Behind the mirror. Favourite place to hide.
I didn’t breathe. They looked so long I died….
Last weekend’s workshop with The Writing Squad and photographer Sara Teresa began with these lines from Don Paterson’s haunting poem about Francesca Woodman, the American artist who died by suicide in 1981 at the age of 22. I love the final couplet of Paterson’s piece, how it reminds me of Woodman’s spectral long exposure images:
All rooms will hide you, if you stand just so.
All ghosts know this. That’s really all they know.
As someone whose writing often circles around the idea of trying to escape myself or escape my own body, I’ve always been drawn to accounts of disappearing acts, trapdoors in ordinary rooms. Opening with an overview of Woodman’s work and with a candid account of her own journey into professional photography, Sara invited us to consider the self-portrait differently, to play with reflections, fragments and angles. We would not be thinking about the ‘selfie’ with its filters and best-sides but about what we might reveal (to others and to ourselves) through the images we took. Sara’s self-portraits are powerful, experimenting with texture and surfaces – in one of my favourite images, her body seems to merge with patterned wallpaper.
I’ve never used a ‘real’ camera before in my life, though I sometimes walk round cities looking at things in a way I’ve always (fancifully) imagined a photographer might – positioning myself on the outside, trying to frame what I see. As a child, I coped with school by pretending that I was a film maker or a TV presenter engaged in the process of capturing images for a show. On Sunday, Sara bravely trusted me with her DSLR and showed me how to set a timer, and – after a day of conversations with people about ‘self-portraiture’ in poetry (and how addressing a poem to a ‘you’ figure can sometimes enable a slant kind of self-portrait) – I set off for a quiet section of the Manchester canal.
I wanted to take pictures of myself watching other things or looking away, to reflect some of the themes in ‘Division Street’. I also wanted to get some photographs of my tattoos (and I did later in the day), because I’m always interested in the ‘look at me / don’t look at me’ paradox of the tattoo, how it reminds me of my own feelings about writing. It might seem strange to cover yourself in body art if you’ve always been self-conscious about your body. In the same way I often feel as if I want people to look at a particular tattoo but not at me, when I perform my poetry I sometimes want the audience to see the poems without seeing the person who wrote them. Taking self-portrait photographs seemed like a productive challenge as well as a different way to explore some of these things. In the end, I spent part of the time self-consciously avoiding two kids who were smoking by the bridge and part of the time apologising to a man who had just completed the Manchester 10k and wanted to go for a piss. But I did capture some images. Some out-of-focus, some badly-constructed, but all a record of a remarkable, grey May afternoon.
The images produced by members of The Writing Squad were stunning and it was a privilege to see what everyone chose to portray. We all learned a lot more about each other through the rooms that hid (and revealed) us.
As part of the weekend, I gave people copies of ‘secret’ poems in envelopes and one of them was this by Linda Norton: a self-portrait as a meadow. Enjoy! I’d also recommend checking out Squad member Lydia Hounat’s project combining photography and text, ‘His Words Not Mine.’