Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters:
What we present and what we reveal
By Jamie Shaw
Most of us spend our days the same way people spent their days in the year 1000: walking around smiling, trying to earn enough to eat, while neurotically doing these little self-proofs in our head about how much better we are than these other slobs, while simultaneously, in another part of our brain, secretly feeling woefully inadequate to these smarter, more beautiful people.
I was reminded of this quote this morning when a friend posted on Facebook his desire to start a photography portraiture project, the goal being to distill each subject’s essence, at that moment in time, to one shot. THE shot. He hoped to capture each person’s true self at that moment in time through a singular image. Ambitious, I thought. Maybe impossible. Still, interesting.
I tried to imagine my shot and what it would say about me. Where would I sit? How I would pose or de-pose myself (loving that dual meaning of testifying, telling sworn truth)? What would I wear? Because I work in advertising, I switched into autopilot mode, considering all the facets of my personal brand. I imagined how the shot might be staged and what props might be arranged to tell the most compelling story of me: My old typewriter, an ivory nib pen from an antique store in Vienna, stacks of poetry books, my collected editions of Lolita, an impossible-to-procure-stateside bottle of Amer Picon, a vintage kimono, a Persian lantern, a pair of vintage YSL sunglasses.
Then, just as quickly, I dismantled this conjured assemblage, recognizing how much these objects are superficial signifiers of the me I want to project, arranged neatly by the categories under which I’d file myself on a mental Pinterest board: Writer. Reader. Traveler. Cook. Francophile. Bonne Vivante. I asked myself, are these objects the ephemera of the actual me or the aspirational me? And why does their appearance here, arranged in black and white, on a page, suddenly make me feel sick? Why does the me I just constructed in my head sound like a hideous facsimile of the impossibly annoying Carrie Bradshaw character who inexplicably wrote a weekly sex column and still afforded a ridiculously luxe existence? The story of Me that emerged from my chosen objets suddenly made me feel like a silly caricature, and that, in turn, made me feel ill.
I thought again about the challenge.
What would authenticate The One Shot that captures me in this moment in my life? None of the objects I’d initially identified reflect the emotional states, the vulnerabilities, the fears, the flaws, the mistakes, the midlife woes. What elements in the portrait of Authentic Me would capture the sleepless nights during spates of little or no freelance work, the internal struggle between creativity and commerce, the shame at having abandoned poetry to make a comfortable living, the realization I would not be having children, the anxiety about not knowing if I even wanted them in the first place, the year of acupuncture to treat said anxiety during which I was told to focus on birthing a book instead, and the subsequently rejected book proposals. What props would I assemble to tell those stories, the stories that reflect the underlying me of recent years far better than the beautiful souvenirs with which I surround myself? The Shot would have to be something more authentic, more essential to my being. Something unselfconscious captured in a countenance, an expression, a gesture. Something like the je ne sais quois that inspired countless treatises on the Mona Lisa’s half smile or the myriad contradictions said to be communicated by The Girl With The Pearl Earring.
Can one even sit for a portrait and hope to convey Truth?
Does the intention to capture something real negate that possibility? Even if it’s possible, very few of us are brave enough to strip away the filters and self-censorship to really lay it bare. Every day, we choose what to say and wear in the street, what to share and post on social media. But what if we were all administered sodium pentothal before presenting our public personae? Who would we be in each other’s eyes if we actually sought to make each gesture the Truest Reflection Of Who I Am In This Moment? I looked back at my own Facebook page and imagined how it might read with that truthiness in mind. I imagine, for example, that the summer of 2009 would have focused a lot less on the glories of a month-long home exchange in Paris and a lot more on the plumbing system that exploded a day before our French exchange family arrived. Instead of smug posts like:
Jamie Shaw is enjoying un petit peu du fromage et du vin while making a merguez dinner.
Or gluttonous proclamations like:
Just consumed the marrow of some freakishly large bones. Quelle décadence!
Or precious vignettes like:
Pamplemousse. Pompidou. Pommes Frites.
My entries might have read:
Literal shitstorm. The entire plumbing system just exploded and the French exchange family arrives tomorrow.
Saved $5K for a month in France and now, with one ill-fated flush, owe $13K for new plumbing system.
Been crying for 2 months straight. Blaming it on acupuncture, but know it’s a midlife meltdown.
Each one of those statements would be an accurate snapshot of my life in 2009. Whether they’re more or less true than the portrait that emerges from the rosier posts is up for debate. My reality from that time lies somewhere between idyllic picnics on the Seine and a trench of raw sewage in my front yard. And that is not a shocking revelation, that’s life. But with that dichotomous juxtaposition in mind, I suddenly realized that the picture that most signifies me right now, at this moment in my life—that Shot-with-a-capital S—already exists. Fittingly, it was taken this past Halloween. I am, appropriately, in costume, playing something I’m otherwise not, which is, in a cruel comedic twist, that iconic but loathsome symbol of Frenchness: the mime.
This picture, I realized, speaks volumes, revealing not only my personal fondness for dressing up, chowing down, wearing false eyelashes and embracing things French, but also the inevitable filters we impose: the masks we wear, the silence we hide behind, the expressions we paint, the measured tears we allow.
And maybe that’s the truest, most perfect picture of Me today. A sad clown wearing a smart pea coat and eating a hot dog. Somehow, it’s a portrait I rather like. Somehow, c’est parfait.
About Jamie Shaw
Jamie Shaw is a freelance copywriter and brand strategist living in Mill Valley, CA. She is currently co-authoring the book Peruvian Power Foods, due for release in October 2013. You can learn more at her not-often-updated website, jamieshaw.net.