All In

It's a tricky thing when your business is your name. Michelle Gardella, Photography. 

I'm not sure if this trickiness applies to all professions, but so far, I haven't seen my dentist or my mechanic sweating over their online presence. 

Here's the thing though, photographers, for whatever reason, from what I have seen, feel the need to create a brand that is all encompassing. Maybe it's because of the path that celeb photographers have paved, or maybe it's because the algorithm for getting lots of followers and likes on instagram is so simple and predictable and safe... I honestly have no clue why. But the truth is, very few photographers show up as themselves in the world anymore. They, we, are so entangled in this super charged, super pure, super happy version of what we think we need to be, that we forget the beauty of who we really are. 

I was planning on jumping back on instagram this month after taking December off. But I'm realizing a lot of my issue with instagram is around the fact that my bullshit meter doesn't stop going off as soon as I scroll through my feed. And I get it. Like I can see how everyone is so hungry for work and accolades that they'll only post sunset photos of their children dancing with ducks or their own hair blowing wildly in the wind. But the reality is, their marriage is in shambles and they drink themselves to sleep most nights. They are in debt and desperate for ten dollars. They are hiding their sexuality to the point of extreme depression. They are living with their parents because they can't afford rent. I could go on. I know these people behind the curtains, and I love them for who they are, and they aren't giving anyone the full, beautiful story, they could be. People are like, why would anyone share the darkness when the world needs so much light? And I'm just like, why is reality dark? It's not. We've just got it all wrong. Reality is where it's at. 

I promise you, I fully understand the way this branding machine works. For most of us, we aren't making giant sums of money in this industry. Sure we aren't starving, but we aren't raking it in, and we certainly have no clue if the money will keep coming. So, out of fear, we brand the heck out of ourselves in the hopes that it will sell more. Sell more sessions, sell more seats at our retreats, sell more prints. Get more likes which will get more followers which will somehow and in someway fill up the holes in our hearts that we as artists all have. We tell the kids to stop fidgeting, we tell our husbands to shift into the good light, and we sell. Oh boy, do we sell. 

But I just can't do it anymore. I can't use myself or my children as tiny characters in a never-ending organic tea commercial. We aren't that.

This weekend I took Lily to meet a mermaid at a strip mall aquarium. The moment you open the door the smell of rotten fish and shark poop nails you between the eyes, and I am not lying when I say that I got some water from the koi pond in my eyes and they burned for a good ten  minutes. This place was top ten grimiest I have ever been. But she wanted to meet a mermaid, so there we were. And as we were walking around, someone stopped me. "I know you from instagram," she said. "I recognize Lily," she said. "I'm from New Jersey but here in Austin visiting my sister. It's SO COOL to run into you!" It was so cool, but all I kept thinking was, "Oh my god, here I am in this disgusting place wearing kind of baggy yoga leggings with mismatched socks and running sneakers, and I let Lily dress herself and she looks like she's about to star in the Ice Capades cira 1986 with chocolate on her chin because that's the only way I got her to not wear rhinestone high heels." And then I felt a huge bolt of shame wash through me, as this woman walked away, because in real life, we aren't as awesome as we are on instagram. I felt shame for being real life us. And FUCK THAT. 

We spend the weekends in our pajamas and play poker all day with bets like, "Loser has to toilet wand the boy's bathroom." We buy our clothes at thrift shops and have no clue what's on trend. Seriously. No idea. Thomas and I fight and slam doors. Lily cries because she doesn't like the way three quarter length sleeves feel inside a winter jacket. Braedon has to eat frozen Udi's lasagna before bed because the boy consumes more food than anyone I have ever seen in my life and I just can't keep up with the cooking. And I'm a hot mess in the middle of OCD treatment, walking around repeating, "You are safe, you are loved," in my brain just to eat a cucumber slice from the salad bar at Whole Foods. Listen, I'm not saying we are doomsday over here! We are awesome and funny and filled to the brim with the kind of imperfect love that people long for on their death beds. I really believe that. BUT, we are so far from mountain top hipster poses and the things that really reel people in. We are so, so far from the things that get features and followers and fans. You won't see a photo of last night's apartment building driveway session of Kan Jam on Artifact Uprising anytime soon. Even though it was fucking brilliant and awesome and I accidentally hit the drain pipe at full speed like ten times and made my kids laugh so hard they got the hiccups.  

And yesterday morning, while Thomas was at men's over 30 soccer and B was at his friend's house shooting rats with a pellet gun, and Lily was in the bath because she had a bit of trouble wiping herself when she went #2, I was cleaning the house and accidentally called 911 while bleach-wiping our home phone in the living room. The sheriff came and I answered the door with a side ponytail in my hair and a vacuum still running in my right hand, wearing a t-shirt that says, "Gangsta Wrappa," with a present on it that my bestie got me for Christmas. When he held his hip and asked, "Is there a problem, ma'am," it took EVERYTHING in me not to burst out laughing and declare, "Officer, you have NO IDEA!" You know you have OCD when you call 911 due to scrubbing every number on your telephone in a corner of the room. HA! That's the type of shit that happens around here all the time. We're like a comedy show only it's not a comedy show and sometimes I cry in the bathtub with the door locked. 

