Friday, July 6, 2018

The Face of the Story



Next up in our guest blogger series, we're thrilled to welcome Laura Webb, an amazing portrait photographer and storyteller! In this post, she shares her photo essay, The Face of the Story, which features incredibly powerful stories of women. Be sure to also check her out on Instagram and Facebook

It all started a few weeks before my 30th birthday.

What started as an innocent enough afternoon of Netflix binging, turned into a complete creative mental breakdown/identity crisis.
But it inspired something beautiful.

So it was mid/late September of last year when I was sitting on my couch, binging Abstract on Netflix (if you haven’t seen it, you need to). I’m a photographer, so I was soaking in all sorts of creative inspiration from these remarkable creators in graphic design, architecture, illustration, and design.

And then I got to episode 7. Platon.

Now if you don’t know who Platon is, I understand. I didn’t either.



But odds are, you’ve seen his work without knowing. He has photographed world leaders, celebrities, humanitarians, and countless others. And while all of that is absolutely fascinating and impressive, that wasn’t what did me in.

Toward the end of the episode, he began to talk about his personal work, particularly a project that he was working on in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

He begins by telling about a chance meeting with a gynecologist named Dr. Mukwege. Dr. Mukwege had set up a small clinic in Congo to provide a safe, healthy environment for women to give birth. But as word of his practice spread, more and more women flocked to his clinic who were victims of extreme sexual violence. As Platon learned about Dr. Mukwege’s practice, he offered to photograph the survivors, to not only tell their stories but to also tell the broader story of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

You see, Congo is a war-torn country. But over the years, those fighting the war have found a weapon that creates a far greater damage to society. Rape and violence against women. 

As they documented Platon photographing these incredible women and hearing their stories, I was in a state of awe, fascination, and guilt.

As I sat watching this story unfold, my heart shattered. 



It shattered for the women of Congo who have to live through such horrors.

It shattered because I was completely unaware.

And it shattered everything I thought I knew about my work as a photographer.

Viewing his images of these women, these survivors, there was such a raw strength that emanated from the portraits. So much of their stories, their sadness, the weight on their shoulders, and the depths of their soul, frozen in a split second and forever recorded on film and paper.

In the moments of silence that flooded my living room as the credits finished rolling, I was wracked with emotion.


How could things like this even exist in our world? How could women be treated as a disposable means to gain power and control? How could I be so completely unaware?

How could I not use my skills to make a difference?

And just like that, a 42 minute Netflix episode obliterated everything I thought I knew about my work, my purpose, and my direction as a photographer.

My husband came home from work, asked what I had been up to, and was greeted with full-blown ugly crying.


What had I been doing with my work? What was I doing to make a difference in the world? Why had it taken me this long to realize that my work had to truly matter and not just be a pretty picture?

I entered into a full-blown creative identity crisis. 

All of my work up until that point suddenly felt frivolous.

I had to find a way to make a difference with my work. 

I had to. 


And so I decided that I needed a personal project. Something that wasn’t for clients, or to simply “look pretty.” 

It had to be something that I was passionate about. It had to have a greater purpose. It had to make an impact.

For weeks, I tossed ideas around in my head, but nothing seemed right. When I talked to people about this “creative identity crisis” that I was having, it always ended with me sobbing as I tried to explain how my work needed to have meaning.

And yet, nothing came to me.

To top it off, my 30th birthday was approaching, and that was only intensifying my feelings of inadequacy and lack of purpose. And though I so desperately wanted to find that purpose, that project that spoke to my heart, it couldn’t be found.


The day of my 30th birthday, I spent the afternoon at my studio working. I honestly have no idea what I did at the studio that day, but it doesn’t matter. Because the magic happened when I left to drive home.

As I sat at a stoplight, impatiently waiting for the light to change, it suddenly hit me.

The idea, the structure of the project, the lighting and composition of the portraits, even the title, “The Face of the Story”—it was all there. 

