Posts Tagged ‘art’

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?



Anniversary of Uprising

Turning Derelict Buildings into an Urban Farm in Detroit

Riverwise magazine

James and Grace Lee Boggs Center for Community Leadership





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The conclusion of my attempt to explicate what I attempt to do photographically.


I began when my father gave me a camera, probably a cheap Kodak Brownie, at the age of 7.

Fran70 2

Frank Schiel, 1964 c, my father, photo by Skip Schiel


Caldwell School playground, Chicago’s Southside, 1950 c.,
photo by Skip Schiel

I lost a good Kodak foldout camera at a train station in Michigan while waiting to return from Boy Scout camp when about 12 years old.

Kodak folding camera


Pearl Schiel, 1954, my mother, photo by Skip Schiel

When I was in high school my father brought out his old high school chemistry notes and perhaps accidentally turned to the section on photographic chemistry. I was immediately entranced and about 5 years later while in college I built my first darkroom in the basement kitchen of the rooming house I shared with other men in Seattle, Washington. They were not happy with the odors.

I hitchhiked around the Midwest during college breaks in the early 1960s to make slide shows and show them to family and neighbors, most of whom fell asleep.

Skip flashed early1960

Self portrait by Skip Schiel, 1960

Iowa Farm

Iowa Farm, 1962, photo by Skip Schiel

Great plains

The Great Plains, 1962 c, believed by many to be too boring to photograph, photo by Skip Schiel

Partly because of the rotten reception to my slide shows I tried to burn most of my early slides in our basement fireplace, my mother stopped me. I have no idea where those slides are now and do not care.

At some point early in my life I learned that my grandfather Ben Schiel had long ago opened a photographic portrait studio in Dubuque, Iowa. It probably quickly failed as did most of his other enterprises.

Ben 1910 Palace Studio

Ben Schiel in front of his Palace Photographic Studio, Dubuque, Iowa, 1910

I am reassured that I might be on a good path by the fact that the Schiel family consists of at least four generations of photographers—my grandfather Ben, my father Frank (a dedicated but talentless amateur), me, and my daughter Joey, full of talent. Who knows, perhaps the illustrious Austrian artist, Egon Schiele, is part of my family lineage. And what will become of my grandchildren, Rex, Cid, and Eleanor?


End suffering and foster enlightenment, traditional Buddhist values.

Do this with my camera, thru participation in struggles for environmental integrity and justice—Charles River, Boston Harbor, and Quabbin Reservoir in 1980s; American Indians begun in 1982; Bread and Puppet Theater, begun in the early 1980s and sporadically continuing; South Africa in 1990 and 1998; working with the Struggles Against Racism photographers’ collective in 1990s; Auschwitz to Hiroshima pilgrimage in 1995; Middle Passage Pilgrimage in 1998; and my 3 current projects, Israel-Palestine beginning in 2003, Detroit which began in 2010, and my new Twilight series, a departure from my politically based work: I explore light, that narrow slice of the 24 hour diurnal cycle known otherwise as the Magic Hour.


I call myself a participatory, socially engaged photographer which means I participate in actions striving for justice and then photographically observe and interpret the actions about human rights. I also show conditions which lead to these actions and provide context.


Skip Schiel in the Dheisheh refugee camp, Bethlehem, 2003, photo by Mark Daoud

I take some risks: I am willing to suffer for the truth. As W. Eugene Smith declared, “I have tried to let truth be my prejudice.”


Demonstration outside Ofer prison for prisoners’ rights, West Bank, Palestine, 2012

If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.

—Robert Capa

My Israel-Palestine photo series is at times controversial. As when a few people at my Quaker meeting walked out of my first slide show, Facts on the Ground, but we’ve reconciled—or are reconciling.

An upcoming lecture of [Schiel’s at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education] is entitled: The Hydropolitics of Israel and Palestine. What photography course would be complete without a little “evil Israelis are dehydrating the innocent Palestinians”-style propaganda? The lecture is overpriced at $2.

