photography

Eyes from the Ashes

Photography is a powerful tool. How many people take pictures every day, hoping to capture bits of life as it happens? People treasure photos as access points to their memories.

Most of us did not experience World War II concentration camps, yet we can have knowledge of them, both intellectual and visual. Our most referenced sources of knowing are historical records, written and oral histories, and powerful pictures displayed in history books and Holocaust memorials all over the world—pictures of the abused, pictures of the dead.

Nazi Germany established about 20,000 camps to imprison its millions of victims. These camps served different purposes, and only a small fraction of those imprisoned survived. The most infamous camps were those that exterminated people, killing centers designed to expedite the “Final Solution,” the mass genocide and destruction of the Jews. (1)

The Auschwitz complex was the largest of its kind, with three main camps: Auschwitz I; Auschwitz II (Birkenau, the killing center), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). The complex housed the heinous pseudo-scientific work of SS Captain Dr. Josef Mengele. Zyklon B was first tested here in 1941. More than a million people were killed here. (2)

Much of the concentration camp photography and footage we see was taken by those liberating the prisoners of the Nazis. Most of the rest are from the Nazi point of view. From Auschwitz, we know of a limited number of official pictures taken for administrative and pseudo-medical recordkeeping purposes (3). We also know of two unofficial albums. One contains 116 pictures of SS soldiers and workers going about their days together—hunting, singing, trimming a Christmas tree (4). The second, called the Auschwitz, or Lili Jacobs Album (5), contains photographs of people arriving via boxcar to the ramps, the sorting and selecting of the prisoners, the prisoners in lines and rows, some in uniform, others taken to the woods.

Besides the people of the Auschwitz Album, there are 22 photographs of stuff. Piles and piles of bagged stuff. What was inside? Belongings, perhaps mementos. Like most of the people in the pictures, the mementos were destroyed. The goal of the “Final Solution” included leaving no trace.

***

The German Nazis did not succeed in their goal, but they destroyed millions of people and decimated culture. Sadly, it is their acts that that often define the people persecuted: we see the people as the taken, the victims, the dead. In both the Nazi pictures and pictures taken by the liberators, it is the abuses that we see. These pictures are invaluable evidence, but how can we see what once was, and what might have been, in starving eyes, crowds of people treated like cattle, and piles of bodies? It is easy to disconnect, to see the evidence and forget the humanity.

The Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan helps visitors remember. Its appearance and placement in the community, with architecture echoing a concentration camp, fully visible from a busy street, flanked by a bank and a Chinese restaurant, challenges passerbys to consider the horrors of the Holocaust in the everyday. It houses a permanent exhibit exploring Jewish history and culture prior to World War II. Area Holocaust survivors speak to tour groups. And the special exhibit The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes at Auschwitz-Birkenau gives visitors other images to consider, images that didn’t matter to the Nazis, images that tell us what, and who, the people victimized wanted to remember.

***

To curate, in its most old-fashioned sense, means more than gathering a collection. The word implies a sense of care. In 1986, Ann Weiss separated from her guided tour group at Auschwitz I. She wanted silence, and took some time before seeking to rejoin the group. When she began looking for them, she got lost. She could hear voices, but could not see them, when she encountered an employee. The employee invited her to see something not on the tour: a collection of about 2400 photographs. The pictures were not of abuses. They were not from the Nazi perspective, officially or unofficially. They were the spared mementos of prisoners, specifically from the people in the final liquidation and deportation of the Bedzin ghetto, August 1-3, 1943.

From that moment forward, Weiss began to care for the photographs. She sought to copy them and bring them to the light; she sought people who might remember those in the pictures. She gathered stories and made connections. Her work is collected in a book, and in this traveling display. By curating this collection, Weiss gives the viewer a chance to acknowledge a fuller reality surrounding the Holocaust.

The exhibition includes sweethearts and couples, portraits of children, friends walking together, people visiting resorts. Some of the people have been named, including eight pictures grouped together with the title The Huppert Family.  In this portion of the exhibit, we learn that Artur, Grete, and their son Peterle sent notes and pictures to Artur’s parents. We see an artful picture, “The Triple Exposure of Artur Huppert,” a picture of Artur and Grete at their wedding celebration, two pictures of Artur and Grete with their son, Peterle, when he was 16 months old. Between the pictures of the family sit three portraits of Peterle at 16 months, with a beautiful head of curls.

The eighth picture in the Huppert family collection features a delighted Artur kneeling behind Peterle. Together they hold picture frame containing two portraits: Josef and Rosa Huppert, Artur’s parents.

The direct impact of the Holocaust on Artur, Grete and Peterle is told in the captions near the photos. It is recorded that Artur and Grete do not survive their transport to a slave-labor camp. Peterle was on the same transport as his mother, and his fate went unrecorded.

The pictures were brought to Auschwitz with love. It is love that makes them familiar to us. The viewer is invited to think beyond the violence, remember this common bond, and imagine afresh the loss. As Leon Wieseltier writes in the foreword to Weiss’ book:

“The greatest enemy of abstraction is suffering. … Pain is always endured in the particular. Suffering is always experienced concretely; and this experience of concreteness, this transforming encounter with facticity, humbles the mind, and disgusts it, and stimulates within it the sobering suspicion that its most strenuous task is not the development of ideas, but the acknowledgment of realities.” (6)

***

Along with the three portraits of Peterle, the following words (translated) were sent:

“As pretty as the moon, and we will all see each other again very soon, in freedom, in health, when all this is behind us. Love, your grandchild, until 120 (years).”

If only. If only Peterle had lived to be 120, a phrase evoking Moses and his good lifespan. If only the world had not known such cruelty and violence. If only the Huppert family album continued. The viewer is left to ponder not just the culture lost, and the lives lost, but the future lost.

And yet. The display calls us beyond loss, to remember something else too, to not let evil and death have, in the exhibit’s words, “the final punctuation.” It asks us to end the sentence with life.

***

The author wishes to acknowledge and thank the Holocaust Memorial Center of Farmington Hills, Michigan and especially the staff of the research library for their work and contributions to this piece.

 

 

Other sources:

(1) “Nazi Camps”, an article from the Holocaust Encyclopedia, available online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005144, accessed January 16, 2013, 10:13 a.m.

(2) “Auschwitz”, an article from the Holocaust Encyclopedia, available online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005189, accessed January 16, 2013, 10:38 a.m.

