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Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit for three weeks during the end of summer 2016—or writing later.

Quakers to Refineries (photos)
Added November 23, 2016

Johnny’s Neighborhood (movie)

I find myself at a crossroads with this project, nearly 7 years since I began it. Now I cannot decide what to do next—consider the active photography ended, make small changes in my direction, or make major changes like devise a new strategy. Do I have too much brick and mortar, i.e., buildings, and not enough blood and guts, i.e., people? I wonder, for you the viewer, of the dynamic I have studied and tried to photograph, what comes thru?

To gain some clarity I’ve joined a group exhibition at my Quaker meeting in Cambridge Massachusetts. In my portion of the exhibit, referencing the exhibit theme “Hope Springs Eternal,” rather than show only finished exhibition size prints  I chose to show a set of thumbnail prints, each about 1.5 by 2 inches on 13 by 19 paper.  I ask you, the viewer, to vote by noting file names of photos that interest you, and sending me the names. My late mentor, Andy Towl, once asked me, when you view an exhibit, Skip, what stops you?

What if anything in my array of these small photos from one of my six sessions at Motor City (rapidly becoming Bicycle City) stops you? Please let your eye dance across the images, with as little conscious thought as possible. What strikes you?

If you click on the array below, you’ll see a matrix or grid. You can then click on the array, individual grids will pop up, and you can use the arrow keys to run thru the set. To enlarge the image so you can read the file names of individual thumbnail sets, please click on “view full size.” You can easily comment in the space on the lower left of the unenlarged grid. (A little complicated, I realize.)

Feel free to comment to this blog, write me at skipschiel@gmail.com or phone me at 617-441-7756.

I plan to return to Detroit in June, mainly for urban agriculture and events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the uprising.

Here’s my general statement:

Searching for the Seeds of the New Detroit Miracle

An examination of the shifting dynamics in the country’s iconic post-industrial city

I have been photographing, making movies, and writing about Detroit since 2010, when I attended the U.S. Social Forum that summer, initially awed by the abandoned and scrapped buildings and the enormous swaths of vacant land. Later I learned about burgeoning urban agriculture, the arts movement, numerous civic projects, innovative reuse of buildings, the rise of bicycling, Big Money pouring in to build sports stadiums and commercial and residential housing, etc.

The inner core, some 20% of the land thrives with the injection of Big Money, largely from local billionaire entrepreneurs. Paramount among them, Dan Gilbert, the founder and chief of Quicken Loans, and the late (died Feb. 2017 at 87) Mike Ilitch, founder and owner of Little Caesars Pizza. Together they might own more than three-quarters of the newly developed property such as sports stadiums, office buildings, and luxury housing. Black and largely economically suffering people, many suffering from the recent bankruptcy of the city, inhabit the remaining 80% of the area.

I was raised on Chicago’s Southside from 1940 to 1955 when my family ignobly was the first to flee African-Americans searching for new housing. I have always been ashamed of this part of my family history and recently realized that by returning regularly to Detroit, living in a Black neighborhood, part of the 80% land mass, I have returned. I’ve made friends among my neighbors, developed a portrait series about them, and I’ve interviewed some about changes in their neighborhood.

Influenced by mentors Robert Frank and his book, The Americans, and W. Eugene Smith with his Pittsburgh Project, I hope to reveal aspects of Detroit beyond what’s now termed “Ruin Porn” and ultra beautiful and expensive development. I hope to portray the dynamic between Big and Little Money, development and gentrification of the urban core fed by Big Money, and the effects on housing, education, water access, urban agriculture, and economic development in the periphery, resulting from Little Money. This includes reduced pensions and health benefits of civil retirees and, to a lesser extent, police and firefighters.

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of what some call “The Uprising,” others “The Riots,” marking a new phase in Detroit’s demotion from what had been named “The Paris of the West.” And now? I intend to continue my photographic exploration. As W. Eugene Smith has stated, “Truth is my prejudice.”

I ponder: will Detroit become the model for post-industrial urban resurrection or self implode?

TO BE CONTINUED

LINKS

Anniversary of Uprising

Turning Derelict Buildings into an Urban Farm in Detroit

Riverwise magazine

James and Grace Lee Boggs Center for Community Leadership

 

 

 

 

The possession of arbitrary power has always, the world over, tended irresistibly to destroy humane sensibility, magnanimity, and truth.

—Frederick Law Olmsted

JAMAICA POND PHOTOS

 

FRANKLIN PARK PHOTOS

A distinctly productive and energetic early morning field trip, to Jamaica Pond and Franklin Park for a spectacular sunrise over the pond at 6:36 am. We were there by 5:45, a full 45 minutes of darkness merging into golden light. I’d set my alarm for 3:30 so I could meet Sonia and Katy in front of Starbucks at 5:15, but, as usual for my early morning rising, I awoke nearly 1 hour earlier, nervous about sleeping late. So I thrashed about for 20 minutes and then rose.

