The Pen and the Paper

What ended up being one of the most beautiful experiences of my life was born out of complete laziness.

It was a class project for which I needed to photograph a typology, a collection of similar things. While my classmates took the initiative to roam the city looking for interesting doors or windows or stopping strangers to photograph their shoes, I sat on my bed and looked around my room for a collection of anything that was easily accessible. I saw a stack of my journals – bingo! It took me all of fifteen minutes to photograph spreads of their pages, but when I examined the pictures together, I was bored by the sameness of it all – same handwriting. Same layout. Same names and places that appeared on virtually every page. Same everything. I wondered what someone else’s journal would look like - what did others write across their own private pages?

I had to find out. So I did what any true investigative photographer would do, and turned to the Internet. An open call on social media read, “If you live in Chicago and you write in a journal, will you pretty please let me photograph its pages?” Immediately I realized the absurdity of it. Would I ever let a stranger or even a friend photograph my journal, pry open the book in which I kept all of my most intimate thoughts and feelings, flip through its pages, capture them on a camera? The answer was a resounding no. But by some miracle, over fifty people responded with a yes.

Over the next two weeks, I worked my way through the list. I met up with strangers for coffee, trying not to spill on open pages as I photographed them from above. I visited friends and photographed more journals against bedsheets or floors or kitchen tables. Out of respect for their privacy, I did my best not to read the words - but then each person began to echo the last with a brave and bold statement:

“I really don’t mind if you read it.”

“Open to any page you’d like.”

“Can I tell you the story behind this page?”

And, each of their own accord, they began to tell me about what they’d written. I heard the story of a boy whose mom suffered severe depression. A girl who struggles with self-confidence opened up to me about how deeply she cares what others think. Another spoke about the person she had loved who had only recently broken her heart, her face twisted in pain as she opened to a page from happier times, words bursting with love and joy. She pointed to it: “This one. Photograph this one.” I read poetry that had never been read by another, and prayers written in desperation, meant for only God to see. A new friend showed me the journal in which he wrote letters to his love, and as I photographed them, he told me, “she doesn’t even know about this.” Most of the meetings lasted for hours, and the conversations were the deepest I could imagine. I felt my heart swell with emotion – what an honor it was to be trusted so deeply with stories from the most intimate corners of each person's mind, heart, and soul. I marveled at photographs and pressed flowers tucked away inside the creases, ran my hand gently across tear stains, and held back my own tears. These were precious treasures kept safe from the rest of the world that my camera and I had been invited to see.

When the project was finished, I set out all the photographs in a grid and was astonished at how beautiful they were together. I couldn't believe that in the beginning I had been content to photograph just my own writings. The result now was vastly different - every one was unique. Each bore such distinctive handwriting, some with sketches, some left almost blank but for a thought, and some with every inch of space filled with words. But although each journal was so beautifully different, it was their similarities that left me speechless. The words themselves created a collective narrative with each person’s story somehow echoed in that of another.

What I had photographed was not a typology of journals. It was a typology of human thoughts and emotions: love and heartbreak, joy and suffering, mundane to-do lists and exciting experiences, all documented on paper. As I stared at the powerful collection they created together, the world seemed much smaller, and I suddenly and strangely felt like I was a little bit closer to every human being on earth. 

 There is a kinship that will come when we allow others to read the words that are scrawled across our most private pages, scribbled in the margins of the very backs of ours minds, engraved on ours hearts.

I believe that we are here not only to write our own stories, but to share them with one another. Perhaps they are incredibly different, or perhaps they are stunningly similar - either way, they make a beautiful collection. Let someone else read your story. Make sure you read theirs, too.

I'm not talking about journals anymore. Whether you write in one or not is of no concern. The pen and the paper aren’t really necessary.


Bethany Roesler1 Comment