Posting Photos of Myself is Hard. Being Brutally Honest is Even Harder.
So why not do both?
If a picture is worth a thousand words, are the words ever right? Even if it’s “candid,” a posted photo conveys only as much as we feel comfortable revealing. A caption adds color, but the sentiment tends to stop at a sentence. In the era of the internet, we can be deliberate in our disclosures. I am more than familiar with this filtering. When I zoom into the snapshots I’ve shared online, I see the purposeful omissions. Especially when it comes to my travels, the highlights are on display, not the hardship—yet being abroad is exactly when more obstacles emerge than ever before.
I am currently in Buenos Aires and I want to be uncharacteristically blunt. I want to be “real” about my travel experience in a way that makes my social reflexes freeze. I want to strip back the peel of perfect and walk you through the words missing from the photo’s thousand-word fable. I want to tell you what it’s like to arrive to a new country and have things go wildly wrong in addition to wonderfully right.
This is a photo essay in first person—an honest, self-portrait-driven account of my first two weeks in Argentina, where I am currently working remotely and living. I am doubling down on the scary vulnerability by photographing my most avoided model: myself.
If you peruse my online presence, you will only find old photos. My LinkedIn picture is from 2019. My Instagram posts avoid me unless the shots are from abstract angles. Even here on Substack, you only see the illustrated face behind Brazenface. This is intentional. In front of the camera, I feel awkward—like a Gen Z outcast that doesn’t know the poses and doesn’t care to learn them. It isn’t natural for me to be the star of the show. The irony of this newsletter being all about me and my 2022 experiment isn’t lost on me. This is all part of overcoming the fear. Yesterday, I shared a carousel of self-portraits on Instagram—letting the snapshots tell a story of their own. Today, I am sharing those portraits with what was missing from the original post: the truth.
A Photo Essay in First Person: Braving Buenos Aires
Outside the Aerolineas Argentinas drop-off section, I hold my abuela’s hand, wondering if this will be the last time I see her alive. I curse myself for thinking that, for potentially manifesting that. I touch her skin, trying to absorb her and remember her and remind her: I am your granddaughter.
“She’s fading,” mom comments from the front seat. We’ve been saying that for years, but at 98, abuela is worse than ever. She barely registers I’m talking to her. She barely moves. When I squeeze her hand, she flinches—then, a soft squeeze. In Spanish, I tell her I love her and she nods in a drugged haze.
Mom starts crying. She hates goodbyes. I love fresh beginnings. “This trip will be good for me,” I promise. As I jump out of the car, excited to kick off my adventure, I begin to forget that I might have just said goodbye to my grandmother for the last time.
I arrive to Buenos Aires, wide-eyed and alone. I have a week of vacation time before I begin remote work—so I happily commit to bike tours, soccer games, steak dinners, concerts. Taxi drivers tell me to avoid putting my phone in my pockets. To avoid taking anything valuable out. To trust no one. I’m reminded I’m not in New York City anymore, and that’s exactly why I want to shoot everything I see. I feel the small pull of a moral dilemma: do I risk robbery in pursuit of a photographic vision?
On day three, I arrive to La Boca, a vibrant, notoriously sketchy part of town. I lose myself in the color, shooting and moving. I feel safe and capable. But when I make it back to my apartment later that night, I tell myself to be more careful. I remind myself I only just got here. I promise myself I’ll be extra cautious next time. You are on your own here.
I love Buenos Aires! I am happy in Buenos Aires! I am free in Buenos Aires! But I am also slightly self-concious in Buenos Aires! My skin has decided it’s only fair I endure some maskne my first week here. Why does a breakout always try to break up our bliss at the most inconvenient times? I try not to let the zits win. With a pocket full of new friends and new plans, I sit in the sun and soak it all in.
For the first time in my apartment history, I have a balcony. Every afternoon, it gets overtaken by stripes of sundown shadows. I decide to capture my glee in its graphic bars. I lay down on the dusty balcony floor and take a selfie, tilting my head to the side, grateful the shadows are working some cover-up magic on the maskne madness.
“You’re going to go on a run?” my new friend, Spencer, asks me, incredulously. It’s noon and the heat is at its peak. Exercise might not be the best move—but my body wants to sweat and explore the city in a faster way on foot. I will prove him wrong. So I run, dancing along to music. I run, pausing to take pictures. I run, feeling on top of the world and finishing my 3 miles by drowning myself in cold water.
Later, I call my parents on WhatsApp to tell them about my trip. “You’ve been nonstop!” my mom comments. “You look tired,” my dad adds. I tell them they’re being dramatic, that I feel great, that I am having fun on vacation.
Three hours later, I’m shivering in bed thinking I have COVID-19.