(3) Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence by Janina Struk, reprinted in 2005, published in 2004 by I.B. Tarius & Co. LTD, 6 Salem Road, London W2 4BU, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY  10010; in association with the European Jewish Publication Society, PO Box 19948, London N3 3ZJ; copyright Janina Struk, 1984

(4) Press release dated September 19, 2007, available online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, from http://www.ushmm.org/museum/press/archives/detail.php?category=02-collections&content=2007-09-19, accessed January 18, 2013, 3:50 p.m.  Note: The USHMM also offers “Auschwitz through the lens of the SS: Photos of Nazi leadership at the camp.” It includes links to pictures from album mentioned, online at http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/ssalbum/

(5) The Auschwitz Album: Lili Jacob’s Album, edited by Serge Klarsfeld, The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, 515 Madison Avenue, New York, NY  10022. Note: The original album is housed at Yad Vashem in Israel, which shares some of the contents online at http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/album_auschwitz/index.asp

(6) The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Updated and Expanded, by Ann Weiss. Introduction by James E. Young, Foreword by Leon Wieseltier, Epigraph by Elie Wiesel. 2005-5765 The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia. Copyright 2001 by Ann Weiss, all rights reserved. Second edition, 2005.

Catching Glimpses of the Commonplace

Have you ever thought that you need photographs to prove your experiences because your stories are not enough?

Horrible storytellers, like me, rely on images to tell our tales, both ordinary and extraordinary. Typically, the best spoken stories involve uncommon events: strange encounters with the homeless or rescuing an outrageously drunken friend from his demise. But what about the ordinary, the everyday moments that lack the intrigue of the unusual? Are those stories not worth telling?

The stories that stay with me are composed of the quiet moments that can easily pass us by, and which are, incidentally, the hardest to describe in words. For example, the glance lovers exchange when no one is looking or the expression on someone’s face as they view the earth from 30,000 feet for the first time. I realize the impossibility of capturing every single ordinary moment and that catching those real moments is innately challenging, but it is that struggle which makes those stolen images so much more powerful.

 

Caught and Taught

One of the creative venues in which I dwell is photography. Dare I call myself a photographer? I did until I read a post on Rodney Smith’s blog in which he wonders, “If I am a photographer in the first place (which is extremely questionable with great aspirations, and I know one when I see it, but whether I have achieved the Holy Grail of being a photographer is a whole other matter) . . .If Rodney Smith, who has created some of the most compelling photographic images of the past few decades, thinks it questionable to call himself a photographer, then hubris would abound if I were to make such a claim. So I spend quite a bit of time behind the lens learning how to see. I see an enormous number of images, and often explore the work or websites of various creatives to see what inspires or draws them in. The problem is I accumulate more images than I have time to consider, but the nuggets are there in the numerous URLs and RSS feeds I follow.

I was cleaning up my RSS inbox recently and noticed one site in particular had over a thousand unread posts. That caught my attention, as I was pretty sure it wasn’t nearly that high a week before. I started to scroll through the posts and soon realized they were all photographs rather than the usual text or story from this author. On some days the author posted upwards of sixty photos. Given a few weeks at this volume, it’s no wonder there were over a thousand posts waiting for me. While deleting them I looked at each image, even if only for a moment. And something happened. Certain images caught me, stirring an emotion or captivating me. It was akin to casually walking through a museum and suddenly being stunned by a piece of art in such a way that you forget you were walking at all.

Detail of The Invasion by Adolphe William Bouguereau.

We live digitally but often can make claims that the digital realm is the bane of true artistic existence. The flood of information and images and videos on a given day can make any head spin. There is something to be said for standing in the presence of the original, something that can be seen live that isn’t seen otherwise. It is, after all, the same reason most of us value human contact in real space instead of phone calls, text messages, and all the other disconnected connections available. Certainly, another human is an art to behold, live in space and time.

That said, images still have power even on a LED screen. Not all those images in that folder were deleted. I kept some to come back to and explore why I had a response and to let that response play itself out and see where it might lead. Many took me to memories or longings; others gave context to emotions I could not put in words until then.

One of the first was a cropped version of The Invasion by Adolphe William Bouguereau. Only the lower quarter of the image is visible, the grasping cherub on blue, the white wings, almost like a pleading, a divine attempt at detour, one I have experienced numerous times in my life. A cut of a painting that tells a different story when seen in full, wherein it doesn’t seem to be a detour at all but, as the title says, an invasion, like a swarm coming on.

Then there was an image titled Tree House. It gave me a sense as if I just arrived on the scene of a long coming collapse and destruction; the sense of immediacy yet well past time from some other era. It reminds me of the years I spent as a mountaineer guide and would discover strange scenes like this in far remote wildernesses.

Poppy Field by Eliot Porter.

Eliot Porter’s 1970 photo titled Poppy Field first evokes the place where Dorothy and her Oz friends fell listless and sidetracked on their way to the Emerald City. The poppies stand out in such contrast to the rest of the landscape that they almost look painted onto the print afterwards. It also stirs a verse of John McCrae: “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses row on row / That mark our place . . . ” The words were written nearly 100 years ago by a Lieutenant Colonel after watching a friend die on the battlefields of the First World War. Poppies, a brilliant marker of the dead among Flanders then, are still worn on this Veteran’s Day, this Remembrance Day so to not break faith with the dead. As McCrae’s poem ends: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

This leads me to one of my own images taken a few years back on medium format film. It’s titled Faded Glory, as it was taken at sunset on the edge of winter at the Crested Butte Cemetery. An old soldier’s grave in a land too cold for poppies (and maybe even Remembrance), the cross and the flag — symbols both, and both losing much of their intended original meaning as iconic images that have saturated our psyches and so lost their power to speak without words unless captured in a manner unfamiliar.

Pictures still speak though most are lost amongst the noise of so much visual overdose. Like the chatter of a cocktail party, the amount of imagery I encounter in a given day becomes a droning wash, indistinguishable. Still, regardless of medium, when a work of art is excellently crafted by paint or by lens, it will still stop my breath in its subtlety or its screaming beauty. After all, something extraordinary doesn’t beg for attention. It doesn’t need to.

Faded Glory by Kendall Ruth.

As I clean up the “noise” collected over weeks on my RSS reader, those images of beauty, slipped in between the thousands, still grab the attention, the emotion, and memory of my busy and noise-filled world. And maybe they will woo me to the local museum to see more of their kind in the quiet stillness of their presence with only the click-clacking of the security guard’s shoes to break the moment. They, and others like them, check my vision such that the next time I look through a lens, more of my heart sees out into the world around me. Maybe that is what Rodney Smith senses, after all these years and all he has accomplished, that he is still learning what he sees, and can’t bear to claim the name Photographer.