On a cold, relatively clear, breezy morning, we chose positions, set up tripods (I simply brought my super fast, 1.4 Nikon 50 mm lens), and observed and photographed as the sky gradually lightened. The cloud condition was ideal: mostly clear but some clouds along the eastern horizon. Then more clouds slowly spread a blanket over the pond after occasional vapor trails punctuated the sky, turning bright orange as the sun rose. We were there for the Blue Hour; will it show in our photos?

For some of us an even more stunning moment was post sunrise, slightly past the sun’s actual arising, when it bathed everything behind us, the trees most vividly, in a rich golden light. Debbie expressed amazement, I quickly retracted my suggestion that we move on to Franklin Park, and we remained at the Pond, perhaps awed, by the steadily increasing and cooling and bluing of light. The theme for the morning photographically was what I call meta-photography, how photography mean. We had before us a primary metaphor; metaphor itself is a key tool for expressing meaning—the sunrise. Now, as I tried to explain, how to use that sunrise? The rising sun is not automatically a metaphor. What then makes it one?

One major mishap and one nearly: Katy’s camera and tripod fell onto the frozen pond. The front element of her lens popped off. She put the lens back together but the camera no longer functioned. Luckily Debbie carried her spare camera, a Lumix, and lent it to Katy who inserted her own memory card. The other: we were missing George, our young, somewhat erratic fellow. Then as we were heading to our cars to drive to Franklin Park, giving up on George even tho he’d phoned me earlier to announce he was enroute, we spotted a lone figure in the middle of the pond. Most thought instantly: there’s George! Somehow he managed to walk across the entire pond, despite the shore showing thin or no ice.

I used my long lens not only for George, but for much of the sunrise, switching later to my normal zoom, but never in the entire 3 hr period using my wide. Whereas at the Arboretum I’d used primarily my wide angle lens.

Franklin Park was not quite as extraordinary, much more difficult to photograph, but for me equally and uniquely satisfying. A wide expanse of snow-covered land, various ice formations, foot and paw prints, some trees, making a panorama of the golf course, and finally—my highlight (my low light was the cold)—a small section off the main road we’d been walking along, near the zoo, where I discovered a few trails, a few bikers and walkers, but mostly solitude. Finally I was out of the biting wind, alone, where I could drop my pack, eat some GORP, drink some water, make a few images of passersby, and slowly walk back to meet our group.

This experience motivates me to return to Franklin Park alone, by bike, maybe this spring, and thoroughly absorb the expanse. My last trip to the park may have been in 2003. Searching my various hard drives I located a folder of photos from that year. Was that actually my last sojourn to this precious piece of Boston earth?

My photographs from 2003:

LINKS

Boston’s Biggest Public Park Has Something for Everyone by Lillie

Map of the Emerald Necklace

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Shrine in Delray to someone murdered

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Shrine from at least two years ago, near Delray, near the Detroit River, near Historic Fort Wayne, near Delray

Delray in southwest Detroit

Delray in southwest Detroit

I believed it was necessary to investigate photography, dismantle it, jettison all the non-essential components, and begin again with a stripped down but more powerful idea of what is, or could be photographic.

—Lewis Baltz

Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit for three weeks during the end of summer 2016.

PHOTOS

September 5, 2016, Monday, K’s house, Detroit

As I neared home by bike [on September 4, 2016], after visiting Delray and attending the Jazz Festival, I noticed flashing red lights in the distance along Grand River Avenue. Closing in I saw they were fire engines. Closing in further I saw they were at the intersection of Grand River and Washburn Street, my usual turnoff. I then noticed smoke and water, the water pouring from hoses directed by two fire fighters on an extended ladder. Another Detroit fire, an abandoned building, perhaps set alight by kids, perhaps by someone needing the insurance money. With Gene Smith, the pre-eminent photojournalist who made the monumental photographic exploration of Pittsburgh in mind, his use of light, I tried to line up the water streams with the setting sun behind them. I tried several positions, the last directly into the sun.

Fire in an abandoned building along Grand River Ave, apparently arson

Fire in an abandoned building along Grand River Ave, apparently arson

As I worked the light I saw a black car suddenly race between the fire equipment. People shouted, stop, hoses! The driver stopped at the hose and then gunned the engine in reverse. More shouting. Crash! Right into a fire truck, ripping off the left rear fender of the black car. People raced to the car. Police arrived. Poked heads inside the car. Pulled out the driver, a woman who looked drugged or drunk. Cuffed her and put her in the police car.

