Photography as a salve for loneliness | Ryan Pfluger | TEDxPasadena

Photography as a salve for loneliness | Ryan Pfluger | TEDxPasadena


Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Mile Živković In case there’s any confusion,
that’s me up there. (Laughter) Enjoying the spotlight
or commanding attention does not come naturally to me. Blending into the background,
analyzing and observing a situation, is where I find the most comfort, or, as I’ll get to later on in this talk,
when I’m on the road by myself. Unless this lady is with me. Yes, I’m referring to my camera as a lady. (Laughter) She is my safety blanket, and I’ve spent more time with my camera
than with most people in my life. I’m an artist, I am a photographer, I’m a self-described nomadic creator. It’s one of those creative professions
that when you tell people, they say, “Wow, I wish I could do that!” Or, “What do you really do for work?” (Laughter) Or my personal favorite,
“Did you go to school for this?” (Laughter) And, as with most things that we don’t
have personal experience with, we make our own assumptions and judgments based off of the only tangible things
that we can grab from. So, when you say “photographer,” people often think “weddings,”
or “high school portraits,” or the ridiculous way photographers
are depicted in TV and movies. And I am going to show you
what I do and why I do it. Now, when people first meet me
or hear about me, this is what they’re interested in. Now, I could stand here and I can talk about how I’ve brushed
shoulders with world leaders, and my surreal five minutes
that I spent with President Obama. Or I could talk about
photographing Hillary Clinton a week before the election,
after a rally in North Carolina. Or the tremendous emotional weight
for myself photographing Darren Wilson a year after the events in Ferguson,
Missouri, for the New Yorker, to then, only a year later,
photograph Bryan Stevenson, and he is an advocate and a lawyer
based out of Mobile, Alabama, who fights for the under-represented, and we had a conversation about race
that still stays with me today. Or just what’s the easiest
and what most people can relate to: celebrity. So, I could talk about Agelina Jolie, or I could talk about the TV icon
that’s Sarah Jessica Parker, or I can just talk about the numerous
actors and musicians and notable people that I’ve interacted with
over the last decade. And I love my job and I love my work, but that’s not what I’m here
to talk to you about. I’m going to talk about
when I’m in my 2003 Buick, driving cross-country for weeks at a time, and how that’s when I’m feeling
the most fulfilled. But first, I need to give
a little backstory on me and why I do what I do. So, think of it like in an abridged
episode of “This American Life,” just not that long. (Laughter) So, I am a white, cis, queer man from a working-class family in New York, and with all things being relative, I didn’t grow up
with the utmost privilege, and it wasn’t uniquely terrible either. My parents, however,
were too involved with their own demons for me to ever truly feel seen or heard. And it wasn’t necessarily their fault. It was merely just a casualty
of their reality. Depression, addiction, anger, resentment
overwhelmed both of them. When I was seven, my mother
was diagnosed with cancer. It was the first of a decade-long battle
that she ended up surviving from. It was also the same time that she
showed me how to make her a screwdriver. When I was ten, I knew that I was queer,
or that I at least liked boys, and by 13, my mother outed me. It was an experience that let me feeling
like my identity was stripped from me. By 14, my dad had a DUI or two,
I don’t really remember. By 16, he moved out of the house, and by 18, I didn’t really speak
to either of them. So, my world up until
this point made me feel that my experiences and my feelings would never actually compare
to that of my parents. And intellectually, I knew better, but I didn’t actually know
what would make me feel differently. All I knew was that I didn’t want
anyone that came into my life to ever feel like they were not seen. And then, I picked up a camera. For me, photography was always
really interesting because of the immediacy
and collaborative nature of it. It would be a way for me to meet people that were outside of the safe mental
bubble that I had created for myself. And so, I started photographing, and as I started interacting
with other people, I realized that the interaction itself
was actually more interesting to me than the photograph. When I started realizing that, and I thought about my dad,
who had recently got sober, I wanted him to feel seen. So, at this point,
he and I were still very estranged, and I was in graduate school and my professor, Collier Schorr,
said something to me that still echoes in my head
pretty much every day: my work was “too easy,” and just because I could make
something that “looked good” did not mean that it was interesting. And so, I needed to challenge
myself and my craft. Ironically enough, after years of spending
my time making myself feel comfortable, I needed to be uncomfortable again. So, I asked my dad if he would be willing
to sit for a portrait. This was the first one that I took of him. Then, I took a break because I needed
