On Being Seen

 Photo by  Ada Wolters  Vancouver BC, May 17 2015

Photo by Ada Wolters
Vancouver BC, May 17 2015

"Here!" she shouted, excited.

We were walking along Industrial Avenue in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood of Vancouver when inspiration struck.   As a first-timer in beautiful Van City, I had left my holiday's itinerary entirely in the hands of my dear friend and had not been disappointed.  We had by then, my fourth full day in the city, already explored nearly every corner, mostly by foot, fueled by frequent stops for sushi and sorbetto and noodles and curry and falafel and... ohmygosh we ate so much.

We were in fact on Industrial Avenue primarily to visit an incredible chocolatier, Beta 5, and had been busy stuffing our faces with the most amazing dark chocolate when we came upon this place.  I had been forewarned that at some point during my visit, there would be a photo shoot.   An avid (and supremely talented) photographer, my friend was happy to have a new subject and, for my part, I thought it might be fun to be in front of the camera for a change and to perhaps come out of the experience with a nice photo of myself.  I didn't give it much more thought than that, until suddenly she scrambled across the weed-woven gravel and glass, overturned a plant pot (discarding its unloved contents) and instructed, "Sit on this!"

I was surprised by the wave of self-consciousness that hit me.  I was with one of my closest friends, someone I trust who loves and accepts me as I am, and yet I felt exposed.  Although I'm fairly introverted by nature, I'm comfortable in my body and somehow escaped adolescence without the souvenir of body image issues that haunt many women.  But for some reason in this moment, I felt unsettled. 

I didn't know where to look.  I didn't know what to do with my hands.  I took my hair down from its bun for some security.  The sunlight was reflecting off my glasses so I removed them and at once became aware that as much as they had become a part of a personal style that makes me feel good, they also serve as a piece of armour.  She asked me not to smile and another piece of armour fell away (as visions of my horrendous drivers license photo danced through my head).  I posed awkwardly, but not unhappily, for a few minutes before we continued on to further adventures. 

My friend sent me this photograph a few days ago, upon my return back home, and as soon as I saw it I realized what the source of my discomfort had really been.  Those few minutes on Industrial Avenue.  Those few minutes sitting on an overturned flower pot.  That was the longest anyone has looked at me, really looked at me, in years.  And I had forgotten what it felt like to be seen.

This experience and this photo have sparked much revelation in me, insights I'm still unpacking. 

I've realized that I can't recall the last time, before this, that someone took a photo of me. It's possible I'm in a group snapshot or two and there may be a few family photos from Christmas, but I have no recollection of anyone taking a photo of just me, all of me, in maybe the last decade, at least.  Maybe they have, but this is certainly the first time in a long, long while that I've seen a photo of my whole self. 

Really looking at myself, and noticing the thoughts that come up in doing so, has been illuminating.  I see, in this photo, how closed I am (hands clasped, shoulders hunched...I'm sure any body language expert would have a field day here).  I wish a little of what's on my thighs could be relocated to my chest, but I like that I can see my grandmother in my cheekbones, my grandfather in my eyes.  I look every bit a Finn.  I like my outfit.  My hair has gotten loooong.  It was still wet from my shower that morning.  I sort of like that, because it's accurate; I probably walk around with half-wet hair most of the time.  I like the wisp of hair at my temple.  It's a part of who I am.

This is also the first time in a long time that I've seen myself through someone else's eyes.  I can see in this photo not just myself, but how much the photographer cares about and accepts me.  I can see my beauty through her.  I can see my value through her.

Because here's the thing: there's a difference between being looked at and being seen.  What was most revelatory about that moment, about that whole trip in fact, was the experience of being with someone who gets me, who really sees me as I am and loves me for all of it. I had forgotten what it was like to be the centre of someone's attention, the full focus of someone's time and energy.  I had forgotten what it felt like to be in the presence of that kind of friendship, that kind of love.

This experience and this photo have also sparked revolution in me, intentions I'm still defining. 

I want to open myself up to the world, unclasp those hands, pull back those shoulders, lay down my armour.  I want to allow myself to be seen.  Wet hair, Finnish cheekbones, cute outfit, flat chest.  Compassionate heart, sharp wit, nagging fears, bold ideas.  All of me. 

I want to stand in the frame more often, throw my camera into someone's hand if need be, so I'm not surprised by myself, and the shape I make in the world, another ten years from now.

I want to look up and truly see the world around me and, most importantly, the people in front of me.  I want to take the time to not only look at but really see those in my life - both loved ones and strangers - and give them my full attention and time and love.  I want more of all of the above for myself, and I want to give more of it away.  And I want the same for you.

My purpose in sharing this photo and this story is not to fish for compliments or praise (although please feel welcome to heap praise on the talented photographer).  My purpose is to urge you to join me, to lay down your armour and praise yourself, and to surround yourself with those who lovingly praise and appraise you, who not only take the time to look at you but to see you.  We all deserve to be seen like this, to feel the presence of real friendship and love.  We all deserve to be made the model, whether or not a camera is present.  To feel loving eyes looking at us, loving hearts seeing us. To be seen as beautiful, and to see it in ourselves.  To be seen as worthy, and to feel it in ourselves. 

And if you need a reminder of that feeling, might I suggest a walk on a warm, spring afternoon?  Most anywhere will do - there's beauty and sunlight to be found even amongst the glass and gravel - but it's best to travel light.  All you really need is a camera, eyes and heart wide open, and a friend who knows where to find the good chocolate.