The alone-ness really sets in the second I realize something is off. I feel faint and I feel frightened. My body shivers with fatigue. I let myself lay down, before getting up to get dressed for a River soccer game I already have tickets for.
As I walk outside to the awaiting car, I feel like I might pass out. I decide to do exactly what I don’t want to do: I stay home. For the first time in my trip, I am really, really sad. It is too soon to be sick. It is too depressing to miss the soccer match I’ve been looking forward to for weeks. But my mind races with the thought that I could faint in a stadium in the middle of nowhere. Since I am unwell and unaccompanied, I decide to listen to my body and stay in.
Since arriving, I draw a doodle in my pocket-sized notebook every afternoon. The next day, I feel a bit better. I draw myself sick in Argentina, La Enfermita, feeling grateful I gave myself a needed break, relieved that my COVID test came back negative, and pretty damn bummed I missed out on the match.
I survive what I discover was heat exhaustion. Doing that run was a mistake that cost me a day and a half in bed. I bounce back to “vacation” life with subtle caution. A chronic over-doer, I somehow give myself grace for choosing to relax by the pool rather than being go, go, go across the city.
While reading by the water, I get an invite from my friend, Sharon, to see a live band. I excitedly say yes. At the last minute, she tells me she can’t make it, but that I should still go. I get weirdly uncertain. Do I venture solo when I barely know any of the people there? I laugh (and cringe) at myself because I literally just published a piece about confidently flying solo. The nerves are part of the process, I remind myself. Surpassing the nerves is how we grow. So I go the show. I make new friends. We stay out til 3AM. I come home feeling really content that I went.
Coincidentally, I know someone from New York that’s in Buenos Aires at the same time as me. Dillon is my co-worker-turned-friend. We haven’t hung out much before getting here, but now I suddenly know his preference in coffee shops and Tinder dates.
In a way, I’m inspired by Dillon’s dating drive. He’s taken a different approach to experiencing this new city—one that’s a little flirtier and maybe even a little more fun. Dillon has had a couple local Porteñas show him around. Standing in his apartment watching him make plans for a tour with a new lady friend has me wondering: Should I get back out there? I see him swipe to social success. For the first time in months, I am tempted to start dating again.
In Argentina, sleep feels secondary. You walk around at midnight on a Tuesday and see families eating dinner on the sidewalks. You go to a club to dance at 2AM and there’s still a line out the door. You drink mate with caffeine at 8PM. You wake up at noon and still only get six hours of snoozing—max.
I am a morning person, but I can no longer be a morning person here. There’s too much goodness going on in the after-dark hours to be in bed with a book, but I’m starting to get worried about the shift in routine. I have to start working remotely full-time again.
Trying to bring some normalcy back to my life, I start swimming my usual laps in the morning. I meal prep lentils and brown rice. On Thursday, I stay out til early morning, and my routine gets wrecked all over again. Is this some sick post-study-abroad cycle? I vow to make a change—for the sake of my sleep and my schedule.
Once I start working again, I feel a little more focused. The vacation energy buzzes less in business hours. I go to my company’s office in Buenos Aires and come face-to-face with co-workers I’ve only ever met on Zoom. The in-person bonding is epic and exciting and adds an unexpected level of professional pleasure to this trip.
But I begin to feel the scary pressure of what I’m now juggling: the full-time job, this biweekly newsletter, the desire to experience every bit of Buenos Aires. My next month here will be another test within this experiment. I will have to prioritize, sacrifice, and simultaneously explore. I look at my reflection in the computer screen and remember why I’m here. Tatiana, get a hold of yourself. Just put on your brazen face—and keep going.
AKA other things I have done recently that have been frightening, but oh so rewarding:
Saying no: I can be a chronic yes-woman. I hate letting people down, and I hate missing out on an experience that might have been the life-changing experience. But after getting slightly sick my first week here, I had to say no to multiple invites. I had to choose my health over my hustle. And it took courage to do it because I did not want to do it.
Saying yes: On the flip side, saying yes is how we get out of our comfort zone. By accepting new opportunities, like having my Substack reviewed by 63 people on a Zoom call this past week, I get to taste a stronger satisfaction that comes from braving new territory. Finding the ideal midway point between the right yes and the right no is the hard part.
Being mildly controversial: Buenos Aires is filled with beautiful things, but one thing in particular has been stopping me in my tracks everywhere I go. And it’s not the empanadas. I created a commercial in celebration of this hot take and hidden gem. You can watch it here:
A prompt to ponder
What would be your photo essay in first person? How honest would you go?
Tatiana Gallardo is a newfound night owl and writer at R/GA NY. She’s currently dabbling in R/GA Buenos Aires, drinking mate, learning new slang, y hablando español.