Two weeks ago, I drove up to Wayne, NJ with Donna to be a subject in a photo shoot for my spring semester photography professor. He’s working on a thesis, a collection of photographs exploring the idea of arraignment. From Wikipedia: “Arraignment is a formal reading of a criminal complaint in the presence of the defendant to inform him of the charges against him.”
The concept, in reality, is relatively simple: using one of the photography studios at William Paterson University, he set up a single stool with a bright light over it. When sitting on the stool, I coudn’t see anything beyond a foot, and he parked himself just beyond the range of the light. I wore name tags bearing the names other people have called me: “Difficult,” “Picky” and “Selfish.” He probed for an emotional reaction to each of those labels, and unobtrusively shot while we were talking.
After the name-tag shoot, I put on an orange scrub shirt, to represent the prison uniform, and he took a few shots of that. It was an interesting experience, both from the perspective of an artist and a subject, and I have been thinking about it ever since.
A few minutes ago, I finished a draft of a personal essay for submission to an anthology called And Then It Shifted, which will focus on the experience of women who were previously in relationships with men, but now are in relationships with women. In the essay, I tried to examine the idea of other people applying labels to me – lesbian, bisexual, wife, mother, prude, tease. Perhaps I was inspired by my photography professor’s project.
I’m not sure why we feel entitled to label other people, to decide for them what and who they are. And I’m even less sure why we feel obligated to put people into boxes, to assign them a single identity: Male or Female, White or Black, Gay or Straight, Family or Friend, Poet or Professional. As someone who works in the Human Resources department of a major corporation, I can understand why there is a need, at times, to collect statistics and definitions, to ask people to claim an identity for themselves and report it. But in regular life, outside of work and the rustle of shuffling paper, I am tired of asking for people to make these choices, to define themselves inside the strict and unforgiving boundaries of language. And I am tired of other people asking me to do it as well, or choosing to do it for me.
I am a lot of things, I have a lot of identities. Some are social, some are sexual, some are political or familial or strategic. I change them as I need to, but I am learning how to avoid letting other people change them for me. I know what I am, but more importantly, I also know what I am not.