[96/100 Strangers]: Steve

“He who wears a guitar on his face is combatting social anxiety.” — Rachael, Snapmammas

I just made that up. It summarizes today’s post about Steve, my 96/100 Strangers.


96/100 Strangers: Steve

He was my third and final stranger portrait at the 14th Annual OFFCenter Folk Art Festival. Steve was wearing an unusual papier-mâché headpiece for the Urban Jungle parade. Anyone could participate in the community parade, as long as they wore some form of a costume.  Some people wore elaborate group floats, and others had newspaper hats on their heads. Steve had his head stuck in the body of a guitar. Sort of.

From a distance, the headpiece resembled a sitar. The rear side of the object’s body was rounded where it rested on the man’s shoulders. The object had a long narrow neck that pointed straight up in the air. I walked closer to him to gain a better view.  I realized it was an anthropomorphic papier-mâché folk art guitar with eyes and a mouth. The wearer’s face appeared inside the circular soundhole on the front face of the guitar body. What a riot!

I observed the man who was himself watching a swirl of costumed people. Some were dancing to music. Others were finding their places in the parade line. He was determining where his own spot would be. He claimed it by also standing in the line.

Once I was close enough to speak to him, I complimented his choice of a mask-hat-headpiece.  We both regarded it as whimsical and fun, and it made us both smile. It’s fun to share a real smile with a stranger.

Have you tried this? It can be very refreshing. I am reminded of a project that is available, for free, on the internet:

“In these times of physical isolation, we invite you to share a minute of heartfelt connection…The Human Minute. You commit to share one minute together with another person, looking at each other over a silent video connection. You can be you. The other can be themself.”

The interactive space was built to encourage an authentic way of being with each other. Visit https://www.human.online/ if you want to give this exact experience a try.

Back to Steve.

We shook hands at our mutual introduction. I explained the thrust of the 100 Strangers project and invited him to participate. Steve replied with a critical, “OK – YES!” He had a very strong desire to be photographed for a portrait while wearing this silly costume. He very much wanted me to email my images of him in just a few short days. I couldn’t let him down.

“I didn’t make this [headpiece] but it amuses me,” said Steve. “When I tried it on, it was comfortable. I’m going to wear it for the parade.”

I used my light reflector to brighten the parts of his face that were revealed through the guitar cavity. It also helped illuminate the literal face on the guitar. After my first shot, Steve offered to remove his eyeglasses. He then told me that he had been an optician for more than twenty years. Then he made a startling confession.

“Not long ago, I had a breakdown. I withdrew from people.” He said. “I’ve made a lot of progress. It’s not easy for me to be here, around this crowd. Writing has been my most effective form of therapy….I go to weekly OFFCenter writing workshops. They are helping me overcome my social phobia. I’m comfortable there. The groups are small. I thought today might be a good next step for me.”

While Steve and I were becoming acquainted and I was photographing him, a woman joined us in a way that I would characterize as hovering. About her, Steve said, “I’m with her, but not with her.”

He didn’t reveal their precise relation to each other. Quite possibly she was a member of a support group with the same phobias, or, perhaps his personal therapist. I politely requested a moment of her help. Would she be able to hold the light reflector while I was photographing Steve? She said, “No,”  and then she stood very close to me.

She watched Steve smiling at me. She was expressionless. I have no social anxieties, but her proximity to me was very awkward. I resumed my affair with making his portrait. One of my hands moved the reflector around to bounce sunlight onto Steve. My other hand maintained the camera and its settings; the lens focus; and the button presses for the shutter to take his photographs.

From what I’ve read, people living with social anxiety disorders typically experience significant emotional distress in situations with strangers. Just. Like. This. When introduced to new people they may worry about being teased or criticized; they sweat being the center of attention; they are overly self-conscientious while being watched or engaged in social encounters. Physiological manifestations that accompany social anxiety may include feeling intense fear, a racing heart, face blushing or ears turning red, sweating excessively, experiencing dry throat and mouth, trembling, swallowing with difficulty, or inadvertently twitching muscles. The constant intense anxiety does not go away.

I congratulated Steve for participating in the noisy, stimulating event; for speaking with me, who was a stranger; for allowing me to photograph him. Stating the obvious, I pointed out that he had chosen an appealing, fun-looking costume that would garner attention.  I asked if he would be able to cope with spectators staring at him and enjoying how he looked in his costume while he walked along the parade route.

“Right now, I’m not feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated. I don’t feel like people are judging me. I know they are enjoying this curiosity on my head!”

We shared a few more moments remarking on the buoyancy of the festival-goers around us. Before parting, Steve revealed one last thing to me. Underneath the guitar headpiece, he was completely bald.

Only a few days after completing the image development of Steve’s portraits, I emailed him the images. He never replied to confirm their receipt.

I also searched through the 100 Strangers Group archives on Flickr to discover if a subject had been previously photographed with his or her head inside a guitar body. I feel confident being “semi-exact”–(to quote The Donald) that I succeeded at crossing the finish line in first place on this one.

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