“What I Be” project shatters the confines of hidden struggles.
by Christy Sillman
I will be honest, the first time I saw a “What I Be” photo I thought how cool it would be to have a Facebook profile photo like that. Then I started looking at the photos a little closer. The lighting, the vulnerability in each person’s eyes and, of course, the message each one gives drew me in. When my friend Andrea did one of the most powerful photographs I’ve ever seen – and revealed a history of abuse, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.
Steve Rosenfield, the artist behind the project, defines the What I Be Project as “a way for people to share a piece of themselves that they wouldn’t normally share with someone. We don’t normally like to share our insecurities in the open due to people’s reactions. I mean, we all want to tell a story about ourselves, but sometimes don’t know how to do it. The What I Be Project allows everyone to do that in a way where we’re not judged or ridiculed. In fact it’s the complete opposite: it’s a way to be accepted.”
Rosenfield’s photos are methodically staged with the subject’s face and shoulders photographed in front of a white background. Written on their body is a message, a plague, a secret – something you can’t see just through face value. Each photograph is named “I am not my ____” in a way to define themselves while also denying that this piece of identity equates to the whole of their being.
Having a “hidden” disease and being plagued with the never-ending debate on how to tell people, I knew I wanted my “What I Be” photograph to be about my congenital heart disease. I decided I wanted my hands to form a heart and to have the words “heart broken” written on them. I kept thinking about how my disease is often referred to as a “defect” and what growing up with this label has done to me psychologically.
Rosenfield gave me instructions to wear a neutral colored shirt and minimal to no make-up. I had a hard time with the no make-up part, but I knew it would only add to my sense of vulnerability. I met Rosenfield at his house and we shot the photograph in his room. Rosenfield came up with the idea to place my heart shaped hands over the exposed open-heart surgery scar on my chest that was peeking out from my v-neck t-shirt. This is by far my favorite part of the entire picture – a reflection of my heart disease by using the scar’s penetration through my heart shaped hands.
The entire session took less than 20 minutes, and we got the photo in the first shot. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a proud survivor of congenital heart disease or Rosenfield’s ability to make you feel instantly comfortable, but I didn’t have much trouble exposing this part of myself.
Rosenfield’s inspiration for the project comes from a personal struggle he endured through trying to deny his faults and hide insecurities. “I realized that it affected my relationships in a negative way. So what I did is try something new, I started to allow myself to be vulnerable. I started sharing my thoughts and feelings with my friends and family and it made a huge difference. I finally noticed my relationships being more open and honest. So I decided to do this project to see if that is something that others would find in their life as well. With over 475 people involved, I would say it’s done something similar.”
I had no idea how important this photograph would be to my identity development. When I look at the picture I feel released of the “defective” label and have actually embraced my disease more than I ever have before in my life. This photograph was the launching pad for my involvement with the Adult Congenital Heart Association and inspired me to reach out to others who have been affected by congenital heart disease. This photograph helped me see myself for who I truly am – a heart warrior.
It’s not just the subjects who have experienced life altering personal growth through the “What I Be” project, but Rosenfield himself has gained a higher level of emotional development through creating the project. “Whether I’ve sat with people for 3+ hrs during a picture or just 20 min, each person has something that is true to them and they’re sharing a part of themselves with a total stranger. It’s reminded me each and every time that what I might see is not always what is. This project has kept me open to others stories. Each person shares such a huge part of their life and that to me is what makes each picture my favorite.”
The “What I Be” project continues to grow and just this week Rosenfield is launching a website at www.whatibeproject.com where you can view photographs and learn more about the project. Rosenfield’s goal is to touch as many people as possible and create a sense of security from the vulnerability found in each photograph.
Everyone has something.
Some source of pain.
It’s only through brave exposure that most find a way to overcome the secrets that cloud their identity.