N A O M I W A S H E R
Whom Do You See?
The photographer asks you to speak, to tell a story in front of the camera as it clicks repeatedly. The photographer wants to capture many faces, many versions of the same face. You perch on a stool in front of the camera, and you speak. You won’t remember what you spoke about that day in front of the camera, but that doesn’t matter. A decade later, you still have the photos and the faces. You have the memory of the piece of gum between your teeth, your chewing, the little white piece of chewing gum visible there in the corner of your mouth in some of the photos on the contact sheet. Your wide eyes. Your eyes closed. Your doubtful, questioning eyes. Your relaxed brows. Your tense, uncertain laughter. Would the faces be different enough? you wondered. Would they reveal how very different you are – not from others but from yourself, all the different versions of the self that you are. Would people see? Would they come to know you, in all your multiplicity?
A piece of paper hangs on one wall of my studio. On it, I’ve transcribed a list of questions from a book by Joseph Chaikin called The Presence of the Actor. I wrote these questions in black Sharpie on a piece of white printer paper the day I moved into this studio and hung it on the wall. It’s the first thing I see when I open the door. Whom do you see when you look at me? Sometimes I think it’s Joseph Chaikin asking me. More often, it’s the first question I ask myself when I enter the studio to start making things. I speak to myself. Whom do I see when I look at myself in the studio – having removed my self from the confines and routines of the everyday? Which version of me is the one who exits her apartment in one part of the city, walks half a mile up a major avenue, rides a train for twenty minutes, and enters the inconspicuous warehouse repurposed into small, quiet, anonymous artist studios in a part of the city that could be anywhere and nowhere, that could be here and now or there and then, and where time allows me to be everyone and no one.
Every Wednesday afternoon, I arrive at a grand building on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, hand the security guards my ID, and accept the access pass they hand me moments later. The access pass states that I am allowed to take the elevator up to the 14th floor where I will find the National Institute for the Psychotherapies. My ID photo is branded on every access pass – the same photo every time, repeatedly. I am allowed to visit the National Institute for the Psychotherapies because I am the person whose image appears on the access pass I hold in my hand. But I am not the person in the image on the access pass. I look at her, and she is not me. Her bangs are parted strangely in the middle, and I do not have bangs. A divot appears in her long, thick hair on one side of her head, as if her head were a shelf, as if someone has just laid a book down there. I don’t have long hair; my hair is short. I wear glasses. She doesn’t wear glasses. All these photos of the same face every Wednesday, this face that is no longer me, no longer mine, and yet gives me permission to be me. I never feel the same way when I arrive at the building on West 23rd Street. I arrive, hand the guards my ID, receive my pass and press it face down on the machine whose barriers will open and let me through and into the building only if it recognizes me.
There is no mirror in my studio, no way to see myself when I am writing. That was intentional. I don’t want to be held back, while writing, by the image of things. I don’t want to be held back by qualities that irritate me but which I cannot change. In my studio, I want to be all the faces I’ve ever been at the same time but not the one face I am in that moment – whoever she is, whatever she looks like. I don’t want to be disappointed by my singularity. My lack of multiplicity. In the studio, I abandon myself to the many versions of myself, to see which one rises to the surface that day, knowing that today will undoubtedly be different than tomorrow, than yesterday. But in life, Octavio Paz is right. When I leave the studio at the end of the day, when I walk away from all those faces, all those questions on the wall, when I place the piles of access passes back in the drawer, when I turn out the light and lock the door, I see a mirror in the hall. And no matter what happened or didn’t happen in the studio that day, whatever I see in the mirror that evening is me.
Naomi Washer is the author of a novel, Subjects We Left Out (Veliz Books), and several chapbooks across genre including Trainsongs (Greying Ghost Press), American Girl Doll (Ursus Americanus Press), and a translation of Sebastián Jiménez Galindo’s Experimental Gardening Manual (Toad Press). Her work has appeared in Seneca Review, Asymptote, Essay Daily, and other journals, and is forthcoming in an anthology of North American responses to Fernando Pessoa.