Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Identity as a Creative Person

Before I came out as a gay man and returned to graduate school to pursue film studies, I found my identity in the roles that I played: son, grandson, brother, good student, Christian, religious, church leader, Evangelist, and heterosexual. It wasn't difficult. I'd been cast in my role by virtue of genes and geography. Each of us to one degree or another, deal with this mantle thrust upon us by birth. While many embrace it; others question it, while yet a few cast it off and flee naked into the day or the night to find another cloak that fits to who they are.

In many ways the question still remains, from what do I achieve or draw my identity? Who am I? I'm still a son and brother, but unlike my brothers, I never became a husband nor a father. What does it mean to be a creative or an artist? Are you an artist, if you've never had a gallery show? Are you a novelist, if you've never had a book published? Are you an actor if you're not on stage in a play?

Frequently, I am asked, "What do you do?" What do I say? Or should I say anything?
It seems like I'm drawn into a game which I'm not going to win. The question seems so American, rude and direct at the same time.

Often, I respond by saying, "I'm a photographer." But what does that mean? I could take pictures of flower pots, or door knobs, or weddings, or babies, or cars, or whatever. I've had people respond back, "Oh. My seven year old nephew is a photographer. You should see his pictures."

Once, I explain that I make portraits. I'm then asked,

"Are you a professional photographer or is it just a hobby?"

This is where the answer gets tricky. Professional or hobbyist. What people want to know is whether you earn money from your photography and if you can live off it. You are then being judged, not on the creative work itself, but rather on the money derived.

If I say, (with some bemusement), the results are professional, then I see question marks reflected back in their uncomprehending eyes. From their point of view, someone who spends his time on something without earning much back is either crazy or a hobbyist. Everyone is allowed their hobbies.

So I guess I'm not a hobbyist, I'm just crazy. What else could I be, if not crazy? I spend hours and hours, days and days, months and months, years and years, making photographs without having achieved a gallery show or a major magazine publication. The money that I've spent is incalculable at this point in time, what with the expense of equipment, film, processing and prints.

Now I deflect the question. I usually say that I make photographs and write, but that I earn income from doing all sorts of other things: teacher, child care provider; waiter; bartender; and, production assistant. The list goes on and on. For the last three years, I have lived with a family in Brooklyn and helped to care for and raise their son, who will soon be six years. It is not an experience I sought, but one that by happenstance came to me, and I don't regret it. I've formed a relationship that will be with me for a life time.

Last week, I sat in Union Square, New York City, dressed in black pants, long sleep white pullover, white mask and black goggles joined by thirty other men and women in a performance for a Brooklyn artist. For this I earned the princely sum of twenty dollars. "Hey. It pays for subway fares."

To say that I'm a photographer places me in one box. I'm not "just" a photographer. I'm a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, a gay man, who makes photographs, who writes, who travels, who engages with interesting people and learns other points of view. I'm a creative who lives, or attempts to live, creatively.

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