I photographed the entire event, thinking for me this might be the find of the day. For her, disaster. Talking with an African-American fellow on his bike, watching the events with me, I asked, what do you think of the Detroit fire department? He answered, the best, responsive, effective, can’t ask for more. I conclude, could be, they get a lot of practice. I might have asked what did he think would happen to the woman?

Biking home I chanted a Buddhist prayer for her, who now was probably on her way to jail and maybe eventually prison. All because of a few drinks or a tiny brief poke of the needle. One life, for now, possibly ruined. A tragedy on a small-scale, city-wide, nationally, internationally. A major event for that one woman, perhaps also her family. Does she have dependent kids? What a fiasco.

I am eager to tell K about all this; she seems inordinately interested in my project. She is my local confidant (Anne also but not as directly). What would the project be without her, both for her house and for her interest, companionship, and suggestions?

TO BE CONTINUED

LINKS:

“What About Delray? The Past and Future of Detroit’s Forgotten Neighborhood” (2012)

“Drug Abuse Patterns and Trends in Detroit, Wayne County, and Michigan—Update: January 2014” (National Institute of Drug Abuse)

“New chief putting mark on Detroit fire dept.” (Christine Ferretti and George Hunter , DetroitNews, 2016)

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The Tetons & the Snake River, Grand Tetons National Park, 1942 c, Ansel Adams

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Mobile Homes. Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973, Robert Adams

The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.

Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics

PHOTOS

Social landscape photography portrays the effects of human beings on the earth; it is photography of the human-built or human-altered landscape. It may incorporate the natural landscape, the usual domain of landscape or nature photography—but it is most distinctly not about the natural world. In the more traditional approach human beings, any sign of human beings like roads and cabins, and any human effects on earth are notably absent. I believe this general attitude is a deliberate absence.

Consider the work of the exceptionally talented—and exceptionally limited—photographer, an American icon producing iconic photographs of the American landscape, Ansel Adams. Despite my love of his photos, Adams rarely shows people (and when he does, as in his Manzanar Japanese-American internment camps series, they look like rocks).

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Dust Bowl, Dallas, South Dakota, 1936, uncredited

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Yakima Washington, 1939, Dorothea Lange

Sharply contrasting with Adam’s photos are those from the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. These vividly and intentionally portray the effects of human beings on the earth—sand storms, fleeing farmers, destroyed farms. This is the crux of social landscape photography—how we human beings interact with the earth. This expanding awareness reflects our larger concerns with global climate change.

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Point de vue du Gras, France, 1826 or 1827, Joseph-Nicephore Niepce

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Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838. Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre

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Nelson’s Column under construction, Trafalgar Square, England, 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot

Social landscape photography has been around since the first photographs—or heliographs as they were first called. Consider the first photographs by Niépce, Daguerre, and Talbot. All involved buildings and people, implicitly the interaction between human beings and the earth.

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Quai d’Anjou du Matin, Paris, 1924, Eugène Atget

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New York City, 1888 c, Jacob Riis, from How the Other Half Lives

Consider Eugene Atget at the turn of the last century. Recognizing the massive changes on Paris and environs created by the industrial era—and for other reasons, financial in particular—he assiduously photographed “The City of Light.” Likewise, his contemporary, Jacob Riis, newly emigrated from Denmark to the United States, photographed tenements in New York City which resulted in major changes in housing laws and the end of the most dangerous housing.

For contemporary examples, look at the aerial photos of numerous photographers like Alex McLean; Marilyn Bridges with her book, Markings: Aerial Views of Sacred Landscapes, and the highly popular series called The Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

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Fleet of B-52 Bombers at the “Bone Yard,” Tucson, Arizona, 1991, Alex MacLean

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Mesoamerica, 1986 c, from Markings: Aerial Views of Sacred Landscapes by Marilyn Bridges

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Icebergs & Adelie penguin, Adelie Land, Antarctica, date unknown, Yann Arthus-Bertrand

In 1975, confirming the need for an expanded sense of landscape photography, the prestigious photographic venue, The George Eastman House, in Rochester NY, presented the startling exhibit, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Oddly enough, given last names, one of the featured photographers was Robert Adams, no relation to Ansel—a dramatic contrast. Attesting to the importance of this genre, since 1981 various adaptations of the original exhibit have been circulating worldwide. In 2013 Greg Foster-Rice and John Rohrbach edited and published Reframing the New Topographics, which brings the genre up to date.

reframing-new-topo

In my own work and teaching, motivated primarily by the global climate crisis, I detect a clue to my new direction, long nascent, but now more clearly evident: Social Landscape Photography.