 

The Beautiful Beach: A Photo Essay

It is May 7, 2011 — a Saturday. We drive forty-five minutes south to Dauphin Island. This will be the last time we will visit the Gulf of Mexico before moving away.

It had been more than a year since the BP oil spill. Last summer we didn’t go to the beach at all. My husband Adam got a part-time job doing EMS standby for those working to clean up the shores. He said time and again that it wasn’t that bad where we lived in Alabama, but we were still grateful for the extra income.

In late October, we finally took our daughter Lily to the beach at Dauphin Island. It was off-season and barely a soul could be seen. Still, there were no tar balls and we had little concern. We played in the sand and swam. Adam tried to catch crabs with his bare hands. Mullet jumped nearby. Everything seemed all right.

I made a bucket list of things to do before we moved. On it was one last visit to our southern beach. We arrived early, long before the heat set in, and found a quiet place to build a sand castle and walk Lily along the water’s edge. We knew we wouldn’t see these waters for a long time; we probably won’t live so close to the water again. But the Gulf will always be there and the beaches are just as beautiful as they’ve ever been.

Note: these photos were taken with a Holga 120 camera.

Laid Bare: Snow, Photography and Truth

The notions of nature are lonely photographs.

Think about it for a moment. How does one go about describing nature?

Where does one begin? What does one include?

Perhaps more importantly, where does one end their portrayal?

For instance, I may say that I find few images of nature more beautiful than the silent, meditative impressions of a snowy field backstopped by a stark black wood.

Pause again, slowly reading the previous line.

I find few images of nature more beautiful than the silent, meditative impressions of a snowy field backstopped by a stark black wood.

Hmm.

You may be sitting there thinking, “Yes, I understand, I know exactly the scene he describes. I saw just a similar scene this morning while driving to work.”

or

You may feel something like this: “Ok, what are these ‘silent, meditative impressions’ and how does snow convey them? Also, how black is this wood? Is this just a poetic term for a fence on the edge of a field, or is he indeed speaking of a very dark forest? The Black Forest perhaps? Germany?”

Quickly it becomes apparent that the reader is no longer engaging with nature vicariously through the writer’s description, but is instead trying to find meaning through the chosen words, carried along by streams of consciousness.

The experience has morphed into an understanding of semantics rather than substance.

At once the reader is confronted with one of the obstacles and beauties of nature writing: it is impossible to recreate in your mind the scene as described by the writer. Only the writer knows the image he describes.

Take for instance another line describing this indisputably snowy landscape.

The subdued blankness of the snow contrasts with the harsh void of the forest, forming a scene that sings of elegiac serenity amidst its bleakness.

Apart from the creeping thought that perhaps Cormac McCarthy has abandoned violence for simpler pursuits such as wax poetic nature writing, one still runs into the barrier of language in the search for full understanding of the image described.

Put simply, this winter scene is a snapshot, a photograph captured by my eyes and left to develop in the recesses of my conscious, sitting and waiting till a kindred sentiment appears to save it from loneliness. Put even simpler, I saw this image of snow, a field and trees last week while driving home. It cannot be completely understood by anyone but myself, as it waits warm and alone inside my head.

As I said, the notions of nature are lonely photographs.

——–

August Sander, The Right Eye of My Daughter Sigrid, 1928.

In his 1927 remarks on a photography exhibition at the Cologne Art Union, German photographer August Sander stated that photography “can render things with magnificent beauty but also with terrifying truthfulness; and it can also be extraordinarily deceptive.”

He continued, “There is nothing I hate more than sugar-glazed photography with gimmicks, poses and fancy effects. Therefore let me honestly tell the truth about our age and people.”

August Sander spoke regarding his work People of the Twentieth Century: A Cultural History in Photographs, a collection of forty-five portfolios of photographs of German society during the post-WWI Weimar Republic.

Sander sought to portray German life as it was, photographing what he called “archetypes,” documenting through photography slices of the German citizenry. As such, his collections bore titles as The Farmer or The Artists.

By objectively presenting the German people as they were, Sander included the handicapped, vagabonds, androgynous women, and Communists in his work, not just standard, traditionally imagined faces of moderate, mainstream Germans.

Purely, August Sander wanted to tell the truth.

——–

This is not a meditation on snow. This is not a lesson on the history of German photography. This is not even a case for the aesthetics of nature, which, let us agree, is of the highest value.

This is a question of truth in reality, of accepting beauty in this world as it is. The contrasts of the white snow and black forest harkened back to the black/white of August Sander’s photographs, a thread of connectivity stretching decades.

Does a specter of a snowy field hold as much truth as the images of August Sander? Yes, but it is an aesthetic hybrid of truth, trapped as it is within myself, understood only by me and locked in its time just as the objects of Sander’s camera were trapped within theirs.

Maybe there are times to simply accept the truth of life as it is, not as it ought to be. Perhaps these imperfect images are the truest signposts of a world to come, indications of the need for rebirth. But until that time, let us not ignore the beauty in the brokenness. Let August Sander find pride in his people. Let me find solace in a lonely snowy field. Let that image lie dormant in my mind, reminding me of a past photographer’s attempt to find truth.

Winter always seems to instill a desire for things to come, but for that passing moment, riding in my friend’s Subaru Forester, all I wanted was that field surrounded by a dark wood, and the truth it hid.

So Much Depends on Photography

“India is in a constant state of photographic decay– I mean that in a good way,” Jimmy Chalk said to me, stepping over a shredded bicycle tire. He was approaching a wall that had once been painted with Tamil letters, but was now faded and cracking, the paint curling outwards like shards of bark. “You see what I mean?” he asked. “Every wall, every bit of sidewalk, is gradually decaying here, and this gives every wall or shed or storefront a wonderful visual texture, or mixing of colors and composition of these unnatural shapes.” I could see what he meant as he came nearer to the wall, which seemed like a relic from some older, forgotten age. Its bright colors had faded in places but remained in others. There were watermarks and what looked like bullet holes riddling the length of the wall, cutting through the text of the Tamil, which is a script of curved, crossed and house-like images. In the United States such walls would have been painted over years ago to keep the appearance of cleanliness, order, progress. We could only find walls such as these in tucked- away corners that the sanitizing hand of gentrification has passed over. But every surface of every object in Chennai seemed to be like this wall: faded paint, crumbling, pockmarked, rusted – a whole universe of texture and color.

