I have a little story to tell you.
I have always considered myself a very easy going and laid back person who is comfortable enough with himself to handle whatever comes his way in life. This past week, my insecurities rose to the surface as I was asked to step well outside what I thought at the time was my comfort zone. Last Sunday I drove from Amesbury to attend the Roots Workshop in South Yarmouth, MA. [you can see a few pictures from the workshop below and on emilie's blog] Every year a very hefty portion of my budget goes to furthering my education. Part of that includes attending workshops. I refuse to ever become stagnant and idle in my craft. Even as I spend much of my time teaching and mentoring now, it is oh so very important to me to keep myself always moving forward. I find it very obnoxious when teachers have decided that they have learned all there is to know, they are now experts, and will begin to impart their wisdom and are too high and mighty to continue to explore their craft. Especially in this rapidly changing digital world, education and collaboration are immeasurably important.
The workshop that I was at last week was pretty incredible. It was actually the first one that I have been to that was devoted completely 100% to craft. There was no marketing talk, no branding, no talk of what brides are looking for, how to target this person or that, how to use this action or that... it was all storytelling, composition, and critique. It was designed like this :: the participants show up on Sunday night, meet and greet, and receive their assignments for the week. You then have three complete days to document your assignment while receiving daily critique and visits from mentors. The assignments ranged from documenting daily life on a lobster boat, at risk youth, the local YMCA camp, Cape Cod's most famous ice cream shoppe, and even following around one of the Cape Cod League's brightest young [baseball] stars. Day four is the big edit where your work is culled down and presented to everyone in slideshow and double truck spread format. The growth of the participants in this workshop was absolutely mind blowing. Tears, breakthroughs, laughter, and gratitude abounded that Thursday night as we watched the presentations underneath the Cape Cod sky.
That brings me back to my assignment.
Sunday night the team leaders called me into the deliberating room and had me sit down to ask me a few questions. It turns out, my assignment was to document at a nudist campground a few towns over. The major caveat was that in order to do that I would also have to participate. That seemed fair. After all, it would be awfully insulting for someone to just step into these people's lives, take a whole bunch of pictures from an outsider's perspective and leave them feeling hurt and stolen from. Immediately my mind started spinning with all sorts of ways that I could shoot it - I was thinking Austin Powers, strategically placed objects... it would be hilarious! I left the room thinking all about how I could create a story that would leave people in stitches at the sight of people camping naked.
The next morning bright and early I drove to the campground and rang the buzzer at the outside gate. A short man with an apprehensive grin peered out from behind the fence and waved me through. I parked my car, disrobed and was introduced to Allyn who, along with his wife Mary, was my photographic subject for the next couple of days. We sat in the golf cart and Allyn started driving me around the camp giving me a tour. Pride swelled in his voice as he talked about the Sauna he had built himself, and the new water tanks he had installed. He walked me through the community room where his wife was immortalized on the Poker Wall of Fame. It wasn't until we were walking down around the waterfront that I started to notice a sensation I was getting in my gut. It took me a second to realize what it was and then I started crying.
It was sadness.
I looked to my left and there was a 10ft high fence lining the waterfront. I thought back to all the other places Allyn had taken me on our tour and quickly realized that we were fenced in on all four sides. Allyn and Mary were kept in a cage because they chose to live their life without clothes on. Neither of them had ever killed anyone. I never once heard them swear, or talk about owning a gun, or utter racist comments, or speak in any degrading manner about another soul. They simply weren't wearing any clothes. I very quickly realized that I could go one of two ways with this assignment. I could perpetuate the public's fear of all things different and create something that would entertain - make a spectacle of these two, or I could tell the most unremarkable story ever told - the story of a kind retired couple vacationing in the Cape. I chose the latter.
Allyn and Mary are on vacation right now. They wake up, drink their coffee, read, work on little projects around their trailer, and help to clean the neighboring campsites. Life meanders along at a nice relaxed pace with maybe an occasional swim, lying down by the lake, catching up on the summer's latest novel... Allyn is working on mending a set of 35 year old wicker chairs. He has difficulty and the pattern keeps looking different every time he passes a piece of wicker through, but he chuckles and mutters something about the seats having "charm." At precisely 2pm, Mary goes out hunting for blueberries [even though it's a not quite the right time of year yet] to put in the following morning's pancakes or muffins. With the three children now out of the house and supporting families of their own, she finds she's cooking less and less but vacation is a chance to get back into the art form she loves.
It a beautiful day as the sun fights its way through the thick tree cover and Mary and I head down to the waterfront. It's anything but glamorous with a 30ft dock and small inlet of beach, but it is home complete with a faded blue paddle boat that looks as if it hasn't seen any action in the past 15 years. Not being one for the water, Mary wades in up to her mid thighs. I follow her in and, finding the water delightfully warm, swim out to the edge of the fence - 25 feet from shore. After the refreshing dip we walk back along the path, through the tennis courts, around a couple playing badminton, and arrive at the trailer to find Allyn, wicker in one hand, seat of a chair in the other, asleep in the sun. Mary giggles softly to herself and slowly pitches a beach umbrella so that Allyn's chest scar - from his triple bypass last fall - stays out of the harmful rays. She looks at him for a few seconds, a look I can only imagine has not faltered in their thirty-eight years of marriage, and heads into the trailer to make some lemonade. It is a beautiful day.
This past week I found myself reflecting on the notion of otherness. Are you scared or fearful of those people you don't understand? Are you scared of being naked? Is it because when you are naked you are stripped of all socioeconomic indicators and you are exactly the same as the person next to you? Is it because you actually have to look into someone's eyes and see who they are, not what they are? Is it because when you look in the mirror you realize that you are infinitely more beautiful than who you are pretending to be? You are the only person judging you. The courage to accept yourself for who you are is inside of you.
I am not scared.
The caged birds sing because they are free.
seek the joy. just as you are.