Downtown development

Downtown development in Detroit, 2016, photo by Skip Schiel

LINKS

The New Topographics, on artsy.net

New Topographics: “Landscape and the West – Irony and Critique in New Topographic Photography” by Kelly Dennis

Deadpan Geometries: Mapping, Aerial Photography, and the American Landscape” by Kim Sichel

Photos of Boston’s new Seaport district

Dearborn

Dearborn, Michigan, along Schaefer Highway, photo by Skip Schiel

Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit for three weeks during the end of summer 2016.

PHOTOS

September 10, 2016, Saturday, Detroit

Biking in to Dearborn yesterday [September 9, 2016] I stopped at the bicycle shop on Schaefer that I’ve frequented earlier, to pump air in my tires. A voluble employee (at first, from the way he acted, so forthright, I assumed he was the owner), short and curt, felt the tires and declared, your tires are full, pumping more air into them might make them burst. Then he spotted my camera, which I always carry around my neck, fully exposed. Wanna take some pictures here? he asked. Sure thing, what would you like?

Is this gonna cost something? he asked. No, is this gonna cost me anything? I replied. Everyone in the store chuckled.

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Eddie’s Bike Shop, photo by Skip Schiel

That led to portraits of him outside the store, inside the store, the storefront itself from outside, and then the owner, Mr. Eddie Merhi, and two customers, Black women, mother and daughter, who were having their tricycles adjusted.

The daughter, Woody, and I chatted awhile about the pleasures of biking. She, like many here, admired my folding bike, inquired about it, and said, I’d like to eventually ride one like that. She invited me to visit them at their home near me—she was ecstatic when she learned where I live (as if to think, wow, this is some kind of White guy, living where he is, probably the only White guy in milespretty fuckin brave, or insane.) I find living where I do builds credibility.

She asked me to photograph her on her bike, which I did. She lacks email and we couldn’t figure out how to transfer the file from my camera to her phone with Bluetooth. So she snapped a photo with her phone from my camera screen, decidedly inferior.

Mother and daughter, Detroit residents, buy tricycles

Woody and her mother, Detroit residents, have their tricycles adjusted, photo by Skip Schiel

I had a thought about a daring next step for my Detroit project: photograph on public buses, compare city bus riders with suburban bus riders, and photograph at different times of the day. I’ve long felt that one can gain a quick impression of one aspect of Detroit by riding the city bus at night. Riding the same bus during the day might create a different impression. And riding the suburban buses yet another.

The big question is how to do this? Sneak photography (aka, hip pocket), ask permission, carry a big sign announcing the project? It may involve some risk, especially at night, me alone. I’ll consider this. Maybe I can find a colleague, preferably Black and from Detroit. (Like George a few years ago who toured me to different neighborhoods.)

A sequel to A Summer Bus Ride in Detroit. A movie by Skip Schiel & Teeksa
Photography, October 2010

A precedent is the photo series of South African workers riding at night to reach their work sites on time. David Goldblatt did this with his series, The Transported of KwaNdebele. I recall phoning him in the 1990’s while setting up one of my South African trips. I heard a dog barking in the background, rendering the call very personal even tho at such a great physical and cultural distance.

25 After a day’s work they take the bus from Pretoria to KwaN

9:00 p.m. Going home: Marabastad-Waterval bus: For most of the people in this bus the cycle will start again tomorrow at between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m., 1983 from David Goldblatt’s, “The Transported of KwaNdebele: A South African Odyssey (1983–84)”

Maybe I’m getting too old to pursue all my dream projects, like Detroit metro busing. How many more years remain for me and my work?

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Biking home to Detroit from Dearborn, photo by Skip Schiel

To be continued

LINKS

Bike Detroit

A bike ride thru Dearborn by Skip Schiel, 2010

dearborn_dearbornimg_1840

“The Feeling of Being Watched: A Town Hall Discussion on Profiling and Surveillance” at the Arab American National Museum, Dearborn

The gravest responsibility of the photo historian or journalist is the search through the maze of conflictions to the island of intimate understanding, of the mind, of the soul, amid circumstances that both create, and are created by—and then to render with intelligence, with artistic eloquence, a correct and breathing account of what is found; and popular fancy, myth can be damned. Meaning: get to the guts of the matter and show the bastards as they are.

—W. Eugene Smith (Let Truth be the Prejudice about Smith by Ben Maddow)

Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit for three weeks during the end of summer 2016.

