“It’s literally those two people getting into a room and talking honestly with each other, and there’s nothing more amazing than that.”
Her blue eyes stare into the camera, with lips parted slightly, and her thumb and index finger are extended outward. She’s not smiling, but she’s not frowning, either. The words “thunder thighs” are written along her fingers, and her headshot is captioned, “I am not my body image.” Her insecurity is out in the open, written in black marker for the world to see. This girl, however, does not look afraid. She does not look weak. In the words of the photographer, Steve Rosenfield, she is empowered—and taking ownership of her insecurity without letting it define her.
This girl’s name is Amanda, and she was the very first person to be featured in “What I Be,” a photography project started by Rosenfield in order to “build security through insecurities.” This past week, Rosenfield brought his Boston accent and impressive dreadlocks to campus, taking photographs of students as part of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College’s (UGBC) Be Conscious mental health initiative. The six-day campaign culminated in an unveiling event on Monday night, during which Rosenfield, along with several other student participants shared their stories.
The “What I Be” project has four steps: individuals have their insecurities written on their hands or faces; pose for a headshot without smiling; have it uploaded to Facebook; and provide a caption with their insecurity, preceded by “I am not.” Each photo follows the same format, but the “What I Be” project is anything but formulaic—it allows participants to be open and honest about themselves in the hopes of encouraging and empowering others who are experiencing similar struggles.
“I am not my fragility.”
Rosenfield may spend up to 10 hours a day talking to his participants, but he was not always so open—with himself or with his friends and family. After graduating from high school in Brockton, Mass., he immediately entered the workforce, and he eventually ended up at a computer company called Thomson Financial in Boston. During that time, Rosenfield explained, he was a completely different person—more materialistic, closed off, and unhappy with his situation. “I was just done with the corporate world,” he said. “It wasn’t where I wanted to be, and it wasn’t fulfilling me, so that’s why I chose to quit.”
With no job, and no commitments, Rosenfield took up rock climbing for the next few years—traveling, journaling, and picking up photography as a hobby. In 2008, he befriended musician Michael Franti and began taking photographs of his concerts, which eventually led him to shooting more live shows from artists such as Dispatch and Ben Howard.
For Rosenfield, the magic didn’t happen at these concert venues. It happened one night in 2010, when he was playing around with his camera and started photographing his friend Amanda. “I took a picture, and the minute I saw it is when I knew: that was my vision of the project,” he said. “I wanted it to be really raw and dramatic.” Rosenfield uploaded the image to Facebook and received lots of positive feedback from others who wanted to learn more and become involved in the project.
And thus, “What I Be” was born.
“I am not my shield.”
The project’s name comes from one of Franti’s songs of the same title—a song about being who you are and accepting your differences and flaws. Rosenfield seeks to convey a similar message through his photography, and he has found that people are quite open during the process. It’s just Rosenfield, his subject, and the camera—which allows for honest and uninhibited conversation.
“The cool thing about it is, I’m not a professional,” he said. “I’m not a therapist, so I don’t have to be careful of what I ask. I’m speaking as a friend, and I’m 100 percent open. I ask any questions I want, and they can ask any questions they want. It’s literally those two people getting into a room and talking honestly with each other, and there’s nothing more amazing than that.”
The product of these conversations is a simple headshot, with only a few words written on the skin of the subject. The concept of using photography and social media is not exactly revolutionary, but Rosenfield wanted to do something different with his work—after all, the world isn’t all smiles and selfies. He wanted the photos to include only the individual—no props or embellishments—which is why he decided to write directly on the subject’s skin rather than having him or her hold up a card or a board.
“I am not my number.”
“I didn’t want to do full body shots because it distracts people,” Rosenfield added. “It takes attention away from the subject and what I wanted people to concentrate on.” And why use photography, compared to other artistic mediums? “For me, there was no better way to do it—it’s something that stops time and allows you to receive the emotion of the subject,” he said.
While Rosenfield loves meeting new people and hearing their stories, he admits that the emotional weight of his discussions is one of the most challenging parts of the project. Depression, negative body image, sexual assault, and relationship problems are just some of the issues that he encounters on a daily basis, but the end result reminds him why this project is necessary.
“Some of it is really upsetting, and some of it makes me mad,” he said. “It’s just real tough seeing people hurt, but it definitely pays off when the pictures go up, and their lives are different because of talking or putting their insecurity out there and becoming empowered by it.”
“I am not my introversion.”
Even though he meets new faces every day, Rosenfield has been able to see the patterns in people’s insecurities, and how we’re really not all that different from each other. After completing the project at BC, there was nothing that he hadn’t heard before from previous students. Although the circumstances are unique to each individual, the insecurities at the core of those experiences are often common to other people, and that sense of universality is what makes the project so appealing. Students especially take interest in the project, and Rosenfield has worked with about 12 schools, along with yoga studios, music festivals, and various other events.
So, why do so many college students reach out to Rosenfield to bring the project to their schools? For Rosenfield, high school is more about following the crowd, while college is a much greater process of self-discovery. “When you’re in college, you really start to create yourself and learn about who you are, and what you want, and what path you want to take,” he said. “And I think that’s a time for a lot of struggle.” One might think that college is the epitome of self-expression and being one’s true self, but in reality, there are still pressures to conform. “You go to a prestigious school that costs a lot of money, so you’re expected to fit a mold,” he said. “Expectations are created, so it creates stresses.”
“I am not my fortitude.”
Rosenfield himself didn’t attend college, but his experiences working with college students have allowed him to understand the reasons behind people’s insecurities. And that’s not to say that Rosenfield doesn’t have his own set of insecurities—he admits to being a workaholic who has trouble maintaining relationships because of his extensive traveling.
But, if you’re looking for Rosenfield’s own face among the images on his website, you won’t find it. His upcoming book will feature the images he has taken over the past four years as part of “What I Be,” and his own biggest insecurity will be revealed in the publication.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “What’s my biggest insecurity?” Whatever it may be, Rosenfield explained, having an insecurity is what makes us human—and there is nothing wrong with that.
Featured Images Courtesy of Steve Rosenfield