I've teamed up with the mad genius Jenny Ambrose at Puree Fantastico to help me create a whole new look and web site for the Bureau - right in time for some big changes to the Bureau's direction and offerings.
Look for it in September !!
I've teamed up with the mad genius Jenny Ambrose at Puree Fantastico to help me create a whole new look and web site for the Bureau - right in time for some big changes to the Bureau's direction and offerings.
Look for it in September !!
Creativity and Cultural Imagination Part 1
Some of us are trying to return to an interdependant, interconnected, holistic way of being, as a part of the paradigm shift needed to heal violence, ecocide, racism and colonialism and restore the earth.
If we are not indigenous, we are often tempted to use the cultural forms and traditions of indigenous cultures to do that, mistakenly thinking that we are extending and signal-boosting and learning from and leading with those forms of insight and wisdom.
In fact, in appropriating indigenous culture, we are participating in cultural genocide of native people, no matter how loving our intentions may feel. This is one of the ways the racism works through us, distorting our best intentions desires to do its work. "But I respect and honor the indigenous culture from which the eagle feather comes" is the excuse we make, to show our appropriation is done in the name of good.
The intention is good but misdirected, and the impact is actual harm - not abstract, theoretical harm, but actual harm.
How to know if your work appropriates: Does using the cultural form you want to use give you more credibility, income, respect, coolness points, style, brand power, and recognition that it does for the original culture? If the originator culture is erased, supressed, oppressed, abused, forced into assimilation, humilated, or discriminiated against for using these cultural forms, and then you are given more power by using it, you are engaging in appropriation. Your work is not a part of signal-boosting the original meaning of the cultural form - your work is a part of diluting and erasing the power of that cultural form in its original community. It is a part of a long cycle of theft and erasure.
Make a commitment never to appropriate indigenous culture, no matter how much you long for something you see in it that you desperately want (and white people: we do have desperate longings here. They are good information for us: what if they were directed towards a tearing down of the construct of whiteness, and a return to the earth all all its people with humility, creativity, courage).
If you want to support indigenous world views and leadership and expand that leadership in the world, don't make brand images with feathers in your hair and face paint. Find out how to fight the oppression of indigenous people and listen deeply to what is needed of you as an ally.
And as for your own images?
This is an opportunity for you to reclaim your own true radical imagination, which is better for your goals, your business, your soul, and the world. The world wants your imagination alive, undistorted by the cultural and colonial urge to appropriate.
In making the choice not to appropriate as a strict rule in your life, you are not limiting anything. You are opening the potential for true radical imagination and creative liberation in your world as a co-creator of culture.
From a series of Facebook posts in May 2018.
Since posting a piece about cultural appropriation last week, I have been getting a lot of personal questions from people who seem to be looking for permission from me to keep doing the work they are doing (work that possibly appropriates based on the definition I ventured.)
Thought I appreciate the desire to do good from those who are asking, I'm definitely not here to grant permission; Im not qualified and it misses the point!
My dear friend Sarah Sentilles who has done deep work writing and studying the construction of whiteness reminded me that part of whiteness is a continuous attachment to feeling central and at home in the world (regardless of any individual circumstances that may disrupt that feeling personally, on a cultural level, its a characteristic of white identity). Part of that feeling of being at home in the world is the idea that the world (including the world of art, ideas, culture) is there for the taking. When we are told that something is not there for the taking: our sense of home and centrality is disrupted. It feels unfair. It feels unbearable in some way. It feels like we cannot be whole. We seek an out. We defend, Or we justify. Or we seek permission. Instead of hanging out in the uncomfortable space of not knowing. Of disorientation.
That uncomfortable space is the space of learning, growing, and reclaiming our radical imaginations. Its a space of deep listening, of coming into consciousness about our own identities and the contexts we live in; and its the space where real respect for the experiences of others grows. To develop a kind of creativity that does not perpetuate cultural violence is a big task and its not clean, or easy.
But Its actually a BIGGER creative space than the one you were in when you wanted to appropriate. Its actually MORE whole and promises a way of building an earth that is true home for all beings. Don't look for a free pass...just sit in the discomfort and possibility.
If you could never appropriate, what would you make?
Also: think about this relationship to the idea of home against the backdrop of a culture which, right now, locks people up for driving, sitting in coffee shops, sleeping on dorm chairs, walking, driving. Against people being rounded up by ICE. Against people being punished by poverty and violence for staying connected to indigenous identity.
