The Hauntingly Unfinished

14 12 2009

The mind is a wonderful thing.

I wish I could turn mine off.

At night when I lie awake in bed, my mind refuses to settle in under the covers and rest. It refuses to sleep, preferring to taunt me with the incomplete. The worst nights are the ones when my mind dwells on unmade images. Undocumented moments. Pieces of life that are over and done and already forgotten. They haunt me.

Maybe it’s a project that I started with a magnificent image or two, and a premise that really spoke to me. So many projects that appeal to me on a deep level, that speak to a certain aspect of my soul. There’s an intensely personal out-of-focus image designed to show the world through the eyes of someone who is nearly blind (myself). There are a few images of “stuff” left behind by people; tiny transient pieces of proof that their possessors existed. A fairly significant body of work created within a mile of my home which came to an abrupt halt for really no reason. Beauty in the mundane.

There are images of those around me whom I love and want to document right now, at this stage in their lives. And I want to document myself, as I am on the inside rather than snapshots of the outer me. I am too guarded an individual to express myself so intimately except in music.

Sleeping children who are still blissfully ignorant of the kinds of thoughts that keep me awake at night.

Looking at my list of unfinished projects makes me realize something unexpected: I am desperately driven to document things that make me emotional. I only want my view on the world to be seen and understood. I am not looking for attention; I’m looking for kindred spirits.

I want to believe that I will finish these projects. I really want to. It’s the perpetual false feeling of guilt that drives me. The guilt is driven by my need to accomplish. The need to accomplish is driven by a need to validate myself, which is in turn driven by a need to be understood.

I have to wonder if this perpetual guilt is what drives my portrait work? My need to document the soul and not just the face. Maybe my discontent is the greatest strength of my portrait work. I only want people to be honest and understood as I have never been.

While in some ways I prize this continual sense of incompleteness that drives me to press forward, I wish for the day when I can say, “This project is finished. Now onto the next.”

In the meantime, I will have to content myself with the challenge of documenting the deepest side of everyone I photograph. That seems a fair trade.

I still can’t sleep.

come to me




16 responses

14 12 2009
Rich Demanowski

I still can’t sleep.

Join the club.

Different as we are, it seems we’re more the same than we think. I’ve felt the very same things you talk about, you’re just better at putting them into words.

Thank you.

14 12 2009

Many thanks for this. Very well reflected in your writing. Saludos

14 12 2009

We should form a club. A non-sleeping, mind flying, need to document it before it flies away, feel too deeply, utterly aware of the pressing need, club.
Some of us aren’t nearly as articulate, nor as talented, but we need a club nonetheless.

Be well and press on.

15 12 2009

A club for the tortured artistic insomniacs. I like it.

15 12 2009
Steve J

Stumbled upon a tweet when I myself can not sleep and stunned by the similarity in thought with me – the biggest difference is you have coherently wrote down in one night what I’ve struggled for years to voice & express.

I’ve always felt my mind is at its most clearest creatively in the early morning hours- my mind keeping me awake, fueled by ideas, images, words and rhythms – like an endless supply of kindle keeping the fire within burn so bright that I can hardly see the night.

It all leaves me to wonder if insomnia is truly a creative gift I struggle to turn away or a curse of the mind’s creative eye I refuse to envision. … or is that really all just one and the same?

Thank you for sharing and helping me to shed new light in the dark.

15 12 2009

Ahh. Kindred spirit.

15 12 2009

Beautiful!! I feel that photography is so much more for You than just work or picture taking. But not only because of this entry. I see that in the most pictures You share.

15 12 2009

i really resonated with this. it’s a great post, and i almost want to whisper: “pssst. Cheryl. Your soul is showing.”

15 12 2009

All other qualities of your writing aside, your hints at the source of the felt guilt has been perfect… Do you know that your pen (OK, keyboard!) is working on the soul as a surgeon’s scalpel do on a body? And, you have been operating on yourself!
Thanks for being this o p e n . . .

15 12 2009

You let your guard down, thank you. You inspire me to do the same, although me writing about it would not be as well put as your words are. Infact the only time I do is when I photograph for me. I must work on that.

15 12 2009

Wow – you are wonderful at putting feeling to pen (so to speak!). I am in a sense relieved to read this article – my best friend often speaks of this restlessness which I admit, I sometimes cannot completely understand, though I try. It makes me feel better that his experience is shared by others, like you. Creative geniuses with whom the artful process is an ongoing circle. I have tried to get him to accept that this is who he is – and the process will indeed be never ending and this in itself, should be embraced. Though in a sense it is also a curse. Be well and thank you for sharing! 🙂

16 12 2009
Stephen S. Mack

Hello, Cheryl!

I have been a fan of your website ever since I came across the reference to it in The Online Photographer. I was wondering where to post this comment, because it is tangential to this post, but not exactly. I am thinking of another website which has been haunting me ever since I came across it: . She has been into the Zone of Exclusion around Chornobyl, Ukraine, and the photos are astounding. They are also sad, elegiac, frightening, thought-provoking (usually I try to avoid terms like this). In short, it’s worth a look at what Elena calls “Pluto’s Realm”.

I couldn’t find another way to email you, so I sent this to you since you are a photographer (I’m strictly and amateur, ), because I thought you might be interested in it. If I’m way off base, please excuse me, and of course delete this comment if you see fit.

With best regards.


16 12 2009

Stephen, thanks very much for your comment. I’ll definitely have a look at the site you mentioned. It sounds like something I’d be very interested in.

– CJ

16 12 2009

I am all too familiar with this non-sleep issue. It was especially bad for me when I was in art school and inspired basically 24/7. I would sit up at night trying to memorize my ideas so I would not lose them once I fell asleep. I finally started keeping a notebook by my bed so I could jot a few notes down then relax and fall asleep. It helped. Lately I have been consumed with my one year old, but I still lie awake some nights thinking about possible projects that I will get to one day when I finally have time. Sometimes I feel like I might never make work again and that causes me some panic, but I know in my heart I’ll be back.
With reference to Stephen’s comment, my prof at the Univ of Manitoba also shoots the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. His name is David MacMillian and his work is beautiful.
I hope you get some rest. Sweet dreams.

17 12 2009

“I am desperately driven to document things that make me emotional. I only want my view on the world to be seen and understood. I am not looking for attention; I’m looking for kindred spirits.”

this resonates within me more than I can say. I am thankful to have found a kindred spirit here. Sweet dreams…

17 12 2009
Fergus Carmichael

I would like to photograph you.
Your posts really touch home right now and where I am at in life.

Thank you.

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