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.
Then, I took a break because I needed to do a lot of soul-searching to figure out what it was that I actually wanted to do with him. And so, I continued to photograph him and we started to have a dialogue, but it was through photographs.
And I even actually started taking portraits of myself with him because I wanted to, at first, just have a close physical proximity to him. And the idea of this made me realize I needed full immersion, I needed no easy escape plan. And so, I asked him, kind of not even thinking it would happen, if he would go on the road trip that we never took when I was a kid, and surprisingly, he said, “Yeah, sure, let’s do it.”
And so, he and I hit the road, and as this happened, we started creating this fantasy relationship that never actually existed. But the experience of making these photographs created a bond between the two of us that we were incapable of doing otherwise.
It was my a-ha moment for photography. I was using my camera as a therapist. It became this third party that allowed the two of us to communicate with each other even when we weren’t actually talking. We finally actually saw each other.
So, fast-forward about a decade later, and I am no longer working with my dad, but I am photographing strangers spontaneously that I meet on the road.
Now, about a month before the election, I was having tremendous anxiety and feeling very stagnant about my work in general. I began seeing friends withdraw and the overall feeling of frustration on social media. And to be quite honest, I just wanted to escape. And so, I hit the road, and I didn’t have any destinations in mind. I just knew I wanted to drive cross-country and I wanted to escape.
And then, about a day into being on the road, I realized I needed to be doing something while I was on the road, because being just with yourself can lead to a lot, a lot of soul-searching. So, once I realized I wanted to be doing something, I thought back to the time with my dad and how pivotal and also very cathartic it was for me, for my craft and also my mental health.
And so, I wanted to do that with strangers, and I went on Instagram, I went on Facebook, I downloaded all of the dating and hook-up apps, and I started messaging everyone that I could within every town that I stopped in.
Now, when a stranger approaches you online, it leads to a little hesitation. And I say “stranger” and I just want to let you know I’m utilizing a community that is already comfortable for me, and that’s of gay or queer-identifying men.
And so, I would send messages with a brief little description of what I was doing. I wanted to come and meet you, I wanted to come to your home, we could meet in public, and I wanted to take your portrait – I got the majority of them being noes, and a lot of variations of, “That’s creepy” or – “I don’t really photograph well.”
But there was something that did come up pretty often, and it was, “Why me?” And it was that other a-ha moment for me. There didn’t need to be a “why me.” I wanted everyone that I interacted with to not only feel special, but to also feel like their stories could be heard.
So, this body of work, it’s called “The Day of The Lone Wolf,” and it’s from a book called “The Secret of Birthdays,” and it happens to be the day that I was born on.
Now, I casually mentioned my mother earlier, and it was by no accident. Her and I are still estranged, but I wanted to take this moment to thank her. When I was younger, she read to me from The Secret Language of Birthdays, and she used the personality traits that were depicted for The Day of The Lone Wolf, both to criticize and also occasionally appraise me, such as emotionally “sensitive,” and “impulsive,” and “contradictory”.
Now in my mid 30’s I’ve reclaimed my identity as a queer man and I’ve also reclaimed The Day of The Lone Wolf, and I’m creating in honor of it.
So, since that first road trip, I’ve gotten cross-country two more times, and the only thing that you actually know about these photographs is the common denominator is me. Now, everyone has a story, you’ve been listening to mine – And so, while you may not know the particulars of their struggles or of their achievements or even of their privilege, there is one thing that you do know: they allowed themselves to be vulnerable with a stranger, and that’s what I’ve done with you today.