Friday, August 10, 2018

Paul Haggis

Paul Haggis, Toronto, Sept. 10, 2007

WHEN I SHOT THIS PORTRAIT OF PAUL HAGGIS, it was confounding to me that the man was a Scientologist. He was accomplished and successful, to be sure, but that was in Hollywood, in an industry where L. Ron Hubbard's cult has it's highest profile followers, recruited and sustained within the cult because of their fame and success. But he was also clearly intelligent, and that was baffling: How could anyone possessed with some clarity of insight remain in a cult whose core cosmology could be parodied effortlessly in an episode of South Park?

The Oscar-winning writer and director became, ultimately, one of the highest profile defectors from Scientology - two years after I took these pictures. This made him a target of the harassment that famous ex-Scientologists inevitably endure, and which reinforces the organization's status as a cult - for anyone on the outside of the cult, at least.

A 2011 New Yorker story about defectors from Scientology ends with the Canadian-born Haggis wondering, as much to himself as to the interviewer: "I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don't know why I couldn't." In the decade-plus since I took these photos, I've learned how perfectly intelligent people can hold contradictory, untenable beliefs that they'll cling to despite - in fact, often because of - their intelligence, or more precisely because of their perception of themselves as more intelligent than most people.

Paul Haggis, Toronto, Sept. 10, 2007

I know that my puzzlement at Haggis' position in a cult was on my mind when I took these photos, but I'm not sure how they affected my approach to him as a subject. I knew that, as a non-performer but a creative, it would be easier to get past any projection he might have of his public image; if there was one thing I'd learned in the previous two decades it was that photographing writers and directors was usually more rewarding for this reason.

I doubt if Haggis would remember this brief portrait session. I doubt if any of the people whose portraits I've taken in a minute or less in the middle of a press day in some hotel room have any memory of our meeting. But I asked him to hold the gaze of my camera lens precisely because I was hunting for some evidence of misgivings or doubt in his expression. And it's probably because of my bafflement at Haggis the Scientologist that I framed him askew in nearly every frame, and why I keep projecting some glimpse of that turmoil into these portraits. But that might just as well be my own self-flattery in action.

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