Not long ago, I found myself in my ancestral homeland of rural Romania. I was dressed in peasant clothing, traversing verdant hills, with camera and tripod in hand. I stopped and faced a huge, conical haystack, assessed its shape, color, the subdued light illuminating it, and the undulating landscape beyond. I set up my camera, hit the timer and rushed to take my place beside the haystack. I repeated this several times. Every so often I looked around to see if anyone was watching.
By and by, I saw an elderly women approaching, leaning over a cane to aid her slow walk over the fields. I readied my known bits of the Romanian language so I could speak to her. She came up to me and offered a greeting. I responded, and then assured her that “Da, eu sînt Româncă.” I am Romanian.
Yes. At least in the sense that my grandparents, “bunici mei” were originally from a nearby area. That fact, I hoped, would explain the camera, the clothing, and why a foreigner from 10 time zones away was standing here, and photographing herself in front of their haystacks. I really just wanted to assimilate.
Honestly. Because photographing oneself is not necessarily an act of narcissism. Sometimes it is a method of connection.
Sure, the so called “selfie,” a picture of yourself usually taken to highlight the fact that YOU ARE THERE or YOU MATTER at any moment, spot or occasion that inspires you to make this statement, and often done on a cell phone, is ubiquitous in American society right now. We have digital photography and a culture orientated toward the individual to encourage it. But that’s different from exploring your identity or contemplating how you belong to a certain group of people. Instead, making images of yourself can be a form of communion with what’s apart from you. It can be also be an exultation of finding the similarities between you – your opinions, your experiences – and, what is, or what you ONCE called “the other.” Photographing the self can be a way to absorb into something previously unknown to you. In other words, it is a way to assimilate.
The word assimilate, itself, has many components and connotations. Its Latin root of “simil” means to “make the same.” An online research provides these definitions:
“to cause something to resemble, liken; absorb, integrate (people, ideas, culture) into a wider society; take in information and understand fully; adapting or adjusting; sustenance, absorption of food/nutrition.”
Webster’s NEW American Dictionary states:
“to bring to conformity or agreement with something else; to digest; to absorb and convert into a homogenous part of the absorbing agent, as, to assimilate immigration.”
Several of these defining words are of much interest to me concerning my photography, particularly these: adapting, adjusting, integrating, people, ideas, culture, immigration, understand fully, agreement. Even the part about nutrition can metaphorically relate to understanding and agreement.
Actually, the fact that I photograph myself at all, is most likely, astonishing to the people I know. They understand that I’m not one to demand attention, take the center stage, or boast about my achievements. Why then, do I recently have this insatiable urge to record myself doing mundane chores in bright Technicolor? Furthermore, why am I doing most of these images outside, in full view of the world, and in a peasant costume?? Add to that a camera on a tripod, a few props, myself scurrying to and fro before the timer goes off – well, this is totally out of character for me. Though actually, it’s not. I’m not trying to call attention to myself specifically. What I am trying to do is understand fully my heritage; absorb family stories; start a dialog about people, ideas and culture, even make a statement about women’s roles and immigration. For these ideals I am willing to put myself in front of the camera.
But that alacrity is a 180-degree flip from how I used to think about photography. Back in the days when I existed on my BA degree in Journalism, and a Nikon film camera, I believed that for an image to be truly relevant, things must be recorded exactly as they are. I abhorred the idea of changing anything in the scene before me. And the best way to do that was to fade into the background as much as possible, and to disturb the people I photographed as little as possible. That definitely meant that I wasn’t in the picture.
I remember working in Mexico with these convictions. My job was to write reports and take photographs for a community development organization. This meant traveling to remote villages devoid of running water or electricity, where I was the only foreigner. I learned Spanish, slept on burlap cots, ate tortillas made from hand-ground corn, and tried very hard to fit in.
Apparently I did a good enough job to fool some people. Once, while looking for a Mexican friend’s home in the small pueblo near the villages, I went knocking on several doors before finding the right one. When one of the erroneous doors swung open, there stood a person from my own country.
He was an expatriate who lived in the town. I was about to apologize, in English, for disturbing him, when he said, in stiff and startled Spanish, “Hola!” I must have assimilated enough for an outsider to think that I was from the area. Had he been Mexican, however, he would have known right away to say “Hello.” For, as much as I loved it, I could never truly assimilate into Mexican culture.
In Romania, I found a society that felt, looked, and tasted familiar. Many people shared my same skin tone and countenance. Inside their houses were hand-made doilies and embroidered cloths similar to what I’d seen in relatives’ homes in the U.S. The smells of mamaliga (cooked corn meal), sarmales (stuffed cabbage), chicken soup, and fresh pastries took me right back into my aunt’s kitchen. Surely I could assimilate here, in this country where my father’s side of the family began. It was a feat that I only partially accomplished.
It’s a common desire to associate oneself in conjunction with people and places that are familiar. Or to want to understand a past that relates to a personal present. It’s also natural to want to individualize yourself, explain what is unique about you, what you like or what you want to remember in relation to an experience. These two dichotomies present themselves in the act of assimilation versus the “selfie” photograph respectively. It may seem that one negates the other. But in fact they complement one another.
We’ve probably all assimilated and re-assimilated into various groups of people as life progresses. Each new phase brings change and further options. Yet, in the midst of our conforming and re-ordering, there remains the individual, albeit in some societies more than others. Nevertheless, we are still unique, we are still ourselves. And that self refers back to the human desire to belong to a group, because it enlarges our experience as individuals. If we understand this cycle, when we bump up against an “other” society, as so often happens in the modern world, we have the opportunity to encounter a deeper human narrative. Undoubtedly we retain our personal experiences and pre-formed ideologies, but now we can apply the self to adapt, integrate or even understand fully another culture. We can assimilate.
After the exchange with the elderly Romanian woman in the fields, I continued making pictures of myself next to haystacks. I’ll never know what she thought of me, or if she even cared whether or not I fit in. But for me I was encountering my grandparent’s life. And it was an amazing, unforgettable experience.