On getting comfortable with pictures of ourselves: we contain multitudes!

I’m so uncomfortable with candid photographs of myself that appear online. They actually sometimes make me physically recoil. The little voices rise up, the ones I’m embarrassed to have and to share: I look strange to myself. Why is my lip doing that, so much of my gums are visible! The shape of my nose/cheek/chin/belly/hand/shoulder is weird. I look weird. Not totally human somehow.

I’m a solid feminist, and I know it's all BS -- so I stand before the image and battle with my feelings.

I know we are all just fine, all beautiful, in our own unique way. “And I am too,” I whisper.

In business drag, assessing my toolkit.

In business drag, assessing my toolkit.

We are all worthy, we are all whole, we are all wholly human: so what's happening here?

I start this post with these personal moments, because of how common this experience is to those in my world and in my community of business builders who are making images to market our brands.

Almost everyone I am close to reports similar discomfort with our own images, whether candid or posed.

I know that a large part of it is about our relation to the “norm” - that giant, specific, cumulative visual narrative, informed by layers of oppression in an economic system that is driven by marketing that manipulates our fears, relies on our awareness of ourselves as packaged objects in a consumer culture, triggers our survival instincts in a system that uses specific but arbitrary physical attributes and conditions as an excuse to separate, oppress, discriminate, assign worth.

John Berger, the art historian and writer, describes the situation in these terms, while discussing the impacts of male domination in society on women’s self perception:

"A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
And so she comes to consider the *surveyor* and the *surveyed* within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman."

When I see a photo of myself, the surveyor in me as activated. The surveyed in me gazes back.

The eye of the culture, of the “norm,” informed by the billions of images I have seen in my life that comprise this mythical “norm” - is inside of me, looking at me. I am, in that moment, divided from myself. Berger again:

"One might simplify this by saying: *men act* and *women appear.* Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight."

What Berger is describing here is what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey coined as the male gaze.  Similar dynamics are at play in every case of oppression and culture: the colonial gaze. The white gaze. The oppressive gaze objectifies, and “others” the one being seen. The one being seen then sees themselves...as other, and object.

 
The South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Making visible South African LGBTQ realities on a global scale. Here, confronting her own gaze; challenging the colonial, heterosexist gaze, through her body of work.

The South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Making visible South African LGBTQ realities on a global scale. Here, confronting her own gaze; challenging the colonial, heterosexist gaze, through her body of work.

 

We all carry the surveyor, and the surveyed, within.

And this is a big reason why it’s complicated for us to feel comfortable with selfies.

Especially when we are using our images to sell - our message, our brand, our work. We are participating on our own packaging: the positioning of our value for the market.

For many of us, the conflicted emotions and even contrasting belief systems inside of us leave us only this: to either attempt to conform to the “norm” and find acceptance there, to whatever degree is possible (depending on our privilege in the matrix of identities and oppressions), or to avoid the thicket altogether and be invisible.

Conform, or disappear. Those are the default options. ANd they are both devastating for your business and brand (not to mention the culture at large).

I’ve got some alternatives, and I offer them all in my business. But since I started personal, I am going to talk about the one that I personally use here. The one that suits me best.

Here’s my new default option:

To perform my identities and realities. The method: PLAY.

Bjork is a master of fluid identity play.

Bjork is a master of fluid identity play.

I see my branding photographs as both a place to be the business owner I am and to be “in drag” as a business owner: suit, tie, and cardboard briefcase included.

A child playing dress-ups with the world is, in a very real way, a cultural agent. The cultural forms around her (the stories, movies, packages, songs, picture books, toys) become raw material. She is the producer of her identity and her story. She is the one with agency. She is both a princess and an astronaut. She is a teacher, a horse, a nice doctor and a mean cat. All of these identities and characters are parts of her being expressed through story and metaphor.

Frida Kahlo. In every shapeshifting painting, she crafts a fuller picture of her complex reality.

Frida Kahlo. In every shapeshifting painting, she crafts a fuller picture of her complex reality.

That's what we do, from a very young age. We relate to culture, we understand our lives, and we learn the world: through story, imagination, fiction, poetry, play. We relate to the world as flexible, creative authors of our story.

When we are children we know this: we contain multitudes.

