Free to be

Little E. Big E.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about showing girls the value of personal authenticity—that the best version of themselves is the one they are to themselves, likely when they think no one else is watching, and that being a little rough around the edges is better than feeling like you have to pretend you aren’t. At least, that’s the message I’m taking from the viral sensation that is Kate T. Parker’s photographic series, “Strong is the new pretty.”

From what I’ve read, part of the reason behind Parker’s project was a desire to show her girls they don’t have to be the picture of magazine perfection to be valued. Parents might also heed that advice, since they are the ones entering kids in cover photo contests or having people vote for their baby to be deemed the cutest in order to win a year’s supply of god-knows-what.

It’s a wonderful message for us all to hear, but part of me also thought, “how sad are we that the concept of encouraging our girls to be true to themselves is so novel, it garners the attention of the Today Show and CNN?” Then I remember how far society is from understanding things like equality, respect, and individuality. Group think is safe. Different is scary.

It reminds me a little bit of Tracey Spicer’s TEDx talk. I encourage you to watch this brilliantly engaging woman break down the cumbersome daily ritual that takes her from a frizzy-haired, fair blond with a less-than-perfeclty flat stomach (i.e., one that has housed babies), to a culturally acceptable, coifed, tucked and tanned TV host. At one point, she talks about the trouble she has explaining the point of this song and dance to her young daughter. What does it say to our kids when they see us painting our nails, straightening our hair or putting on various forms of face goop? We say, “Be yourself! You’re perfect!” Then we show them how we feel the exact opposite about ourselves.

So perhaps, by the same vein, photography is best platform to expose people to a different form of “perfect little girl.” After all, we see before we hear. This I learned during my brief stray from radio into the world of television news. You can have an amazing story, but if you don’t have pictures, you ain’t got shit. If Parker’s story is that her kids are amazingly real and unique characters worthy of celebration, there is no better way to prove it than to for her to show not tell.

As someone newly-smitten with the art of photography, I took something else away from all this. It’s a similar message, but one directed at me, not my kids. It’s that, as a photographer, it’s okay to do your own thing. I’m not sure what I’ve been aiming for recently, but I’m often crippled by the idea that actual photographers will look at my work and think, “I hope she doesn’t think she knows what she’s doing because x, y, and z are all wrong.” I struggle with the notion that there is a right and wrong and that there are little details I can’t see that give my ignorance away.

Then I see a series like this and I am struck by the variety, the freedom and the pushing of envelopes. The images are divine. They inspire me to experiment with scene, perspective and composition but also with the aftermath. Some of her photographs look like screenshots from a Wes Anderson movie, speaking to me from a land caught between truth and fantastical. Seeing something like this, I realize a good photograph isn’t just what I see through the lens, it’s also what I see through my imagination. If I play around with it, maybe people will catch a glimpse into that crazy world inside my head.

I’m not saying I don’t have more to learn (if we compare my photographic journey to climbing Everest, I haven't even bought my ticket to Nepal). I’m just saying it’s okay to play around and be flawed in the process. I’m pretty sure that’s the message Parker is trying to convey to her kids. She just probably didn’t realize it was a lesson the rest of us could take to heart.