Face Value 2004-2009 Excerpt from "My face, my truth, my picture; an amateur photographer comes to terms with power of the lens," an article that ran in the Ideas section of the Toronto Star on May 15, 2005 and was also excerpted February 7, 2009 on NPAC.ca “You have to get over your own image,” the photography instructor says as he guides the photo loupe over my contact sheets. “Look here, this is good,” Jim Allen is gesturing at me to peer through the magnifying glass at the girl on the other side. Wide-eyed 7-year-old Kate Atkinson peers up at the camera through her glasses. It was taken much closer to her face than many of my other pictures. Kate was born with a cleft palate (an opening in the roof of the mouth) and Treacher Collins Syndrome, a condition that results in downward slanting eyes and hearing loss. The Grade 1 student also has fabulous red hair, which, of course, doesn’t show up in black-and-white. Elisabeth Ross watches as her husband Bruce adjusts her collar. Now the Chief Executive Officer of Ovarian Cancer Canada, Ross (a.k.a. Betty Bednar), is co-founder of AboutFace, a national organization formed in 1985 to provide support and information to people with facial differences. Ross was born with a hemangioma that caused blood vessels in her face and tongue to swell. (Photo By Tanya Workman) I’ve captured Kariym Joachim, a 17-year-old high-school senior who also has Treacher Collins Syndrome, mid-laugh. That’s good. Eyes closed, one of his hands covers the left side of his face. Much better than the shots I tried to take of him at the piano because I was taken with the idea that a kid with a bone-assisted hearing aid loves to play and compose music. Some of my shots of Michael Bungay Stanier, a 37-year-old Rhodes Scholar and life coach born with a cleft lip and palate, Allen says, are “too editorial.” But the one that casts him in shadow – that shows the outline of a nose whose shape will be altered by surgery (to help him breathe better) two days after I take the picture – that’s fabulous. Get in there, he says, using two rulers on Bungay Stanier’s photo to crop it even closer. “Don’t be afraid of what’s being reflected back through your lens. Of your own image.” If only it were that black-and-white. Like those I've met for this photo essay, I, too, have a facial difference. I was born with Moebius Syndrome, a congenital disorder resulting in paralyzed facial muscles, primarily on the left side of my face. When I was 13, I had “smile surgery” – the transplanting of a muscle from my leg into the left side of my face – which gave me the ability to smile by pushing my tongue against the left side of my mouth. A few years later, I had my lower jaw moved forward to get rid of my overbite. When I was still in my 20s, I wrote a magazine article about growing up with a facial difference. I didn’t think I had more to say on the topic until I began getting back into photography. What I found myself repeatedly trying to capture on film with my Pentax were other people’s facial expressions, like my sister in the middle of a laugh with her husband, or friends at their weddings. I framed these images and gave them as gifts, proud that I had captured friends and family as I saw them. Naturally, emotionally, and with love. It was a quote from the late Richard Avedon that got me thinking about shifting my focus to people with facial differences. Back in September 2004, I found the famed photographer’s words on the web site for the Contact photography festival, which runs every year in May, when it announced this year’s theme: truth. “The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph, it is no longer a fact but an opinion,” an interview from the September 1984 issue of Egoiste quoted him saying. “There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is truth.” His words stuck in my head for weeks, fuelling a train of thought that went something like this: A photograph may capture a moment or person in time but it is never the entire story. Much about the subject is left unspoken. In other words, a different photographer = a different picture. There is no such thing as one “true” image of an event or person. And the truth about a person in a photographed portrait does not begin and end with their face. Far from it. Intrigued, I went back and read the entire Avedon interview. Something else he said struck me: “My portraits are much more about me than they are about the people I photograph.” Oprah Winfrey has a couple of catchphrases to describe personal epiphanies. One is, “What I know for sure.” The other is the “Aha! Moment.” I think I was nearing one of those. Even though I’ve had the smile surgery, my face is still relatively deadpan. In photography, what I loved most was capturing others’ facial expressions. A coincidence? I decided I would try to take the same kind of natural looking pictures I was shooting but of people with facial differences. The question lingered: Why? It was a workshop at the Canadian Photographic Centre on Davies Ave. that gave me the answer. Allen had just finished using one of the other seven students to demonstrate lighting for shadow when he pointed to me and told me to sit down on the chair under the lights. Part of shooting portraits, he said, involves being observant and watching your subjects. We were only an hour or so into class but already he had noticed me repeatedly putting one hand on my face. The fingers on the hand kept gravitating to a cheek, spread out, palm cupping my chin. First he asked me to put my right hand on the right side of my face. It didn’t feel right. Then I changed hands. Aha! I got it. My left hand sometimes creeps up to the left side of my face, i.e. the side most affected by Moebius Syndrome. I don’t know exactly what it was about the Polaroid, ready to look at 30 seconds after it was exposed, but I knew immediately that it was one of the more natural pictures I’d seen of myself. The pose told me that, however unconsciously, I was still hiding from my face. It was accurate, as Avedon would have put it. But truth? The truth of the matter is that many of us with facial differences don’t want to be known for our faces, and yet there it is, the first thing people see. This is part of what I wrote, in October of last year, in my call for subjects; the call would eventually go out via e-mail to a small test group through AboutFace, an organization that provides information and emotional support for people with facial differences and their families. It takes me three months to get the letter written. I am procrastinating. How do you ask someone who has a congenital or acquired difference if you can take their picture specifically because they have that facial difference? I worry about this a lot. How would I react if this were asked of me? (In class, I really didn’t have much choice.) Several people I tell about this project ask me why I’m doing it. Is it for awareness? Are you doing before-and-after surgery shots? No. I want to avoid the clinical. This isn’t a PSA. I want to get to know my subjects in their natural environments – at work, at play, wherever and however they feel they are the most like who they are. I’ve sometimes referred to taking pictures as “hiding behind the lens,” but that’s not fair. It took me a long time to realize that maybe this still-in-progress project is about me saying, “Look what I see.” When I picked up the camera again, I began to look outside myself. And people, by having their photos taken by me, had to look at me. It now seems fitting that the Polaroid that helped get me on my way and get some photos published cannot be found. There will be other pictures.