urban giraffes, physics exams and why individuality matters

In my early twenties, I first experienced Instagram as a broke college student. It was a mecca for iPhone 4 images of food and people’s travels. It was a pseudo-popularity contest of seemingly meaningless art. People loved it though, because it was unassuming and fun. Most images were low quality, and overlaid with the very first Instagram filters. It was at this time that I began to enjoy Instagram from purely a consumer perspective. This may have been the time period when my brain was first stirred towards the idea that art could be interesting and amusing. At that time, art taking up space in my imagination was a new concept. I had played sports all of my life and was athletically gifted. My family didn’t have a ton of money growing up, but I found myself in almost every free or low-cost sports league that I could get into. I played in 40-85 baseball games every summer, basketball in the winter and eventually football in between. I began weight and speed training in high school, and became like a limber gazelle. I eventually went to small college on a baseball scholarship and after several injuries I left. This created a large surplus in mental energy. At the age of twenty I was now playing zero sports for the first time in fifteen years. I decided I would focus more energy on lifting weights. A few months into that, I was with my uncle in California and through a freak accident ruptured a disc in my back, leaving shards of bone in my sciatic nerve in my leg. I began to have incredible pain and numbness in my back and leg, then had surgery three weeks later. After this accident and surgery, I began to have physical limitations and shied away from playing sports, even as a recreational activity. Again, I experienced an incredible surplus of mental energy. What was my meaning in life, what should I do?

In the years that followed, I delivered pizza, worked supporting those with special needs, and became more intrigued by art. I found this Instagram account by a girl named Elise Swopes. She had a fascination with giraffes. She would photoshop giraffes into the most unusual places. Elevators, jungles, open loft windows and city streets all became a home for her carefully placed giraffes. As I observed Elise and her fascination I realized something. Others loved her art not necessarily because they cared about giraffes but because Elise cared about being herself. Deep down, I don’t believe Elise really cared in anyone else liked her giraffes, I truly believe they made her happy and that’s all that mattered to her. This began to marinate in my brain. It dawned on me one day that art does not need to explain itself, nor does it need to be proven by anything. Two plus two always needs to be four, oxygen will always be composed of the same elements, but art is complete without any explanation of how or why. This led me to a belief I still hold today: art is necessary for the human soul. Within art contains all the uncertainty required to intrigue a human being. As I said before, many realms of life are immune to uncertainty. If architects or city planners maybe knew how to do their jobs, buildings and roadways would maybe fall over at any moment. No one wants a heart surgeon who is maybe qualified to perform emergency surgery, yet the maybes with art make it meaningful. Maybe when I capture a portrait of a woman she is uneasy. Maybe she is uneasy because I am unskilled at taking her portrait. Maybe she is uneasy because her looming final exam in physics is crushing her high hopes of graduating college. Therein lies the imagination. The viewer gets to decide and interpret art as they see fit, and there are no wrong answers. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked to create images for someone and their request for the images is that they be “nice portraits, in a field”. I like fields, but these high volume requests often make me curious as to why. Maybe people like having their portraits taken in a field because vitamin D from the sunshine on their face brightens their mood chemically. Maybe they like portraits in fields because no one ever took a physics exam in a field. Regardless, I love the meaning drawn from creating art that has no clear explanation. Why did I shoot portraits of Madison Bell laying on an inflatable flamingo in the road downtown? Probably because a flamingo in a road reminds the viewer of nothing. There is no mentally cataloged, pre-programmed response to “girl seems at peace lounging on inflatable flamingo in the road”. The viewer can only process and choose how they feel about that very uncommon sight. Maybe, just like Swopes and her giraffes, some saw that image and appreciated that I was merely enjoying life and doing whatever made me happy-enslaved by no rules and subject to no formulas. I do not believe there is a such thing as successful art, but authentic art certainly exists. Authenticity in art is doing not what you feel will please others, but what pleases you to do. This is why I often wear two or three pairs of Nike crew socks. I am being myself and trying to look like no one else, and it makes me happy to do so. A great step towards happiness in life is doing things that make you happy regardless of what others think. Free thought is worth its weight in gold. Societal norms are unusual and often nonsensical in nature anyway. I once heard a story that a woman would always cut the end off of her full size pork roast and throw it in the trash before the roast went into the oven. Finally she was asked why and she responded that her mother always had done so when she was a child. When her mother was asked why she did it, she responded, “the roast pan I owned was not long enough to fit the whole roast, so I had to waste some of the pork in order to cook the rest of it.” How much of life do we spend throwing out some of our roast because someone we loved or respected did so in the past? What if we are equipped with mindsets or unique understanding of how to overcome problems other before did not? Are we too afraid of being different to become incredible? Swopes giraffes got her over 281,000 followers on Instagram, her account became verified and she now has large corporate sponsors such as Champs Sports, Foot Locker and Apple to name a few. I write this to say, find your genius and grab hold of it. I’ve never once photoshopped a giraffe into anything myself, but feel incredibly blessed to have ran across individuals who were fearless enough to be themselves.