PHOTOS

September 10, 2016, Saturday, Detroit

At the Arab American Museum last night [September 9, 2016] I attended the program about governmental spying on people in the United States, especially human beings thought to be The Other. It was titled, “The Feeling of Being Watched,” and was a co-production of the museum and an organization called Take on Hate. All four participants were eloquent, knowledgeable, personally experienced with the topic, and had much to offer. I learned mainly about a Homeland Security program called CVE, Countering Violent Extremism, that enlists community members in surveiling their own community. It could be regarded as insidious collaboration, turning students, health professionals, teachers, clergy, anyone in frequent contact with others, into implanted cameras and audio recorders, passing information to the government about suspected terrorists. Pilot programs exist in St Paul, Los Angeles, and my city, Boston.

I could be enlisted—or I could be targeted. Maybe I could report suspicious behavior in my photographic workshops, or I could be reported on the basis of my Palestine-Israel work.

Because of the host site, not only the Arab American museum but the city of Dearborn, Muslim Americans were the focus. But other groups could be targeted as well, notably people of color and immigrants. As several panelists observed, marginalized communities, those living in poverty or extreme racism for instance, are often the most seriously watched.

How effective is such surveillance? was a question raised by several panelists. One panelist claimed that a similar program in New York City has resulted in no arrests of actual terrorists. I’m sure some would argue that this claim is false or irrelevant, but the question remains: given the work and expense involved surveiling, how often do the programs have demonstrable effects? Result in so-called “actionable intelligence”?

Cameras, for instance, may be effective as a deterrent even if they are not hooked up; the idea of being watched may curtail violence. I experienced this yesterday when eating at the New Yazmeen bakery. Some patrons had left food, the space was empty, I helped myself to some delicious-looking flat bread, and considered taking more uneaten food. Then I noticed the cameras, I stopped eating the bread, I smiled at the camera.

History was another sub topic. An immediate precursor of terrorist watch programs was COINTELPRO, the Counter Intelligence Program of the FBI under Hoover, targeting radical Black movements like the Black Panthers. Before that, anti communism programs, most notably the infamous HUAC, House Un-American Activities Committee, hearings and the hero of some, Joe McCarthy. Programs existed before that targeting union organizers, Black leaders, “Bolshevism,” the Irish, other immigrant groups, etc. Surveillance has a long history in this country, as it might in many. Fear seeds suspicion. What precisely is the psychology of surveillance? Not a topic mentioned, except in passing when an audience member asked about the role of psychologists in these surveillance projects.

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Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American­-Islamic Relations

When asked about the future of this program and surveillance generally, a panelist mentioned the need for privacy factor, whether people value their privacy enough to oppose programs like CVE. Because of the proliferation of on-line self disclosure—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc—often encouraging opening lives to public view (I myself exemplify this, my blog in particular, and how much I might potentially disclose about myself if these journals that I adapt for the blogs ever become public), one might guess that many folks do not highly value their own privacy. Thus they may not be too eager to fight for limits to surveillance.

Assia Boundaoui, the director of the film we watched a clip from, The Feeling of Being Watched, summed up the evening well when she built on the idea presented by another panelist, a Wayne State—the panopticon. This is a prison design that places guards at the center of the building, able to observe the prisoners existing in cells isolated from each other. She called for two approaches to surveillance, analogous to prison reform: open the cells to each other so the prisoners can communicate and organize, and reverse the line of sight so the prisoners can observe the guards. That is, all communities affected by surveillance need to coordinate and form coalitions to resist unreasonable surveillance. And those watched need to watch the watchers.

Freelance journalist and former Al Jazeera America producer. Assia Bounadoui

Assia Bounadoui, freelance journalist and former Al Jazeera America producer

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Panopticon

After noticing others making photos with their phones I felt emboldened to bring out my camera and from more than half way back in the hall make a few photos. I began with the moderator, a striking Black woman. I pushed the camera to determine just how much I can do in low light. Given the topic, I wondered if I’d be viewed as a watcher.

Asha Noor, TAKE ON HATE Advocacy and Civic Engagement Specialist

Asha Noor, Take On Hate Advocacy and Civic Engagement Specialist

Later I spoke with a museum staff person, David Serio, who’d introduced the program. He wore a keffiyeh, now known as identifying the wearer as a supporter of Palestinian rights. I offered him two observations: your keffiyeh resembles a Jewish prayer shawl, and have you ever noticed that the keffiyeh design suggests barbed wire? He’d not noticed either but said he enjoys the ambiguity. Talking further, I promised to suggest to Jewish Voice for Peace-Detroit that they link with the museum and the Take on Hate program. And I’d suggest to JVP-Boston which has an ongoing campaign about Islamophobia that they also connect with Take on Hate. I picked up two Take on Hate lapel buttons but they escaped my plastic bag when it ripped open as I crossed Grand River coming home by bike.

