Being a skeptic, I had always dismissed as irrelevant relationships formed on the Internet. Having had no personal experience with this contemporary phenomenon, I couldn't attribute to cyber-bonds the same validity I did to those formed between humans in 'real life.'Then I joined the photo-sharing website Flickr and experienced a transformation in thinking. Call it flip-flopping, if you will. Thanks to serendipity and a willingness to embrace possibility, I've come to care for people whom I've never met face-to-face, people I once would have called strangers.
Flickr is arguably the best photo-sharing website. One can lose all sense of time by stumbling into the labyrinth that is the Flickr database. Perusing the work compiled under the 'Explore' header is enough to make Wednesday slip quietly into Saturday without the sun ever dropping below the horizon. Be warned if you visit: You'll want to clear your calendar, call in sick, get a babysitter, silence the ringer on your phone.
This site is a great place for anyone to share pictures, but for photographers-in my case an amateur photographer-it's a venue for honing a craft and attaining valuable feedback from other shutterbugs.
Last October, I joined a Flickr group called '365 Days.'The rules for participation were deceptively simple: One self-portrait, every day for a year. Anything goes as long as the photographer is in the image in some form or another. I found this intriguing, if not a little bit narcissistic, and decided to give it a go, knowing it would compel me to use my camera every day and challenge me to push past the hey-look-at-my-face-again trap built in to the assignment.
I've gotten better at using my equipment, to be sure, and generating a new idea every 24 hours is calisthenics for the right half of my brain. But the past 216 days have entailed a complex, often difficult unveiling of myself in a way I'd not anticipated, and despite urges to quit, it's the entire process rather than the resulting individual shots that has kept me snapping and uploading.
At times a cathartic outlet, at other times a burden of gargantuan proportion, the act of public display on a daily basis has been painfully introspective, which surprises me, since self-portraits inherently require the subject to be extroverted. Exposure of the physical self goes without saying. I'm referring to a less-anticipated exposure of the emotional self, which for me happens to be a mid-life-crisis-slash-basket-case self. My participation has required constant calibration and perpetual redefining of boundaries while I attempt to maintain authenticity in my art. But by sharing glimpses of my real and sometimes not-so-pretty life, I've made myself vulnerable. By doing so, I allowed complete strangers access and have developed unexpected relationships of substance and validity with other Flickrites.
I call these people friends because they do the things that 'real life'friends do. They laugh when I'm silly; they comfort when I'm sad; they're angry when I'm hurt; they sigh when I'm maternal; they fan themselves when I'm naughty; they worry when I'm scared; they defend when I'm attacked; and they encourage when I feel like giving up. Some have even called my bluff when I've bullshitted. The response to my photo collection has overflowed with kindness, generosity, solidarity and human connection, the kind I normally associate with people I know in 'real life.'
Reciprocation is natural, because that's what friends do. I've celebrated as one friend participated in an art opening and sold some of her spectacular photographs. I cried for her, too, as she simultaneously endured the collapse of a long-term relationship. I've agonized over another parent's thwarted adoption and alternately shared in our common experience of loving children who don't match us on the outside. I've peered into the life of a woman raising an autistic son who can't speak to her but still communicates his love for her. I've marveled at a love affair that culminated recently in a surprise wedding. I've gazed into the first year of another marriage, the couple's bliss and rapture captured so effectively that I've been transported to a time when mine was new and those emotions weren't yet muted by domesticity.
I've mourned as the same young bride lost her grandfather and as another friend chronicled her mother's decline into Alzheimer's. I've ached for another, thousands of miles and one ocean away, as he documented his journey through losing a teenage son to cancer; I'm now privy to his survivorship. I've been inspired to keep going by artists far more talented and driven than me, each of whom has been generous enough to share some of their secrets with me.
Pollyanna, I am not. I'm aware of the occasional freak, another reflection of real life. I've had to weed out a few psychos, blocking the worst offenders after a couple polite warnings. But overall, Flickrites play nice and have reinforced my fundamental belief that we're all just doing our best to get by. I believe people are overwhelmingly decent and wish only to sustain the basic tenets of The Golden Rule.
One friend from the '365 Days'group e-mailed recently with her questions about our common journey. How much is too much to share? Is doing so in such an exposed manner a good idea? After so many consecutive days, has it become a compulsion? She pondered whether those of us taking a picture every day for a year really knew what we were getting into when we began. And then she said, 'I'm really glad to have connected with you, and I hope that someday we can meet in person.'I think about her questions daily, and my answers are always changing. But it's this last statement that makes me most thankful to my undertaking. Someday, she and I will meet, but the truth is, we already know each other.
Ultimately, as I complete this project and look back on 365 photos, I will see a comprehensive picture of one very turbulent year in a life lived to the fullest. And I will know that I shared something unique and special with strangers-real people, living real lives-who came to mean so much to me.