11 1/2-month-old me circa 1985. Melbourne, Australia. Polaroid.
Most of the time, the people I approach for Present Company are really great. They’re excited by what I’m doing and are happy to be a part of it. But I’d be lying if I said that happened EVERY TIME. Occasionally, I come across someone who acts like an asshole. And it makes me doubt what I’m doing – which, in retrospect – I realize is ridiculous. But I’m not the most extroverted person to begin with (my mom calls me an extroverted introvert) and walking up to complete strangers makes my stomach flip flop every time. So when the experience goes VERY WRONG my gut response is to hide and never talk to another human again.
A few days ago, while waiting for my flight home from Miami, I spotted an older man with a decent mustache and a kind face. We all know I’m a sucker for facial hair and kind faces (and old men, LET’S BE HONEST) so I put away my US Weekly and asked if he might be interested in having his Polaroid taken. He would not. He seemed intrigued by the project though, so we talked for a bit. Not longer after, his wife came back from the bathroom and he introduced me as a photographer. She didn’t even look at me: “I DON’T WANT MY PICTURE TAKEN.”
Well, I didn’t ask you.
In real life, I didn’t say that. Instead, I think I said something like, “Oh, that’s ok! How long have you been in New York?” She just stared at me and (after her husband answered for her) whispered something in his ear. Then the kind-faced-mustached-man turned to me and said, quite matter-of-factly, “I think we’re done with this. WE’D LIKE TO END THIS CONVERSATION,” and just looked at me like, “You may go now. SHOO.” I saw everyone’s heads turn a little in our direction.
“It was…nice to meet you,” I said finally (ZING!) and zig-zagged my way through the terminal to the nearest bathroom stall where I promptly started to cry. The lip-quivering, sniffling, completely undignified kind-of-crying that only follows a humiliating experience (a.k.a. the LAST situation you want to be crying in.) These are the times when you want to be like, “Witty fucking comment. WHITTIER FUCKING COMMENT.” Then you saunter away all WHATEVER ASSHOLE and do something awesome. And you definitely DON’T CRY.
Eventually, I stopped crying, stood up straight and made it on the plane – after cutting off a priest – and guess who was sitting right in front of me? Something about 6 delayed flights in less than a week, not enough gluten-free food in airports (IT’S NOT THAT HARD) and the man sitting next to me bumping my elbow off the arm rest every 5 minutes. AND WHEN DID AIRLINES STOP SHOWING MOVIES? Then these two sitting in front of me…IT GOT TO ME. Actual note-to-self from the plane:
They’re sitting in front of me now and all I want to do is pour something sticky on his bald head. And then say something to his wife like, “You have fucking problems and your face looks like a zombie’s ugly face. YOU HAVE AN UGLY ZOMBIE FACE AND YOUR HUSBAND IS BALDING AND HE HAS STICKY STUFF ON HIS FUCKING BALD HEAD.” Something like that.
And then maybe I write FUCKING ZOMBIE FACE on her forehead and drop my pen down like an MC drops a microphone and say real low and authoritative, AMBER OUT. And then I walk out and everyone claps, even the priest, and they say things like, THAT AMBER IS THE GREATEST and SHE DOES HAVE A FUCKING ZOMIE FACE and THOSE PEOPLE WERE MEAN TO ME, TOO. And now I’m tired so I’m going to read my book.
This isn’t the first shitty reaction I’ve had from a stranger and it certainly won’t be the last, but it’s experiences like this one that make me appreciate the kind people I meet (in this project and in REAL LIFE) so much more. It’s also helped me to realize that people’s reactions really have very little to do with me. I approach every person the same way, “Hi! My name’s Amber and I’m a photographer. May I take your polaroid for a project I’m doing…?” And each person’s response is different. There are gradations of good and bad, but every reaction varies in it’s own way. It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally starting to see that how someone perceives – and chooses to act toward – me has so much to do with WHO THEY ARE, the kind of experiences they’ve had, what their day has been like. It’s not ME or something I’ve done WRONG, it’s simply the lenses with which they see me. I’m their stranger. And it’s been quite freeing, realizing that.
And, although I wish I were generally wittier, I’m glad I chose the nice-to-meet-you road. I think we can all agree that, usually, happy people just don’t behave the way this couple did. Chances are, this man and his wife were hurting in some way and there’s no part of me that wants to contribute to their pain. So moving forward, I’d like to treat these situations with more patience and kindness – both inwardly and outwardly. Not only for the sake of others, but also for my own.