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Keffiyeh, courtesy of the Internet

While awaiting the start of the program, after eating Arab nummies, I examined the photographic exhibit, “What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization.” When I initially learned about this I discounted it, thinking, what a weak way to use photography. But examining it more closely I felt it was tremendously moving and brilliantly and simply conceived. I wrote those remarks in the guest book.

The photographer had invited immigrants from Muslim and Arab countries, Iraq and Syria mostly, to choose one thing they brought with them. The artist, Jim Lommasson, then photographed the object and asked for a written comment from the immigrant. So many were touching, like photos of family; in fact, family was a central theme—missing them collectively or missing individuals like grandparents.

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From “What We Carried” by Jim Lommasson

At the end of the exhibit the photographer installed a wall panel asking viewers to write what they would bring with them. I demurred. What would I bring? First thought: a family album in digital form, or all my journals in digital form, or one camera, or something my dear friend S had given me, or one of my kids had given me, or Louise had given me, or something from my mother or father. So difficult to decide. I was reminded of Linda Hass’ photographic project about the stuff her mother’s had accumulated and might send her notification of this show. Linda’s was a different case entirely. She photographed what her mother had accumulated in the United States after she’d lost everything escaping the holocaust.

To be continued

LINKS

The Feeling of Being Watched (movie)

Take on Hate (campaign)

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

What We Carried (exhibition)

Arab American Museum, Dearborn Michigan

“FBI: Hate crimes against Muslims in US surge 67 percent” (2015)

hate-in-2015

The Open Road

Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.

― Jack Kerouac

Inspired by a photo exhibition I recently viewed called The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip at the Detroit Institute of Arts (based on a book by Aperture with a fuller array of photos on the same theme) I will now sketch my Open Road experiences, hoping later to flesh this out more fully as perhaps a photographic memoir.

First however, I should nod a thanks to Jack Kerouac and his revolutionary, and for me highly affecting book, On the Road. I read it when well into my 30s, with family in Maine, camping for much of the summer. I recall reading it while riding in our car to Branch Lake. The book was old and decrepit. So as I finished a page I tossed it out the window, heedless of environmental consequences, but I thought then, as pages flew like autumn leaves, a fitting reflection on the ephemerality I detected as a subtheme of the novel.

When a youth during the depression unable to find work in his hometown of Dubuque Iowa, Fran, my dad, hopped a freight train and landed in Chicago. No doubt he influenced me to, as soon as possible, join the Open Road, even tho at that moment I was yet unborn.

I attempted a similar vagabond trip—my first real road trip— when, at the age of about 4, I decided to run away from my pleasant, safe, comfortable, relatively loving Southside home in Chicago. I gathered a few things, probably candy bars and pop (and toilet paper), into a large hankie or bandana, and tied it to a stick. I threw the contraption over my shoulder and set out. I made it to the local school, Caldwell Elementary, about two blocks from my home, and quickly returned.

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Skip Schiel, age 4, 1945

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Skip Schiel in his First Communion suit, age 7, 1946

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Skip Schiel with Tom Rinkach (L), age 11, 1952 c.

While at Boy Scout camp in Michigan, my buddy, Kruli, and I ditched the program to make an all day hike. Without permission we left before breakfast, returned after dinner, and carried with us only brownies that my mom had sent me—and that crucial toilet paper.

Between my junior and senior high school years, my dad and I canoed Boundary Waters along the Minnesota-Canada border. I felt responsible for him, even tho I was only 17 years old. Until that trip I’d resisted the idea of attending college. Since my father was a salesman (a traveling salesman at that, eventually in charge of a large Midwest region, warranting many road trips for him) and sometimes very persuasive, I expected he would urge me—incessantly as he’d done before—to attend college, make something of myself, utilize my interests and possible gifts in engineering to become an electronic engineer. During that entire ten-day journey, he never raised the topic.

I decided to attend college. Long bouts of paddling, lugging our canoe over portages, making camp, and cooking together might have softened his outlook about me, developing his trust that I’d make the correct decision.

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Frank (Fran) J. Schiel, 1958, Boundary Waters, Minnesota-Canada, photo by Skip Schiel

Fran and my mother, Pearl, with my sister Elaine when she was old enough, every summer drove long distances for vacations—West Coast to San Francisco, East Coast to Maine. Dad photographed; eventually I took over, probably reluctantly. Mainly he (because I refuse such setups) created endless images of Pearl in front of some scene or historic marker.

