Fragmentation 2: From the Outside Looking In

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I wrote recently about the power and perils of wasteland photography in Mad Max, and it got me thinking on death and the immortality of images. I can’t help but think of the slow march of climate change and wondering how our planet will be remembered. How will Earth be photographed? What, as Susan Sontag puts it in On Photography, will “testify to time’s relentless melt”? I can imagine a flotilla of cumulus clouds over stretching plains, a pair of crumpled sedans wrecked in the middle of an intersection, and an aerial shot of the Amazon all hidden away in some wasteland bandit’s glove compartment.

I began writing that piece without a clear sense of direction, only re-positioning towards interesting landmarks after cresting over dunes and circumventing jagged rocks breaching the ground like enormous teeth. I never expected an essay on the video game world of Mad Max would bring me to such an introspective place.

It’s a sobering thought, but with every shared selfie or tagged photo on social media comes another potential entry for a memorial slideshow. What will the chronicle of my life look in gallery form? Will I be posing with a soccer ball on my hip, my chubby cheeks raised to a smile, donned in a cyan polyester uniform? Do I look uncharacteristically tan on picture day for my high school sophomore year? Am I standing in front of an undamaged Notre Dame Cathedral on an overcast afternoon, navy scarf snug around my neck? Is my beard neat or scraggly. Are my limbs strong or spindly? Am I mostly alone, or with family, friends, or pets? Do I look happy to be photographed? Will I be squirming beyond the grave at the thought of my oily forehead magnified tenfold on a dim projection screen? Or is it enough to exist if only in curated JPEGs and PNGs?

My relationship with the camera is directly tied to my level of self-esteem. Growing up, a glimpse at a Facebook photo meant zeroing in on things I wished I could change – thin forearms and pepperoni skin. It was enough to ruin my whole day. I’m tougher and more confident now but there are days where I feel simultaneously over and underweight, like my proportions are oscillating between different ends of a ridiculous spectrum. I’m too lanky in the morning, too heavy in the middle after lunch, and by sunset I’m happy with who I am for a little while.

But I’m getting better at recognizing what I like about myself, and choosing to adopt the perspective of those who love me. Unexpectedly, along with my meds and journaling, posting more on social media has improved my self-image. Maybe it’s an act of reclamation of what I look like or a way I can have fun with the only body I’ve got? From the outside in, nowadays, I think I look pretty good.

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My experience over the past couple of years has taught me to recognize certain thought patterns, cyclical condemnations designed to keep me doubting the truth. It’s been over a week since you’ve exercised, I’ll ruminate, so all of your muscles have atrophied, any healthy habit you’ve formed has been canceled out, and everyone can see how skinny or fat you are. But after I flip these thoughts over like tarot cards and discard them back into the deck for next time, I remember that my self-confidence will return eventually. My negative thoughts are temporary, and as soon as I do a little yoga, pick up a dumbbell, or swim a lap, I’ll regain the lively posture of a man who recognizes that body image is a never-ending process that takes a lifetime to cultivate.

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