Meet the Freaks: writing in response to the work of Diane Arbus

I led a workshop at London’s Hayward Gallery a couple of weeks ago, writing in response to the work of photographer Diane Arbus.

Arbus left a career in fashion photography to wander the streets of 1960s NewYork, documenting the lives of oddballs and outsiders, whom she affectionately called ‘freaks’. From Coney Island circus acts and strip club transsexuals to regular people who’d just lost their way in life.

Diane Arbus. Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961.

While other street photographers of the time lurked in the bushes or hid their cameras inside their coats, Arbus wanted to meet her subjects face to face, to encounter them as people and capture something about who they really were.

As the Guardian said in its 5-star review of the Hayward show:

“More than provoking mere curiosity, Arbus teases our imaginations. Looking at her images we invent backstories and narratives we can never be sure of. She makes us stop and look, just as she did.”

In our workshop, we wandered quietly through the gallery ‘meeting’ the people Arbus met and writing in response to some simple prompts:

  • Who is here?
  • Who is not here?
  • What brings them joy?
  • What is their dream?
  • What makes them sad?
  • What is their regret?
  • What do they want to say to you?
  • What do you want to say to them?
  • What could they give you?
  • What could you give to them?

As we went, we tried to keep our minds open and – at least to begin with – not project our own subjectivity onto the people in the photos. We tried to allow them to be who they are, then be open to what emerges as our imaginations  work with what we see. Will anything emerge? Will we find a way to connect? Is there any kind of exchange taking place between the person in the photo and us, the viewers? As Arbus said:

“The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.”

Eleven of us spent just over an hour in the gallery. We each made a close study of at least five photos. In the cafe afterwards we talked about the experience, and did a final exercise to help us process things. We were a mixed group. Some of us wrote regularly, others hadn’t tried any kind of creative engagement with words since school. But we all found it meaningful in our own ways.

Here’s what I produced, typed up straight from my notebooks…

I’m sorry I can’t help you

After: Girl with a pointy hood and white schoolbag on the curb

Woollen hat. Three buttons on her knee-length woollen coat. A white case held tight in her right hand. Clothes for a week. Waiting by the curb. An expanse of pavement behind her. She loves her silk pyjamas. She dreams of a doll to play with. Her brother makes her sad. He took her doll; stole it and hid it. She says don’t look at me. Help me across the road. I want to say, come here. I will make you safe. But I know I can’t. She needs to go.

Waiting for Harry

After: Old woman in a hospital bed, 1958

One arm folded across her chest. Sunken eyes. Everything is white, then the black hole of her mouth. Is she alive? Mary is here, Harry isn’t. He came but couldn’t stay. He couldn’t bear it. The nurse said it was a comfort to Mary, having him there. He said he needed a drink. Birdsong brings her joy. Birdsong in the square outside her window. At this time of year, nightingales. Her dream is that Harry comes. Harry comes and stays a while. No children; that was always the worst thing. She said it didn’t matter, they had each other. They would look after each other. When she woke up the last time she felt his hand in hers. I want to say he’s here now, Mary. Harry is with you. She gives me her last breath. I breathe it in.

Andy leaves town on the midnight bus to New York

After: Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Ratouchef doing his Maurice Chevalier impersonation

Straw boater. Bow tie. Thumbs in his lapels. The microphone on its stand stands taller than Andy. There are only men in the crowd. I can’t see their faces. He likes Monday nights the best. It’s his night off. He never wanted to sing, but he loves the words. Andy dreamed of being a poet. His uncle had other ideas. Bert ran the carnival. Andy dreams of getting away, of living near Kerouac, in Greenwich Village. Beatnik chicks in black roll-necks smokingFrench cigarettes. But he’d missed his chance. This was his life now. He wants to say, hey fella, don’t stand there staring, sing along. I want to say Andy, get away, find your own life. It’s not too late. Take this money, get a bus out of town. Leave tonight. Head for New York.

Join me where the sun shines

After: Man yelling in Times Square

A giant body. Black wool coat. Snow on the ground. Clutching a fist-sized hardback. A Stars and Stripes in the background.  Stanley. Screaming again, out in the cold, all alone. Stanley. Enjoying the pain in being alone, out on his own, ignored but still screaming. Dreaming of redemption. For everything he’s not had the courage to do in his life. This hole in his heart that is blacker than his boots. He wants to tell me I am lost, damned, beyond all hope. Unless I join him now, and feel the pain. Stanley, I’ll tell you this: I have my own street corner, over where the sun shines, and I am not alone.