We can handle a little discomfort.
In the conversation about cultural appropriation, it seems like there is some confusion for us about the difference between a cultural appropriation that is damaging, and the idea of appropriation as a neutral tool in the artist's toolkit.
You can appropriate without being oppressive, if you are not appropriating the cultural forms of people and communities that aren’t already fighting for cultural survival in the face of the groups and identities you belong to.
Human creativity is combinatory: there is no pure “blank slate” place within us out of which images and music and movements arise (the “blank slate” is a myth of empire and has become part of the ideology of cultural approiation - maybe I’ll write more about that later).
So: no blank slate. What is outside of us is also inside of us. We are always working with internal and external raw materials. Ancestral. Material. Cultural. Emotional. Visual. Sensual. Collective. Political. Social. There is no neutral image, no neutral work of art.
Basically every continually evolving art form on earth has contained within in a dance between the continuation and protection of tradition, and the insatiably curious and creative integration of influences from the environment around it. Human cultural evolution is MADE of appropriation, in the sense that it continually changes as it incorporates inspiration, information, and intelligence from all it comes into contact with. Culture is a continual conversation that changes all parties.
-- Dada artists who pioneered the art of collage in the European fine art traditions appropriated a lot of the design and typographic forms emerging from mass reproduction (the invention of photography and the printing press) in their collages, which created whole new visual language that responded to and exploited (in a both critical and exciting way) the new visual culture of industrialization. It explored how how ways of seeing and receiving and perceiving were changing as a result of the mechanical “eye” of technology.
(But here’s the complexity: Dada artists also engaged in appropriation of African art images which helped perpetuate the cultural erasure of African art and tradition. Can you see the difference between those two modes within Dadaism?) (Also: Western folks often credit the Dada Artists, or worse, Picasso, for “inventing” collage which is hilarious - because collage thinking and methods have been used throughout human history all over the world.)
-- The entire history of American music as pioneered by black artists, from gospel to jazz to rock to rap and hip hop (and many other forms). Jazz for instance was influenced by gospel, bluegrass, Latin music, and musical forms from Africa and the diaspora, European orchestral music, etc etc. The undeniably GIANT contribution of this music to the world had in part to do with the creative genius of COMBINATORY thinking. And doing it in a way that resisted white cooptation by continually getting more complex, impossible to copy, and full of specific cultural references and musical language. (I am SO NOT a music historian, so I’m hoping someone will hop on this and point us to awesome resources that outlines this in better detail, because its beautiful).
Combinatory thinking, COLLAGE thinking: using the world around you and influences around you as raw material, and combining it to create whole new forms. There’s something really essential about this to human creativity. Something essential about it to our natures. I'm not challenging that.
So much of the pushback to the cultural appropriation critique has to do with a failure to see the difference between appropriation as a life-giving, built in superpower of creativity and creative evolution, and appropriation as a tool of cultural genocide. But there is a difference.
What does it mean to reclaim MORE fully your creative process of combinatory and collage-like thinking and making - and to do so in a way that is deeply sensitive to the ways in which this creative skill is manipulated into becoming a vehicle for creating destructive culture, rather than generative culture?
Put your combinatorial creativity in service of creating liberating culture - not in service of perpetuating destructive culture.
When we are UNaware of how it works, the dominant culture’s values operate through our work. When we become aware, we can use images and words to create new culture that refuses to do the work of empire and proposes new ways of looking and making.
Let’s do that.
When you find or make images for your social media marketing, do you take into account not just your ideal customers, but the larger visual culture?
If not, you should be. (Don’t worry, it’s not that hard - and its pretty interesting!)
When it comes to standing out in busy, noisy markets (and what isn’t busy and noisy in the social media arena?), it’s not just about our ideal customer’s challenges, problems, and wants. And its not just about our message and how we respond to client’s problems with our offers. Its not just them -- or us.
Its also about how the connection between us happens - and doesn’t - within the context of the larger culture we are all swimming in.
Because that larger culture shapes our perception of words and images. It prepares us to see some things and not others. It determines so much - maybe everything - about how our potential clients see and experience our visual and written messages. And whether they see them at all.