…Schiel has many fine photos as well as a gallery. You must understand what a sad joke this is. Foreigners visit, put themselves under the command of local Arab leaders and involve themselves in provoking and providing cover for those who provoke the Israeli soldiers — soldiers who are far more disciplined than to treat them as they probably deserve. 

solomonia.com, 2007

During my last slide show at Friends Meeting at Cambridge in 2012, Eyewitness Gaza, the pro-Israel organization, Stand with Us, and Kerry Hurwitz picketed outside and later tracked me to Chicago. Writing a letter about me to local Jewish leaders, they may have blocked a high school visit organized by the American Friends Service Committee in 2011. On that same tour, showing at a mosque, someone misread my slide show and angrily shut me down—he thought I was pro-Israel.

In 2011, Tom Jackson, with significant help from Adham Khalil in Gaza, made a film about Gaza and me, Eyewitness Gaza, how I work there and why. I feel it accurately portrays my work in that region and of that style, politically informed and intended. Later with much help from Maria Termini, I published a book of my photos with the same title, Eyewitness Gaza.

Eyewitness Gaza (the movie)

A three minute preview

A ten minute preview of Eyewitness Gaza (made early in the editing process)

The full movie, fifty minutes long

An interview with me by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine

Eyewitness Gaza (the book)

Aside from the message or content, this is my method: experiment; draw from traditions represented by W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Sabastio Selgado, Magnum photographers, and many others in my lineage; intend to surprise, entertain, and teach. Bathe the audience in beauty, a beauty that treads the thin line between horror and beauty. As Dostoevsky stated in The Idiot—Beauty will save the world.

… it has been publicly [implied] that I am anti-Semitic because of a cartoon I created expressing sad dismay at the plight and suffering of the Palestinians in the recent bombardment of Gaza [November 2012].

As a cartoonist I am not interested in defending the dominant, the powerful, the well-resourced and the well-armed because such groups are usually not in need of advocacy, moral support or sympathetic understanding; they have already organised sufficient publicity for themselves and prosecute their points of view with great efficiency.

The work of the artist is to express what is repressed or even to speak the unspoken grief of society. And the cartoonist’s task is not so much to be balanced as to give balance, particularly in situations of disproportionate power relationships such as we see in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a healthy tradition dating back to the court jester and beyond: to be the dissenting protesting voice that speaks when others cannot or will not.

—Michael Leunig, “Just a cartoonist with a moral duty to speak”.


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You might find it an interesting exercise to talk about your process as a photographer. Who are you as a person? What draws you to make an image? Who are your influences? One of the points of exhibiting work on the walls of the Friends Center (in Cambridge MA) is to get to know one another better. So we would like you to step back just a bit from photographs as message only. Think of it as a unique opportunity to become known in a way that would not be appropriate to one of your usual presentations. Also the exercise of self-reflection can be quite beneficial for most of us as we all tend to see the world fairly subjectively even when we think we are being very objective and that we are dedicated “truth-tellers.”

—George, one of the curators of the exhibit, Gaza & the West Bank, at Friends Meeting at Cambridge, January 2013


Thanks to Pat Rabby and an African tradition she discovered: everyday honor the ancestors, contemporaries, and successors in one’s lineage. So, I honor W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke White, Minor White, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Julia Margaret Cameron, Sebastio Salgado, and Henri Cartier-Bresson as ancestors, thanking them for their examples and teaching; photographers I work with or know about as contemporaries, thanking them for covering topics I don’t have time or experience for; and my students and those who might view my photos and learn from them (positive as well as negative lessons) as successors. I pray to offer a vital if small contribution to my lineage. This way I do not have to be intimidated by the achievements of others or compete with peers. I remain grateful for all their contributions to the unending stream of good photography.

As long as I can earn enough to pay my taxes I’ll be happy. I’m not a professional photographer you know, I’m an amateur. “Amateur” is the French word for lover.

— Imogen Cunningham

Julia Margaret Cameron | Tennyson's

Alfred Lord Tennyson, photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

Dorothea Lange- Washington, Yakima Valley, near Wapato. One of Chris Adolf's younger children. Farm Security Administration Rehabilitation clients.

