The Dance of Portraiture…


I’m not a therapist!

Someone who saw the “Inherent Worth and Dignity” exhibit at Art Intersection in Gilbert, AZ asked if I could move the exhibit to City Hall in Toronto, Canada. I agreed and we began planning. As part of the deal, he asked if I would be willing to be the keynote speaker at a Canadian association of therapists annual conference in Toronto that was to be held while I was there.

I was puzzled. “Why? I’m not a therapist!”, I asked. Some of the therapists had seen my portraits in our “Inherent Worth and Dignity” book and found them compelling. They wanted to know how long it took for me to get the men to drop the ‘mask’…the mask that protects our vulnerability…and reveal a more authentic and affectionate face. I was stunned by the question. “Well”, I said, “about 20 minutes”. It turns out that it takes a lot longer for therapists to get to that point of vulnerability…sometimes weeks of hourly meetings.

They were interested in what I was doing to get that intimacy so quickly.

It took a few weeks of deeper reflection to come up with an answer. I wrote the speech. I never gave it. The Toronto invitation was withdrawn when the Mayoral election became contentious. The exhibit was to have been in Toronto City Hall with the Mayor sponsoring the events. Homelessness had become a front and center issue in Toronto and the exhibit was to foster a better dialogue on the issues.

The speech highlighted an idea that emerged out of work I do with high tech and science executives to develop more empathy and personal warmth. I point out to them that a major driver of relationships revolves around how you see status. If you look at the community you live or work in, you are aware of what value each person brings. You have a sense, as with a deck of cards, that there are people of low value and people of high value…”2″ through “King” if you leave aside the confusing value of aces and jokers for a moment.

It’s about how you handle status

Homeless people are mostly seen as “2’s”…draining value… and key money makers or policy makers are seen as royalty…queens and kings. You can’t help but see that status structure no matter how much you don’t like the idea of status in society. But, it’s a tragic mistake to treat people differently because of their status. Value to the community is a rank order, but value in the eyes of god or in the eyes of the universe is a constant. You have to choose which order you deploy as you interact with people.

The ‘Golden Rule’ rules

Nearly every major religion and philosophy has been advocating the “Golden Rule” for over 2,400 years…since the Axial Age. “Treat other people they way you want to be treated”. It’s a foundational principle. We don’t like people who weaponize status. We don’t like people who abuse, even micro-abuse, below them. We don’t like people who suck up to those above them. Social justice is the moral of almost every story.

So, what am I doing? I’m carrying myself like a “10”. I’m not royalty, but I don’t need to project false humility either. And, no matter what the status of the people I encounter, I see past the status and treat them like a “10”. I don’t suck up to the big dogs and I don’t ignore those who are struggling. I try to give equal time, equal attention, equal curiosity, and equal affection regardless of value to society.

I don’t always succeed of course. I get in my own way with the daily barrage of distractions, misplaced priorities, and personal insecurities…but, when I have a camera in my hand, I’m so focused and in the moment. A camera, in the hands of a portrait photographer is a licence to look at another person without the normal social constraints. I can stare. I can look for beauty. I can look for pain. I can comment on the client’s features. I can direct. I can get enthusiastic…even euphoric about what I’m seeing emerge. It’s contagious. The subject feels it and emerges more…and I get more vocal…until we see yet another facet of the soul. Click! It’s a dance.

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