to do a lot of soul-searching to figure out what it was
that I actually wanted to do with him. And so, I continued to photograph him and we started to have a dialogue,
but it was through photographs. And I even actually started
taking portraits of myself with him because I wanted to, at first, just have
a close physical proximity to him. And the idea of this made me realize
I needed full immersion, I needed no easy escape plan. And so, I asked him, kind of not even
thinking it would happen, if he would go on the road trip
that we never took when I was a kid, and surprisingly, he said,
“Yeah, sure, let’s do it.” And so, he and I hit the road, and as this happened, we started creating this fantasy
relationship that never actually existed. (Laughter) But the experience
of making these photographs created a bond between the two of us
that we were incapable of doing otherwise. It was my a-ha moment for photography. I was using my camera as a therapist. It became this third party that allowed the two of us
to communicate with each other even when we weren’t actually talking. We finally actually saw each other. So, fast-forward about a decade later, and I am no longer working with my dad, but I am photographing strangers
spontaneously that I meet on the road. Now, about a month before the election,
I was having tremendous anxiety and feeling very stagnant
about my work in general. I began seeing friends withdraw and the overall feeling
of frustration on social media. And to be quite honest,
I just wanted to escape. And so, I hit the road, and I didn’t have
any destinations in mind. I just knew I wanted
to drive cross-country and I wanted to escape. And then, about a day
into being on the road, I realized I needed to be doing something
while I was on the road, because being just with yourself can lead
to a lot, a lot of soul-searching. So, once I realized I wanted
to be doing something, I thought back to the time with my dad and how pivotal
and also very cathartic it was for me, for my craft
and also my mental health. And so, I wanted to do that
with strangers, and I went on Instagram,
I went on Facebook, I downloaded all of the dating
and hook-up apps, and I started messaging
everyone that I could within every town that I stopped in. Now, when a stranger
approaches you online, it leads to a little hesitation. And I say “stranger”
and I just want to let you know I’m utilizing a community
that is already comfortable for me, and that’s of gay
or queer-identifying men. And so, I would send messages with a brief little description
of what I was doing. I wanted to come and meet you,
I wanted to come to your home, we could meet in public,
and I wanted to take your portrait – I got the majority of [them] being noes, and a lot of variations
of, “That’s creepy” or – (Laughter) “I don’t really photograph well.” But there was something
that did come up pretty often, and it was, “Why me?” And it was that other a-ha moment for me. There didn’t need to be a “why me.” I wanted everyone that I interacted with
to not only feel special, but to also feel like their
stories could be heard. So, this body of work, it’s called
“The Day of The Lone Wolf,” and it’s from a book called
“The Secret [Language] of Birthdays,” and it happens to be
the day that I was born on. Now, I casually mentioned
my mother earlier, and it was by no accident. Her and I are still estranged, but I wanted to take
this moment to thank her. When I was younger, she read to me
from The Secret Language of Birthdays, and she used the personality traits that were depicted
for The Day of The Lone Wolf, both to criticize and also
occasionally appraise me, such as emotionally “sensitive,”
and “impulsive,” and “contradictory.” Now in my mid 30’s I’ve reclaimed my identity as a queer man and I’ve also reclaimed
The Day of The Lone Wolf, and I’m creating in honor of it. So, since that first road trip, I’ve gotten cross-country two more times, and the only thing that you actually know
about these photographs is the common denominator is me. Now, everyone has a story,
you’ve been listening to mine – And so, while you may not know
the particulars of their struggles or of their achievements
or even of their privilege, there is one thing that you do know: they allowed themselves
to be vulnerable with a stranger, and that’s what I’ve done with you today. Thank you. (Applause)

17 thoughts on “Photography as a salve for loneliness | Ryan Pfluger | TEDxPasadena”

  1. I’ve always loved Ryan’s work and it’s great to hear his story and the reasoning behind his work. It helps to know the soul behind what makes his photos stand out. I especially loved his college teacher’s comment and it makes me think about my own life a lot. The humanity of his work is the best part and it’s nice to hear that was intentional. I’m so glad for this video to know the person behind the pictures more. Thank you.

  2. I too do photography because I am / lonely/ depressed! But one thing I hate is people the take photos randomly, and think they are a photographer! Taking snap shots, doesn't make you a photographer!

  3. Ryan’s talk was way too short. His story is very exciting. Such an inspirational person.

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