It seems like some people like being IN a relationship more than they like the PERSON they are in the relationship with.
I've thought about this idea lot. In watching friends and acquaintances come in and out of relationships. In analyzing relationships of my own. Something about that idea scares me. I want to whole-heartedly love the person I'm with--for who they are, not just what they do. I want to love them complexly, deeply, and authentically. I want to love them even more than I love holding hands or kissing goodnight.
This photo series is all about that.
As a photographer, I've always felt like more of a "hunter" of good photos. Whether I'm in the right place at the right time to take photos of a wildfire or I'm just documenting scenes I find interesting on walks around the neighborhood, making photos usually feels like a search for me. Rarely, if ever, do I have an exact idea of the photo I want to take ahead of time. This shoot--and the following photo in particular--was an exception. It was an incredibly rewarding process to take this mental image I'd been sitting on and actually create them as photos that look exactly how I imagined.
It's hard to explain, but I've had this idea stuck in my head for over a year now. I'd forgotten about it and put it at the end of my to-do list countless times, but I just couldn't shake it. The image of a couple displaying affection while wearing "THANK YOU" takeout bags over their heads--as admittedly bizarre as it is--kept coming back like a song you haven't heard in ages but keeps playing on repeat in your mind.
And it wasn't just the image, but the meaning behind it, too. This concept was always about depicting shallow, transactional love. About people treating romantic attention like a commodity to be indulged in or traded rather than a manifestation of love for another person.
So how is that meaning portrayed in these photos of a couple wearing grocery bags over their heads?
I think, in order to best answer that question, we have to go back to one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. Do you have those moments of your life that just make you cringe any time you think about them? This is one of those.
(I actually really hesitated to include this story at all, but it played such a big role in inspiring the overall concept of this series. And they say that being vulnerable results in better art, so... here we go. This is me being vulnerable.)
I'd gone on a few dates with this girl, and she was great. I hadn't felt much of a "connection" yet though, but was kind of hoping it would develop. After one of our dates, I walked her home, and she kissed me. Let's just say it had been a while since my last kiss, and it caught me by surprise--although honestly, not in a bad way! I felt clumsy and awkward, and almost didn't know what to do or say afterward. Thankfully, my "cringey" moment wasn't anything I said or did, but it was what I almost said. The first thing out of my mouth was almost "thank you."
After we'd said goodnight and I walked home, I returned to that initial thought. "Thank you?!" It felt so shallow. I was glad I'd managed to be composed enough to not say that! Because I still had yet to feel the romantic spark she seemed to, saying "I love you" wouldn't have felt authentic at the time. But the fact that my mind went to the other end of the spectrum with "thank you" sort of scared me.
I felt like saying "thank you" would have treated her moment of vulnerability and affection as a sort of service or commodified experience. It would have almost felt like expressing appreciation for resetting my "days since last kiss" counter to zero, and little else.
In some ways, I think this photo series is me recognizing and addressing that fear and awkwardness, and trying to evaluate the way I look at relationships.
So the use of the specific "THANK YOU" grocery bags in this photo series painfully reminds me of that experience, as if to hyperbolize saying "thank you for the love" in a way as automated and transactional as the "Thank you for your purchase!" emails you get after placing an online order.
The bags themselves can also be interpreted literally as something that could very well choke or suffocate--just like a toxic relationship.
In this movie-poster-esque edit, the "thank you"'s are emphasized even more. I used my flatbed film scanner to actually scan one of the plastic bags, and used photoshop to trace the letters and superimpose the design into the photograph. The inclusion of "have a nice day" seems to emphasize the brevity and impermanence of it all, like a one-night stand or a NCMO. ("Non-committal make-out")
I don't think people expect to receive a thank you note for things that they truly do out of love--romantic or otherwise. I think what makes people the happiest is when that love is reciprocated in one way or another. Maybe it IS a thank you note! Maybe it's saying "I love you." Maybe it's a "good morning" text, or squeezing their hand, or just listening. Know your partner's love language(s) and help them feel and know that they are loved.