I went home and immediately wrote a blog post, keeping the details of the project to myself until I could adequately map everything out, but certain that my project had been found. Suddenly, there was this driving force, a spark of creativity that had turned into a burning flame that had to be tended to. 

This idea had taken over and demanded to be brought to life.


The entire project would center around stories. 

But they had to be stories of events or experiences that completely changed someone’s life.

The #metoo movement had come to the forefront around this time, and the lack of empathy was astounding to me. 

So the stories had to foster empathy and understanding of situations that we might not have personal experience with. They needed to transport us into the lives of these people and allow us to walk through these events in their shoes. As a result, all of the stories would be written in the first person to allow you to see things through their eyes.

And the portraits. They would all be black and white. Dark colored clothing. Black backdrop. 


Simple. Powerful. Disarming.

I knew that I wanted them to be seen in a gallery setting with the portraits larger than life, almost confrontational, challenging you to look them in the eyes before reading their story.

I was exploding with excitement, but at the same time, I was terrified. 

These would be deeply personal stories. Would people be willing to share their story? Would I do them justice with my work?

And so I sat on it for 3 weeks, paralyzed by my own fears of inadequacy.


Finally, on October 26th, 2017, I decided to finally announce the project.

Within hours, I had someone contact me about telling her story. She had been raped at a church event as a teenager, and then found herself in an abusive relationship that several people close to her still didn’t know about.

I was in tears as I read her story, and I felt the enormous weight of the responsibility that I now had. To not only create a portrait that exemplified her strength, but to also create a platform in which her story would be read by others. 

One by one, more and more people started contacting me about telling their stories.

And as the months progressed, I had amassed an incredible collection of stories and portraits of the most inspiring women.


There were days when women would leave my studio after the portrait shoot, and I all I could do was sit in silence and take in what had been told to me. For many of them, it was a form of therapy to share their stories, some for the very first time. 

And then one day, Peggy walked in for her shoot. As we talked about her story, she mentioned that she was in the process of opening an art-based business that would also have a gallery to display the work of local artists. I (half-jokingly, mostly-seriously) mentioned that I had the perfect collection to display if she happened to need artists for upcoming exhibits. 



By April, there I was delivering the first collection for display.

And I was terrified. 

Not just because this would be the first time that my work was shown in a gallery that I wasn’t directly connected to, but because I had become so immensely protective of these women and this body of work, that not knowing what the response would be worried me.

I could handle criticism of my own work, but the thought of any of these brave women being criticized or diminished in any way broke my heart.

The night of the gallery opening, I was a nervous wreck. I knew many of the women would be there and would be bringing their families to see their portraits and read their stories for the first time. 



And the response was incredible. People were overwhelmed with emotion while reading the stories of what these women have endured. They sobbed. They were moved. There were inspired.

As I had compiled the portraits to prepare for the gallery opening, I realized that these stories need to be seen and heard.

People need to get a glimpse into what others go through on a daily basis. 

We are surrounded by incredible people, people that we see every day.

And yet, so often, we have no idea what they’ve been through. We don’t know the pain, heartache, grief, or perseverance they endured. 

There was a common theme that almost every woman that I photographed reiterated to me at some point; “If this helps even one person, it’s worth it.”

I’ve been told stories of loss, abuse, grief, sickness, injury, mental illness, sexism, and more.

But this isn’t over. It can’t be.

There are too many stories that still haven’t been told. Too many faces that haven’t been seen.

For me, “The Face of the Story” is where my passion lies. I don’t know what the future holds for it; maybe future gallery shows, or possibly a book that compiles all of these incredible stories and portraits.

I see no end in sight.


“I’m not really a photographer at all. 
The camera is nothing more than a tool. 
Communication, simplicity, shapes on a page. 
What’s important is the story, the message, the feeling, the connection. 
How do you make this reach people? 
It’s a combination of graphic simplicity and the power of spirit and soul.” 
-Platon, Abstract

To learn more about “The Face of the Story,” see the portraits and read the stories, and find out how you can tell your story and be photographed for the project, visit www.thefaceofthestory.com

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