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

Jimmy had been given the task of guiding me through a crash course on photography for my new job. We went out into Chennai armed with cameras to experiment with different photography techniques. He showed me how to adjust the lenses, the aperture settings, the length of the exposure, the white balance – and what difference it meant to take pictures with the different settings. We wandered to an open playground where a number of children were playing cricket using stacked cinderblocks as their wicket. The red dirt of the field rose into the air from the clatter of their bare feet chasing the ball, creating a surreal orange glow in the air. This was perfect light, Jimmy said. He went over the speed settings, how to frame the shot to catch the batter in action, how to keep the moving ball from blurring in the shots. We waded into the game and tried to take pictures of the action. The Indian children were either flamboyant or shy around the camera and these two American strangers, either waving and laughing or perhaps hiding in the folds of their mother’s sari. Both made equally lovely pictures.

A new student of photography, such as myself, will find no shortage of source material to study on the subject. There are extensive manuals and sources of instruction on camera settings, quality of light, and generally taking good pictures.  There are also a number of more academic treatises on the subject of photography itself as a form of expression. Perhaps the best chronicler of photography in an analytical sense is Susan Sontag, whose 1977 collection of essays entitled On Photography first addressed the implications of a photograph. In a later work entitled Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag notes that one of the principal things distinguishing photographs from other forms of art is that a photograph purports to represent truth, to be an accurate reflection of the actual realities of the world the moment it was taken. She quotes Virginia Woolf in saying, “photographs are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.”

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

Sontag then spends the rest of the book laboring to disprove Woolf’s glib remark, noting how easily the framing of a photograph, a caption, a convenient lack of context, can obscure or change the meaning of the image. She requires the whole book to make her argument because her position contradicts what reason and experience might suggest: here is a picture before me; this happened; this was real. Photographs present themselves to us as indisputable proof about what stood before the eye of the beholder at the moment the picture was taken. Photographic evidence still carries a good deal of weight in the courts. Even in the age of Photoshop tampering, a good deal of proof is required to demonstrate that the image isn’t true, because the base assumption is that it is credible until proven otherwise. Unlike literature or paintings, for example, the mind assumes the accuracy of the photographic image.

But the photograph is also an impossible object, a captured moment that once was but can never be again. In this way it is perpetually false, a present-time rendering of something that has long since vanished from the world. As literary theorist Roland Barthes puts it, “[w]hat the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Anyone who has seen a photograph has had this experience. Consider Capa’s infamous Death of a Loyalist Soldier, which allegedly captures a soldier in the Spanish Civil War at the moment he has been shot, flung backwards by the bullet, his rifle airborne just beyond his outstretched arm, his shadow behind him on the hill waiting to catch his falling body. This soldier was killed only once, yet his death replays ad infinitum in the consciousness of the world through this photograph. It has taken on its own life, completely separate from his.

Consequently, we take a great weight upon our shoulders when we pick up a camera. In On Photography, Sontag warns that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” Few of us consider such things as we are snapping photos of our night on the town and posting them on our Facebook profiles. How often do we stop to consider how we are representing the world, what part of the world we are allowing to take a life of its own, to live on forever, when we take a picture?

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

This may have been the most important thing that Jimmy said as we turned from the cricket game and began walking toward his studio. There was a responsibility inherent in this work. First, to do justice to the people whom we would photograph. And second, to do justice to the world we chose to immortalize, to take great care in the things we chose to transform by photographing them. Consider the composition, the arrangement of objects. Consider the space, the balance of light and dark elements, the shapes. Consider the story. That woman is looking toward something. Shall we photograph her from behind that we too may see it, or shall her gaze in itself be the story? What are we saying about the world that people will believe is true? Should we say such a thing?

So we stepped back through the gates and over the garbage around which a group of stray dogs had gathered to pick the leftovers, and I thought of William Carlos Williams. So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. So much depends upon the simple composition of objects in a pleasing shape, the quality of light, shadow, color, texture, the framing of the action to create a story.

In the days following my class with Jimmy, I have found myself studying the world more closely, examining the lines that compose the world, the way objects catch light and then throw it back, and especially, what all of this means. It has reminded me of the remarkable nature of our presence as observers in this world, the remarkable nature of beauty of the world itself. And this is the gift that a photographer can give to the world, and that photography can give to those who would wade into its deeper waters.

Albert Hastings and Other Strangers

“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see just not their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame that we see them in.”
– Frederick Buechner

I am an unabashed people-watcher. I don’t mean to be rude; I’m just fascinated by humanity. I furtively watch people in coffee shops, bookstores, grocery stores, in their cars (at stoplights), and so on. Just the other day, I took a hellacious glucose/insulin tolerance test and was in that waiting room for a good six hours. I packed a good book, but I kept peeking over the pages at the blank stares of others in that medical purgatory.

A Hispanic male nurse called my name every hour to draw blood. Along with light blue scrubs, he wore a black yarmulke bordered by silver stars of David, and cobalt blue Hebrew tattoos were etched onto his forearm. I was utterly intrigued – people-watching up close and personal – and we chatted while I looked away from the needle. When I looked back, I noticed he had scratches on his face. He winced at one, laughed, and said, “I got these on Hanukkah, can you believe that? It started out well, but it didn’t end so well.” The writerly side of my brain was madly screaming, “What IS his story? He’s a story to be written!”

Photo: KayLynn Deveney

I love photographs of people for the same reason. I pore over photographs on Flickr almost daily, and within that community I discovered a beautiful book that captures the essence of friendly people-watching: The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings. The photographer, KayLynn Deveney, and her husband noticed Albert as they walked to and from their basement flat and the city center in southern Wales every day. The old man often leaned against his building, his quiet yet lively presence contrasting the architecture’s decay. He watered the gardens to sustain life. Others might have overlooked this lonely man, but KayLynn was attentive to a light in Albert’s face that made her want to know him.

She felt a bit shy to transition from watching to meeting Albert, but she mustered up the courage and he greeted her warmly. Soon after, she asked if they could work on a photographic project together. As they got to know one another, she noticed his daily liturgies – how he thoughtfully organized his belongings and his time. And through conversations with Bert, she realized that their perceptions about photography differed. To allow Bert to converse with her camera, she asked him to jot down captions in a pocket notebook. KayLynn’s empathetic, honest photography and Bert’s thoughts became a dialogue that eventually grew into this book.

