Towards the end of last year, I was in a bit of a state. I was still coming to terms with being a freelancer, I wasn’t being productive as a writer or as a filmmaker, and a couple of personal projects kind of fell apart. Things felt stuck. As someone who needs to always be doing something, I felt that despite all the flurry and worry, I was doing nothing. I decided I needed a side project that could tick along in the background, something small that I could watch grow and develop, that was completely driven by me and completely unattached to anything else I was doing, something that I could look to as proof that at least one thing in my life was moving forward, that one thing that was me was working, no matter what else was happening in my life.
No biggie, right?
With a background as a TV Development Producer, I decided I needed to do a bit of development producing on myself.
I didn’t have a lot of money so I needed to use what resources I had rather than buy too much. I needed to find something that I had a genuine, ongoing interest in rather than just a fleeting obsession. I needed to be able to produce it (whatever was going to be) almost completely unaided, because as a side project, I know that if I needed to rely too much on other people, it was going to be doomed. And I wanted whatever it was to be something that other people may just get a kick out of too.
On my sofa in my tiny apartment, I looked around and saw all available wall space was filled with pictures, mostly prints, and most of them were pictures made up of words. Words and pictures. It was a bit of a revelation. Of course my home was filled with words and pictures; words and pictures pretty much sum up my life.
I remembered the old Nikon DSLR I had buried in a drawer. I used to love taking photos. I never wanted to be a photographer, it was just something I enjoyed doing. And I enjoyed photographing people most of all. For a time, I’d take my camera along to parties and I can safely say that there are at least two wedding albums out there that are made up largely of pictures I took, even though hired professionals were present. I’ve never quite mastered the technical aspects of photography, and I doubt I ever will. But I love people, and I’ve always managed to be able to take ok pictures of them. But I hadn’t picked up my camera in a long while.
Ok, I felt I was getting somewhere. People. Words. Photos. Good.
Then I remembered something else. A few days beforehand, I’d been having lunch at a new café where a mate was working. Brewtown (in Newtown) was a funky new hub, famed for its devastating cronuts (if you don’t know what they are, look them up, OMG). I was sitting at the bar and as I ate, I took in their menu board properly. A huge black felted sign, the old school kind where you have small plastic letters that you press into ridges to make words. It made me smile. It made me remember primary school photos – we had had the same kind of board in class photos to spell out the class name and teacher.
I decided that I wanted to photograph people out and about, join the ranks of street photographers the world over, but I wanted the photographs to say a little more. I went and got myself a sign, just like the one in the café, made up to the right dimensions, and a whole lot of letters, and a case to carry them all in. I wanted people to use the sign – but how? After tossing around a few ideas, I thought I’d go with something that I hoped would get to the heart of what people thought was important: if you could send the world a message, if you could give the world a sign, what would your sign say?
It’s not an easy question, but I thought it’s the kind of thing I’d be really interested to know. When push comes to shove, with limited space, and a chance to say whatever you wanted, what exactly would you want to say to everybody else?
To cut what is becoming way too long a story short, all of these things came together to become my side project This Is My Sign. Go on, go have a look!
I’ve been running the project now for the last ten months, and it’s given me lots to think about. It’s also resulted in a bit of a cool discovery:
One of the hardest questions you can ask someone is not what message they want to give the world, but rather, ‘How would you describe yourself?’
The very first people I photographed for ‘This Is My Sign’ were my dear friends Beth, Jeff and their two boys Leo and Clem. Beth is a photographer who helped boost my confidence by reminding me that I didn’t need to be a photographer to take photos. Excellent point. You rock Beth.
After Beth, Jeff and Leo did their signs (Clem was less that 1 at this stage, so no sign for him!), I thought it would be cool to ask everyone I photographed a couple of questions, the answers to which could serve as captions for the photos. Something to give a bit of context, plus I love asking people questions, so any excuse, right? Anyway, as we all stood around in a circle, with me holding out my phone to record their answers to transcribe later, I asked a question that I expected would be completely straightforward and simple: How would you describe yourself?
Beth and Jeff looked down at the phone, then looked up at each other, and after a brief moment of stunned silence, burst out laughing. They were completely thrown, and struggled to answer this seemingly simple question.
It is almost the same reaction I’ve had from virtually all the people I have photographed. People go into a tiny blind panic whenever I ask it.
To be clear, I had no idea whatsoever that this would be the case. I did not intend to confuse or blindside people at all. I expected straightforward replies, like, ‘I’m a mother of three and work as a dentist,’ or ‘I’m a keen fisherman and retired accountant.’ You know, straightforward stuff.
But that’s not really the question I was asking – not that I realised that then. The replies I get from people go much deeper. They often think about their essence, how they see themselves, the emotional qualities that make them who they are.
I’ve had people tell me they’re flawed and kind and impatient and generous.
I’ve had people tell me they’re good people, strong people, people who want peace, people who struggle to answer because they’re not sure they know who they are exactly.
I rarely have people tell me what they do for a living. I sometimes get a sense of their family – they may tell me they are parents or children or a brother or sister – but more often than not, people think very carefully and tell me in very succinct terms the quality or qualities they think they most are.
It’s also usually thoroughly tied up with their headspace – the message on their sign too. A stay-at-home mum of two young daughters felt conflicted about her sense of self, having found motherhood much more challenging than she had anticipated. A friend’s mum was thinking a lot of proposed government changes to higher education and not only was her sign about that, but the way she described herself was all about that too.
It turns out that telling the world what to think is way easier than telling people who you are.
Looking back now, I can see the parallels between my participants’ struggle to describe themselves and my feeling of being stuck that led to this whole project in the first place. I was looking for something to point to and say yes, that is me, that’s part of who I am. With my life in flux and a growing sense of disappointment at my perceived failures, I struggled to know exactly how I would describe myself anymore, to myself or to anyone else. What made me me now?
Asking people to describe themselves is now a fundamental part of my project and something I look forward to just as much as seeing each participants’ sign. I love seeing that moment of confusion, and then deep thought as people consider who they are, deep down, to themselves and to the world. It is a question that, for some, necessitates making yourself vulnerable and honest and clear.
Like the messages on their signs, I imagine that if I were to come back in ten or twenty years, the way people would describe themselves would change over time as experience creates learning and growth in both big and small ways.
And that, I think, is wonderful.
The featured image, ‘Lisa, 40-something’, is taken from my online social art project This Is My Sign which can be found at thisismysign.com