Not Just an Image: A Response to the What I Be Critique
Recently, The Commentator published a criticism of the “What I Be Project” by Doron Levine that I found particularly frustrating. Now, it is not just the fact that it is a criticism that frustrates me. As a work of art, I will admit, I don’t think the execution of What I Be is absolutely perfect. I see its value in the experience and positive impact it has on its audience rather than the artistry itself. I have seen, and agree with, certain criticisms of the project. However, in his critique, Levine posits that the What I Be Project is an empty, even slightly corrupt, piece of art, that “leads the viewer to believe that he has a perspective on the philosophy of the self, when the dust has settled and the ink has dried, the viewer is left with nothing”. I found this piece to be full of fundamental errors and mistaken assumptions.
“What hurts you the most to talk about?” is the question Steve Rosenfield typically asks participants of the “What I Be” Project. The conversation that ensues is about what causes your most vulnerable emotions, and from there, your photo is born. There are no guidelines as to what qualifies as an insecurity, or whether or not you are allowed to portray an action as opposed to an emotion. The main idea behind the project is the portrayal of individuals with their deepest insecurity on their sleeve (or, rather, face, as it may be), letting the world know that this is the thing that causes them the most emotional turmoil, but that this is not their defining trait.
Levine, however, expects What I Be “to present a position, or range of positions, touching the question of what constitutes the self”. The error here primarily lies in this mistaken interpretation. In actuality, What I Be exists to help each individual photographed to, through the expression of their deepest insecurities, ask their peers to remember that they are complex individuals who struggle. As a whole, this project is meant to show us that standards of perfection and flaws are all relative, and that we are all innately “flawed”; not because Rosenfield does not believe that standards and flaws exist at all, as Levine implies.
It is even more apparent that Levine misunderstands the basic concept of the project when he argues that people simply cannot expect to never be characterized by one thing, because “at some point, a person, despite his heated protestations, cannot avoid being characterized by something”. The irony in this argument is that the project exists to fight this exact characterization; it begs its viewers to look beyond their instincts and try their best to not dismiss people in this cut-and-dry manner. The subject of each photo essentially tells the viewer that they feel hurt when they are characterized according to the emotion or trait or action or event described. In order to be sensitive to that person’s feelings, one would try one’s best not to do just that. Just because a behavior is understood to be inevitable does not mean that we should be compliant with said behavior; we should do what is good, and be good to others.
Levine also holds the position that by stating “I am not my [insecurity]”, the subject is therefore “downplaying” or writing off this trait as though it does not matter. However, this is far from the truth. As Aaron Portman ‘16YC so eloquently explains in Elisheva Engel’s documentary on the Jewish involvement in this project:
The participants aren’t shying away from their insecurities. They’re not ignoring them. For example, mine: “I am not my image.” No, I am my image. That’s a part of who I am. But I’m not just defined by my image. ... That isn’t the label that should define me … I am not just my image. I am not merely my image. It is a part of me, but not all of me.
As stated in an earlier criticism by Tikva Jacob, this misunderstanding could have been solved if Rosenfield’s titles were slightly altered. Additional irony lies in Levine’s claim that through this supposed “downplaying” of the subject’s traits, “Rosenfield comes dangerously close to negating much of the complexity, the beauty, and the romance of the human experience”. In actuality, Rosenfield presents this exact “complexity, beauty, and romance of the human experience” by providing such a profound glimpse into each subject’s life.
Still, Levine’s understanding is misplaced. He claims What I Be aims to coerce the viewer into agreeing with controversial ideas that may be involved with the stories of certain subjects. The example he gives is those whose photos were titled “I am not my abortion”--he states that abortion “is a crime”, and he should not have to agree with this woman’s decision. The first thing that is glaringly obvious here is that abortion is not a cut-and-dry issue, and this blanket claim is false. But that lengthier discussion is not for this forum; I only point it out here because he uses it as a false reason to condemn the project. The other thing here is that What I Be does not ask the viewer to sympathize to such a degree that they agree fully with the subject’s situation; it just asks you to hear their story and understand where they come from. You do not have to approve. The idea here is to suspend judgment to view the situation objectively and compassionately, not completely compromise all of your values in order to fully support the subject.
Another one of Levine’s claims is that Rosenfield draws the line at such abhorrent actions as murder and rape, and that no one’s title would dare say something like “I am not my [crime]”. However, if he looked more closely at the images, he would see that there are ten photos under the “crime” tag, with titles such as “I am not my record”, “I am not my jail time”, even “I am not my crime”. All have stories wherein the subject made bad decisions. The ones I read thoroughly all talk about the negative impacts of their crimes, and how they wish to improve their lives. They do not ask the viewer to discount their crimes, but rather still see them as a person, albeit a person who once made very bad choices.
Levine’s initial assumption that this project is meant to be philosophical stains his whole argument, and it seems that he is unable to see past this. When I read his piece, it frustrated me that he chose to justify judgments made upon the subjects when he could have seen the project as a way to understand the subjects of the photographs as people who do not want to be primarily defined by their struggles.
To Doron Levine and those who agreed with his assessment: please revisit the project with a renewed perspective. What I Be does not exist to tell you how to live--it just asks you to try to understand.