Denver-based photographer Carl Bower went through a difficult time, personally, and for years wasn’t sure how to talk about it. There was a time that made him realize how shame and isolation can form a self-perpetuating cycle that can be difficult to escape. Eventually, Carl surmised that he wasn’t the only person caught in such traps. He started planting the seeds for what has become a very cathartic personal project.
I spent several years struggling to extricate myself from a bad relationship and stalking that even extended to other countries. I had to get the police involved and file restraining orders, and my mental and emotional life was a complete disaster. Yet I kept it hidden. I was too embarrassed to share my situation with anyone, afraid of what they would think, afraid of losing work. The longer it went on, the more ashamed of the situation I became, leading to further isolation. It made me wonder what others were hiding, what kept them awake, what they were afraid to tell anyone for fear of repercussions.
Carl felt compelled to meet some of those people and listen to what they had to say. He learned there was the contrast between who we are and who we appear to be. As someone familiar with trauma, Carl cuts an empathetic, knowledgeable, and protective figure. This allows him to get his subjects to share truly revelatory sentiments, as with Palynn below.
I started making these portraits with some hesitation, but it has since become a compulsion. I began by posting flyers and finding people online, and as a result, I usually know what my subjects’ stated fears are before we meet. We talk at length, in a highly transparent and deeply personal manner, conversations that remain strictly confidential. I’m trying to create a space where they feel comfortable dropping the façades that both protect and imprison.
The fears people describe have often not been shared with anyone before, so the act of doing so with me and being photographed, knowing that the portrait will stand alongside their words in public, is an act of tremendous courage. I think they sense how protective I am, and that gives them the strength to be vulnerable.
While not revealing conversations in any capacity, Carl does ask his subjects to put their fears in writing, putting the portraits in context. The process of persuading people to share such closely held secrets and be photographed in an unguarded, emotionally transparent manner does not end with the sessions. Quite the contrary, in fact, as Carl’s story about one subject details:
I once gave a print to a subject who worked in a crisis counseling center. I actually thought she would hate it and was dreading our meeting. She looked at it in silence for a long time, then had a small, wistful smile. Her job was stressful, and there had been a lot of tension among the staff. They were available to their clients, but impatient and often curt with each other. After we met, she returned to the office and showed them the photo and accompanying text.
She told me months later that it had been a watershed moment. They shut down the office for the rest of the day. They let go, sharing frustrations and anxieties, insecurities, and resentments. They knew the people in their case files but didn’t really know each other. They were hugging, crying, and laughing. She said they finally felt like a team, supporting each other so they could in turn help others.
Though not at all the goal, Carl has won numerous awards and will display the images at solo exhibitions next year.
After showing the work at a few portfolio reviews, the series has won a few awards and will be in two solo exhibits next year, at The Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon thanks to the support of Barbara Tannenbaum of the Cleveland Museum of Art and Christopher Rauschenberg, co-founder of Photolucida and the Blue Sky Gallery, respectively.
Things don’t end there. Instead, the images will (hopefully) be just the beginning of partnerships between galleries and mental health organizations. After all, as more people see this kind of work they may find the courage to break their own silences. Taking the first step out of isolation knowing they won’t fall.
As I begin planning for both installations, it’s important that I reach beyond those that usually frequent galleries. I want to create tie-ins with mental health organizations, counseling centers, university social work and psychology programs, etc. I want to get the work in front of those who could benefit from my subjects’ willingness to confront their fears, shame, and isolation. We all carry something.
Carl Bower is an editorial and corporate photographer and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. See more of his work on his website.