If this photo series is meant to illustrate transactional relationships, I would say that the healthier alternative is reciprocal relationships. Treating relationships as a transaction feels like a cheap, knock-off, non-committal imitation of the "real thing."
Where a transactional relationship takes turns giving and taking, a reciprocal relationship is always giving.
That reciprocation--as opposed to anything akin to "thank you for your transaction"--is what really conveys gratitude and appreciation.
Sometimes friends would complain to me about their partner. Other times, I'd just people-watch and overhear conversations. It seemed to me like there were people treating their relationships like business deals--relying on their partner for a sense of place and belonging and identity, but not really committing to or loving them as much as they loved and were committed to the relationship and what it provided them. In other situations, it sounded like one person was simply being used by a partner who seemed to care more about their own interests.
I don't mean to criticize other people's relationships. These are just lessons I learned or observed and patterns I recognized that I didn't (and don't) want to experience in my own relationships.
What would be the answer if I ever found myself in an unhealthy, transactional relationship like that? Maybe break-ups aren't the answer, but "toughing it out" just to keep up appearances or to maintain the "perks" of a relationship isn't the answer either.
Social media and other pressures hugely incentivize and romanticize "being in a relationship." Being single on Valentine's Day, or "International Boyfriend Day" or any other holiday people can come up with to post about their significant other can feel especially lonely. And those pressures often exist offline, too.
Besides, once a relationship is going, it's painful and uncomfortable to end it. And for what? To be single again? To go back to a world of first dates and talking stages?
As difficult as break ups and singleness can be, I wouldn't want to stay with someone only as a way to avoid singleness or sympathy or hurt feelings. This concept is also about depicting a couple in that situation.
At the end of the day, I think this shoot is for me--and for anyone else who cares to scrutinize their own relationships. (This isn't me creating an elaborate criticism of others, is what I'm trying to get at.) Do I really love the person I'm with, or do I love what they do for me? Do I take more than I give? Am I being used? Are we both invested in each other? What do I need to do to be a better partner? To receive the love I deserve?
The status quo can be comfortable. It's nice to have a partner to post about on social media. It's nice not having to worry about first dates. It's nice to be kissed and to hold hands through movies. But wouldn't those things be better with someone you love?
This next picture, one of the last taken on set, is one of my favorites. Composed through the waist level viewfinder of my Mamiya 645, it's from a lower angle than my digital shots featuring the same pose. A part of the concept I had in mind included a very obvious, intentionally present set design, including the colored backdrops as a part of the scene itself. (As opposed to simply using them to build an atmosphere.) By not hiding the fact that the photos were shot in a studio, I felt that it helped portray the relationship as very outward and performative rather than as something truly internalized and loving.
This next photo was actually an accident. I was just testing the flash and my camera settings while the couple took a break out from under the plastic bags. What was intended as a throwaway photo became another favorite from the day.
Sometimes you have to take take down the façade. It takes some brutal honesty in order to recognize that maybe you don't love the person you're with as much as you love the comfort of being with them. If that's the case, realize and believe that both of you deserve better. Maybe a break up is in order. Or maybe a long, potentially uncomfortable conversation is exactly what you need to get on the same page again.
Wherever you are, whatever your situation, I hope you're in a place where you feel loved and appreciated. I hope there are people around you that you truly love. I hope your relationships are rewarding and fulfilling. And I hope you're saying "thank you" and "I love you" with more than just your words.
Special thanks to Alyssa Dahneke for the lighting and studio help, and for Kaitie & Bryce Cindrich for embracing this unusual concept and being such great models! I couldn't have brought this concept to life without each of them. (And Bryce looks great in my leather jacket, too.)
20 seconds worth of behind the scenes:
While this particular series is vastly different from my typical work, if you liked what you saw, you can see more of my photography on Instagram, and even purchase prints of some of my photos on my website.