The Honesty Experiment: Zoë Gallery

Originally written April 19, 2015

It’s true. I’m not having as much fun as it seems. Since forming Rocket House with Steve, and even in the couple of years in the lead-up when I was working on more and more projects, I started noticing an ongoing shift in the tone of everyday conversations. I’ve come to expect comments on a semi-regular basis that go something like this:

“I saw the photos from [PROJECT]. You guys have the best life! So jealous… wish I could do that…my life sucks.”

Now, this is a super dramatic example but believe me, it still gets said. And the general tone and mind-frame creeps into all kinds of conversations. It’s like there’s this false equation that people know doesn’t quite add up, but it’s got enough truthiness to it that they go ahead and use it anyway.

You have amazing (professional) photos + You plan a lot of fun and energetic events + I see you smiling a lot = Your life is fun and/or better than mine

Ya, no.

It’s started to fascinate me recently. Our culture has a very obvious happiness obsession, and a massive editing problem when it comes to showing a true cross-section of who we are.

I, for one, have a huge dislike for crying. It gives me a headache and it doesn’t solve any of my problems. And I generally hate being emotional, but especially in front of other people. That means that a very small number of people have actually seen me be actively upset.

Running your own business can be hard. Like, really really soul-crushingly hard sometimes. But it can also be really fun and fulfilling. The problem is that it’s almost exclusively the fun and fulfilling points that get shared publicly and have professional photographers around. So I started wondering what it would look like if there were a photographer present for the everyday crying, or boredom, or anger. How would you even set that up?

A couple of months ago Steve and I learned that we would be giving back the keys to one of my favourite spaces in the city – The Triangle Gallery/Museum of Contemporary Art/Contemporary Calgary Gallery. The space had been in flux after Contemporary Calgary formed, and while the fate of the space was being decided we essentially managed and babysat the gallery for them, using it as a bit of a satellite office for the last year. I’ve volunteered at this space in its many forms for something like 5 years, so I have a LOT of memories and emotions connected to it.

So, we decided this would be a perfect place for a photographic experiment – a professional photo shoot highlighting our vulnerabilities.

For me, vulnerability meant capturing the wide range of emotions, including, if possible, crying. For Steve, that meant delving into his injuries and physical limitations. We brought in a couple of our favourite photographers, Heather Schellenberg and Kelly Hofer. Heather and I have worked on a lot of shoots in the past, so she mainly focused on me, and Kelly mainly focused on Steve. But since we were all in the gallery there was naturally some crossover, and we decided to bring along a bunch of costumes and drinks and just play around and have fun with it.

Heather and I showed up first, cuz I had a feeling if other people were in the space I wouldn’t be able to get out some of the sadder emotions. I focused on a lot of the disappointments in the last couple of years and that got me tearing up a little bit, but I was still a little too aware of the camera, so we did a costume change, touched up my makeup, had some drinks and moved to a different part of the gallery.

We focused on trying to pinpoint specific scenarios that never got photographed. Like that time during my own event that I was so burnt out that I found a hiding spot so I could just drink by myself for a while (gin bottles are artsy, ok?), or all those times sitting around at work when I was soooooo bored, or spending time in a hiding place for a while trying to come up with a new idea, or that one time I found out we had to give back the keys to the gallery and Steve was busy watching some parkour videos so I slipped away for a few minutes to just lie down on the floor and say goodbye.

Kelly showed up about halfway through so we got sidetracked by just playing around with the space and some of the props. So many disco balls! And ladders! Then Steve showed up and we kinda goofed around for a while.

Later when the light was hitting the west side of the gallery really nicely I thought to myself, “I want this shoot to show some real emotion from me. I need to stop chickening out and just go for it.” So I grabbed Heather and Kelly and I told them I was going to try crying again.

After spending some time just mellowing out in the forest of ladders, I sat down in the middle of the wall and let myself think about some things I’m deeply uncomfortable with.

A year ago my Dad was diagnosed with cancer. They caught it early, but there was a lot of debate about the best way to go about treating it. Eventually, surgery was decided on, and I took a couple of days off work to drive my parent’s to and from the hospital.

I’m very used to disease and general lack of health. My mom has Multiple Sclerosis, and for years my sister had Hypoglycemia and both she and my mom had chemical sensitivity. It’s become a bit of a numb point for me. But when it pops up suddenly I almost always get emotional-tidal-wave-syndrome and become a big ol’ bucket of tears.

There was a moment a year ago when I had just found out that my Dad was opting for the surgery, which I knew was the probable course of action, but for some reason hearing it pushed me over the edge. Steve was in the opposite corner of the office working on something that required headphones, and I spent the next five minutes crying as quietly as possible, sitting as still as possible, because even though he knew how upset I was about this whole cancer thing, I really didn’t want him to see it. Not like that.

This was the memory that I decided to focus on.

Poor Kelly – I started crying pretty hard, which freaked him out, so he disappeared for most of it. I’m not sure if he just didn’t believe me when I said I was going to try to cry, or if it just made him really uncomfortable. Probably both. He told me afterward that he was just never around adults crying like that, and had no idea how to shoot it. Which I totally get – the discomfort was one of the reasons I wanted to capture this in the first place. He did manage to grab a bunch of absolutely stunning shots of both me and Steve throughout the day, and you can see them in “The Honesty Experiment: Steve (i).”

I had prepped Heather a bit better, so I think she had more of a game plan. She and I had agreed ahead of time that if I needed her to stop shooting I had to tell her, and she would stop immediately. I did at one point, and it was hard to convince her to restart shooting again since she wanted to make absolutely sure I was ok (cuz she’s a pro). At some point Steve walked in, talking loudly and obliviously on the phone. But he (almost) immediately noticed what was going on and he came over to make sure I was ok as well. Later, he followed me downstairs with the camera to grab the last few shots of the wind-down.

In post-production we decided to cut the hundreds of photos captured down to just fifty and dispense with any touch-ups of my wrinkles and blemishes. There’s a small amount of colour correction, and obviously some have been adjusted to be black and white…but for the most part, they are me – how I look in real life.

It was an oddly satisfying experiment. “Odd” being the key word. I’m not sure exactly how to feel about the results. However, as much as I’m nervous to post these photos, I’m still very glad they exist.