Here is the full transcript of Ryan Pfluger’s TEDx Talk: Photography as a Salve for Loneliness at TEDxPasadena conference.
In case there’s any confusion, that’s me up there. Enjoying the spotlight or commanding attention does not come naturally to me.
Blending into the background, analyzing and observing a situation, is where I find the most comfort, or, as I’ll get to later on in this talk, when I’m on the road by myself. Unless this lady is with me. Yes, I’m referring to my camera as a lady. She is my safety blanket, and I’ve spent more time with my camera than with most people in my life.
I’m an artist, I am a photographer, I’m a self-described nomadic creator. It’s one of those creative professions that when you tell people, they say, “Wow, I wish I could do that!” Or, “What do you really do for work?” Or my personal favorite, “Did you go to school for this?”
And, as with most things that we don’t have personal experience with, we make our own assumptions and judgments based off of the only tangible things that we can grab from. So, when you say “photographer,” people often think “weddings,” or “high school portraits,” or the ridiculous way photographers are depicted in TV and movies.
And I am going to show you what I do and why I do it. Now, when people first meet me or hear about me, this is what they’re interested in. Now, I could stand here and I can talk about how I’ve brushed shoulders with world leaders, and my surreal five minutes that I spent with President Obama.
Or I could talk about photographing Hillary Clinton a week before the election, after a rally in North Carolina. Or the tremendous emotional weight for myself photographing Darren Wilson a year after the events in Ferguson, Missouri, for the New Yorker, to then, only a year later, photograph Bryan Stevenson, and he is an advocate and a lawyer based out of Mobile, Alabama, who fights for the under-represented, and we had a conversation about race that still stays with me today.
Or just what’s the easiest and what most people can relate to: celebrity. So, I could talk about Angelina Jolie, or I could talk about the TV icon that’s Sarah Jessica Parker, or I can just talk about the numerous actors and musicians and notable people that I’ve interacted with over the last decade. And I love my job and I love my work, but that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about.
I’m going to talk about when I’m in my 2003 Buick, driving cross-country for weeks at a time, and how that’s when I’m feeling the most fulfilled. But first, I need to give a little backstory on me and why I do what I do. So, think of it like in an abridged episode of “This American Life,” just not that long.
So, I am a white, cis, queer man from a working-class family in New York, and with all things being relative, I didn’t grow up with the utmost privilege, and it wasn’t uniquely terrible either. My parents, however, were too involved with their own demons for me to ever truly feel seen or heard.
And it wasn’t necessarily their fault. It was merely just a casualty of their reality. Depression, addiction, anger, resentment overwhelmed both of them. When I was seven, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was the first of a decade-long battle that she ended up surviving from.
It was also the same time that she showed me how to make her a screwdriver. When I was ten, I knew that I was queer, or that I at least liked boys, and by 13, my mother outed me. It was an experience that let me feeling like my identity was stripped from me.
By 14, my dad had a DUI or two, I don’t really remember. By 16, he moved out of the house, and by 18, I didn’t really speak to either of them.
So, my world up until this point made me feel that my experiences and my feelings would never actually compare to that of my parents. And intellectually, I knew better, but I didn’t actually know what would make me feel differently. All I knew was that I didn’t want anyone that came into my life to ever feel like they were not seen. And then, I picked up a camera. For me, photography was always really interesting because of the immediacy and collaborative nature of it.
It would be a way for me to meet people that were outside of the safe mental bubble that I had created for myself. And so, I started photographing, and as I started interacting with other people, I realized that the interaction itself was actually more interesting to me than the photograph.
When I started realizing that, and I thought about my dad, who had recently got sober, I wanted him to feel seen. So, at this point, he and I were still very estranged, and I was in graduate school and my professor, Collier Schorr, said something to me that still echoes in my head pretty much every day: my work was “too easy,” and just because I could make something that “looked good” did not mean that it was interesting. And so, I needed to challenge myself and my craft.
Ironically enough, after years of spending my time making myself feel comfortable, I needed to be uncomfortable again. So, I asked my dad if he would be willing to sit for a portrait. This was the first one that I took of him.