Yakima Valley Washington during the Great Depression, photo by Dorothea Lange

In this 1942 Dorothea Lange photograph from the newly published “Impounded,” a family in Hayward, Calif., awaits an evacuation bus.

From the book, Impounded, a family in Hayward, Calif awaits an evacuation bus to a Japanese American internment camp, 1942, photo by Dorothea Lange

Lange on car-SM

Dorothea Lange

Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion… the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate.

—Dorothea Lange

00582706: (00/00/0)

Margaret Bourke White

Weston point lobos CROPPED

Point Lobos, 1939, photo by Edward Weston

Edward Weston, Charis Wilson-SM

Charis Wilson, photo by Edward Weston

Anything that excites me for any reason, I will photograph; not searching for unusual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual.

—Edward Weston


Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson


Henri Cartier-Bresson, photo by Jane Brown

To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life.

—Henri Cartier-Bresson

Refugee camp at Benako, Tanzania, 1994. © Sebastião Salgado

Refugee camp at Benako, Tanzania, 1994, photo by Sebastiao Salgado



Margaret Bourke-White’s photo of black South African gold miners, deep beneath Johannesburg, made in 1950. Inspired by this photograph I worked twice in South Africa in 1990 and 1998.


Pete Seeger as pictured at Harvard by Jon Chace in 2000 c, with my photo made in 1996, Pete’s banjo quote: This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender, after Woody’s This machine kills fascists. Seeger combined art and activism in a powerful, emulatable manner.

US navy war photos

My first photo book, US Navy War Photographs, compiled by Captain Edward Steichen, USNR, published around 1947, that I bought in a drug store on Chicago’s South Side around 1951

Coffee for Eniwetok Marine Survivors


From US Navy War Photographs

Photographers mate 2 2

Photographer’s Mate-3,2,1, Chief, published 1961-1964, I studied the entire series assiduously, as if myself preparing to be Chief Photographer’s Mate



An exhibit of W. Eugene Smith’s photos of WW2 that I saw in Kyoto Japan in 1995, wondering,
why would a conquered nation exhibit photos showing its conquest and suffering?

Woolman booklet

John Woolman, the Quaker luminary. With David Morse, I made a booklet which includes many of my photos related to the booklet’s topic, 2000. (Click on the image for a copy.)


Devil’s Slide by Minor White, with whom I informally studied when he taught at MIT. With others we co-founded a school of photography at Project Inc. in Cambridge Massachusetts around 1970.

MLK_mosaic_poster-gabe greenbergMartin Luther King Jr, as shown pensively in a mosaic photo by Gabe Greenberg

…During a recent march in Nabi Saleh village in Palestine, children carried signs that quoted Dr. King. One sign read: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. They held up it up as they marched to get water for their village, only to be rebuffed by tear gas, rubber bullets, and at least one live round. Yet they stood holding another one of King’s admonishments: “If a man has not found something he is willing to die for, then he is not fit to live.”…

—Spare Change News editorial, January 11-24, 2013


Okinawa, Japan, World War 2, photo by W. Eugene Smith

w. eugen smith 2-minimata

From the book, Minimata, about a small Japanese fishing village poisoned by mercury, photo by W. Eugene Smith

From the ground-breaking, world-traveling photography exhibition, The Family of Man, the photo The Way to Paradise Garden by W. Eugene Smith, the final photograph in the series. I read this book when it was published in 1955, in my mind marking a division between hope for a sane world and the later belief that humans are doomed—hopelessness as conveyed by much of subsequent photojournalism.

In 2005 I summarized much of my photographic life in a keynote presentation I made at New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker), “And you will be carried where you do not wish to go, a photographic witness.” (in 8 parts, February 2010)

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to gird your loins and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your arms, and someone else will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go. (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he [Peter] would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

—John 21: 18

I ponder how my photography is both mirror and window.


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Excerpts from my journal during a 3 week sojourn in Detroit Michigan, late winter 2014, searching for the seeds of the New Miracle of Detroit

Touring Detroit with Colin Connaire, a police officer formerly stationed in Detroit, we visited three police stations—one abandoned and vandalized, the second renovated into a nonprofit arts center and farm and garden supply company, the third still an active police station.