The reality of our imagination IS the reality of our existence. We know we each have inside of us a rock star and a nerd. A mystic and a clown. We are small and delicate, we are epic and unstoppable.

Rather than see performance and dressing-up (in all its forms) as some kind of contradiction to the idea of authenticity in our business communications, why not recognize that we are more vast, more complex, more genius and beautiful than one photo of us with our laptop on the beach can ever show?

Beyonce: performance, or communication of mythical and personal and collective identity? Both.

Beyonce: performance, or communication of mythical and personal and collective identity? Both.

Performance, drag, dressups, composing, posing and constructing - these are all the tools of the artist and visionary, using multiple languages to express the complexity and emotional range of their visions.

When we take the tools of world making and culture building into our own hands and play --

When we recognize that while we may be the faces of our brands, we are not branded, our identities are not fixed --

We recognize ourselves as the authors of our lives and our images.

We replace surveyed and surveyor with CREATOR.

Your own unique genius, your unlimited creativity is what is most authentic to you.

So go play dress-ups!

Yours in re-imagining reality,

Amy

 

 

 

This post and all writings on this site are copyright Amy Walsh 2017.

How to Make a Flat Lay: a Parody

Warning: Expletives. Included for accuracy.

14 Steps to a Stunning Flat Lay!

  1. Chip the dried hummus off your desk.
  2. Get out the marbled contact paper and unroll it over your desk, taping it down on the edges.
  3. Borrow your friend's new MacBook, dust it off, and put it on your desk, placing your 6-year old PC to the side.
  4. Print a picture of a latte with a fancy pattern in the foam, cut the part of the photo with the foam off the top, insert it into your coffee mug and put it on your desk.
  5. Celebrate! You are half way there!
  6. Now its time to clear the dirty underwear off your desk. You might put it in the Dirty Clothes Corner of your office. Promise yourself that one day soon you will have enough self respect to buy all new underwear and stop wearing the ones with the holes around the waistband. Wonder why your partner stays with you.
  7. Choose your color scheme. You can use anything you want, this is where you really get to express yourself. In other words, use mint and gold and white, or pink and black and white, or just white on white, with some white, or maybe one small color.
  8. Search your home for one piece of jewelry that looks like its worth something. Casually place it in your flat lay desktop.
  9. Now line up one small succulent plant, your phone, your laptop, your jewelry, your black and white striped pencil, and something quirky (post it notes in a fun color?) in neat rows, with one thing slightly askew.
  10. Get the goddamned cat off your flat lay. Brush the cat litter that he dragged on there off your fucking flat lay. 
  11. Light the shit out of your flat lay. Search around for every lamp in the house. Remove the cat hairs from the desktop that you only saw when the lights got bright.
  12. Hold your phone over the flat lay and photograph.
  13. Bring into Canva. Find some gold brush lettering and put an inspiring word, like "INSPIRE," on your flat lay.
  14. Go back to building your authentic business in the 20 minutes you have left before your kids get home. Get discouraged. Surf on Facebook.

Visual Storytelling Case Study #4: The FLAT LAY

Hey folks! Lets look at some of the more typical "flat lay" (still life photos shot from above) styles we see all over Instagram and Facebook these days. These ones are from stock photo sites, but I'll bet they look familiar to you:

These represent just a tiny, teensy little sliver of what's possible with this art form. But if you are a content marketer on Instagram and/or Facebook, you have probably seen pictures JUST like this everywhere.

Sometimes, you find something that follows the visual structures of the flat-lay, but breaks the mold and does something different. Sometimes, you begin to see how much potential there is.

The best flat lays are little visual theaters. the objects are characters in their own way, telling a unique story of a moment, a day, a collection, a life, a vocation. They are intimate, engaging, complex and speak to the intimate relationships we have with the objects in our lives.

The worst flat lays? Sanitized, conformist BS. These very trendy images are a perfect place to observe the most damaging ideologies of dominant entrepreneurial culture in the online spaces, as expressed through a very narrow visual story.

If you are thinking - oh no! I really like those images! Don't feel bad. They are designed for you to like them! I like many of them too. But lets turn a critical eye on them, and see what we learn.