The current visual environment of social media is characterized, above all, by quantity and speed. As we sit stationary and stare at our moving screens, we encounter thousands upon thousands of images a week (sometimes even per day), presented at a breathtaking pace and in a constant state of change as trends and conversations blow through our social media spaces. It is way more than the human brain was built to process, and we filter a lot of it out for simple lack of ability to integrate it.
The stories and posts that are treated as most important by social media’s algorithms are the ones that are most recent -- combined with what is most similar to other things you have looked at.
(Maria Popova talks about the phenomenon of the NEW overtaking all other metrics of importance in a stunning interview on the podcast Design Matters.)
This leaves us each walking through a custom tailored reality in our online world - and one which promotes literal amnesia and rapid response to persuasive marketing tactics; and discourages broader analysis, integration, imagination and reflection.
As you know, this is the environment in which YOU are trying to get noticed with your images; and that can sometimes feel like quite the challenge!
But there is good news in all this. The most important: understanding the characteristics of the larger visual culture as you craft your social media content is a superpower. It allows you to be able to maximize the advantages of this current moment and account for its challenges, which gives you a considerable advtantage in your market. It allows you to make content people will SEE.
On to the rest of the good news:
The tools of digital image making are becoming ever more accessible. There are countless apps that can help you turn an everyday snapshot into a more polished or surprising form of self expression in moments. Overall, the general population of internet users and smartphone users are getting more and more visually adept; including you.
Relatedly, the production of culture is becoming less controlled by the gatekeepers of big corporate media, and there are opportunities for people with far fewer resources to make waves and be seen and heard, especially within the context of networks and communities online. Culture is being created in bottom-up ways that are challenging the top-down structures of corporate culture right and left.
Though we may struggle with distraction and overwhelm in this visual environment, we have begun to see the world, and online culture, and even marketing - as a networks of continually evolving processes rather than fixed products. This makes us more nimble, less bogged down, and offers immense potential for creative growth in our businesses, for rapid correction when needed. It also takes the pressure off of each individual creation - it is your ongoing body of work that becomes important, as you grow in public.
The internet is changing our brains - dulling and compromising our ability to focus, yet strengthening our ability to engage in cultural production and in marketing as an ongoing, creative process which is accessible to us all.
From: Your soul
Hello, you, it's your soul here. We need to talk about us.
I know, I know, you are sorry we haven't hung out in a while. I know that you are working a lot, and even though work should be creative, a lot of it is really tedious. And I know, you are raising the kids. You had hoped that most of that would be mostly about joy, but there’s school to get them to - and homework to help them do - and a house to keep reasonably tidy. And the behavior issues - you never saw it coming how angry those kids can make you! Oh and climate change. We better do something about that. And oppression and poverty. What are you gonna do about that?
And the bills, of course, and laundry. The car that needs a new muffler. And the one kid who wakes you up at 4am on the regular - you should read about that on some parenting blogs. I know you are out of toilet paper, and you are taking care of your father with that illness, and that friend with the problems. I know you are starting a business and it's a lot of work. That one part of your web site is broken and you can’t get through to customer support. And did I mention the IRS, and Facebook?
I know that some days you feel alone with all but you just have to keep going and keep all the balls in the air. Hope it gets better. Hope you figure it out. Hope we humans figure it out.I really appreciate you doing this all for me, I really do. I’ve heard you think “once I get this all handled, there will be time to rest, dream, create, play, visit the ocean, meditate, pray, dance, etc.” It's really so, so nice of you to work so hard at clearing all this away so you can have time for me. Thats awesome.
But here’s the thing: that day of spaciousness is NOT GONNA COME. It's the way the world is right now: it's going to keep being like this. Your kids are still going to need your attention. People will still struggle. Stuff will work until it breaks and then you’ll have to fix it. Running a business will still take time (though we should re-evaluate just how much pretty soon). Crises will happen. The house will never be clean enough. And the IRS. And Facebook...
So what are we gonna do? Because our relationship is important to me. YOU - WE - are important to me.