PHOTOS (in two parts)

March 27, 2014, Thursday, Detroit    

Warmer, low 30s, overcast, mild southerly breeze, rain-snow showers forecast, bike week begins today.

today [March 26, 2014] was another huge day photographing detroit. the police officer i wrote about earlier, colin connaire, is a special sort of guy—compassionate, committed to helping others, humane, and very knowledgeable about detroit, crime, and of course policing here. we visited 3 precinct stations, one abandoned and decrepit, another abandoned and converted into a for profit garden and farm supply center along with a non profit art gallery, the third a functioning station. he will contact the captain and request permission to photograph inside. this is more than i ever expected.

—To two friends

The tour with Colin was not what I expected, less in some respects, much more in others. I visualized we’d stroll around his old beat, his region in northeast Detroit, he’d tell me stories, I’d photograph as he did, him and the environment. Much as I did with Ibrahim in Gaza recounting his tale of near death between Hamas and Fatah. We might even meet some people he’d known on the beat, some stories of recovery or deterioration. This might itself be a major study. Instead we mostly drove, and often to sites I’ve observed and sometimes photographed myself, like the Cass Corridor. Not much juice here.


Colin Connaire

What I did not expect was the sequence of police stations. The vandalized and scrapped station was first. We explored it thoroughly, cells, intake, holding, garage, offices, etc. Lots of graffiti and vandalism, mostly from recovering materials for resale, like copper. Little that suggested anger at the police, which surprised both of us. Equally surprising was the second site, purchased, owned, managed, and maintained by Southwest Solutions, apparently a non-profit developer. A for-profit garden and farm supply firm inhabited the former police station garage, owned by 2 men, 1 of whom stood behind the counter and explained everything. (He is the strapping young man, well muscled, bare-chested that I photographed last fall.) Colin and I had noticed mounds of earth on the roof. The fellow explained, yes, a green roof. Because it’s not fully visible we plan to plant a tree.


Detroit Farm and Garden Supply

The rest of the building is devoted to a non-profit arts center—studios (some of them in the jail cells), exhibits, workshops, and a small café. The gallery is available for rental for weddings, receptions, parties, and the like. Listening to the vivacious, street talking, curly white-haired, goateed, dark-skinned Norm Kobylarz, himself an artist (sculpture, but his studio is not in the arts center), I sensed much vibrancy in the place, some traffic, a growing enterprise. I dropped in on a young woman, Ellen Coons, who explained to me when questioned, that yes, I am a hipster, maybe a new hipster. She is an artist and— self-admitted—apathetic. She graduated from the College of Creative Studies, and showed me some of her art, including animation. Her boyfriend, Joshua Mulligan is half Diné (Navajo) and himself a talented animator. She showed me an array of hers and his on video. Norm showed us a Banksy mural done originally on a wall at the abandoned Packard Auto Plant, but removed and fought for in court. The arts center now owns it and could sell it. Media are fascinated by it, as am I.


Norm Kobylarz, artist in the arts center, with Colin


Ellen Coons

The facility is officially named 555 Creative Community, and sits at 2801 W Vernor, Detroit 48216. This happens to be across from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Detroit Mexicantown International Welcome Center 14 (contradictory facilities?), which itself are near the Canada Bridge. Easy to find, near a well-traveled route.

Map 2801 W Vernor


Norm with Banksy street art retrieved from the abandoned Packard Plant

All this of course excited me tremendously: conversion, renewal, arts, agriculture, youth, many of my main themes coalescing in this one facility, or rather, the 3 buildings compared.

The 3rd was a functioning station, Precinct 11, which we visited last. The captain was not in so we couldn’t receive an answer to our request to photograph inside. But Colin promised to check today and call me [no luck, no access—yet]. I hope to at least photograph the interior of this working station, especially the jail cells, a central theme, if not some of the personnel.


