By Hamidah Glasgow | August 23, 2017
Samantha Geballe works with issues of body image, identity, and deep self-knowledge through self-portraiture. Geballe’s series, Self-Untitled, documents an intensely personal exploration of radical body transformation. Changes to the body naturally come with changes in identity, issues of social awareness and acceptance, and ultimately a journey to the deep self.
Geballe challenges viewers to question what it means to accept oneself.
HG: You have chosen self-portraits as your vehicle of communication. They are radical self-portraits that emphasize deep looking, deep knowing, and challenge the viewer to confront their own self-knowledge.
SG: I learned to use my body to communicate at a very young age. I ate to soothe the pain I was in, but also as a way to ask for help. I believe that is partially why I chose self-portraits. Even if the picture never sees the light of day, I get a further glimpse into myself. I get the opportunity to be heard and seen, even if only by me.
HG: I am also interested in how you are managing your identity as you go through these radical changes. Have these changes affected who you are fundamentally?
SG: Truthfully, I have struggled greatly with my identity during these radical shifts with my body. It was not until recently that I began to grasp the concept that my anatomy is different than it was before I decided to have bariatric surgery. I cannot recognize myself in reflections and photos. I had no idea that this was my true appearance until a year ago. It often feels like I’m a ghost, a puppet of someone else. My hands don’t feel like my own. It catches me off guard when they move, and it’s as if I’ve been inserted into Freaky Friday. I can’t believe I’ve lived my life in two separate bodies, and it’s hard to process.
This new body has shaken me to my core. I’ve had to face my greatest fears and grieve the life I once lived. I couldn’t tie my own shoes, and managing the shame around my memories in that body is difficult.
HG: A journey of self-knowledge and radical body change occur not only in the way that you look but also how you experience the world.
SG: It’s hard not to be angry at the world. I often still am and carry around a wounded animal complex. I bark at others because I expect the response I used to receive every day because I used to be treated very differently for my appearance. I still am, but for very different reasons now. I often feel out of place and like the fat community does not believe I’m a part of them. It feels like I was erased.
I attended a Roxanne Gay Q&A not too long ago. She is a writer and very much involved in body image, and is known as the bad feminist. She is a person of color and a person of size. She spoke candidly about her experiences in her body and what that’s like in a world of skinny. There is a huge difference between someone who is overweight or even obese versus someone who is super morbidly obese. During her talk, I found myself laughing out loud uncontrollably. I couldn’t help myself. I was relating to everything she said. The airplane seats, the comments from others, the clothes that never fit, and then, I immediately felt sad that I was no longer a part of it. I, too, have been super morbidly obese and lived this way for 26 years of my life. It made me afraid that everyone in the audience thought I was laughing at her. I was scared they assumed I had not had lived that life. At times, I grieve the connection of that community.
For many years, I unknowingly made my identity the fat person, because almost everywhere I went I was indeed the fattest person in the room. That was who I was. My struggle now has transitioned into being pegged as trans or gay. I am gay, but I am flagged by others as trans daily, especially when I’m at the airport. I question my safety. It’s funny because it shows up in my work almost every time I photograph myself now. There are subliminal gender-role fuck-yous in my photographs. I sit in front of the camera as I take pictures and think that no one should be in control of what I look like, how I chose to be myself, and who I fall in love with. I find release and relief in throwing my chest high in the air as I fire the shutter. I find courage in sitting in a chair in front of my camera, legs wide open, because I can and I should. I have to photograph myself now, and it’s not an option to stop anymore, even if the photograph is only for myself. I want others to know that I am an acceptable human being, even with the miles of excess skin I wear around my body. The excess skin shows the journey and life I protected myself with and the wall I built to survive. It is my body, and it is beautiful regardless of how I or others feel about it. It has to be, even though I am still at odds with it at times.
HG: As you look back on your journey of weight loss and self-actualization, how do you respond to earlier images? My guess is that your response continues to evolve.
SG: I have a lot of fear thinking about weight as a linear journey. I make my best efforts to steer away from the notion of “I need to get there.” I’m terrified it’s not over, which is the truth. I have found that it’s never over, and I fight with my weight and body every day.
As far as imagery, there are times when earlier work bothers me quite a bit. There are also moments when they’re all upsetting. I am no stranger to tearing up prints. I have spent lots of time separating myself from these photos. When I was big, I had to and used it to protect myself from the pain. I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I had gained all my weight back and more. It was the 3rd or 4th time, and I couldn’t believe I had let it happen again. Everyone could see my struggle because I was wearing it. I had to learn to edit my photos as if they were someone else. I still do it, and my feelings are always fluid about it.
HG: What are the biggest challenges in pursuing your work?
SG: The biggest challenge I deal with is constantly thinking that it’s not important. There are times where I’d rather throw the damn thing in a vault for ten years and not give a shit. I’ve had difficulties come up that have rocked my world and, it’s hard to push myself when I’d rather look away. I have a lot of work that I haven’t touched or even seen. I’ll look at it eventually, but right now I find it more important to keep shooting through this period of avoidance.
HG: Let’s talk about skin. Is there a question that people don’t ask that you want them to ask?
SG: I’m not sure there is a question I’d like people to ask. I think it’s more of what I wish they wouldn’t say. For instance, when others think it’s kind of brave to keep it. What I find even more strange is when people tell me that their main reservation about bariatric surgery is excess skin. I happen to feel very differently about my excess skin, but that’s not to say that it couldn’t change in the future.
When I decided to have gastric bypass, the last thing on my mind was skin. I was more concerned with dying, and it wasn’t a thought that I would have so much. I have moments of being upset by my skin. I have an estimated 20lbs of it, and they feel like scars. My primary concern of having bypass surgery was and is gaining the weight back. I think about it every time I put something in my mouth. I am also scared that if I got rid of the excess, I wouldn’t have room if I gained it all back.
HG: I would imagine that at times all the images of yourself would get overwhelming. How do you stay with such a challenging project?
SG: The project does get overwhelming, and I try to be as gentle with myself as possible when dealing with it. It’s harder when I see my photos online at times when I’m struggling. Because at least when they’re on my hard drives, I can avoid them for as long as I want. Additionally, it can be hard when it sinks in that people are seeing photos of me.
HG: Does being gay inform that journey in a way that maybe is different from a straight person?
SG: I don’t think that many straight people realize that it is not illegal to be straight in any part of this world. My heart is with all my queer brothers and sisters who struggle to be themselves every day. For many, it is against the law to be themselves. I’m sorry that their journey to be the truest part of themselves is not one of importance. We must continue. Photographers are some of the most important historians. The world would not see the truth of our history without them.
HG: How does this interview feel knowing that your images will be shared with a broad audience?
SG: I feel like I have established a sense of trust with you, so it’s fine. I know you know my project and have always handled it with care. Since 2014! Thank you.
HG: Thank you.