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Frank Schiel, Elaine (sister), Pearl, Chicago’s Southside, 1954 c. photo by Skip Schiel (probably)

My big road trip break was in the summer of 1959. I’d just graduated Arlington Heights High School in a Chicago suburb, felt a strong urge to “go west, young man, go west,” and boarded the Union Pacific train to Utah where I thought I might find summer work, possibly on a ranch. Shortening that story (which could constitute one chapter—or even the entire memoir) I ended up working the balloon dart and bingo games with a carnival that paired with rodeos traveling thru Colorado and Wyoming—the summer of my big rupture from family.

During term breaks at Iowa State University I would often not return home (long distance, 300 miles) but instead hitchhike around the Midwest, with camera, with curiosity, producing numerous slide shows that predictably bored all the neighbors and family I could persuade to watch.

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Skip Schiel in Cimarron, Arlington Heights, IL, 1960 c.

Still at Iowa State, I bought my first vehicle, a Ford pickup truck that I named Cimarron (after a western movie), and let it cart me around to places distant and exotic, like the Black Hills. Amidst wandering defecating, fornicating buffalo, sacred to the Lakota Sioux, I camped, I photographed.

My first international road trip was to Romania in 1977, the year my father died. As an instructor of filmmaking at Boston College, I’d received a scholarship to attend a program in Cluj Romania, in the heart of the Transylvanian Alps, as an introduction to Romania. It was skilled propaganda during the era of the tyrant, Nicolae Ceaușescu, designed to generate positive impressions of this then communist and iconoclastic country. Altho by now I’d identified as a photographer and movie maker I decided not to bring equipment for this first, for me monumental, road trip. Instead, I’d observe, observe as purely and contemplatively as I could. For this decision I am forever grateful. When to not photograph is a skill difficult to develop.

With my wife Lynn and our two daughters, we bought a black VW bug and drove it each summer, Katy and Joey stuffed in the back seat, luggage hurtling from the roof top carrier, back to Chicago and Racine Wisconsin to visit grandparents. I photographed along the way.

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Joey, Skip, Katy (left to right), Watertown Massachusetts, 2009

For three months in 1979, one year after Pearl’s death, two years after Fran’s, I visited Nepal and my sister Elaine and her husband Bob, studying Buddhism with a lama at the Swayambhu monastery. I made numerous road journeys, including one with a guide to Helambu, the foothills of the Himalayas. Lots of mountain walking then.

I should add the many mountain hikes with family and my former partner Louise over a long period of time—White Mountains, Green Mountains, Sierra Nevada, etc. Don’t they constitute travel along the open road, a very open and winding road?

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Skip & Louise, White Mountains, 2002 c.

In 1982, a pivotal year for me, I drove across the Great Plains alone and discovered American Indians.

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Rosebud Reservation, 1983

Which led to 1983 when I bused the same route at the end of winter, and took up residence on the Rosebud Indian reservation, hosted by Jesuits. I lived and photographed there for one month.

(In this report I do not constrain myself to car-based road trips only, but include other modes of transport, soon to be foot and plane, never boat or ship, surprising because of my love of water-borne transport.)

In 1988, the first of my many Alaskan journeys (roughly every 3 years) I walked solo the Chilkoot Gold Rush Trail. Since then I’ve made other Alaskan exploits, alone and with my Juneau family.

In the summer of 1989 my newly discovered mate, Louise, and I flew across the country to visit her family. Followed in the summer of 1990 by a car trip across that same continent to meet my family. With stops in Chicago for cousins Karen and Bob and aunt Anna Mae and uncle Spike, Rockport for cousin Ginger, Dubuque for uncle Eldon, Napa California for her mother and father, Elizabeth and David, and Juneau for Elaine and Bob. Returning, we stopped at Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations and learned about the upcoming Big Foot Ride to Wounded Knee that winter. We decided to raise money for the Ride generally and to ourselves participate as support people.

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Elaine, sister (L), and Louise

In early 1990, with Frank Gatti and Tom Sander, I explored South Africa on behalf of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, mostly by car but also for short trips on foot. Circumventing restrictions from apartheid we had reasonably free range of the country.

In Dec 1990, Louise and I boarded the train for Denver, rented a 4-wheel drive SUV to help as support people and participated for 2 weeks on the frigid plains. We camped out some nights, stayed in school gymnasiums on others. Louise walked the final day with Buddhist walkers into the Wounded Knee Massacre site for our final ceremonies, Wiping the Tears and Mending the Sacred Hoop. Here she met Jun-San, a nun of the Japanese Buddhist order, Nipponzan Myohoji, that would lead inexorably to more road trips we shared—almost entirely by foot.