Detroit police station

I explained to Colin the concept of “synecdoche,” the part standing for the whole, which is related to the question of the derivation of the word “cop”. He believed it derives from “Constable On Patrol,” I parried with “cop” from “copper” from the badges worn earlier. As usual, Colin said, oh my, I never thought of that, could be. One of his unique features is openness to new ideas, active interest, a flourishing mind. Same as his mom, the venerable dramatist, Chris Connaire, my friend from the Cambridge Quaker community and my link to Colin. I applied the notion to our station exploration: this small story of three police stations could stand for the larger story of Detroit.

At the end of the tour Colin treated me to a local favorite—fast food hamburgers in the style of White Castle, Telway Hamburgers. On Michigan Ave, not far from the 555 Arts Center. Four burgers for $2.50. Coffee that Colin claims excels most others. We were together for more than 4 hours and bonded quickly. He told me how much he loves his work, his work pals, his life. In a nutshell: born and raised in the Boston area, with roots in Michigan thru his mom and her mom; from the age of 8 wished to be a cop; joined the Detroit force after college; studied and graduated from Wayne State in law while in the police; lived in the upscale Indian Village during this time; moved to Grosse Pointe Park and joined that force; now a sergeant; owns his house; divorced, remarried, kids by both marriages, an 18 month girl with epilepsy.



Telway Hamburgers (courtesy of the internet)

I told him, this is somewhat like my story: my early wish to be a photographer, practiced from an early age, changed genres, studied, married, divorced, etc. Both of us love our work. A key question: risk, injury, death? How do you feel about all this? I didn’t get a clear answer from Colin. Except maybe when he’d stated earlier that one reason he shifted from Detroit to Grosse Pointe Park was danger. Maybe the incident when he almost shot a man. He and his partner noticed a guy in a parked car, they approached the car. The guy folded his body over and leaned down, perhaps to grab or hide a weapon. Colin’s partner had slid his hand thru a partially open window, opened the door, and was trying to pull the man out when he bent down. Colin pointed his gun at the man who then slowly rose up, hands empty. Later they discovered a Glock automatic pistol with a 30 round clip hidden under the seat.

Colin wasn’t sure of the man’s intent. Perhaps to rise up shooting. That, Colin claimed, was the only time he came close to firing his weapon.

Are you trained to fire non-lethally?

Oh no, to the chest, maximum bulk, the legs are too small for a target, shoot to kill.

Are you trained in humane methods of crowd control and other intervention?

Not really, we can pick this up on the job.

How about SWAT operations?

Yes, we are prepared for that but the approach is always maximum force, intimidation. I told him about my political arrest on Cambridge Common.

Furthermore: Colin told me he reads bodies, uses proportional force, as when he ended a chase because of the danger to him and his men, compared with the seriousness of the crime. We discussed our short hair, a convenience for him, but I suggested subliminal associations, as with monks, military, and skinheads.

He provided a perfect companion on the tour because he engaged all parties in conversation, like Norm, while I concentrated on photography.

Norm with Colin

Leaving Colin after the tour I walked briefly around his neighborhood, the “Cabbage Patch” of Grosse Pointe Park (on the border of Detroit, not quite so exclusive as other suburbs, perhaps named Cabbage Patch because of the Irish immigrants once living there) to feel the neighborhood and town—lots of cafes, boutiques, health food stores, etc. But most specially, three boys, 2 of color, 1 white, looking suspiciously Jewish, in fact like a young Woody Allen.



Grosse Pointe Park


Excuse me, young men, I’m a photographer from Boston, could I please photograph you?

This might emerge as the hit photo of the day.

To a friend:

btw. about your question, whether i feel completeness in this recent detroit foray: hardly, partially. 

some disappointments like doing nothing more on the theme of greening detroit (mostly because of the season) and not gaining access to a functioning police station (we tried but the boss never responded, a frequent occurrence in my line of work). and some surprising achievements like the police officer, colin connaire, escorting me to 2 other stations in various conditions and him personally, what a fine man he is, and the enormous, busy bike shop i discovered and photographed a few days ago. on and on. down and up personally. as with my work in palestine-israel my disappointments generate a commitment to return and plumb more deeply. i hope my achievements never fully satisfy me. disappointments and achievements fuel my curiosity.

satisfying yes, satisfying no. i suspect you can relate with your drawing. could be more, thank god it’s not too less.

thanks for asking, you raised a key point.



