NOTE The following post contains language that some may find vulgar or offensive.
Disclaimer: I'd like to just start off by apologizing to all of the Carls in the world. I'm sure you all are nice people and I mean you no disrespect. By now you are probably wondering what the heck I am talking about, but don't worry you will get it in about 5 seconds.
Meet Carl. Carl is the voice in my head and Carl...well, Carl is an asshole. Carl is the guy who is constantly whispering in my ear trying to convince me that any possible worst case scenario you could imagine is about to come true for me. That flutter I just felt with my heart? Yeah, that is my body about to drop dead of a heart attack. That headache or stomach ache? Probably cancer. Still single in my 30s? That’s because no one in their right mind would be interested in dating someone like me, so get ready to be alone for the rest of my life. When will people figure out I’m not smart enough to be a professor? Don't forget that I will probably lose my job, have student loan debt collectors come after me, and wind up homeless. Carl is like that guy at a party that likes to tell you all the ways that shrimp cocktail could kill you, as you eat the shrimp cocktail, when all you want to do is enjoy the company of others for the next couple of hours.
My relationship with Carl has taken on different forms over the years and is constantly ebbing and flowing. Sometimes he’s pretty soft spoken and easily ignored or dismissed and quite frankly not really present in my life. Other times, like the last few years, he screams so loud and throws so many tantrums that he cannot be ignored and is ever-present every damn day.
Using Art and Humor to Express My Feelings of Anxiety
For those who are familiar with my artwork, my current project titled, “My Paper Tiger, Carl” is thematically quite a departure from how I typically work. I’m historically more of a documentary/travel and architectural photographer so working in tableau (a staged narrative) was, at least from a process standpoint, very different for me. But for years now I have had these images floating around in my head of these comedic ways that I wanted to depict moments throughout my life where I have felt anxious, uncomfortable, and out of place. After a few discussions and brainstorming sessions with one of my students about my ideas, we decided to apply for a student/faculty collaborative research grant. We were notified we were awarded our grant and in the summer of 2019, just months before COVID would bring the world to a crawl, we staged, photographed, edited, and printed five images that have seeded the start of what will hopefully be a much larger series.
I'm the type of person who tends to approach uncomfortable topics of conversation through humor. So I knew if I was to ever do an art project that was so personal, about a topic as heavy as mental health, that I wanted the project to be somewhat funny and approachable. So often people with mental health struggles hear from others “oh wow, I would have never guessed you had ‘X’! You seem so outgoing or normal or whatever.” I hear that all the time. And I get it...some of us are pretty good at hiding it. Like a duck on the surface of the water, who would have known those feet are turning a mile a minute unless you were able to look underneath. In using the ghillie suit in this series as a symbol for the inner anxiety I felt during these moments, I hoped to portray the idea that this swamp-like “thing” we are looking at feels out of place and isolated, yet everyone around it seems to be blissfully unaware that anything is abnormal. My hope is that it would be playful enough to make people laugh, stop, and spend time looking at the work, but also start to shine a light at just how common/often people can feel anxious in ordinary life moments.
Engaging with My Audience
The most rewarding part so far about making and showing this work has been the reactions and conversations it has spurred. I have had so many people come up to me and tell me that “they don't get art” but have connected with my images. It’s been incredibly fun to see people looking at the images and then watching as the lightbulb moment clicks on as they understand what they are seeing and they start wanting to share moments in their own life where they have been anxious, or scared, or felt awkward and out of place. In the classroom I have found it has created an environment where students come to find me as an ally to discuss their own struggles with mental health. It is in this space where I believe artforms have always served as a vessel to approach uncomfortable conversations, to take moments and aspects of life and to reflect them back onto the world so people can see them and process them in a new way.
I was asked to write this blog post about my work and to be honest with you, I didn't really want to do it. I didn’t really seek out to make work that tackled the topic of mental health. Heck, I resisted making these images that had been in my head for about eight years. But this is now the space I find myself in, and frankly, I'm okay with that. My travel photography has always tended to poke fun at the silliness and absurdity of human beings and in some ways this new body of work isn't much different. In the anxiety world we talk about anxiety being a “paper tiger”: something that on the surface seems scary and life threatening, but when examined closer or when it is challenged, it simply falls apart. This work has created a space for more meaningful and personal conversations with people than really any other work I have done before. In the end that in many ways is more of the “Art” than the pictures hanging in the gallery. There are conditions and states of mind that are so universal in their shared experience in just being human, yet when they are happening to us they can feel so personal and isolating. Through the conversations we have with others that perhaps were sparked by these photographs, or this blog post or something else, I hope you can see (and remember) that whether you are feeling anxious, depressed, uneasy, or any other type of emotion, you are not alone. And to that voice inside your head who may be more negative than positive, it’s okay to give that voice some space to throw a tantrum, to be negative, or to make you worry; but you can also learn to not take them so seriously…like the friend we let go on a rant and then we kinda just roll our eyes and go “yeah, okay man…” and go about our day. My voice, his name is Carl. And Carl is an asshole.