In this case study I'm going to break down the ideology of the ubiquitous trendy flat lay style of the moment. If you wanna go down that rabbit hole with me, keep reading. Because when you understand the visual language of the dominant over-culture, you can understand how to better challenge it, and find your own visual story on your terms.

If you want to go straight to inspiration and prompts for creating your own unique flat lays, rich with your own visual storytelling, head to part 2.

PART ONE: What does the typical flat lay communicate?

1. Purity, Cleanliness, Perfection.

The white that dominates most of these flat lays is not a light that illuminates or reveals.

It is a white that conceals.

This white is about purity - akin to the white museum or gallery space. We have come to equate the white gallery space as a place of unlimited possibility...a neutral, content-less space, a blank canvas, the blank page, against which everything shines and sparkles. But this kind of easy contrast is problematic.

In his book "Inside the White Cube," Patrick O-Dougherty deconstructs the hidden ideology of the "white cube" of the museum or gallery space. He explains how the idea that ANY kind of space can be an objective and neutral, separated from social, cultural or other economic contexts is a myth -- and a central tenet of much western and colonial domination. The empty space of the gallery actually cuts the relational power of art off at the knees, removing it from context, positioning it as separate from daily living.

This is, in fact, part of the ideology of white supremacy: that there is something called "white" people (the pure, the good, the elevated, the standard, the norm, the best) and a white state of being, a pure form out of which all truth emerges. It lays the ground for all kinds of appropriation, theft and exploitation (visualize the white museum space with "artifacts" of indigenous cultures around the world, displayed for Western consumption.)

The pure white flat lay does something similar: it is a device that renders all that enters it apparently free from constraints of real daily living, time, and specificities of geography or culture. It is the fetishized idea of a "perfect" work life - but by what standards? And that is what we will explore next.

But first, I want to provide a reassurance:

This doesn't mean that white - as a color and as a function of light and space - is bad, or is not beautiful, or that we cannot use it. White, as a visual phenomena, is incredibly beautiful, and changeable, and variable, and strange  -- and it communicates so much more than the ideology of white supremacy. But when it is the primary visual agent of erasure, purity, cleanliness, neutrality, and source of all - we are triggering in ourselves and others an ideology of purity and perfection which doesn't serve. So, how do you wanna use your white?

For an example of someone who uses white as a light that reveals (rather than a white that erases) see my post on Laura Letinsky's work.

2. Productivity Without Bodies

Notice: The coffee is usually unsipped in these images, with the foam heart still sparkling on top. Bonbons and cupcakes are unbitten, the bowl of glistening berries untouched. There are flat screens with no fingerprints, pencils brand new, sharp, and unused, plants unbruised, tables unsmudged. One gets the distinct feelings that there is not a body doing this work; that the office supplies and technological devices are doing it all by themselves.

Because bodies are messy, unpredictable. They don't operate strictly on market time. They are often unproductive. They have feelings. Oils. Odors.

So much work culture in our world is based on exploitation: of natural resources, of bodies AS natural resources, to be mined for productivity, to be forgotten as sovereign beings, ignored, used, overlooked, replaced when worn.

Professionalism has come to be related with an absence of the body. The more professional you are, the more moderated your voice, the more covered your skin, the more unobtrusive your bodily functions, the more packaged your presentation: not a flyaway hair out of place.

Professionalism is also equated with maleness, whiteness, thinness, heterosexuality: more of this mythological norm.

These flat lays are packaged and smooth, unsullied by use, by feelings, by time, by effort, by struggle and by diversity and anomaly. They comprise a visual language that has parallels to beauty standards for women, and class/race/status standards for all people. And they signify a fascination/preoccupation with domestic consumer objects, which is, among other things, a major feature of internalized sexism for women. Which brings me to...

3. The commodification of feminism + the fetishization of domestic objects

The sanitized flat lay is part of what happens to feminism as it is coopted into the entrepreneurial world’s visual landscape. Its the way that the collective liberation and societal transformation that radical (intersectional) feminism stands (and stood) for has been distorted --  and come to indicate  individual "freedom," wealth, and conformity to class and beauty standards that are anything but feminist.

