Through the looking glass

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I shot this photo at the amazing St. Cecilia Hotel in Austin, Texas. Because I was there, I know how to read the collage of images. 

I know what is reflection and what is distortion. I possess the key to the picture-puzzle: I was standing in front of a window, which reflected the trees and café tables behind me. I could see into the hotel’s bar, where there was a light fixture made of small bulbs, a very cool poster of Janis Joplin that reflected the bulbs, and a large mirror that captured my face hiding behind the camera. 
 
It hasn’t always been so easy to place the puzzle pieces of my life — things haven’t turned out the way I thought or hoped they would. The snapshot of a moment can be fuzzy, uncertain, or just plain ugly. The composition doesn’t make sense, and things are either misplaced or in the way. The year of 2011 held quite a few of those moments for me. Going through a divorce and becoming a part-time single mom was a heart-wrenching process of loss, self-doubt and fear.
 
There were times I couldn’t see past my own trembling hand. The intensity of the pain disenabled my perspective, and focused my lens on what seemed like never-ending misery. I shakily leaned on others, and tried to believe them when they said it won’t always feel like this. 
 
I was scared for myself, my son, and my ex-husband. I felt like the photo of what should have been was ripped to shreds, and that none of us could fit inside a frame again. I shrank away from certain people, projecting onto them harsh judgment and disappointment of my situation that, in reality, came only from me. My world was flooded with darkness, with little light shining on what lay beyond this one spot, a scene that seemed to be a repeating loop of film, nothing worth keeping to hang on the wall.
 
But something else was slowly developing inside of me during this time. In spite of — or maybe even because of — the pain, I started to let go. My fixed image of family and the components of a successful life faded and transformed. I realized that it was OK that my life didn’t reflect the perfect picture, and that I could even spot a shadow of freedom in this new truth. What mattered most was that my son knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that both of his parents love him, and that he will always have a safe harbor in that love. 
 
“You can’t chose your family,” the saying goes. I disagree. Families are adopted. They are made out of friends, neighbors, lovers, co-workers, and sometimes even the people we were born from and grow up with. We can’t choose our DNA — although this is quickly changing for our offspring — but we can choose the people who make up our team, the ones who cheer us on and show up repeatedly in the yearbooks of our lives.
 
One of my favorite movies of all time is The Royal Tenenbaums. I saw it first with my parents and brother in the theater, and ever since it’s been a family favorite. One day, I will watch it with my son in the hopes that he inherited our odd sense of humor. Royal, the divorced and disinherited patriarch of the Tenenbaums, played by Gene Hackman, is broke, homeless, and wants back in the family. True only to the dishonest nature that led to his exodus from the family unit, Royal fakes cancer in hopes of winning the sympathy of his three children and ex-wife. Of course, this tactic only works short-term, and he is eventually kicked out again. It is only when Royal learns to selflessly love the people he hurt, even from afar — without their acceptance or forgiveness — that he can become a real part of the family. In a redemptive ending, Royal dies with his most estranged son by his side. His tongue-in-cheek epitaph reads, “Royal O’Reilly Tenenbaum, 1932-2001. Died Tragically Rescuing His Family From The Wreckage Of A Destroyed Sinking Battleship.” In many ways, this fantastical statement was very true. The Tenenbaums became a family again through Royal’s reappearance, even though he didn’t win back his ex-wife’s heart, or move permanently back into the house.
 
The freedom comes with the realization that although I can’t control much in life, I can compose the photograph of my own unique family. I can say, “These are the people who speak truth into my life and bring hope and love, and will be there for the long haul. These are the people who give me perspective when I can’t make out the chaos.” Thank God it doesn’t have to be a cheesy Olan Mills portrait — it can be filled with genuine smiles, not forced ones, and lots of spontaneous laughter and grace.
 
It doesn’t happen instantly, the way it would in a photography studio. It takes time and commitment, the daily choices we make of who to call when we need a hand, or which person we would like to spend our precious free time with. And also taking the opportunity to look around and ask, are there people within my reach who need a family? Who can I welcome into this picture and give back the love and support that has been given graciously to me?
 
I think it starts with building a frame, a structure, and then filling it up with faces. The more varied, the better. I want texture — both smooth and wrinkled, color and contrast — youthful curiosity and also mature wisdom. I want familiar faces, and also plenty of room for new ones that will become familiar over the years. Not everyone has to be looking at the camera. As long as they are there, in the frame, that’s what matters.

 

Comments

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