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Morning circle, Big Foot Ride to Wounded Knee, December 1990, photo by Skip Schiel

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Big Foot Ride to Wounded Knee, December 1990, photo by Skip Schiel

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Lakota lands, South Dakota, 1990, photo by Skip Schiel

In 1995 I joined the Auschwitz to Hiroshima pilgrimage to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War 2 from a Japanese perspective. We walked (mostly, also used bus, train, and plane) thru Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Running out of money in Hungary after about 4 months, I returned home to raise more money (with help from Louise and daughter Katy) and incidentally joined the Turtle Island pilgrimage that Jun-San, one of the Buddhist nuns, had organized to support native rights. We walked from Plymouth Massachusetts, around Lake Ontario, to New York City, to learn the story of Peacemaker (the founder of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy). Staying on reservations and reserves (in Canada), walking thru the Hudson River Valley in the spring, we finally arrived at a major conference in NYC about violence. We walked some 1000 miles in about 3 months.

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Auschwitz main gate, December 1998, photo by Skip Schiel

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Croatian women, Lipic Croatia, former Yugoslavia, 1995, photo by Skip Schiel

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Boy with peace crane, Cambodia, 1995, photo by Skip Schiel

At the end of that long walk I returned to the Auschwitz to Hiroshima pilgrimage and walked from Thailand to Japan, thru Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The journey of a lifetime—until the next one.

Then in 1998 on the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage I and many others, mostly European Americans, African-Americans, and Japanese walked from Leverett Massachusetts, down the coast to Savannah Georgia, thru the deep south to New Orleans. I left that pilgrimage for one of my own, first driving thru the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and across to Leverett in Western Massachusetts, and then by train back south for 4 months of pro bono photography to groups we’d met during the Middle Passage Pilgrimage.

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From the book, The Middle Passage: White Ships/ Black Cargo, by Tom Feelings

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Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, Ingrid Askew, co-founder & co-director, 1998, photo by Skip Schiel

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Gulf Coast, Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, 1998, photo by Skip Schiel

In 1999 I rejoined the pilgrimage in South Africa and remained there for 4 months doing photography.

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Robben Island, South Africa, Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, 1999

Subsequently (and earlier), driven mainly by Louise’s enthusiasm, she and I joined Nipponzan Myohoji for various walks: to and around Walden Pond in Massachusetts; in 1992, commemorating the Columbian quincentenary in a counter cultural manner, Alcatraz Island in San Francisco to Reno Nevada; numerous Walk for a New Spring journeys thru Boston and environs; and the Hiroshima Flame Walk in DC (which was mostly Louise because by now my enthusiasm for such long walks had waned and Palestine-Israel had taken over).

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Louise, 1995 c., photo by Skip Schiel

And currently Palestine-Israel and Detroit. In Detroit I bike around the sprawling city. In Palestine-Israel for short periods I rent a car and have traveled the entire length and breadth of that small (by United States standards) region, mainly by bus and shared taxi—Negev Desert, Galilee, Golan Heights, and the Israeli coast, also Gaza, by foot and rides with friends.

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Skip Schiel in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, 2003, photo by Mark Daoud

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Pre-wedding party, Gaza, 2013, photo by Skip Schiel

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Johnny Price, Detroit, 2011 c., photo by Skip Schiel

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Ghost Bike, marking a bicyclist’s death, Schiel’s folding bike in the background, Detroit, 2016, photo by Skip Schiel

Later I may add various other photographic tours I’ve made in the United States while touring with my Palestine-Israel presentations, especially south as far as Florida by train and bus, Chicago by train and car, and the West Coast, California to Alaska, by airplane, train and car. At each location I prod myself to walk, often to photograph.

When will I reach the end of my road? And how will the end manifest? Who if anyone might emerge as a solid travel partner or am I fated to walk this path alone (probably, most unlikely that current close friends will ever join me). In addition, my peers and I are aging.

I conclude this little foray into my road trips with two quotes, one by the illustrious peripatetic poet, Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, the other by what might have been a fellow walker but this was not to happen, my former wife (or simply my former as we call each other), Lynn.

I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am large, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me…

—Walt Whitman

And from Lynn, her inscription in Whitman’s, Leaves of Grass, that she gave me shortly after we’d met.

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2016

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LINKS:

The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip (at the Detroit Institute of Arts, summer 2016)

The book the exhibition is based on, by the same title

My photos

“And you will be carried where you do not wish to go” in 8 parts, part one

Auschwitz to Hiroshima: A Pilgrimage, 1995

On Turtle Island, A Pilgrimage, 1995

My account specifically about my Open Road experiences in the troubled lands of Palestine and Israel:

The Palestine-Israel Kaleidoscope, a memoir-part 1

The Palestine-Israel Kaleidoscope, a memoir-part 2

And my most recent writing and photography from Detroit (as of posting this blog)