In the introduction of The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings, KayLynn states:

I believe photographs of our possessions and domestic patterns can be portraits, just like the photographs of our faces.

This truth shines forth from images of Bert, his small home, and his neighborhood. He poured “his inevitable cuppa chai” into two cups, not one. He salvaged a wind-broken daffodil by stabilizing it to a mug with a rubber band. He laughed into golden lamplight enjoying his evening whiskey. He looked straight at KayLynn’s camera and wrote, “Could this be a presumptive picture of my futuristic soul regarding a past world and friends?” He folded his pajamas on his bed. He washed his socks and hung them on a coat hanger to dry. He placed a Fedora on his head to go out. Birds alighted his hand. He listened to the radio. Interspersed within the photographs are Bert’s poems, drawings of his clock hobbies, his handwritten TV schedule, and old photographs of his late wife, daughter, and grandchildren. Each smooth page in the book seems to literally speak of Bert’s hospitality, compassion, simplicity, comfort, humor, humility, grief, and dignity.

Albert reminds me of my late father-in-law, who also lived a quiet, lonely life. They even resemble one another, and both served in their country’s military. My father-in-law’s primary joys were his dog, Twit; mystery novels; his cowboy boots for kicker dancing; Blue Bell homemade vanilla ice cream; and dinners with me and his son, where he always ordered salmon. His Air Force medals hung on the wall. These details and daily rituals of my husband’s father, and those of Albert’s life, are important and noteworthy because this is how they lived, and every life matters.

KayLynn documented Albert’s day-to-day life with creative tenderness. They collaborated to create both friendship and art. It inspires me to ponder the possibilities of our interactions with strangers outside of our social comfort zone. We could start by befriending and serving them, then really see our neighbors through art – perhaps by photography, recording or writing their stories, or making a short documentary film. Or we could simply talk with them, know who they are. Our society tragically tends to ignore the lonely, poor, and elderly.

KayLynn reminds us of this again in a beautifully painful portfolio entitled “Edith and Len.” She began photographing Mr. and Mrs. Crawshaw shortly after they moved into a Welsh nursing home for their combined failing health, though Edith was in slightly better shape at age 93; her husband was 92. These photographs are difficult to view just as any nursing home is difficult to visit.

I used to visit a couple in a nursing home around the corner from our church that reminded me very much of Edith and Len. Billie and Allan lived in adjacent rooms, but every Sunday morning I found Allan seated in an armchair at the foot of his wife’s bed watching a church service on TV. I will forever associate that elegant woman with Psalm 91 – it was quite possibly her favorite piece of poetry ever. She requested that I read it every Sunday morning and always said, “See? How can we fear anything?”

Yet I felt their displacement like the weight of an anvil on my shoulders, and I feel this same sense of the mourning of home in the portraits of Edith and Len. But I also see the beauty of the elderly – every line and wrinkle of age traces poems of the joys and tragedies they’ve lived, and the wisdom planted deep within. One of my favorites in the “Edith and Len” portfolio is a sad photograph of Edith’s beautiful old face, her furrowed brow looking upward seeming to say, “O Lord, how long?” KayLynn kept diary entries for this project and that particular photograph’s entry reads:

October 30

The seasons are changing today.
The sky is darker and more wet.
The leaves are dancing around the
streets. Edith asked me today if I
could imagine what it’s like to sit
there all day, every day, the way
she did. I thought, I am desperately
trying to imagine it.

Certainly, nursing homes are full of tragedy: neglected residents, suffering, and an unchosen home. But we cannot and should not look away from the tragedy depicted in KayLynn’s work. It is a powerful encouragement of how to live better: visit nursing homes often, or when you’re able, welcome elderly family into your home. But regardless of what we’re able to do, we must not forget anyone who lives and breathes in this world. Albert’s, Edith’s, and Len’s stories were written before they were born; it’s our job to learn their stories, share, and do likewise.

Click on the thumbnail to see the full-sized image.

Shoot the Terminal

I do just enough corporate travel each year to push me into that category of fliers who are a bit more familiar with airports than they would really like to be. But this familiarity has a nice silver lining to it, and as a photographer, that translates to a target-rich environment for capturing people in a sort of raw, unrehearsed setting of life.

So, how should one go about catching this unique environment with a camera? Some photographers worry that federal agents will swarm upon them and seize equipment if they even try to pull out pro equipment on an airplane or in a terminal. I have to admit that at first, I had some serious reservations of my own – but the temptation was just too great!

My photo-conscious eye was constantly being drawn to interesting exchanges, lighting, and motion. I was missing shots left and right because I was just too timid to react. Finally, one fine day at Denver International, I just started blazing away in concourse B. You know what? No one made a peep. They barely noticed I was there. I have been shooting airports, terminals, and airplanes ever since, and it is amazing how much fun and excitement it brings.

The photos that accompany this story have been collected over a two year period starting in 2006, and they have become a special collection of technique and memories that I enjoy each time I look at them. Here are a few tips for those trying to get up the nerve to shoot the terminal:

1. I know it is tempting, but skip that non-stop flight, and choose an intermediate stopping point with enough layover to do some exploring. When I leave San Diego, I usually hit Phoenix, Chicago, Denver, or Dallas/Fort Worth. All of these are great airports to practice taking photos. Planning for a plane change will also get you mentally ready to confidently plunge into a great photo opportunity.

2. Choose a good bag for the task. I carry a sling pack that I can quickly slide around to my front. I pull my dSLR out nice and smooth, and shoot, then move on. Airport photography is all about quick, discrete behavior. I would recommend avoiding tripods or anything long and metallic that might draw the wrong kind of attention.

3. Do some recon and plan out your shot. Leave your camera tucked away and just patrol the terminals looking for that great shot. If you see a neat silhouette, or a person sleeping in an odd position, chances are you have a minute to prepare. Rehearse your approach in your mind, double check your exposure settings, and go make it happen.

4. Don’t be shy about telling people what you are doing. People in airports are suspicious by nature – it now goes with the territory. When you engage people and tell them what you are doing, they may become interested and might even help you get the shot you need. Be credible, and take cards with your information on them so you can easily hand them to curious people.

Now get out there, and embrace the plane change! There are some great shots to be had at airports. With a little effort and practice, you will soon find yourself actually looking forward to that next round of corporate customer service training on the other side of the country.

