Embracing the Shadows

When I first started creating visual art – beyond the technical exercises of art classes and trying to be a “good” artist – my work was dark. Not dark in a deep or particularly disturbing way, rather it leaned towards the stereotype of the misunderstood youth trying to make sense of the world through heavy gothic themes, littered with romantic tragedy. It wasn’t particularly good art but it was an outlet for the feelings (and unrecognised depression) that I needed to find a way to express and understand.

As I moved on through both life and creativity, my art evolved. I became more skilled at communicating visually and I learnt that a concept doesn’t have to be so overtly obvious in an image to convey a message. My health, both physically and mentally, began to heal and I began incorporating more elements of beauty and hope into my images, deliberately choosing to move away from anything that felt too much like the old days. I didn’t want to be that person, literally drowning in melancholy, and so whenever I created an image that felt “too dark” I told myself I didn’t do that anymore and put it away. I kept the walls up between that part of my past and the present version of myself, refusing to accept even the smallest slip back in that direction for fear of finding myself back in a place I had fought so hard to get out of.

The Mending Game – an image never published because it felt “too dark”

Enter a global pandemic. Much of the health I had built back up had been achieved through the cultivation of things that supported it – routine, exercise, social support, boundaries between work and life and recognising when I need a change of scenery to get out of my own head. Many of these things became unavailable to me and as the pandemic stretched over time, my fatigue grew and my health took a hit.  Still, I pushed back, struggling to give myself the grace to accept that I needed to be gentle, to rest, to accept where I was and what my limitations were. The fears were the same – I didn’t want to go back to where I had been before.

More frequently, when I picked up my camera, the images I produced were sadder and darker. I recognised the old themes that were filtering back in and I knew why they were there. There was an honesty to them that felt right, while at the same time, an internal struggle against the boundaries I had placed around myself.

One Sunday, I had set my camera up to shoot a self-portrait. The concept I had planned wasn’t thrilling me as much in the execution as it had when I first thought of it but I had a backdrop set up and some beautiful window light so I decided to see what I could make. I shot a series of simple portraits, with just a chair and the light, trying to feel and interpret as I went.

The images were supposed to be about the light, about the structure and texture of the chair, about shape and form and flow. What I saw when I looked at them though was something else. I saw a person with a chronic pain condition that had flared up after a year and a half of not being able to access the things that kept it well. I saw a person trapped too long in her own head, without the outside perspective to keep her grounded and sane. I saw a person who had looked at her own face over and over in the bottom corner of endless video calls (why is there no way to turn this off?) and in every bathroom mirror every time she washed her hands and all the old insecurities that had resurfaced. A photo of some pretty light and a chair became an exercise in self-doubt.  I saw the way my body curled over in the images, hiding and protecting itself. I saw the way I rested my head in my hands and hid my face.

I saw the darkness.

A day later, I opened the book I am currently reading – The Meaning in the Making by Sean Tucker. I had started it over the weekend, prior to shooting these portraits, but closed it mid-chapter when I became too tired to take in the words. Picking up where I had left off, the next section I read was this:

“Spiritual traditions around the world agree that that the times in our lives when we are changing and growing in the most profound ways are most often in the shadows. When things are going well, we can coast, but when things get tough, we are forced to question, adapt, change and expand. It’s not the good times in our lives that shape us; it’s the hardships we face.

We are forged in the shadows.”

The thing about being forged is that the process is not always pretty, nor is it easy. These images show a darkness I have fought against. They show the health issues that I’m carrying, the tiredness and the loss. For all those reasons I want to reject them but I can’t because what they also show is the process. We can’t just live in the end result, the healed, the better, the evolved. We have to go through the fire to get there, sometimes more than once.

We have to embrace the shadows to appreciate the light.

This isn’t a new lesson, rather a timely reminder of something I have learnt over and over, another part of the process. Self-portraits help me do the hard work, not only providing an outlet for the feelings I do recognise but also creating enough discomfort that I’m forced to dig deeper and face the things that are harder to acknowledge. This is not the first time I have experienced this and it won’t be the last, but these portraits – and the shadows – can sit a little easier now.

If you are interested in reading more on self-portraits as a form of healing or therapy, you might like these posts from my blog:

Vulnerability in Art

Finding Your Voice Through Self-Portraits

Self-Portraits and Body Acceptance

Self-Portrait Tips for the Camera Shy

as well as this post from Anna Heimkreiter – Self Portraits as Therapy: The Healing Potential of Photographing Yourself and this video from Sean Tucker – The Healing Power of Self Portraits

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