Annie Levy

Documentary photographer Dorothea Lange has said that “the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

My work has largely consisted of portrait projects showcasing different aspects of people’s lives, frequently at the intersection with the world of medicine.  This began with my spending a good deal of time photographing older people.  Frequently people would tell me that I was the best photographer they’d ever had.  I found the comment a little strange, since they hadn’t even seen the picture yet. Although I try to create a good experience for the subject, that didn’t strike me as enough to deserve that level of praise.

So I asked one of my subjects about this. In essence, she told me that it was because I made her feel comfortable enough to be herself.  I gave this a good deal of thought as it seemed at the very least important to my work.  Although the subjects were “older adults” or “people with xyz condition” I didn’t actually photograph them with those categories in mind.

I was given a camera at a very young age and was fortunate enough to travel the world with my parents.  My dad, an artist himself, would always want the picture of the landmark without us in it – he loved us, but he didn’t love us in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Coliseum or even blocking the view of the Magic Kingdom.  Years later we all agreed it would have been much more fun to have those ridiculous family photos of us in front of landmarks, but at the time we were more interested in the artistry of the shot.

Photo by Annie Levy

Photo by Annie Levy

I think this made me lonely for people in pictures. The Eiffel Tower is always the Eiffel Tower, but it is the person in front of it smiling, frowning, pointing to the top that, for me, brings the place to life.  In addition, although I’m outgoing I am also shy, so any chance to connect with someone by simply being allowed to seethem, show appreciation and not have to worry about what they are thinking is wonderful.  So when I used my camera in this context I felt an unqualified YES about the person in the photo.  I was so happy that they were in the frame – it was like being alone but not being lonely.  They felt like a comforting presence in the room.

In one of my photo workshops with young people, the assignment “What Inspires Me” produced an image by a young photographer of her 14-year-old niece having her face painted.  The photographer said that she was inspired by the girl “being herself,” and she was afraid that as she got older she would find that difficult.

On the face of it, being oneself would seem to be the easiest thing in the world.  And yet in practice it’s not so simple.

Who hasn’t experienced the feeling of wanting to be different from oneself, particularly when a camera is pointed one’s way?  I have been on the other side of the camera, having been a subject for a photographer who I felt was scrutinizing my face in a way that made me feel negative about myself. How would I look in the final product?  Would he let me see it? Could I trust him to photograph me properly? Did he have the right angle? The right lighting? And perhaps worst of all, if he got it all wrong it would live forever on the internet.  It was a roll of the dice, so how could I look anything but terrified in the picture?

Photo by Annie Levy

Photo by Annie Levy

More recently I was photographed by another photographer who, it turned out, was one of my“best photographers ever.”  I felt seen – not only without judgment but with an eye that let me be, well… me.   It was such a rare feeling that it took me a while to identify what it was.

I think that eye is the eye that produces trust and is completely disruptive – in life and in photography.

As a result of my work I recently started an organization called Photo ID Foundation, the mission of which is to change the way we see and are seen through projects, experiences and exhibits – more simply put, to see with an eye that says YES.

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