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Strangers' portraits and stories
"Much of my work has been capturing and celebrating everyday moments in people's lives around us. But most of those people passed me by and never knew how their image inspired me. I had almost no interaction with them. I wanted to do something different in this collection. I wanted to be a part of these people's moments. Not just be a voyeur. I wanted to form a connection."
This collection will be shown at Cloud Tree Gallery in Austin, Texas in May of 2021. To learn more about this show, please sign up for email announcements here, or follow Prentiss on Instagram or Facebook.
January 18, 2021
Butler Park sits next to the lake overlooking downtown Austin. In the middle of this vast green space is a tall conical-shaped mound with a sidewalk spiraling up and around to the top where you get the best view. As I walked in that direction, someone caught my eye. There, at the peak of the little hill beaming in the setting sun, was an elegant young man wearing white wide-legged pants, a white mesh top, snakeskin boots, and carrying -- of all things -- a black bunny.
By this time I’d been working on this project for about a month. I approach random strangers and, while navigating the subtleties of approachability while wearing an N95 mask, ask them if they’d be interested in being a part of “a project I’m working on.” I explain I’m an artist doing a new series of portraits and looking for subjects who will pose for me and answer ten random questions while we’re working. It takes about twenty minutes, I tell them, and I’ll pay twenty dollars for their time.
The first woman I approached several weeks prior was an 84-year old woman having a midday martini, “toasting the love of her life who died six months ago today.” Another young man sat under a big oak tree and played an awkward tune on his guitar about following your heart. The process of deciding who to approach is intuitive and sometimes nerve-wracking. Everyone has a story to tell, and we all have things in our life that have lifted us up or dragged us down. But finding someone who might be willing to share these things with a stranger while he takes photos can be a challenge.
And here, on this day, shining like a star at the top of a Christmas tree, was someone I hoped would be willing to share.
I ask everyone basically the same ten questions. A lot of thought went into questions that would wax and wane on the scale of intimacy. Give them something like, “If you could snap your fingers and travel anywhere right now, where would you go and why?” And then turn around and ask, “Imagine you’re ninety years old and nearing death. What’s something you expect you’ll regret?” and “Where were you when you felt safest and why?” My intention is to walk together along a trail of vulnerability, reminding each other how connected we all are. How alike we are when we take time to listen with an open heart.
Much to my delight, the young man agreed to participate and, with the black bunny in his lap, answered my ten questions carefully and thoughtfully. He didn’t rush to avoid questions that might be uncomfortable He wanted his answers to be an accurate, truthful insight into who he was.
“Did you have a favorite pet? If so, why were they your favorite?”
“I had a pet hamster that I really liked.” A little nervous laugh while we got acquainted with this process. “He was my first pet, so he will always be my favorite.”
“If you could snap your fingers and travel anywhere, where would you go and why?”
He takes a moment to consider before, “I’ve never been to Paris, so I’d love to visit.”
“It just seems so beautiful, and I have been learning how to speak French for a couple of years now, so I’d like to put it to use.”
“Where did you feel safest and why?”
He ponders the question and takes time to look back in his memory. “Hmmm, safest...the first thing that comes to mind was my school in Atlanta. I grew up there. It was familiar, and I was comfortable. And then the first time I felt uncomfortable was when I moved to Texas. Super different.”
He was born in Atlanta and lived there until he was fourteen or fifteen years old. He moved to Texas when he started high school. “I was old enough to feel like I left my friends, so I had to start over.”
I was sort of taken aback by this fabulous young man feeling safe and comfortable at school, so I asked more. “What made you feel safe at school?”
“I had a really great support system. Really great friends.”
We went on to talk through this and other questions about the last conversation he had with his mother, what he expects to regret when he’s ninety years old, and what he’s looking forward to in the next 48 hours. He didn’t shy away from questions about sex -- one of the questions I always wonder if I should change, but it’s an interesting process for me to overcome being uncomfortable while giving others an opportunity to do the same, or not. It’s not so much the answer I care about but the process of going somewhere together. It’s nice to help each other cross a little creek and then keep on walking. The more obstacles we share, the closer we walk.
“What does home mean to you?”
Again, a long, thoughtful pause. “I feel like it’s not necessarily a place. More like when you’re around people who really care about you?” He asks instead of tells. This is empathy in action, wanting to make sure whom you’re talking to is still by your side. “That feels like home.”
“Did you feel that way at school?”
“Can you give me an example?”
A longer pause. Not out of hesitation, but still wanting to be authentic. “There was a time when I felt really sad. Lost. There was a time where I was dealing with acceptance, and I just needed friends who cared about me no matter what.”
A very excited little girl runs up to pet the bunny. The young man smiles at the girl’s joy, letting her pet the bunny before she runs away.
We talked and took photos for about thirty minutes. The way he answered the questions showed me someone who was grounded and not in need of a stranger with a camera’s acceptance. As beautiful as he was, and as much as he cared about his appearance, it was clear this young man didn’t need my validation for anything. He wasn’t wearing snakeskin boots for me. He didn’t share the answers he thought I’d want to hear; he appreciated being asked and wanted to be as truthful as possible. I think this is what happens when you’ve discovered what home feels like. When you’ve found love and acceptance, safety and comfort, you know what it’s like to be at home. After that, you don’t need to look for it outside yourself.