After: Man yelling in Times Square

We drove to the hospital on Christmas Eve

After: Xmas tree in living room in Levittown, 1962

An empty room, a room with no people. A Christmas tree, weighed down with tinsel. Too big for the room, it bends under the ceiling. Under the tree, eight presents, wrapped in squares. A TV in the corner, turned off. A sofa, one cushion. Draylon tassels. A lamp on a side table, its shade still covered by its cellophane wrapper. A clock on the wall says a quarter to one.Mary’s in the hospital. Harry’s at the bar on the corner. She can’t be here this Christmas. He can’t be here without her. There is joy in those presents, but they won’t be opened. He regrets not spending more on the gift he bought her. He regrets not telling her he loved her. He should have said it more often. He should have said it once. They would have said come in, sit down, have a drink, eat with us. I want to say to him, Harry, gather up the presents. He gives me his car keys; I give him a lift to the hospital.

Stumbling outside my comfort zone

At just about every workshop I lead there’s a point where the participants move outside of their comfort zones. Sometimes they boldly leap across the line that separates where they feel safe from where they don’t. Other times it’s a more tentative shuffle.

It always happens on a Dark Angels course. But it happens too in unexpected places – in a corporate messaging workshop, for example, where an innocuous question like ‘what does your organization really do?’ can take participants into a place where they’ve not been before; a place that can feel suddenly discomforting. Especially if their boss is in the room.

But never mind. I can make reassuring noises about the fact that everything will be ok; there are no wrong answers; nobody is being judged; anxiety is just excitement by another name, etc. And it’s true, nothing bad does happen.

Yet even so, it’s important for me to remember that, while it’s easy to say these reassuring words, it’s less easy to listen to them. The participants are the ones being encouraged to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, not me. I know the fear will pass quickly, but that doesn’t make it feel any less real in the moment.

“I need to feel the fear myself, so I don’t forget what it’s like. I should take my own medicine”

This is why I think it’s important for me to get outside of my comfort zone every once in a while. I need to feel the fear myself, so I don’t forget what it’s like. I should take my own medicine. And that’s how I found myself last week at something called The Lab.

How to describe The Lab? Really, you have to go and take part to understand what it is. But here’s how its founder, the wonderful Steve Chapman, describes it. The Lab, he says, is “a not-for-profit place where people can experiment and be experimented on in service of enlivening human beings.  It is a safe haven for creative expression and failing happy.”

For me, entry into that safe haven meant spending the afternoon in a Bloomsbury attic room with 20 other creative weirdos (they would wear that name as a badge of honour, I think). On arrival, I was asked to write on a small card the name of any ‘experiment’ that I wanted to perform. These were grouped into those that run for less than 10 minutes and those that could take between 10 and 30 minutes (But nobody really knows for sure, as none of the experiments has been tried before – that’s one of the rules). When it’s time to start, a card is drawn at random. The person who devised the experiment then takes charge and the participants basically do whatever they are told to. When the experiment ends, we do another one.

In the four hours of The Lab I did some crazy things – things that likely make no sense outside The Lab. I played a game that had no rules; punched a Boris Johnson dog-toy in the face and reflected on what it felt like with a partner who’d stood on Theresa May; squashed a grape into my forehead just because someone told me to; devised a short film to market the appeal of ‘humanity’, then acted it out with ten people; enthralled a group with my description of a photograph that didn’t exist; and started a revolution.

“There were times when I really wished I was somewhere else. But that was the whole point”

There were times when I had no idea what I was doing, and didn’t even know what I was meant to be trying to do. There were times when I really wished I was somewhere else. But that was the whole point. I’d gone so far outside of my comfort zone that if I turned around to look for it I would never have found it, so I just had to keep moving forward – which was also the whole point.

I had the chance to try out two experiments of my own. In the first one we played a game I’d made up called Frequently Questioned Answers. The second involved making a prototype of a ‘wisdom generator’ I’d invented called an Aphorismatron.

Normally, I put a lot of thought and planning into my workshop exercises. But these were experiments I’d only devised on the train that morning. I had no idea how they would work, or if they would work. That was scary.

When it came to the Aphorismatron thing, I had to make up a lot of what I was doing after I’d started doing it, because I didn’t have some of the things I thought I’d need. But I suppose that’s also the whole point of The Lab.

What did I learn? I am more confident, resourceful and resilient than I thought. But I need to keep reminding myself, none of it needs to have ‘a point’. There isn’t anything that has to be learned. The Lab just is. Which is why The Lab is so special. I’m still processing the experience, but this much I know: I loved it and will be going back.

What you are trying is impossible

It is impossible to combine work and motherhood.

But poetry starts from impossibility.

An Alice Oswald interview. Cut out of The Guardian and glued into a notebook.

As I would say more generally, constraints liberate.

Given your impossible limitations – of time, form, talent – do what is possible.