The visual culture of the online entrepreneurial world helps create the archetype of the perfect entrepreneurial woman. She’s thin, sexy (by conventional standards), straight or at least cisgendered, white, wealthy, spiritual, and exudes positivity and the ability to manifest anything she wants, free from the constraints of societal institutions and oppressions. She is privilege embodied, sometimes even in a package that says “I’m for social justice.” Of course, she doesn’t exist – she is an image, and ideal, against which we are all supposed to compare ourselves. And the closer we are in proximity to that image (in those places where our identities or circumstances bring us closer to that mythical norm), the more we are encouraged to take on that archetypal images into our own visual brand – thereby leveraging its oppressive language on our own behalf. Yuck, right?

So how do these flat lays contribute to it?

The romantic flat lay desktops are made primarily by and for women. The objects that signify more traditionally "male" aspects of work (the keyboard, the glasses, the calculator, and other signifiers of skill, work and productivity) are counterbalanced by signifiers of "femininity" (within a sexist narrative) - a pink pencil, a sparkly earring, makeup, a compact mirror, a heart-shaped container, a pink notebook. Its part of the bigger cultural archetype we see everywhere now, of the woman who "has it all" - a happy family, a job that provides piles of cash, the ability to travel and "work from anywhere,"  a thin, fashionable, light-skinned body, and a great sex life. She is "free," but only within the confines of the dominant culture's narrow definition of the acceptable feminine.

Remember: in a society based on sexism with capitalism at the helm, women are commodities.

Long before we started businesses and began equating ourselves with our business's brand, we were already brands. We already fit, or didn't, into very deeply rooted cultural archetypes for women, and were celebrated or punished (or both) based on our ability to conform (or not) to those brands.

As women, our identities have been inseparable from the DOMESTIC for eons. We are the biggest consumer base in the world, and it is household goods that we consume. We have been trained to see our value and our worth as related to our successes in the domestic sphere. So it's no wonder that we have been deeply conditioned to fantasize about and adore consumer objects from the home. Think of how many young girls create dream worlds inside of dollhouses.

We are vulnerable to feelings of longing for the objects and signifiers of domestic beauty. Which makes us vulnerable to images that will trigger our longing for a perfect work-at-home desktop.

We may be on the edge of our skill sets, our courage, and our sleep cycles in trying to build a business - and in these conditions, a desktop that feels like success can give us a lot of reassurance, am I right? 

So, clearly the fetishizing of pink pencils and fancy planners and (lets not even get started with) Apple products is a clear vocabulary of sexism and classism, and boring to boot.

So what to do?

I believe we have a real human need for a sense of connection to - and appreciation of - objects. Without the confusions installed by mass production, sexism, and more, I am sure we would still treasure objects. They would be made, shared and used with a sense of reciprocity with the land and each other. We would not exploit the environment in degrading ways, or exploit other humans as laborers, in the creation and use of objects. Each object would hold embedded meanings and histories that we would be aware of and appreciative of. There is a more ancient longing here -- and a real need -- that is not being met by our current obsession with mass produced objects.

PART TWO: Liberate the Flat-Lay!

Let's turn our inherent love for and connection to objects and spaces into gorgeous, drool-worthy flat lays that tell powerful visual stories, communicate the heart of our work and values, change culture and defy the icky norm. Shall we?

The setup of a flat lay is magical. It turns your tabletop into a little theater in which objects become special just by being placed there. The edges of the photo are a window into a miniature world, a language of its own, in which the objects are the vocabulary. When you break out of the standard tropes that are dominating the current visual culture, suddenly the format of a flat lay becomes like any great set of creative parameters. It offrs a container inside of which the limitless can happen.

TIPS, ADVICE, and PERSPECTIVES for ROCKING YOUR FLAT LAY:

1. Remember that authenticity can mean many things - it doesn't have to mean bald honesty about the actual state of your desktop. This is art, people. So go ahead and create a magical theatrical desktop of imagination. Your creative imagination as expressed in this form is just as authentic to you as your actual desk with the dried hummus on the keyboard and the dirty sock falling off the edge. Your creative genius is authentic and your own internal visual language is variable, complex, layered, endless. Don't get too stuck in the "real." REAL is bigger than what you see in the day-to day.