555 Creative Community Arts Center

Gallery’s plan to sell Banksy’s Packard Plant mural sparks uproar

Detroit Farm and Garden Supply

Eighth / Sixteenth Precinct Police Station

Volunteers clean up abandoned Detroit police station in hopes of it reopening (May 2013)

Detroit officials break ground for new police precinct (May 2014)

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© All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

Written September 10, 2002, revised February 9, 2010


There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation so ever they become brethren in the best sense of the expression.

—John Woolman, luminary Quaker (1761)

For my entire adult life I’ve been making visual art, first films for some 15 years, then, when that pursuit became untenable because of lack of audience and money, I turned to photography, a childhood passion. Since the early 1980s I’ve been able to follow this particular muse, at times taking part-time jobs for income and health benefits. Finding these jobs gnawingly restrictive, I sought another way, one that would provide the economic foundation for my various photographic projects. Thanks to family, friends, mentors, and ancestors, I’ve been able to derive sufficient support for my life in art.


One key: community. For years I followed the conventional dictate that pronounced art-making as singular, one brilliant individual making things that perhaps no one understood. Until after death. Virtually no support. The model of Vincent van Gogh, for instance, or Charles Ives. Vincent lived and died destitute, yet his paintings now fetch millions of dollars. Charles Ives, writing music ahead of his time, rarely found an audience, but was wily enough to never rely on music-derived income: he sold insurance. Both men illustrate the image of an individual creating great works in a world ignorant of their worth.

For my first two adult decades, I tried this, I fell flat. Painfully I’ve since discovered an ancient wisdom— refuse to be isolated, participate in community in most everything you do.

My communities are manifold:

The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, since 1980, one of my core communities, providing support in the forms of prayer, guidance, criticism, equipment, love, audience, incentive, ideas, and services;

Other artists, thru the Fellowship of Friends in the Arts (Quaker) and a local network of photographers meeting periodically to photograph, show and comment.

A Buddhist-led Pilgrimage to the School of the Americas-part 1

A Japanese Buddhist community, Nipponzan Myohoji, which constructs peace pagodas and conducts walks and pilgrimages, these pilgrimages the subject of many of my projects;

A lay Catholic nonviolence community in western Massachusetts, Agape, priests, nuns, friends, other lay people, all united in pursuing justice thru nonviolent means, helping me with funding, insights, a retreat center, and connection with my Catholic roots;

Family, especially my former (and enduring, in some sense) partner, Y, pairing with me on many projects, offering editorial and financial assistance, grounding my work in her strong Buddhist walking practice, and my two daughters, Katy and Joey, both artists, maybe not sharing totally my perspectives, but respectful and loving;

And where I teach usually photography, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, a rich source of other photographers, work associates (especially people helping me with computer applications to photography), and most importantly students who teach me.


The second key: a frugal life style. Unlike J.D. Rockefeller who when asked “How much money do you need to be happy?” answered “just a little more.” I reply, about “what I have.” I have enough. I live on between seven and ten thousand dollars annually. Much of what I need is in the form of bartered services— A Quaker friend and colleague lends me his darkroom—no charge. The Cambridge Center offers me its darkroom and computer center—no charge. Upwards of six individuals once volunteered their darkroom skills—no charge. My daughter, former partner, and a good friend take care of my apartment when I’m on long trips—part of the family. I pay back with photographs or friendship or volunteered time or familial reciprocity.


And the third key: finding reliable means of earning income. I generate a sufficient amount of money thru teaching, donations, and grants, along with sales, fees, and bartering with my photographs.


And a true surprise, the fourth key: An important source of financial support, aiding me in keeping my economic needs slim, is the state. Oddly enough, the government—in the forms of national, state and local—has been generous in providing subsidies for my necessities: housing, food, health care. However, should a catastrophic event occur in my life, like a major accident, a serious illness, or debilitating infirmity from old age, I, like my wealthier peers no doubt, am vulnerable. My position is precarious, but I remain confident that if I maintain my course, I will find the support needed to live and work.

That’s the survive portion of my experience. How do I thrive?

