I bought a new digital camera and the hunt began: find the right light and the right objects to photograph. Soon, it turned into a mission. Around I went, taking photos of objects around the house.
There was a theme: Very few of the objects I photographed were what anyone would call beautiful. They were dirty. They were grimy. They were used.
As I shopped for images, I began to think about the importance of this theme. They were very unlike the pictures we are flooded with on a daily basis. I took photos of the things we hide from others; the things we hate to see in others. Yet, as pieces of art, these are things I wanted people to see and embrace.
Soon, my artistic theme emerged strong. So did the philosophy behind it.
Ever since I was an undergraduate, over 10 years ago, I have thought of Martha Nussbaum as a friend. Granted, we do not know one another, but her work is so engaging—and often so intimate—that I feel as though we have a friendship.
In one of my favorite books by Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity, she argues, among other things, that disgust does not necessarily track harmful things. Instead, it often tracks what we hate to see in others (and hide about ourselves) because it reminds us that we are vulnerable beings who get old, sick and die.
Confronting our humanity in all its grit is perhaps the most difficult thing we can do. It is also one of the bravest. While feelings of disgust and shame may seem natural and harmless on the surface, they have historically given rise to things like arguments against marriage equality. Thus, tempering our disgust and shame is not only brave—it can give rise to a more equitable world.
My photo project may not cure all the ills of the world. But I fully believe it can have an impact. Each of us can examine ourselves, the arguments we give and reactions we have. We can choose to embrace our own humanity and be comfortable with the humanity of others. Moving in this direction is radically different than what we are used to. It means we have to admit that we get grimy, dirty and not everything we own is brand new and shiny.
The wear and tear I photograph, along with the dirt and grime, allow us, if we accept them, to be courageous beings and create a more just world. That doesn’t mean not to strive toward health. It doesn’t mean to never take a shower. It means that it’s simply part of the human condition to get older, to get sick and to die.
Be brave. Embrace it.