A photo I took shortly after escaping my abusive family home
Being a visually oriented person, photography has long been a great interest of mine, though it wasn’t always accessible to me. I remember the first significant time I used my parent’s camera, on a (unhappy) trip to Berkeley when I was 15. A week after I arrived home, my mother threw the just-developed pictures on the floor in the hallway and banged on my door, screaming “You’re lucky I didn’t pay to have these developed; these are the worst pictures I’ve ever seen in my life!” She provided neither instruction on how to use the camera beforehand, or encouragement for how I might use it better in the future, there was just a put-down before I even got to see the pictures myself.
Instead of paying for the film herself with unconditional love, she had charged it to her workplace account and then became enraged at me because I didn’t make her subterfuge feel worthwhile. My mother communicated to me that I wasn’t worthy of kind gestures or good thoughts even if they cost her nothing at all, and that I should feel ashamed. Permanently ashamed, as once I hadn’t lived up to her expectations the first time trying something, she would never forget, I would always be a ‘bad photographer’ in her eyes after this.
Looking back I had just gone through a hellish year of constant bullying and isolation at school, I was anxious and depressed, and understandably not fully engaged in where I was going or what I was seeing. If my mother had considered not that these were ‘bad photographs’ meaning that I was incompetent, but asked questions instead along the lines of “Why didn’t you have a good time?”, “What can I do to make you feel more comfortable?” Then maybe the answer would have been different. Perhaps she would have seen, beyond the first-time camera use, that the photographs reflected what I was feeling at the time, if they seemed like a drab afterthought, that is what they were meant to be.
The truth is that I found spending three days each way on a hot, stressful, sleepless bus ride across the country living off of stale junk food numbing and dismal. Countless people along the way harassed and called me homophobic slurs because of the way I dressed, people threatened to assault me, and I was bored out of my mind. And all of that just to stay with my older sister who was no more interested in my feelings then our mother was. She was principally occupied with her one and a half year old son, and though I couldn’t have expressed it this way at the time, the fact is he triggered feelings about my own abuse when I was his size. It made me really uncomfortable to be around him.
But my sister’s habit of constantly yelling and raging at me was worse; her communication methods were toxic, she took our her bad days at work on me, and threatened to kick me out of her car and leave me stranded in the city I didn’t know. Staying with her was not a vacation, and not a summer activity that I would have chosen for myself had I been given options. But this trip was my mother’s idea; she constantly wanted to travel to California and see her grandchild, a desire I naturally didn’t share at the time, but which she projected onto me.
A year before, I walked into the kitchen and heard her on the phone begging my sister to let me go live with them for the entire summer. She said that I, at fourteen “needed something to love,” and thus would be a great babysitter for her infant son, that I could take him out in his stroller to the park every day… As if that wasn’t blind and inappropriate enough, my mother went on to say that I could sleep outside on the balcony of their studio apartment so that my sister and her husband “could still have sex” while I was there. Though I quickly left the room, I know that my sister declined this bizarre proposal.
The photographs to document my trip included stray shots taken from the bus windows at odd angles, of smoke-stained cities we drove through in five minutes, of the exterior of the building where my sister’s cramped apartment lie in, poorly lit photographs in her rooms, and scenes over the boiling California sidewalks where I wandered up and down aimlessly for no discernible reason (except for the fact that my sister would yell at me if I didn’t go out and “explore.”) Apparently not what my mother would have preferred. But I wasn’t a bad photographer, I simply had nothing else to photograph, no hope, no good memories, nothing to focus on and little knowledge of what all the buttons on my parents cheap old camera were supposed to do.
I wasn’t responsible for meeting my mother’s strange and not clearly expressed expectations at the time. As my mother, she was responsible for taking care of me and meeting my needs and respecting my feelings, which she did not do, instead she abused me, she ignored me, and tried to over-rule my very personhood with the unsuitable plans she dreamed up for me. Her emotional abuse was never justifiable, it doesn’t matter even if she had paid for a roll of unsuccessful film to be developed. I didn’t keep the photographs from that trip myself, I threw them away after looking at them once, my mother’s words echoing in my mind. It was hard for me to value anything that others didn’t.
Four years later I got my first digital camera, and I was thrilled. I could experiment, and express my point of view without having it screened or put down by anyone before I even saw the results myself, and when I did like what I produced, I shared it with my friends online. Sometimes when looking at those old photos I took while I was still living at home, they make me uncomfortable, because I can see the shadow of trauma and old memories in the background. But I don’t feel ashamed of myself, my history or what my art is today or was in the past.
Today I do make my own decisions on what I value, independent of what others think. Reclaiming my true history from the lies told to me by abusers has been a very empowering process. So, you’ll be seeing allot more of my photographs on Proudly Sensitive in the future.