What would you think if I said there is strength in vulnerability?

You know when you learn a new word or understand a new concept and suddenly it starts appearing everywhere? I’ve known the word vulnerable for some time and had a working definition in my head. But recently, I’ve been concerned with vulnerability as it relates to photography and personal interactions with my subjects explicitly. Also, I’ve been hearing a lot about how there’s inherent strength in vulnerability. The lightbulb clicked on in my brain. Now I see conversations about vulnerability everywhere I look.

Vulnerability as a possible burden

Often, I think about the vulnerability of my subjects as a possible burden. I considered it repeatedly while I was photographing ex-prisoners in Indonesia. or when I was photographing young women who grew up in Child Protective Services. When people have faced adversity, the last thing I want to do is create more problems for them.

I’m still thinking about it as I begin to share Relearning the Art of Living, Photos of Indonesian Ex-Prisoners with the public. Although my subjects have assured and reassured me that they want me to share the project (and with it, share their experience of incarceration and reentry with the world), I obsess about what it could really mean to their lives.

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From my series: Relearning the Art of Living, Photos of Indonesian Ex-Prisoners Copyright, Willow Paule Photography, 2014.

It could mean nothing. Perhaps nothing unfortunate would come of the exposure, perhaps nothing would even change as a result of it. The project also has potential to add to the dialog about prison reform. That would be great, right?

Documenting real life problems has the potential to make subjects vulnerable

However, I just read an article about Joshua Oppenheimer’s newest documentary Senyap, about an Indonesian optician who confronts the men who killed his brother during the genocide that took place in Indonesia during the 1960s. Oppenheimer says, as a result of this film and his first, The Act of Killing (which has former killers re-enact the killings they carried out as part of the Indonesian genocide), he does not feel it would be safe to return to Indonesia. The men he documented still have great power. He says, “I could probably get into Indonesia without incident. I’m just not sure I would get out alive again.” I’m also curious if the optician, Oppenheimer’s central character, has faced hardship after bravely confronting people complicit in the murder of his brother.

I want to support my Indonesian friends in being truthful, even vocal, about their experiences with the Indonesian justice and prison systems. I want them to be able to talk about all that came with that–extortion, violence, corruption. However, I don’t want any more injustice to fall on their heads as a result of the project. It’s something to consider. And reconsider.

Taking advantage vs. taking time with your subjects

While working to create a final edit for this project, I showed the photographs to other artists and curators. A couple mentioned that my project was similar to Nan Goldin’s photo series, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” if somewhat lighter. I spent a lot of time looking at Goldin’s series when I was in art school and so those comments made me feel like I had accomplished something vulnerable and personal with my project, like her work.

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From The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin

This article (with a silly, clickbaity title) from The Guardian says, “Initially, because of her subject matter alone, [Goldin] was compared to Diane Arbus, who had made her name with photographs of so-called freaks and outsiders in the 1960s. Goldin, though, says she knew nothing about art photography or documentary when she saw Arbus’ work for the first time.”

‘What I remember most is that all the queens I knew hated her. Violently. In her portraits of drag queens, she stripped them and showed them as men. To me, the queens were not men. My work was much more respectful to them. I’ve never thought of a drag queen as a man. That’s really the last thing I think about when I look at them. They weren’t women either, by the way, they were another species.'”

I think Goldin is talking about her subjects vulnerability here. The drag queens wanted to be photographed as they saw themselves, not as something “other.” They didn’t want to feel used, and they probably wanted to be understood, like most people want to be. Goldin photographed them “as they were.”

Strength in vulnerability

This seeing things as they are also relates to allowing for vulnerability in our daily approach to life. Quinn McDonald, a creativity coach, writer, and artist writes and shares almost daily blogs and she wrote a blog about vulnerability and power:

“At a recent gathering of writers, I was telling this story of finding my mother’s love letters. I got to the part about cleaning out her house, finding her love letters to my father. They showed me another woman, one I had never known, and could scarcely believe existed, much less was the same woman I called my mother. When I tell this story, I tell audiences I will choke up, and I do.  I don’t cry, but my voice wavers and I have to pause and swallow. And when I did that, I saw several women look away. One was shaking her head, frowning.”

Then McDonald quotes Brené Brown, a vulnerability expert, “”If we want to reclaim the essential emotional part of our lives and reignite our passion and purpose, we have to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it….Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” Cutting out vulnerability from our life can have the illusion of power but, ultimately, we are more powerful leaving room for vulnerability. “” There is inherent risk in something that may look like weakness. However; Brown is saying we ultimately gain MORE power by staying vulnerable. What did I say about strength in vulnerability. Now are you on board?

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Installation by Kara Roschi

Don’t Cry

I recently saw an installation piece called “don’t cry” at Modified Arts in Phoenix. It’s by artist and curator Kara Roschi. The piece was made up of dozens of sticky notes. Each held different variations of the phrase, “Don’t cry.” Roschi says she often cries. She thinks of it as a handicap in the workplace. I think she could be right, especially in places where men are in dominant positions. However, crying can also leave room for vulnerability, especially when we explore why we are crying. It could be a useful reminder to keep us centered, even productive. I’ve learned more about being a sensitive person from author, Susan Cain. Her book, The Power of Introverts explains that sensitivity to our feelings can help us stay grounded and vulnerable. In a good way.

I think about my own vulnerability. I notice that I waver between tearing up when people tell sad stories on the news and wanting to avert my eyes like the woman in McDonald’s class. It can feel like a heavy burden to feel all those intense emotions. Learning to accept and understand my feelings, and then compartmentalize them (so I can function) is something I’ve been working on my whole life.

Vulnerability as a powerful documentary photographer’s tool

I am concerned with approaching my subjects with a vulnerable heart. I have defined my photographic style and it is slow, kind. As much as possible, I enjoy photographing people repeatedly. I am building a relationship and getting to the essence of their story. I think keeping open and vulnerable will help me capture more truthful and engaging photos. Perhaps, even more importantly, striving to stay vulnerable will help my subjects feel as if we had an equal exchange of energy.