Is it because it’s also hard for the viewer to watch?
I watched the documentary about Chris Packham the other day (catch it on BBC iPlayer if you haven’t seen it). It was the best TV I’ve seen for a long time. It was excruciating to watch in some places, and, equally, felt like a privilege to watch too. Packham, who has spent his entire life talking intelligently about his subject matter – animals and nature – was now the subject of his own documentary. The camera was on him and his coming to terms with Aspergers.
It has made me think about how we can switch from being both object and subject, and how that feels. Packham trained himself to overcome his deep-seated discomfort of being filmed and having to talk to others, and to do so he actually used his impairment. He declared that he doesn’t care about other people, he’s not interested in them, so that gives him an advantage over you or I, because most people do care about what others think, and that affects how we behave.
As a visual arts producer, I have done marketing and PR for many projects and have always found it to be relatively easy, because it’s not about me. My first learning curve about having to promote my own work in an objective way was when I set up Flow Contemporary Arts. I realised that whilst the name provided me with a mask, the mask was semi-opaque, people soon knew that it was me, a sole-trader, behind it. From my perspective, that was challenging, but it comforted me to know that Flow was my external label. When I produce projects for others, my name rarely appears on any publicity, which is written in third person. To begin with I was muddled by that and tended to switch from third to first when I wrote on my Flow website. As my confidence improved, I stuck to using first person – after all, everyone knew by then it was only me, a freelancer. I had developed my own voice. There was no place to hide.
Returning to my art practice this year, I was again confronted with the demon of self-publicising, but with no mask. I joked about ‘coming out of the closet as an artist’, but, in truth, I really did feel like that, and a naked one too. Which makes me consider that for years I taught life drawing, but have never worked as a nude model myself. I’m camera shy and always avoid having my photo taken.
I thought making a video for the Crowdfunder would be fairly easy, after all, I used to edit video for my art installations; I can project manage and I can tell a story. But it was torture. My daughter gave me some great advice (she produces documentary films as BlackBark). I asked her to film me, because I (wrongly) thought that would be more comfortable for me rather than a stranger. She pointed out, more than once, that I was pulling weird faces, which she said I probably only use with my children!
Which brings me back to Packham’s TV documentary. Here, you see a man who stated very clearly that he cannot make eye contact with people and has no empathy for humans. He loves animals and cares for them tenderly, with passion and commitment. We find watching animals on screen entertaining, so why is watching human subjects speak about themselves to camera so uncomfortable?
Packham can’t bear social situations and avoids them wherever possible. He became his own subject for research and set out to look at how others manage, and try to fix, their condition. He lives alone, miles from anywhere, and anyone. Which is why it is so amazing to see him being so vulnerable on TV, speaking clearly about his ‘impediment’ and how it has affected his life, albeit in a detached manner. The only time emotion chokes him up is when he talks about his kestrel. Not diagnosed until he was in his forties, he had struggled all his life because he didn’t understand why he was different to other people. It appears that the diagnosis gave him the ability to accept his condition and be who he is.
I believe that all of us suffer from something similar, to different levels, and the intensity varies according to our habitat/situation. For some, an exam or interview will blow all confidence out of the window, for others having a profile picture on Facebook is one step too far and makes them feel horribly vulnerable. Some people who step out into the spotlight and become media stars develop a public persona, whilst fiercely protecting their subjectivity in their private lives.
For me, the whole Crowdfunder experience is uncomfortable, because I feel like I have to sell myself. But I am not up for sale – my art is. There’s a sense of pressure when doing Crowdfunding to share who you really are, to connect with the viewers, to build empathy. But when you can’t speak to camera without recoiling, that’s a hard thing to do. When I’m scared of something, I generally close my eyes. I’m a visual person, if I can’t see the thing that scares me, I can cope. I do it when someone driving a car I am in takes a bend too fast, or when there is violence or blood in a film. I used to do it when I was driving if I thought I might hit a rabbit on the road – but realised that was dangerous, so have managed to control that reflex!
If only I could learn to control the compulsion to close my eyes when I’m being filmed, life could be easier!
Anyway, this is a story I felt compelled to share with you, making myself vulnerable but without looking down a lens. And now, the painful part:
PLEASE SUPPORT MY CROWDFUNDING APPEAL – THERE ARE ONLY 6 DAYS LEFT
Note that pledges for cards and prints will be fulfilled at the special Crowdfunder prices, whether or not the appeal succeeds (if you still want them). Obviously, the book won’t.