The photographs of August Sander

From The Economist: Twentieth-century man.

“Nothing is more hateful to me than photography sugar-coated with gimmicks, poses and false effects,” wrote August Sander in 1927. “Let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age.” Like a lepidopterist, Sander captured and classified his fellow Germans, arranging them by profession, social class and family relationships. In a career spanning 50 years, he observed industrialists, avant-garde artists, communists, circus performers, gypsies and the unemployed with equal detachment, allowing each sitter his dignity.

Getting Out

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir

Thank you to Nicole Gliddon; I realized while reading and enjoying her piece A Radical Proposal: Stay Home that I find myself on the flip side of this particular coin. So I’d like to counterbalance her proposal with my current craving: getting out.

“You need to get out more.” It’s become a favorite catch phrase in our indoor-centric modern culture to highlight the odd behaviors people can develop after being cooped up too long, or when demonstrating an atypical lack of awareness of events outside their own little world. It’s used jokingly, of course, but belies a commonly accepted belief: a life lived only indoors can do strange things to us. How much, really, do we need to get out?

Luskentyre - 7
Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides
Photo: Colin Campbell

In my eight years since graduating and venturing out into the big wide world with my graphic design degree and its attendant aspirations and ideals, I have transitioned from a job and a rented apartment right in the heart of Scotland’s largest city, with all its convenience, buzz, and general urban delights, to being self-employed and working from an owned apartment in the heart of a small, historic village within a five minute walk of lapping seaside and idyllic pastoral countryside.

I know – it sounds great. I should count my blessings, since I have been able to enjoy these diverse and stimulating living environments, and I do. But I grew up in one of the most remote and ruggedly beautiful parts of rural Scotland – the Outer Hebrides – and that really raises the bar when it comes to finding satisfying homeliness elsewhere. After three years in the city, I had drained the cup of city lights and the stimulating urban vibe and was aching to see sunsets instead of pavements again, solitude far from the madding crowd.

I moved to my current residence with the intention of finding more of a rural setting within the limitations of other life and work factors that make returning to the Outer Hebrides unsuitable. I found a ground floor apartment with surprising ease in a pleasantly situated village of Inverkip, down the coast within 30 miles of Glasgow (in Scotland, considered commuting distance), complete with village shop, inn, yacht marina, forests, and farms. But, shockingly, it’s taken me over four years to really begin to fully appreciate the very things I came here desiring. The blinkered demands of modern life had left me conditioned to spend all my energies on the inside of things while, at best, taking for granted what was around me.

Spango Valley, Inverkip - 1
Spango Valley, Inverkip, Scotland
Photo: Colin Campbell

“I mean, it is an extraordinary thing that a large proportion of your country and my country, of the citizens, never see a wild creature from dawn ’til dusk.” – David Attenborough

I lived and breathed my entire childhood years in an island environment surrounded always by uninhibited sky, wind, moor, and sea. I have dug earth, planted vegetables, sheared sheep, woven tweed, learned to name birds and bugs, and explored many a beach and hill. Having enjoyed these things as part and parcel of life, I am incredulous to discover, in increasing number, those whose life experience contains no firsthand knowledge of even the commonest of these things that I once regarded as the ordinaries of life. Moreover, these folk are often incredulous that I should have firsthand experience of so many things that inhabit the vague Out There when all they have known and know of me has been firmly ensconced in the civilized urbanity of modern life in the Scottish Central Belt.

This collision, of the dawning appreciation for what youth takes so easily for granted with the cabin fever that can creep up on anyone who shifts from an office/studio work environment to working alone in a domestic environment, has made me increasingly desperate to address the imbalance into which I have drifted.

Ponies in the summer evening sun
Ponies in the summer evening sun
Photo: Colin Campbell

Depending on childhood environmental conditioning and personality type, a person will adapt to the indoor “solopreneur” work model with varying ease. I was enough of an introvert to find the idea of working from home appealing, especially when I worked in an open plan office with a dozen colleagues. I didn’t discover my extroverted side until I had been working solo for six months or so. But I am one of those people near the middle of the extrovert/introvert spectrum. I need to be fed in both these areas, to some degree. But something more than simply balancing the social interaction equation is required.

It took me longer to realize that there is a distinction between working alone and solitude. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand that as a concept – I just did not value it as a necessity.

The frenetic pace of twenty-first century life pile-drives us into an uninterrupted round of tasks, communication, and stimulation. If you work away from the home, this torrent is probably naturally interrupted by commuting or family; if not, you have to be doubly wary of routine being overwhelmed by monotony.

Through a glass darkly
Photo: Colin Campbell

Routine and monotony are not synonymous – and if they feel that way, you probably need to perform a life diagnostic. Routine without variety produces monotony. Indeed, one person’s variety is another person’s tedium, and even your former self’s stimulation can eventually become your present self’s boredom. Variety really is the spice of life.

I found that no matter how engaging or satisfying a work routine I devised, I still felt drained. I realized that despite having healthy doses of non-work related activities – time with friends, church life, recreation – the one thing I was neglecting was solitude. It seems an odd way of putting it, but in all of these activities, I was spending time inside myself – and that’s a drain on anyone.

Scenic photography has always been a large part of my recreation. As an avid photographer and traveler, I have enjoyed exploring and photographing countless beautiful sights and locations. But when I am in that objective photographic recording mode, I am not always subjectively enjoying that place and moment. I found sometimes when I went for a walk without the camera, or even (the horror!) without my phone, I would become more aware of outside me than me.

Summer path by the shore - 1
Summer path by the shore in Inverkip
Photo: Colin Campbell

Nothing revolutionary in that, right? But what surprised me was how being outside changed and refreshed, to the core, the Inside Me.

The oaky smell of chimney smoke or garden bonfire drifting through the village street wrapped countless scent memories around me like a blanket. Feeling moving air buffeting my face was refreshingly unpredictable and reassuringly humbling. There’s nothing like the unseen force of the wind sweeping through the office desk of the mind to scatter our cares and all-consuming concerns and readjust their proportions.


Ardgowan Wood, Inverkip, Scotland
Video: Colin Campbell

Sunlight glinting like glistering jewels on waves whose gentle lapping seemed to waft in soothing power right through my whole being. Bird song flitting with ballet grace over cerulean waters and echoing unseen in the orchestra of forest. Trees gathered in age-old steadfastness, yet clothed in ever-changing wonder of color and blossom, always there, but ever different – hearteningly unyielding to fingers that surf the world wide web with ease. Path and thicket, field and mountain – all catalyzing a reaction of wholeness in my body at rest from itself and absorbed in the Outside.

