I recently attended the gallery viewing for the now famous “What I Be” project. The project was organized by two women at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, Mati Esther Engel and Dasha Sominski, along with photographer Steve Rosenfield. Participants are charged with publicly exposing an insecurity of theirs by writing a few words on their forehead with a caption beginning with “I am not.” The photographs touch on topics including love, sex, abuse, depression, community, family, religion, and more. This particular exhibit focused on the “Jews of New York.”
Though Yeshiva University originally agreed to host the project, YU eventually decided to not host either the shooting or the viewing on campus due to concerns about about “student sensibilities”. The project and YU’s reaction became a media sensation, with publications ranging from Haaretz to Huffington Post to Al-Jazeera picking up on the story.
The gallery viewing at Mister Rogers, a gallery in Crown Heights, amounted to a fun, enjoyable, and inspiring evening, with art, live music, a documentary, and a lively and friendly crowd. The photographs were posted on the walls, many of which were accompanied by a short bio written by the participant, in which he or she explains their photograph. The night was a celebration of the courage of the participants, a reminder of what can happen when people come together to support each other, and an acknowledgement of the real insecurities that exist in our community.
One aspect of the evening in particular struck me: There was neither judgment nor politics, there was just support. The crowd was very diverse, in all ways, yet everyone checked their judgments at the door. Everyone felt comfortable interacting, conversing, and enjoying the evening together. Obviously there is a selection bias in terms of what types of people came, but on the long subway ride back uptown it struck me how non-judgmental, open, and uninhibited everyone was at the event.
I think that the point of the evening, and of the “What I Be” project, is that while our insecurities are very much part of ourselves, they do not define us. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, our struggles, and our insecurities. Some brave participants decided to display their insecurities on the wall in a form of cathartic artistic expression, these people seemed to be the focus of the evening. However, I believe that the viewer of the photographs is just as much a part of the artistic medium of the project as the photographs themselves. These photographs necessarily involve the viewer’s personal experience.
Viewing those photographs made me feel vulnerable, as if my insecurities were on display inside of me. Some of the photos more than others struck quite a chord in me, creating a feeling of identification that is both unsettling in its raw display of human emotion and comforting in its being an experience shared by others. Being so exposed, be it in pictures on the wall at Mister Rogers or in the pictures we all keep in the wall inside ourselves, facilitates an open, honest, and non-judgmental atmosphere. A simple conversation between two strangers becomes a meeting of two photographs, with their insecurities written on their foreheads, be it externally or internally. In this sense, all of us in the crowded gallery in Crown Heights were participants in this project. Being in such an open and supportive atmosphere helps us break down our walls, feel more comfortable in our own skins, and relate to the humans in front of us.