I am a HUGE part of your existence, you. And I can make a LOT of these things feel less bad. I have amazing ideas for your business that will help leap over lots of unproductive, unnecessary toil. I am REALLY GREAT with kids. I know how to play along with the wildest of those little ones. I can’t fix mufflers, but I can help us laugh about them. And while the car is in the shop, I’m great on walks. I can even make the house more lovely, and we can draw on the walls, and dance while doing laundry. I can help you wonder again, and wander too. I can help you feel closer to people, and love this challenging life. I can help you be hopeful about the biggest, scariest things. I can open your heart to the beautiful world you want. I can help you dare greatly, embrace failure, love intelligently, love recklessly, speak honestly, live wholeheartedly, create big things and give you belly laughs. We can get lost and found together. I can sharpen your perspective, nourish your poetics, deepen your dream life and expand your horizons.
I am your soul. Oh, and I almost forgot. This here is my sidekick, Creativity. I don't go anywhere without Creativity.
I know it's been awhile since me, you and Creativity hung out in a substantive way; but we have found our ways to hang around you. Did you notice that? We never go away. We are always ready.
I don't want to put too much pressure on you, so let's start by dating. Let's spend some time together each day. Can we do that? 10 minutes a day? 30? 45? And let me be in charge of the time together. You can be really controlling.
From 2015 to early October 2017, I was involved in an online community by the writer and self proclaimed feminist marketing consultant Kelly Diels - first called “How to Sell to Women Without Selling Them Out,” and later changed to “We are the Culture Makers.” Kelly built a large and vibrant community of social and cultural changemakers who look critically at manipulative practices in the online business world, through the lens of an analysis of the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand,” a phenomenon Kelly named.
In October 2017, Kelly shut down her community after several women of color came out publicly in protest of racist and exploitative behavior on her part.
Since then, the community -- uprooted from its home in “We are the Culture Makers” -- has been putting together the pieces of what happened, as more people come forward with their stories. Rumors of intellectual property theft and other predatory practices are spreading in addition to the stories of racism; but until all of the facts are in and stories are told, the rumors only serve to fuel an attack, and not to provide context and understanding.
I have my own story to tell, in this spirit of context and understanding. People need information, and we all need to learn from what has happened and move forward more knowledgeable about how predatory business practices work.
Telling this story marks a break with my long-held commitment never to engage in a public attack against another woman. But as Staci Jordan Shelton has come to help me understand, information and accountability are not the same thing as attack and annihilation. Abusive behavior must be interrupted, and stories told, for healing to occur.
I hope that this letter will, along with the others that have been written and are being written alongside mine, serve as a “calling in” for Kelly. She has a big opportunity before her: to listen, feel and learn, and to acknowledge her behavior and change. It would be a long process, and mostly one that would not happen in the public eye. I truly wish the best for Kelly, and I wish the best for every one of us, as we seek to end the ethos of exploitation that pervades our culture.
Kelly Diels stole my work: at first an appropriation, and then a blatant theft. It damaged my business and compromised my brand. It has happened to others too, and their stories will be told. Here is mine.
My background as an artist includes the institutional art world of galleries, museums and academia, and also of community art and participatory arts communities - brave spaces where artists and cultural workers are engaged in leveraging creative processes and human imagination to make change in their communities.
In that world, there resides a shared understanding that culture -- as the sum total of private, public, individual and collective action by a given group of people -- is created and recreated by the people, every day. It is a given that all people are world makers, culture builders...culture makers.
The languages, rituals, traditions, slang, body movements, foods, emotional expressions, musical expressions, methods of play and debate and communication, object making, image making, religious expressions, fashion, decoration, ornamentation, storytelling, dreaming, visions, forms of labor, and modes of resistance and defiance by any person or groups of people are significant, precious, unique, and VITALLY CRITICAL contributions that are to be protected and defended like any ecosystem.
These inherent cultural forms, with their indwelling histories and heritages and evolutions, can be consciously nurtured and released into the world as the liberating forces that they are. The cultural ground of our beings, as individuals and collectives, are a massive force for change when we recognize them as such.
This perspective stands in polar opposition to the settler mindset, the colonial agenda, and its culture of mass consumption. We are not here to consume the endless stream of toxic misinformation that is designed to crush our self-determination: we are the creators of our world. This perspective makes us dangerous, makes us effective, makes us unstoppable and makes us free.
The idea that we are all culture makers is not an idea that is branded or trademarked by anyone - it is collectively held perspective that gains nuance and meaning with every action taken by those of us tending the disciplines, theories, and legacies of community based and social justice arts in the US - and not just there. This is a perspective held in indigenous ways of knowing and countless other communities and peoples marginalized by or exploited by the “dominant” cultures the world over. Art and culture making have always been deeply central to human thriving.