This is why I need to get out more: so that the Inside Me can work happier, healthier, and more productively, and will more frequently remember that he is not the centre of any universe. He’s a very small and insignificant component of a thrillingly beautiful universe that he was created to be in, to live in, to enjoy, and to participate in to the benefit of all and to the benefit of one.

Do yourself a favor – go for a walk.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar: I love not man the less, but Nature more.
– Lord Byron

We’ll Always Be Here

Watching Everlasting Moments, Sweden’s official 2008 selection for the Academy Awards, is like walking into one of those old sepia photographs and learning the stories that set the lips into grim lines and sketched weary furrows onto the faces.

Even the warm, golden tints of the cinematography give that feeling the film its aged quality as it slips into the lives of a poor family living amidst the commotion of early twentieth-century Sweden. A young couple named Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt) and Maria (Maria Heiskanen) win a camera at a fair; he insists it’s his, she says he’ll have to marry her to keep it. Their union immediately produces a brood of children, and Maria forgets the camera until Sigfrid slips deeper into alcoholism, goes on strike in a fit of socialism, and begins philandering. The family slips into the same dissolute slide foreshadowed in a song the children sing at a temperance meeting early in the film.

Maria tries to sell the camera to a kind photographer, Mr. Pederson (Jesper Christensen), to get money for rent. Instead, he teaches her how to use it. She begins documenting her life in snapshots, developing the pictures in the kitchen at night by draping a blanket over a chair. The estranged Sigfrid watches her from outside, through a crack in the door. The camera that started their romance now digs at their rift as Sigfrid becomes jealous of her friendship with Mr. Pederson and her obsession with the world that she sees through her lens.

Everlasting Moments is about the dignity that art brings to even the worst human conditions-the ability to see beyond the squalor of this world into another. Its most uncomfortable moments play out like a sprawling series of shameful vignettes. In one of opening scenes, a coveted visit from Maja’s (the oldest daughter) teacher ends abruptly when Sigfrid stumbles in, wasted and singing at the top of his lungs. Later, he walks off with another woman at a picnic-in broad daylight, in front of the children-and doesn’t show up until the next morning, when he takes the family careering through the streets in a drunken carriage ride. Maria-pregnant after Sigfrid essentially raped her-has to take the reins as her husband’s head sinks to his knees.

Maria’s husband is a constant source of shame, disgrace, and fear, but her photography-that ability to see the beauty in a disabled child or an icicle hanging off of a barn-awakens something in her and makes her life bearable. She feels guilty sometimes but can’t stop, even when she tries. Pederson tells her she has the ability to see a different world when she looks through a camera lens, and “those who see that world can’t close their eyes.”

When Sigfrid tries to kick out the people whose photographs she’s taking, she finally stands up to him with a kind of dignity so deep it transcends anger. Her art has awakened that part of her humanity that gives worth apart from being loved or abused, and strength to make an unhindered choice about whether to keep or leave him.

Despite its tenuous beauty, Everlasting Moments has its flaws. It’s a sprawling family history that covers over a decade, and some of the details are haphazard. The film is based on a true story-the story of a real Maja’s mother-but the film’s perspective is inchoate. Maja is initially presented as the narrator, but she drifts in and out, and her character stays hazy. We’re far more interested in what’s happening inside her mother’s head, so it’s hard to see what Maja’s filter adds. Sigfrid’s character also seems inconsistent; He’s capable of both sincere penitence and the deepest brutality, and the things that trigger either one don’t quite make sense.

The ending leaves you feeling wistful and unsettled because of what it keeps untold, but some of the final lines are the most evocative. Maja remembers that when her mother took a picture she would say, “Just imagine it-we’ll always be here. These moments will be everlasting.” For a woman who endures so many degrading moments, the ability to see and capture another world lights her way.

“Everlasting Moments” opened on March 6 in New York and Los Angeles.


This article originally appeared on Patrol, a daily web magazine that covers the arts, culture, and politics in New York City.

Reflections on Norman Jean Roy’s
Traffik Exhibition Opening

After nearly ten years as a New Yorker, and having worked in the entertainment and prestige beauty industries before entering the arts world where I now reside, I have learned that there is no point in trying to predict what will happen to me each day – whom I will meet, where I will end up, or what I will see. A couple weeks ago I met my friend for Vietnamese food in Chinatown, where, over sour vegetable soup and two pots of tea, we talked at length about the intersection of art and social justice. This friend, a sculptor, is deeply devoted to helping humanity’s most needy, and this devotion is born out of an intense closeness with God and healthy sense of mysticism that enables her to see angels where the rest of us might only see mere men.

After dinner, we headed to Chelsea to attend the opening reception for Traffik, an exhibition by fashion photographer Norman Jean Roy at MILK Gallery, open to the public November 21 through December 8. MILK, located at 450 W. 15th Street, is considered to be New York City’s most prestigious photography gallery, and Roy is one of the most prominent high fashion photogs, under contract with Conde Nast to shoot exclusively for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Men’s Vogue, Allure, and Glamour.

With a resume like that, it’s no wonder that as we neared the gallery, we felt like we had walked onto the set of Entourage. Entering MILK and passing the hefty team of security guards, we were immediately swept into 6,000 square feet of models, agents, creative directors, managers, editors, and other photographers. The walls were hung with nearly fifty images, approximately four feet by five feet each. They were portraits of Cambodian prostitutes and other victims of the sex trafficking industry. The images were beautifully shot and the small placards posted beside each one gave a brief history of each subject featured. For anyone interested in the plight of victims of sex slavery, it would seem that this was a very important exhibition to attend.

However, the evening left both my friend and me deeply unsettled, because walking into the gallery, we entered what looked and felt, for all intents and purposes, like a house party. Club music was pumping, with a bass boost that reverberated through our ear canals and pulsated through our bones. The several hundred people bumping into one another throughout the huge room were talking so loudly that I could not hear my own words, and, from all appearances, very few of the people present were engaged with the art.

Interestingly, this was my second event dealing with sex trafficking in the past few weeks. On November 6, International Arts Movement hosted a screening of the film Branded, a documentary about the sex slave industry in Phoenix, Arizona. Following the film, I moderated a panel discussion with the filmmaker, Chad De Miguel, and a representative from Food for the Hungry, a non-profit organization committed to rescuing victims of the sex industry. I was surprised at the show when a woman came up to me and shouted through the noise, “You’re from International Arts Movement, right?” Trying to place her face (and failing), she quickly rescued me by explaining that she had attended the Branded screening, and I finally recalled meeting her briefly that night.

