It Be What? Figuring Out “What I Be”

What I Be?
Photography by Steve Rosenfeld

There are faces, expressions, declarations– “I am not my–distance/emotions/ethnicity”– and bold black ink scrawled on skin– “I will judge you/ Not just the goofy kid/ Wallflower.”  Yet the very first thing I noticed about the What I Be project was its grammar. When I first saw a collection of faces in glossy photographs I wanted just to look at them, read their words, and examine the cold honesty in their expressions. But the title purportedly holding the project together posed an obstacle for me to maneuver around first. I wondered what What I Be does that What I Am or What We Are could not, except draw attention to itself. Participant Christina Campodonico ’13 said in her essay that the “blatant misappropriation of the verb ‘to be,’” made the “English major side” of her scream out, almost keeping her from going ahead with the project. I, too, was put off by the strained quirkiness of the project. However, the side of more suited for viewing projects like this was determined to view this project for what it does and not just what it says it will do. I have noticed a few things.

What I Be, which started two weeks ago, follows a young tradition of public honesty. Similar in aim but different in medium, The Public Journal is a college magazine found at Princeton, Cornell, Tufts, Michigan and Bates that publishes “poignant and unadulterated exchanges between self-proclaimed-self-obsessing individuals.” The Public Journal, though anonymous, seeks to bring warm, but also brutal, honesty to the public ear. There are other formal media for honest self-expression and confession as well. For example, The Real Story is an online journal/forum based in Manchester, England, that is interested in “the creative possibilities of telling the truth.” Websites like The Experience Project, which encourage posters to expose themselves frankly, and even the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty that launched in 2004 speak to the same new social ideal: honesty with oneself and mutual support through public exposure.

What I Be departs slightly from its forebears because it gives a lot of attention to each individual participant of the project with a close-up photograph, a personal essay and an extended timeline of essay publication. This way followers of the project can get to know the participants by their faces and declarations first and thoughts second. As a pretty accurate mimic of the way we engage with strangers, this sequence provokes us to form the kind of instant judgments we make all the time. Unlike in real time, however, our judgments do not quickly transform to fit our interaction, but instead sit with us for as long as we pass the static face without any further information about the personality or story of the person. Furthermore, What I Be deals specifically with what we understand as “weaknesses” and “flaws,” rather than an all-embracing celebration of humanity. This project is far from anonymous, and in its most blunt and perhaps frightening terms it lets strangers peer very deeply into the parts of each others’ personal lives that are too embarrassing or debilitating to reveal in any other circumstance. If you imagine the Dove campaign again, and then imagine a supplementary website at which viewers could see 360 views of each woman’s self-professed “flaw” in detail, then you are reaching the degree of personal exposure that this campaign presents. However, What I Be focuses on the mind rather than the body, even in the cases of participants with concerns about their appearance.

Steve Rosenfield, the creator, says that the purpose of the project is “to spread awareness on what people go through due to society’s paved roads” in order “to open up the lines of communication, and to help everyone accept diversity with an open mind & heart.” I think he got a different result. Samantha, on the website for the national edition of the project, wrote about her struggles with her weight gain and how it makes her feel as though she has forever lost her active and healthy self. There is a gray scale video of her reading her piece in addition to the text. She stares into the camera, sadly at times, resolutely at times. Her gaze does not, however, say, “Accept me, include me: I am different.” That would follow the rhetoric of the classic diversity project, asking viewers to experience and accept cultures or lifestyles different from our own. Instead, her gaze simply challenges us to empathize. Here we are asked not to recognize what makes Samantha “unique” and “diverse” but rather the struggle that makes her universally relatable, despite the individuality of her story.

The very reason we don’t announce our flaws and pains regularly– the fear of being judged, the embarrassment of feeling sub-par– is the pivotal point of this project. When we hear stories of weakness, especially those that are unresolved, we might feel emotions we too would rather not confess. Disinterest? Discomfort at how deeply we are privy to a stranger’s feelings? Disgust at the openness that encroaches upon those who value the privacy of private life?  Skepticism about someone’s genuineness?  But here we are asked to take a different approach. What I Be places “weaknesses,” “flaws,” and that which is socially “unattractive” on display and asks us to admire them, to at least consider them seriously: as humanity, as reality, and as art. What would be called a “weakness” or a “flaw” before What I Be becomes a “project” afterwards, something its holder does not just “have” but is “working with.” I like the notion of both accepting your struggles and striving to do better.

But I think the title, along with the ultra-serious visual rhetoric of the project, undermines the earnestness in that idea. Rosenfield says he “wanted to make people uncomfortable from the beginning,” that he finds “we grow the most by confronting ourselves and seeing that things don’t always mean what we think they mean.” In a way these aims were accomplished: two people, at least, were made slightly uncomfortable by the title and I have since learned that the What I Be project does not mean what I thought it meant. The problem is that what I thought it meant is what the creator told me it meant, and there should not be such a disconnect between the concept and the result. Thankfully in this case, the concept fell a little short of the result, an enviable predicament. The project aims “to spread awareness on what people go through due to society’s paved roads.” But the title, What I Be, comes from a feel-good song by Michael Franti and Spearhead that celebrates life and social freedom in such a way that doesn’t much challenge “society’s paved roads” as choose a very specific one: that which has been paved by the “alternative” and the “quirky,” projects before it. So, although the project has empathic power, it does not push social dictates aside to reach that immediate human interaction. Instead, the very elements that try to bridge the gap between viewer and participant place another layer of distance between the two. The title shouts out sub-cultural associations and the over-representation of ultra-serious expressions in the photographs really underestimate the empathic power of a smile. For we all, even with our struggles, still smile from time to time.

Two and a half weeks after first encountering What I Be, I have learned to look past its clunky rhetoric to its true and deep communicative power. I look forward to reading the personal stories of the brave participants as they come out, and I encourage anyone who is still confused or skeptical to take a step back and seriously consider what the project does accomplish, regardless of what you think it is trying to.



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