Years ago I wrote a letter to a woman named Jennifer. A collection of many people I know and who’ve asked me questions over the years, Jennifer was more a symbol than a real person, but my words to her couldn’t have been more true. Today I got a letter from Emily. It could have been anyone, or everyone. You, me; it doesn’t matter. The words I want to write in reply couldn’t be truer or more needed.
You don’t know this but you’ve written this letter to me so many times already, through the hands of so many people. And every time you write the same thing, though the words are sometimes different:
“I want to write more. I need to write more. I need to photograph more and put my work out there. I have things I want to say, stories that are mine alone to tell and must be told, and each time I stand on the edge of that vast chasm, about to fling my words, my pictures, my art, into the world, I pull back, scared that releasing them will leave me empty, scared that no one will care, or worse – that no one will notice. Scared that I will bring myself to this thing I’ve made, that I will find the courage, make myself vulnerable, and the sound I’ll hear will not be praise, or criticism, but silence.”
So you hold that thing close, you protect it. You hoard it as precious, and precious it is, though not in the way you think.
You have this gift and it’s full of light and love and wisdom but the thing itself is worth nothing until you give it away. The making of it is worth worlds to you. That part is yours and yours alone. But the giving of it is the only thing that allows the gift to keep moving. The giving of it is the only thing that prevents that light and love and wisdom and grace from damming up inside you. I know you console yourself, there on the edge of the chasm, unwilling to release the gift, with the idea that it’s the making that matters, and it is. But it’s the giving that allows the gift to not only move forward to others, but to keep flowing within you.
We do not give our gift – whatever it is – into the world – to validate us, to tell the world how good, how bright, talented, or relevant, we are. We give it as a gift. And as is so often the case with a gift we do not know how the recipient will receive it. But there’s a good chance they need it, that there are souls that have been waiting for this moment to hear from you, to give them the nudge forward that they need to find the courage to stand on the edge of their own chasm and relax the white-knuckled death-grip they have on their own art and give that, too, to the world.
We do not give our gift as barter. I do not give my art in the promise that you – or anyone at all- will reciprocate. I give it because the gift has to keep moving. I give it because light travels in a line, not a circle. Does that make sense? We pour what we have and who we are into the stream and it moves on. To do otherwise, to expect it to come around, is to put our art into a cistern, not a stream. There’s no surer way to stagnate as an artist than to do it for the reward, or to hold back from putting it out there for fear of never getting one.
Nothing I can ever say will relax the grip you have on your art. It’s not your hands I’d need to loosen but your heart, and the heart is infamously resistant to efforts to pry it open. So let me tell you this, Emily, wherever and whoever you are: we need your art, and so do you. We may not know it. But we need it. And it’s not because we need to like it. It’s because we need you. We need whomever it is you will become when you open the floodgates on that dam you’ve been holding closed. We need the light, the love, the wisdom, the laughter, the outrage, the questions, that are wrapped in your art. We need the gift to keep moving.
See, the thing is, we’re all scared. And we’re all just hoping for a glimpse of something to give us the courage to love a little harder, to not give in to the darkness, to see the world in new and hopeful ways. We’re all scared of living small. We’re all worried that when we stand on the edge of the chasm and we release our grip and put our art into the world that there won’t have been anything there in the first place, and we forget that it’s the letting go that is most important. We don’t control the rest of it. Some will see nothing there. Some will see galaxies of grace.
What matters is not what your art is, but that it is, and that you make it, and give it, and that the gift keeps moving. These little things – the words, the stories, poems, photographs and paintings, and whatever it is you make – they are just small acts of creation, but also a means to an end, the most important of which is not which thing you are making, but that you are being made. With everything you make, and give, you become a fuller expression of who you are. With every piece you deny and hold back, you retreat, or stagnate.
We need your art. This world needs your art. But most of all we need you. More than ever we need people who are vulnerable and compassionate and see things differently and are willing to be as fully, brilliantly human as possible, and it is making your art, and having the courage to give it forward, that will make you so. I wonder, as much as we like to think we’re making art, if it’s not equally true that the art is making us.
“But who I am to put my art into the world?” I have no idea. Yet. And neither do you. It’s only in making that art, whatever it is, and putting it out there, that you and I will find out. Scary? Of course. Life is scary. But imagine the alternative. More than ever it should be clear that art is no triviality. In the face of cynicism, fear, and the gathering dark, art is the fire that will not only warm us but help us see each other’s faces and not be scared off at the sight. We imagine too many things in the shadows right now and can use all the light we can get.
For the Love of the Photograph (and those that make them),