What We’re Hiding Just Behind Our Faces

Marcos Alberti is a Brazilian photographer and, last year, he made some really good art.

He selected a number of people, and he took a series of photos of each person. Following an initial photo, he then took a photo of each person after one glass of wine, two glasses, and three glasses.

In each set of photos, a remarkable transformation occurs.

In the first photo, faces are guarded and usually emotionless, sometimes defiant. Even the rare smiles in the first photos are muted, tempered, and safe. In the second photos, however, after one glass of wine, the faces are loosening up and lips are carving out larger smiles. And there is at least a hint—at least a glimmer—of light in the eyes.

After the second glass of wine, in the third photos, everything is changing. There is a casualness about every expression—smiles and postures and even hairdos look somehow freer. By this third picture, it is beginning to look like there might actually be living, breathing human beings behind the stoic facades.

Why do I call this good art?

Because good art tells the truth.

Artists can come in all forms: from painters and sculptors to teachers and technologists. Some people become artists by making art out of their families or friendships or any form of compassion or care. Regardless of what we create, if it tells the truth about what exists just beneath the thin veneer of our everyday lives, and if it makes us long to bring that barely-veiled reality to its fullness—whether that reality be full of sorrow or joy, pain or ecstasy, fear or hope, anger or tenderness—then what we are creating is art.

That’s what good art does: it makes us long to be more fully human.

Each of Alberti’s series of photographs features a final photo, following a third glass of wine. When I looked at those final photos, I saw a truth that startled me, in a really good way:

The last photographs reminded me of my children.

In the final photo, the people have become almost completely unprotected. Vulnerable. Themselves. Not managing impressions. Not creating safe space. Rather, they’re leaning in, closer to the camera. And they are invariably joyful. They aren’t having to work at being happy. They are simply letting the happiness that is inside of them exit them. Through their shining eyes and wide open smiles.

Like children.

You see, children don’t have to try to be vibrant, energetic, joyful, and playful. Because it is right on the surface of them. It is, mostly, the natural state of their existence. Until they are taught to bury it. Until they learn the hard way about how wounding the world can be. Until they watch us first-photo adults, taking our lives and ourselves so seriously.

Childlike joy and play are the truth we find beneath the thin-veneer of our adult lives.

I suppose a cynic might look at Alberti’s photos and argue that there is merely a chemical reaction happening in the brains of intoxicated people—dopamine released and pleasure felt as a result. But pleasure and light aren’t the same thing. And these people are alight. In fact, I think they’re shining because they feel lighter. The alcohol has helped them to put down the weight of all their protecting. And what a relief.

Without all that extra baggage, there’s way more energy left to enjoy and to play.

Some people argue that in our parenting-obsessed culture, we have elevated our children too high. They say we idealize our kids. Sometimes, that’s probably true. But I believe this is almost always true:

If we have put our kids on a pedestal, it’s because deep down, we wish to be like them again. We wish to be like those people in the final photo, shedding all of our heavy protecting. We wish to be vulnerable and vibrant once more.

If that’s true of you, I don’t think you need a glass of wine to make it happen.

Instead, I think you can find a piece of art like Alberti’s and find your truest, worthiest, most childlike self somewhere within it. Because until you know you are a beautiful work of art yourself—a brilliant creation that cannot be devalued by the dangers and daggers of a broken world and broken people—then you will need to bury yourself and your joy deep, beneath the serious façade of adulthood. Until you realize you are inalterably loveable, you will have to live a first-photo kind of life.

And we need people who want to live in a final-photo kind of world.

The truth of our worthiness is lying just beneath the veil of our sometimes painful, sometimes messy, sometimes hum-drum lives. We need to lift that veil and let our worthiness run free, like a child splashing barefoot in puddles after a long, hard rain.

We need to loosen up,

let our hair down,

and allow the light inside of us to finally shine out of us.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.