I came to the world of online entrepreneurship gently holding this perspective in my hands. Not as something I owned, but simply a point of view to share. Arriving here, it was immediately obvious to me that building a brand new business was another act of influencing, affecting, and sometimes even creating new culture; and that many in these spaces hadn’t thought about it that way.
As changemakers who are building businesses in a time of advanced capitalism, we are in the tricky place of having to learn to survive within the current economic system while living into our visions for its replacement - and in navigating those contradictions, we can, and do, co-create our business culture every single day. We are creating communities that anticipate and prepare for the world to come. This is important for us to claim and acknowledge.
To see ourselves as creators of our culture is a stance that calls us into responsibility, accountability, creativity, and vision.
When I met Kelly and joined her Facebook group which was then called “How to Sell to Women Without Selling Them Out,” I was relieved to find someone who seemed to be challenging the more frustrating and mystifying aspects of small business culture and practices. I hired her for a session, and we started to get friendly, sharing ideas and appreciating each other’s work. We began to speak of collaborating and finding ways to merge our work, her as a writer, me as a visual artist. I joined her mastermind group.
She was particularly inspired and fascinated by my perspective on culture making.
After several months of sharing ideas, she disappeared, not responding to my calls or chat messages for a while.
A couple of months later, she changed the name of her group to “We Are The Culture Makers”...and as time passed, that became her key marketing message, her web site rallying cry, the center of her brand.
Unable to see clearly what was happening, I doubted myself. Well, she IS a culture maker, by my definition, isn’t she? I don't OWN this idea, so why am I feeling competitive? What’s with this “scarcity mentality,” I am experiencing -- isn’t there enough room for all of us here? I have no right to own a phrase like that!
The rules of the entrepreneurship game are decidedly different than the shared culture making ethos of the community art world I came from; and the economics of collaboration are different - hence one facet of the dissonance I was feeling. Another: everyone around me seems to love and trust her. What’s my problem?
It took some time for me to realize that what she had done was impacting my business. She turned the attention away from a body of teachings I was carefully stewarding, and turned it towards the spectacle of her brand declaration. Only after culture makers got appropriated and edified into her brand did I feel how important the proper stewarding of this particular cultural offering was to my very heart and soul.
And now I was being recast by her, with her bigger platform and rapid-fire prolific writing, as someone who was inspired by her perspective, rather than the opposite. And people began relating to me that way.
It's easy to describe all this now and see it for what it was; but at the time, I was just confused, and as I am inclined to do, I wrote much of it off as my own issues I need to work on.
And then she stole more of my work, so blatantly that I could not longer avoid it.
Over the long period of many months that the above story was unfolding, I hired Kelly for four sessions, to help me write copy for my web site.
Kelly helped me write a clear marketing message which defined the scope of the problems I address in my business and their solutions. We mapped out the narrative together, taking my long-form writings and filtering them through Kelly’s pithy and powerful copywriting techniques. By the end of session three, the story was fully developed, and the plan for the final session was to flesh out some of the other pages for my web site.
Our final session never happened. Once again, Kelly disappeared, and once again, I decided it must be because she had “so much going on” in her life. I had heard rumors about a big new project in development called Feminist Marketing School (FMS). I was excited to hear about it, and to discuss the collaborations we had long planned -- because surely sucha school would include teachings on images.
So I let her off the hook for Session 4. Part of that was because she was so hard to track down (she was ghosting me, I see now) -- and part of it was that I needed time to sit with this creeping feeling that somehow, over the course of our sessions, my work - its heart, it's voice, its spirit - was becoming hers. When I read the copy, I was reading Kelly’s voice, not mine. My work is about SO VERY MUCH MORE than the Female Lifestyle Empowerment brand, and my methodologies go well beyond the type of critical pattern-spotting and formulaic solutions that Kelly uses in her own work - but my new copy felt limited to her way of thinking, and were losing the depth of my background and thinking.
Then a dear friend called. “Kelly just launched Feminist Marketing School. Have you seen Module 7? You might find it familiar.”
And there it was. In logic, structure and content: the key marketing messages we worked out in my sessions with her, which I had not yet published for myself, were copied, almost verbatim. The work we had done for my brand had became it the basis for an entire month of FMS offerings, without any communication with me whatsoever. In essence, I paid Kelly to develop and then steal my work.
