I am honored to have my friend (and world renowned photographer!) Fritz share with us today. Fritz and his lovely family attend our home church back in Portland and I have always been impressed by his deep commitments to art and creativity and his even deeper commitment to Christ. This man takes some amazing pictures (seriously, check out these–the most beautiful freckle pictures you will ever see) and, as it turns out, he can also write. This is a thoughtful, extremely practical post that will stay with me for a long time.
Skeletons in the Closet
Whether we recognize it or not, we all know people who have struggled with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Most often, their struggle is a secret. They have, as it were, a skeleton in the closet.
I spent several years interviewing and photographing approximately 100 people with eating disorders, culminating in the series Skeleton in the Closet. (View the work at www.skeletoningthecloset.net.) This body of work is about normal people, who sat down with me over coffee, and poured out their secrets: abuse, neglect, insecurity, cruel and thoughtless words, terrible things they’d done to their bodies and families, the results, the healing process, the enduring ache within. They told me, a complete stranger, things they had told no one else. I was their confessor, their confidant, their priest.
In the end, anorexia and bulimia are not about numbers or statistics. They are about individual people, each one with a name and a face and a home, struggling for control over their bodies and minds and lives. Their stories include their families, friends, counselors, classmates, their spouses and children. These are the stories I was there to tell, stories of normal people like you and me.
I attended college right out of high school. During that first winter away from home, I began to find myself depressed, lonely, and in poor physical condition. This went on for some time until, finally, at the college nurse’s suggestion, I went to talk with someone in the counseling center. The gentleman there was gracious, asked good questions, and listened well. Over the course of the next few months, we were able to unravel the tangle of my thinking, and along the way discovered that, among other things, I was anorexic.
That word hit hard. I had never really thought about anorexia, and certainly never thought of myself as someone susceptible to it. I had assumed that eating disorders were for women who didn’t like their appearance. With some research, however, I discovered that anorexia is more about issues of control, which did apply to me. I was a quiet, intelligent achiever, and I didn’t want anything to get in my way—least of all food and thoughts of food. While I only dealt with this issue for a year, early on in life, many people struggle with it for the rest of their lives.
The people I worked with were in all stages of their struggle: deep in the middle of it, thin and gaunt; on the upswing, finding healing; on the other side, working to maintain a healthy perspective years after their darkest days were past. My goal was simply to tell their stories, as clearly as I could. I took extensive notes and transcriptions as we talked, and collaborating with them to create an image that illustrated a singular piece of their story.
In retrospect, I see several things that helped me accomplish this goal, and create a body of work that viewers find moving, honest, and powerful.
1. I’d been there. When the people I collaborated with understood that I myself had also gone through something similar, it helped build rapport and trust. They knew I could understand (at least to some degree) their struggle. It helped them feel free to be open and honest.
2. I respected them as real people. They could tell by my manner and openness that I wasn’t there to exploit them, to steal their story from them for my own profit. I was, in effect, there to help them tell their own story. I asked for their input with my ideas. If at any point they decided they no longer wanted to participate, I respected their wishes–even after I’d completed the work and showed it to them.
3. I asked good questions, and listened. You’d be surprised what people will tell you if you ask a good question, and then keep your mouth shut. These were people who offered to participate in the project because they wanted to share their story. I tried as much as possible to be a faithful conduit.
4. I was there as an artist, not a savior. I didn’t start out on this project to help anyone. I started the project because I couldn’t shake my own memory of dealing with an eating disorder, and I wanted to explore that as an artist. I wanted to make something beautiful out of something painful, to redeem it. When in the end I discovered that both my subjects and my audience benefitted from the work, that was a bonus.
I find these to be good working guidelines for any type of documentary project I take on. When I’m photographing stories that have nothing to do with my personal history (I’ve never been a coffee producer in a third world country, or had extensive freckles…), research goes a long way toward establishing credibility and building rapport.
So I bring research, respect, empathy, and my artistic eye to every project. When people see that I’m a real person, and treat them as a real person, doors open, and I walk through them. Secrets are revealed. Magic happens.
For more images from the series, please go to www.skeletoninthecloset.net
Fritz began photographing as a teen, carrying his Kodak 110 Instamatic around on a US tour with his father at age 14, in their little blue Datsun B210. Twenty-five years later, he continues to explore the world, camera in hand.
In the intervening years, Fritz acquired a BFA in Photography; won numerous awards and grants for his work; enjoyed artist residencies in various places; had photographs published, collected, and shown in galleries and museums; wrote articles and essays for various publications; lectured and taught workshops on photography and the artistic life; and balanced both commercial and fine art practices. He also loves to travel. He is constantly looking for new ways to approach the world through art.
Portland, Oregon is his home, along with his wife and daughter and their bright orange house.
For more in the War Photographers series, please click here.