By Gaby Beck
His eyes washed in neon orange and electric blue pigment. Her shoulders enveloped in a vintage denim duster with cascading lime green hair. Entering the photography classroom at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I found myself surrounded by timid people in avant garde outfits. Their vibrance exuded from androgynous and innovative looks that defied boundaries, yet their countenance was reserved and their eyes drifted into the expanse of the Big Apple’s skyscrapers outside the school windows. Within this city, we all were searching for the tide that would allow us to wade in the unknown, undulate along the waves of our intuition, and send ripples through the status quo.
In the digital divide, humans paint themselves in glorious hues of happiness in the depths of social media, fabricating a facade of perfection while beneath aching for a fleeting glance or smile. Following Generation Z’s norms, my classmates and I silenced our instincts to meet eyes for the fear of seeming too eager and instead fixated on the floor sullied with scuff marks. At a time in which nothing feels genuine, I find a sense of community with people that reveal their vulnerability. While studying analog photography, I discovered this honesty in class with my peers through expressing our humanness in flaws, longings, and aspirations– sometimes without using words.
The click of the camera lens is my elixir for universal understanding. It shatters the walls of my sheltered suburban upbringing and allows me to understand others’ stories beyond their guise. When documenting my grandpa’s quarantine lifestyle in a small Queens apartment isolated with the same routine day after day or the homeless man subsisting below the high-rises of New York City, the camera’s lens gives me the ability to comprehend people’s plights to be on the brink of a financial cliff, waiting for a dollar donation or a stimulus check as the arbiter of their survival. Focusing the camera forces me to be pensive rather than cast a mere cursory glance at another random human. Through the lens of my Pentax K1000 at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I captured an intimate exploration of my peers’ inner workings. I would soon learn that although I froze their eyes in time, their pupils thawed in the photograph, melting the concealed angst and internal tumult they weren’t consciously aware of or too scared to admit. We were linked by the truth only a camera could grasp.
In the photography studio, we posed in front of the white backdrop and took each other’s portraits with the sensation pulsating to stop lurking in the shadows of the personas we have fabricated. When I photographed my peers inches from their face, I saw surging below the glass of their eyes the struggles to maintain happiness in a confining world. The fear of diverging from society’s expectations and expressing ourselves freely fettered us to a double existence: the mask we present to the world every day and the true person waiting to emerge from this hollowed shell. I then knew I wasn’t alone. The isolating feelings of navigating teenage confusion with the burden of duality was a shared battle.
I began to develop the portraits in the darkroom. As the prints soaked in the solution, the images evolved, but also what laid beneath our facades took form in silver crystals and the shields guarding our truth dissolved. In a world bent on extinguishing flaws, the photos were a crushed and rendered perfume of the soul, an aesthetic representation of our internal pandemonium. After the portraits finished drying, I displayed them to the class. Emotionally bare, we stood in awe that the pictures allowed us to peer into the portal of our classmates’ reality and silently communicate our suppressed turmoil. One person whose portrait featured eyes tense and aloof walked to the front of the room and told the class they indentify as gender non-conforming. They was liberated from the stigma within the walls of the Fashion Institute of Technology, but they weren’t anywhere else. They told the class their plight of denying their true identity to their family and to themselves at times. The lens is an equalizer: regardless of societal standards, every human has this magic and beauty. Capturing this innate allure through the lens of the camera allows me to see the world differently. I didn’t perceive the shame and hatred those around them portrayed them with: I saw a beautiful human deprived of uninhibited self-expression. Our unconscious gravitation when discussing the truth of our reality compelled others to tell their stories.
I told mine.
For many years I was ashamed of not having a father figure in my house. Living in a single parent home exacerbated my awkwardness and longing to conform. My peers couldn’t fathom my lifestyle; I lived in a high-class neighborhood in a small overpriced house with a suburban culture rooted in appearances and insular thinking. At this young age, I was aware of the stigma of living in a single parent household with a strained paternal relationship. But until one day when my mom was making waffles in the laundry room of our garage as workmen upstairs drilled apart our kitchen in renovation, I realized my mom is not someone to be ashamed of or looked down upon by my peers and their parents, but someone to be proud of. She had the strength to switch from fashion merchandising at the top floor of the Empire State Building to a speech-language pathologist at a local public school. In the midst of navigating a second career, she managed to raise two children alone and fully renovate our house. I now regret my longing for a “normal childhood” because my unconventional upbringing instilled in me perseverance despite unrelenting adversity, but I always felt I had to be perfect in every facet of life to prove myself to my father as if one day he would realize my potential and take an active role in my life.
In the museum of my heart, I grasped on to feelings of inadequacy from my youth and bore the weight of these insecurities into the present. Photos allowed me to vocalize the indescribable and elusive feelings of my unconscious sense of existence, numb to my humanness in my battles for excellency. The unease of becoming emotionally exposed and shedding the falsified layers of ourselves that no one knows, not even ourselves at times, what’s underneath dissipated as we understood ourselves better and our peers. In this catharsis as we recounted the taboo themes in our lives for the first time, we had an euphoric experience liberating ourselves from the raging uproar within. These released sentiments from our unguarded spirit danced around the room and linked us in solidarity.
Our vulnerability unified us and created depth in our relationship. These stories showed we are not nomads roaming the world alone, but together with the same longings for truth and self-acceptance. In these moments of feeling lost, alone, and trapped in a body that doesn’t feel like our own, I realized we all, as humans, are fighting the war within. We cannot stifle our vibrant and diverse narratives, but rather embrace our complex nature. To value the beauty in humanity and in ourselves, we must accept and celebrate the adolescent impulses and the messiness inherent to the human existence by weaving honesty into the fabric of our communities.
Gabrielle Beck is a 17 year old writer from New Jersey. She plans to document Generation Z’s creativity, ingenuity, and innovation through her writing and photography. In her free time, Gabrielle enjoys repurposing vintage denim to promote sustainability.