The mirage vanished and suddenly I could see the manipulative marketer behind the curtain, pulling the strings. I had been groomed, in a highly transactional relationship that created the appearance of a friendship (but only barely) - for this moment of theft. My relative inexperience with online digital marketing, my fears about doing it right, my commitment to collaboration and idea sharing, and my fear of calling out someone with a much larger platform and on whom I felt dependant - were all manipulated, while she harvested what she wanted from her insider’s view of my business, only to publish it as her own.
I wrote to her, telling her I could see what she did, and to remove my work immediately from her sales page. She responded with the assertion that she is “allowed to talk about images,” but she valued our relationship so she would be happy to let me go through the sales page with her and make adjustments so it would feel better.
My response, in my second email: This is not yours to adjust. It is not yours to invite collaboration on. Remove all evidence of my work from your work immediately. No negotiation, collaboration or compromise.
So by the deadline I gave her, she rewrote Module 7, scaling it all the way back to what her own work prepares her to do regarding images (which is not much).
She knew what she had done: otherwise she would not have taken it down. She wouldn’t have offered to hire a mediator so we could work out our feelings. And she wouldn’t have asked me not to talk about it publicly.
She never acknowledged the theft. Never apologized. Only defense, justification, and and attempt to cover up.
For a long time, I didn’t tell. Partially, because I felt alone. I wasn't sure who would believe me, and she has - had - much more power in these spaces than I did.
But then I didn't share because I found out about more people with the same issue -- I was considering joining in a lawsuit against her, and needed to remain confidential for that to be valid.
As it became clear that Feminist Marketing School was constructed on a weak skeleton of appropriated work and exploited labor, a handful of us began strategizing about an intervention and a calling out. And just as we were about to do that...
White supremacy was once again aimed at women of color in Kelly’s community, and she dropped the ball, justified, defended. And thanks to the brave work of Alexis Morgan and many others, the whole house of cards began to tumble down. It turns out, there were far more stories to tell, and ones that were far more damaging to people than mine.
Thank you for listening to my story.
How do we create visuals for our businesses that are aligned with our social justice values, and don’t perpetuate racist, sexist and other oppressive visual languages? The answer goes deeper than you think.Read More
The abundant amount of graphic designers, social media whizzes and other artists and technicians selling in these online spaces can be overwhelming. Whether you are looking to hire a branding agency or just someone to whip out 10 social media graphics for you, how do you sort through the gazillions of options available?
The first, and most important advice I have for you:
Understand that while some people are great at making beautiful, standout images -
and others may be good at really understanding who you and your business are -
a more rare breed is the person who can connect the dots between the two.
In other words, good looking images arent enough.
Your images need to work BEYOND simply stopping people to look. They should express something that is truly unique and true to the transformation that YOUR work provides, and this takes someone who is skilled at translating your abstract ideas and spoken/written language into a visual language. This takes skill and development. It usually can't come from someone who just learned Canva, signed up with some stock sites and started a business, without a background in visual thinking and visual language (either through higher ed, professional experience or through their own self-taught, long-term creative process and development.)
What you are responsible for in this process is to get clear on the values at the foundation of your brand, and your position in your market. If you don’t already have this foundation, make sure that the branding specialists you find are really good at asking you penetrating questions that get you thinking more deeply about what is at the heart of your work. And that they are listening closely.
Then, ask them HOW they will help you translate the content of those conversations into visual terms. If they can’t articulate that, its likely that they don’t know how (its shocking, but there are a lot of those folks out there - they get by on the beauty of the images they make, but don’t make images that are truly responsive to your business’ needs).
You dont want to lure someone in with your beautiful images but leave them unclear on who you really are. They may OOH and AHH but if your images dont FEEL like you, or the transformation your work provides, it will take them longer to stick around and learn, if they stay at all.
And a bonus:
Hope this helps. Ask your questions in the comments!
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 know we are all just fine, all beautiful, in our own unique way. “And I am too,” I whisper.
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."
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.
We all carry the surveyor, and the surveyed, within.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 --
Your own unique genius, your unlimited creativity is what is most authentic to you.
So go play dress-ups!
Yours in re-imagining reality,
This post and all writings on this site are copyright Amy Walsh 2017.