kamala Harris to Vice President of the United States meant to each of them. There are now 28 stories that are My Picture Tells A Story.
I am eternally grateful to each of them for their trust in me, and their support and love in this endeavor. None of this is possible without their willingness to bring My Picture Tells A Story to life.