I first met Mette Harrison in Colorado City. I held a camera and Mette carried plants, lumber, and tools around the gardens we were rebuilding in Short Creek for our annual Fern Foundation service project. I was drawn in by her magnetic, truthful strength. My admiration for strong women comes immediate.
Over the years I have gotten to know Mette better through her writing and other small interactions mostly in the web. Mette carries the blessing and burden of a richly poetic voice that sings her blunt tellings into the soul center. Her latest work includes an experiment in poetry and her podcast that provides a deep examination of her Mormon upbringing ( Check our Mette’s Mormon Sabbatical podcast HERE).
Mette is currently working on a book about her stillborn daughter Mercy and the wounds of losing a child. It would be impossible to sum Mette up neither by calling her a loving and supportive mother, an accomplished artist and teacher, a connected friend, artist, or triathlete, these are parts of a fantastically expansive whole.
Mette has always had friends and family take her professional headshots. So kind, very supportive, and “good enough”. We find that good enough is good enough until it isn’t. When Mette showed up for an author signing for her novel, The Bishop’s Wife, she wasn’t recognized as herself and its not hard to see why- the woman in the photo looks nothing like Mette. That’s a problem- without the context of authentic, honest portraits, we just learn to hate what photography does to us. Made-over, air-brushed images may serve something but what? The truth? Sure, if the standard of that truth means societal prescriptions regarding portraiture that aim to eclipse and edit the truth of self.
Last week Mette, and the By Common Consent Press family, visited Ultraviolet Studios for a book signing and reading. Before we took our seats Mette told me that before our portrait session she was certain that she hated portrait sessions but that I helped turn that on its head by letting her be her. I asked Mette if she, always and ever the writer, would share her thoughts with me in writing so that I could share them here. Within moments, she sent me this-
I used to think I hated photos of myself. I have a terrible habit of hiding from my FIL’s constant photos of the big family. I’m short, so I tuck behind someone else and you only see an elbow or my chin. I stare at photos of myself and always think—that isn’t me. It’s even more true when I look at almost all of the professional photos I’ve had done. There’s a profound disconnect between the image that’s captured on film and who I feel like I am inside. Sometimes it happens when I look in the mirror, as well. But then Ashley did these series of photos of me and almost every one felt “right” in some way. They captured different expressions, different sides of me. I sent a set of them to my FIL, and his response was (of course—I should have guessed this), “I like the ones where you’re smiling.”
I deliberately told Ashley when we started that I wanted a professional author photo with me not smiling because I often see women authors with unsmiling photos and think how strong they look—I wanted to be brave enough to try to do that. I’ve titled the photo I’m currently using as my publicity author photo the “Don’t Fuck With Me” shot because I feel so strong in it. I feel like this is the me I wanted to show to the world and needed someone who understood to help me capture it. It’s not that I look angry. But I look fierce. I look strong. I look like the athlete that I am, with the strong arms that help me swim and beat lots of tough guys in a race. I look like someone people don’t say “Smile more” to.
When I look at the other photos I’ve had taken, some of which people told me to my face “That doesn’t look like you” because I was wearing heavy makeup and dressed in a way I never do in real life, I realize what the problem is. Those photographers were often trying to get me to look “good,” or “beautiful” and they were using a standard of female beauty that has never fit me well. When they tell me to bring makeup to put on between shots, I have to explain I don’t wear makeup and don’t want to wear it for a shoot, which I think sounds strange to them. Why don’t I want to have a photo that makes me look better than I would in real life? Because that’s not me. I don’t want to look like a model. I don’t want my boobs to look bigger. I don’t buy bras like that. Surprise! I want to look like who I really am. I want a photo that matches my soul.
A dear old friend of mine from grad school spent a long time perusing each of the photos Ashley had sent me. She chose the same one that Ashley had picked as her favorite and she kept saying, “You look beautiful in this.” I didn’t think I looked “beautiful” at all. I looked sad and contemplative. I looked broken. It was hard to see beauty in that, but maybe what my friend meant, and what Ashley was able to capture was realness, the authentic me that other photographers were always trying to “photoshop out.” I still remember Ashley saying if I wanted, she could erase a red blemish on my nose. I laughed when she suggested that because the red blemish on my nose was the least of my worries about the photos that came about as a result of that shoot. I wasn’t worried about people seeing that tiny flaw. I was worried about people seeing ALL of the flaws that those photos showed. I was supremely naked in those shots, which is really what I keep telling people about writing. If you’re not naked, you haven’t worked down to the truth yet. Ashley’s photos are art because they are truth.
Thank you Mette for sharing your thoughts about you and photos. For allowing me the pleasure of photographing such a strong, determined, soulful woman. Let’s do it again.