How a photographer’s ‘What I Be Project’ is helping people face their insecurities

Imagine walking around your neighborhood with your most persisting insecurity scrawled across your forehead in bold, black ink, visible to all of those who cross your path. Now imagine having that image of you, which so honestly defines your self-doubt, immortalized and put online for the world to see.

This is what Sacramento-based photographer Steve Rosenfield has done with his “What I Be Project.” Through compassionate conversation, a few powerful and defining words written on the body, and the click of the camera, he has created a global movement of building security through insecurities.

In 2010, Rosenfield decided he wanted to use his photography to create a project that would be more powerful than bullying. At the time, he was primarily photographing concerts, senior portraits, and weddings. “I wanted to do something with my work that inspired people and allowed them to tell a story about themselves,” Rosenfield told ivoh by phone.

Fast forward five years later and Rosenfield has captured more than 2,500 portraits of individuals as they confront their most inner struggles. Nearly all of those photographs are shared online through multiple social media platforms, including FacebookInstagram, and YouTube, as well as the What I Be Project website. The project has gained international media attention from news organizations such as The Guardian, BuzzFeed, and The Huffington Post.

George Washington University student Rayhaan Merani, who was interviewed for the project, told Steve Rosenfield, “I am not my faith.” | Photo courtesy of Rosenfield.

Rosenfield admits he was never a tough guy. “I was always sensitive to women and had that side to me even though I didn’t let people in on my own vulnerabilities and insecurities,” said Rosenfield, who was raised by his mom in Brockton, Massachusetts.

In 2002, Rosenfield quit his 9 to 5 job in Boston and began traveling the world until he landed in California in 2006. During that time, he tried not to judge people around him and began to recognize that we all struggle and have traits that can be considered flaws. He decided to become more open with the people in his life by letting his own struggles and insecurities come to the surface.

“It allowed my friends to feel safe and share their vulnerabilities,” Rosenfield said. “So it kinda just created a dialogue and more compassion within all of my own relationships.”

Rosenfield created The What I Be Project as a social experiment to see if what worked for him could work for others. His 32,000+ followers can attest to the success of his project, which has become a body of work about honesty and empowerment.

“When we come forward and we admit something, it makes us feel good. It helps us get past things,” Rosenfield said. “I think that once people share, it allows them to start healing.”

A 100-year-old resident of Salem Lutheran Assisted Living Home in Oakland, California, told Rosenfield, “I am not my tomorrow.” | Photo courtesy of Rosenfield.

The What I Be Project is not short of diversity; Rosenfield travels the country visiting high schools, universities, festivals, yoga studios, and even nursing homes that request to take part in the project. Each session for the What I Be Project is allotted 45 minutes. During that time, Rosenfield converses with participants about the internal struggles they face on a day-to-day basis. He then helps them find words that resonate and are relatable before using a thick magic marker to write a statement along their body — usually on their hands, face or arms. The photograph itself takes less than a minute.

Philip Jacobs, who took part in the project in 2013, described his vulnerability as “I am not my amputation.” When he was 13 year old, he was in a farming accident that led to the amputation of his left arm.

“You immediately felt like you could open up to him. Not everybody has that quality,” Jacobs said of Rosenfield. “When I talked to Steve, I did it more as a motivational thing. I still deal with the amputation. I question things I can and can not do, but no where near when I was 13 years old.”

Jacobs told Rosenfield the whole story, explaining that throughout his life people have told him what he is and is not capable of doing due to his injury. The assumption that he is unable to perform certain tasks has continuously weighed him down throughout his teenage years and into his adult life. The two of them agreed upon writing “You Can’t Do That” on his forehead for the picture.

Philip Jacobs, a What I Be Project participant from Augusta, Georgia, chose his vulnerability as “I am not my amputation.” | Photo courtesy of Rosenfield.

On the What I Be Project website, you can search thousands of photographs by category and find points of connection to the people who Rosenfield has interviewed. “It is healing knowing that we are not alone,” he says.

In addition to the photographs, there are videos of selected participants reading a requested 500-word statement describing how their insecurities have affected them. This way, as Rosenfield sees it, there is no confusion about which struggle each person is sharing. Rosenfield says he’s greatly affected by the individuals who allow themselves to be photographed with so much trust.

“In the beginning I was surprised by the courage of people,” he said. “I am not surprised now. I am blown away by it. I am inspired by it. I am empowered by it.”

Many well-known names from the entertainment industry have also been part of the project, including Michael Franti, Chadwick Stokes, Trevor Hall, The Chainsmokers, Jay Pharoah, and Jackie Cruz. Their images are mixed in with the rest of the What I Be Project portraits.

Michael Franti, a well-known name in the music industry and one of Rosenfield’s friends, took part in the What I Be Project, exposing his insecurity as “I am not my adoption.” The What I Be Project name was inspired by Franti, who has a song titled “What I Be,” which is about being who you are and being the best that you can be. | Photo courtesy of Rosenfield.

“I usually have a relationship already with the musicians who I have gotten to do the project,” Rosenfield said. “Jackie Cruz, from ‘Orange is the New Black,’ is an exception. She is a super-down-to-earth girl. I tweeted her and that is how I got her to do it.”

Rosenfield is now in the final stages of self-publishing a book that will include images from his website, as well as some that have not yet been published. Rosenfield says he’s eager to continue empowering the global community through his raw and honest photographs.

“It is important because it creates dialogue between people and allows them to learn things about their friends and family that they didn’t know,” he said. “It allows people to share a part of themselves that they normally wouldn’t share. And I believe that that creates compassion within their network.”


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