2. Embrace beauty. Some folks, in rejecting the super-stylized look of the flat-lays, think that its stylization ITSELF that is the problem. Not so. Its the homogeneity and vacuousness of the current trendy forms of stylization that are such a bummer. If you don't go ahead and claim BEAUTY and intentionality in your artistry, you'll lose likes, hearts and followers. You just will. We respond to tender loving care, and you get to be fully invested in your creative process, and in the pursuit of beauty. So set up good lighting. Take time to compose. Get into your own love for the objects, shapes and colors you're using. Feel the beauty yourself and capture it. Delight yourself in the process, and your viewers will take delight too.

3. Lighting matters. I suggest purchasing/gathering at least 4 small clamp-lights from the hardware store and arranging them to point at your tabletop from different places nearby. This will help reduce cast shadows (unless you are deliberately using shadow as a part of your composition). Do your photography in a room with lots of natural light early in the day, if possible.

4. Think about some overall visual parameters for your social media graphics generally. Example: if you have an Instagram account, how do you want your feed to look overall? Does your brand already have a color palette you want to conform to? If its been a while since you really thought about your visual brand, dust it off. Your photoshoots here will help evolve your brand, refresh it, give it more dimension, color, texture and story.

5. Gather materials. Once you have thought through some of your existing visual brand parameters, gather materials. If your brand colors are pumpkin, eggplant and sage, you might go to the art supply store and purchase 3 large sheets of paper in each color to provide backgrounds for your flat lays; then you can alternate the colors in your Instagram feed for a vibrant effect. You can also find interesting papers you can write on, labels and letter cut-outs, anything that can help you build your space with color, shape and text.

6. Open up your relationship to objects: Your flat lay doesn't have to include only objects that directly symbolize parts of your practical business life, such as keyboards and pencils. The heart of your work is about so much more. If fun and creativity are core values of your work, for example, what happens when you simply search for FUN objects? There are MILLIONS of those out there! Set aside a box in your office where you gather interesting objects you find in your home, in nature, in thrift stores and flea markets, in the supermarket - anything that catches your eye. Just get a collection going that you can keep adding to over time. Don't overthink what goes in your box - you want a lot of raw material. Sometimes certain objects don't mean much until they are paired with other objects, and then it just "works." Just collect stuff you like or are drawn to.

7. Playtime! Once you've got a tabletop, some lights, some papers and colors, a box of objects, spend a few hours just arranging and playing, photographing along the way. This is important: DON'T JUDGE while you are playing! Just arrange, shoot, arrange, shoot, for a good long time without worrying about the final result. Play with the relationships of the objects to each other; play with colors, with composition. Notice how the look or meanings of objects seem to change as the objects or composition change around them. Have fun! Go for quantity rather than fussing over each image. Try to take 100 photos in one session (make sure your phone/camera has lots of storage space)!

Some prompts to help your play, if you need them:

Explore the relationship of 2D to 3D. What if you use printed photos, magazine images or other printed 2D images in your in your flat lay along with your 3D objects? What strange phenomena and relationships can happen between images and objects?

Explore handmade text. Most people bring their images into Canvas or Photoshop and add text digitally. If you want a word or sentence in your flat lay, how about handwriting it right into the scene? Or cutting words out of books and magazines? Using punch-out type labels? Where else can you find text and type in the physical world that you can include in your flat-lay?

Play with light, shadow, reflection and transparency. Set up simple scenes, then remember that the strange visual phenomena that light can offer are totally part of the drama. Is your theater a little shadow puppet show? How does light bounce off of marbles, glassware, etc? Darken your room and play with spot lighting. Play with mirrors, objects seen through lenses, etc.

8. Curate! Each individual image may tell a powerful visual story, but groupings of images can amplify and complicate the meanings (in good ways). Give yourself lots of time to group and cluster images, putting the ones you think you'll never use into a different folder.

HAVE A BLAST creating your own GORGEOUS, CREATIVE, MAGICAL, INNOVATIVE flat lay images.

Come share your creations on Facebook at the Tactical Imagination Club (and everywhere else), and post on Instagram with the hashtag #flatlayrebellion! Let's evolve the art form and raise the standards. Have fun!

Coming up next: slideshows of flat lays that break the mold and inspire.