And so I'm left with this dilemma of like, as a business woman, do I play along? As a business woman who has two kids in private school and needs to make money, do I find some dope Emerson quotes (or even better, bible ones!) and splash them across a more marketable version of my family? 

The answer, is no. No I do not. No I will not. 

For me, it is not a choice. For me, as a Mother, I cannot ask my awesome kids to participate in a false reflection of our reality. It's like wearing an itchy wool sweater for me. Posting a tiny utopian sliver of our lives isn't fair and when things aren't fair I can't just sit there and feel all itchy and uncomfortable. I'm the girl who would rather take off the sweater and be naked in the cold than feel confined by self inflicted discomfort for five minutes. 

Also, I have a super uneasy feeling about strangers staring at my children. I get super weirded out picturing a bunch of people getting to know their faces and freckles and favorite ice cream flavors. That's probably my anxiety stuff, but either way, it gives me the willies. 

I have hesitated to write this because, while I have become quite the expert at it, I don't actually enjoy burning bridges anymore. I don't want to hurt people's feelings who love to play the game. Because if you love it, then that's all that matters. But I don't have to love it. And I don't have to love going onto my phone and seeing you do what I consider to be lying just for the sake of money. I am an opinionated woman and I speak the truth of my heart, and that's the truth. So if and when I do return to instagram, I think maybe I'll only follow Thomas and Braedon. Because when I walk through the mall, and people jump out and try and sell me their glamorous hair and nail creams or whatever, I get really mad. Like more mad than I think I should because I like my hair and nails just fine thankyouverymuch. And instagram feels like that a lot lately. Like nonstop people selling me things. And me selling things. And everyone selling all of the things all of the time. 

I love being your friend in real life, but I feel that seeing how much bullshit you spit on social media might interfere with our friendship. So I won't look. I'm not going to look anymore because I love you and I don't want to judge you, I just can't help it. Also, it makes me jealous of your pretend reality. Like why can't my pretend reality be as good as your pretend reality? And that's a whole different level of weird industry stuff that I can't even begin to wrap my head and heart around. 

When my little family plays poker, I'm always the one to go all in. I'm always the one to play with a "Fuck it! Let's do this!" attitude and my son always says, every single time, if you were playing with actual money, I bet you wouldn't be so fearless. 

But what he doesn't realize is that I have gone all in my entire life, especially with my photography business. Do I sometimes wish I was not this way? Omg you seriously have no idea. I have wished myself into the grave on so many nights. But at the end of the day I am Michelle Gardella. And Michelle Gardella goes all-in with 100% of her beating heart and then lets the cards play out. "I might go broke," I think, "But at least I'll be happy." So far I'm still in the game. I'm still alive. I haven't gone broke. I've come close. But I'm still here. 

(Is it hard to say that last paragraph out loud? Yes. But I just got finished with a month-long love yourself club where we all had to email a list of 10 things we loved about ourselves to one another over and over again until it didn't feel so weird. I can list ten million things I hate about myself, but saying a few things that I am proud of, GULP. But whatever, that last paragraph stays because it's true. And because maybe it will help someone.)

And so I think the reason I needed to get all of this out this morning is because I really want to start writing more personal things on this blog, and perhaps instagram, and sharing recipes and real life stories and things that will never ever sell anything. Photos that have nothing to do with weddings or rivers. Thoughts, disjointed but brave. And I guess I just need to acknowledge before that shift happens, that it's OK to show up in the world and not be trying to make a buck. It's OK to write because you have to write or photograph because you have to photograph, and let that be that. It's OK to create to save your life. 

It's a tricky thing when your business is your name, but I think, I hope, it will be less tricky as I allow myself to just be me. Not Michelle the business woman, but just, Michelle. I have no clue if this will be the end of the road for my business. If not playing the hashtag-desperate for likes-only post what relates to your brand-game will be the final straw. 

But I've already taken the sweater off. It's the only way I know how to do it, and I like my odds.  

There's a voice in my head that screams at me, every single time I write, "Nobody cares, Michelle. Just shut up, Michelle. You've already said this before, Michelle. Just play along." But every time I share my voice publicly, a few things are happening. One, I am peeling back another layer of the emotional onion and feeling one tiny bit lighter. Two, I am facing my fears and telling the bully voices to be quiet. And three, I am granting myself permission to exist as a totally imperfect human being. To show up in the world exactly as I am and not be invisible. So it's worth it, I think. And I'm looking forward to whatever unfolds next.