She works full time for a non-profit that is devoted to helping put an end to sex trafficking, and we tried to engage in meaningful conversation, but the atmosphere made it virtually impossible. I was yelling at the top of my lungs, and still couldn’t hear myself, or her. We exchanged cards and agreed to meet sometime in the future to discuss how IAM and her organization might partner together.

As I made my way around the outside parameters of the room, reading the placards and studying the artwork, I was increasingly ill at ease with the scene I was smack dab in the center of. As I watched people laughing and mingling and networking and scanning the room for who was there, eager to see and be seen, the paradox before me became increasingly obscene. I felt like I was looking at a room full of sex industry workers surrounded by images of sex industry workers; both the industry represented in the flesh, and the industry represented on film used sex to sell their wares.

At one point I pulled out a pen and began making notes about what I was experiencing. Shortly after I had started writing, a man with shoulder-length blond hair bee-lined for me, a full glass of white wine sloshing around in his hand. I didn’t need to hear his slurred speech to know he was drunk; his red eyes and dopey smile spoke volumes. “What’cha writin’?” he asked in a singsong manner, which was creepy coming from a man who appeared to be approximately fifty years old. I stared down at him and managed to dodge him for a bit, but quickly became the unwitting audience to his editorial of the event. “We can’t look at this from an American perspective, with an American standard,” he blathered. “These girls . . . what else do they have? This is all they have. We shouldn’t judge them. This is all they know. This is their life. They’re not asking to be anything other than what they are.”

I was dumbfounded. Was he serious? I’m afraid he was. I contemplated trying to reason with him, trying to somehow get past the incomprehensible ignorance of one who could stand in front of a picture of a woman with deep scars all over her body and filthy, infected lesions on her feet, who barely earned her living by servicing men sexually, and think this way. But I was not up to shouting, and I knew that nothing I could say would make any difference. As I excused myself and walked away, he said something about the self-righteousness of expecting people in other countries to live up to our American standards. I actually did say something to him about them not being “American” standards, but rather basic humanity standards, but he dismissed me.

With the paradoxical scenario of serious subject matter and a party-like atmosphere, I was very curious about the background of this exhibition. According to the press materials I managed to procure, the project came about when Norman Jean Roy was on assignment for Glamour‘s “Women of the Year” portfolio. Roy was introduced to Somaly Mam, a former Cambodian sex slave who was being honored for her work rescuing women trapped in the sex industry and helping them reintegrate into society. Overwhelmed by her story and haunted by the faces of the women Mam had worked with, Roy decided to spearhead a project that would expose and elevate the grave reality and gross injustice of their experiences.

So last January, Roy returned to Cambodia to photograph the victims, gaining access to brothels with the help of Mam and her organization, AFESIP. He was able to observe and document the harrowing lives of working adolescent and child prostitutes, as well as those who have been rescued and are now in rehab at AFESIP centers. The book that resulted, which was the center of last night’s exhibition, was Traffik, which captures the powerful stories of young women who were beaten, starved, raped and tortured as sex slaves. Several of the women talked about being sold by their mothers and being raped as children as early as age four.

As I watched the professionals in one sex industry mingling and drinking wine while being surrounded by larger than life sized images of professionals in another sex industry, the pungent odor of sick irony filled my nostrils, and I wanted to scream. The very publications that use sex to sell their wares were, I guess, ostensibly mourning for victims, half a world away in a physical sense, yet in a totally different universe in the social sense.

Except they weren’t mourning. Honestly, it would have been a very noble scene if they had been. High-profile fashion and beauty professionals in a prestigious New York gallery, stepping out of their party-hopping and schmoozing for one night to examine the horrors of sex slavery? It would have brought a tear to my eye – seriously.

But, from what I could tell, a relative few people were even looking at the images, let alone showing any sort of deep emotional reaction to it. And while the images are very well shot and are effective in capturing the essence of prostitution in the impoverished developing world, set in the context of loud music and a well-stocked open bar, something just felt icky. One image was particularly disturbing in light of the environment we were in. A young girl was dressed in sexy shiny panties and grown-up jewelry, lifting her shirt and looking at the camera with an almost seductive expression that was totally incomprehensible in light of the fact that she could not have been older than four. She was labeled as a child of a prostitute, but it was not much of a stretch to imagine her entertaining clients herself. At the very least, she had to have observed the business her mother was in. The image might have been simply a snapshot of a little girl playing dress up, except that she was living in a brothel, where, according to the press materials available, men pay more for sex with girls between four and seven years old, believing them to be less likely to carry STD’s. (They are, unfortunately, mistaken in that assumption).

Yet, in the milieu of pulsating club music and a plentiful supply of wine and liquor, I wondered at whether there might be people in the room with pedophiliac tendencies who, rather than being correctly horrified by it, would instead be turned on. The music, which was fine by itself, and the wine, which I appreciate regularly, simply did not belong together with images of four-year-olds dressed in sexy lingerie. For everything there is a season – a time to dance, and a time to mourn. But when people are (figuratively) dancing in the midst of such a painful exhibit, it becomes almost a mockery of the tragedy.

When IAM screened Branded, we were very mindful about the context in which the film was shown. We sold no concessions that evening. No wine, no beer, no popcorn. Our intent was that, from the time people entered the space to the time they left, we would foster an environment of concern and soberness about the issue at hand. We hoped that the film would inform our audience, inspiring them to leave the space and look for ways to engage with the issue of sex trafficking, to help change the destiny of the victims and create the world that ought to be. Indeed, there is a time to dance, and Space 38|39 has seen plenty of playful reverie. But when it’s time to mourn, it’s time to mourn.

Unfortunately, this was not the case at the opening reception for Traffik. The project is important, and I hope people will attend the exhibition, buy the coffee table book (whose proceeds will benefit Somaly Mam’s Foundation) and leave more informed about this blight on humanity. Norman Jean Roy’s work in this project is excellent, and I applaud his use of his talent and opportunity to bring this awful situation to light.

However, I am not hopeful that many people at last week’s reception – people of great means and influence who, if engaged, could make a world of difference – will. People who actually hear a call for action are more likely to respond by doing something about it. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear anything above the roar of the electronica that blared through MILK that night.