Let me use three of my photo projects for illustration.


Since the mid 1980s I’ve photographed a reservoir and adjoining land in central Massachusetts, Quabbin. In the late 1980s I helped two friends find land near the watershed on which they could construct a nonviolence center, the Agape Community I referred to earlier. They asked me to join the steering committee. We meet four times each year, timed with the change of seasons. This schedule brings me to Quabbin regularly. My photo project continued, bumpingly.

In late August 2001, they allowed me to use their small cabin, The Hermitage, for a week-long retreat. Every day I walked or biked along the shores and forests of Quabbin, extending my project considerably. I felt I was making rapid progress discovering color, reflection, mood, outline, and the spirit of Quabbin itself, deep and abiding.

One week later—September 11th, 2001, the attack on the United States—Quabbin was sealed shut. I renamed my Quabbin project, Not Forever, Quabbin Reservoir. Not Forever depends heavily on my association with Agape. I thrive thru my participation in its community.


The second project stemmed from a pilgrimage I made thru the Mississippi Delta in late 1999 as part of a grander effort retracing the trans-Atlantic slave route with many other pilgrims, the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage. Raised in Chicago, fleeing the approach of Black people by moving to the suburbs in 1955, I was dimly aware of the Great Migration and its effect on the city and me. Finding myself in New Orleans, the terminus of the US portion of the Middle Passage Pilgrimage, I left the pilgrimage and decided to drive slowly north to my homeland. I explored the history of Black resistance to Jim Crow— Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Freedom Riders. At the same time I dove into a more personal, less public past that Black friends in Chicago had told me about.

Twelve years earlier, while photographing the Chicago Fellowship of Friends in Cabrini Green, a notoriously violent public housing complex, I met Bernice Thomas. She’d been raised on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, she escaped the South in the late 1950s, and she told me stories of her pained experience, her flight north, her vow to never raise her children in the South. She described where she’d lived and suffered—the plantation, the movie house in Clarksdale Mississippi, her last home where she’d birthed her first daughter. I found all the sites, photographed them, visited her with the pictures and further stories. She’d never returned home. I had, for her, and discovered an eerie connection: I was her, I had come home, thus, “Delta Passage, a Journey Home” is my slide show about that experience.

How could I have traveled that course, depicted that experience without the friendship of Bernice Thomas, without the active participation of Friends in Chicago, without my Quaker connection? Would I have found this rich trove of insights without the mentoring of some of my meeting’s elders, without the many meetings with the various clearness committees that formed for me?


And the third project is about Israel-Palestine. Since my first journey there in 2003 I’ve not only discovered truths often hidden by most of the international media but my Quaker connection. They are multitudinous, dating back to 1869 when 2 Friends from New England explored what Quakers might be able to do in Ramallah—founding a girls’ school because of the absence of education for girls—and for the quasi Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee, its service to refugees in Gaza in 1948, caused by the expulsion of many Arabs by Israel when Israel founded itself as a state. Without that Quaker connection I’d not have had the opportunities presented to me: working with and living at the Ramallah Friends School, teaching photography and photographing thru the AFSC youth programs in the West Bank and Gaza, and the haven provided by Jean Zaru and Kathy Bergen in the Ramallah Friends Meeting and International Friends Center in Ramallah.

Amal Sabawi, director of the Quaker Palestine Youth Program in Gaza, Popular Achievement Festival, August 2009

The most recent show is Gaza Steadfast. I’ve shown it nearly 30 times thru the South, at times to Quaker meetings, and now I’m preparing a Northeast tour with a new version of the show launched recently at my local meeting, Friends Meeting at Cambridge.


To conclude, prayer is full attention. To the inner voice, the still small voice within; to the light without, revealing and enabling photographs; to the spirits of history, those sometimes fleeting, sometimes compelling accretions of memory; to destiny, who we are yet to become, our successors, our lineage; and to the interconnectedness of all creation. By being still, I tune to these tiny signs, build on them. Thru my photography I attempt to practice this prayer, this full attention, with enduring hope that I as an artist and human being will be sustained, and will contribute to the endless flow of life.





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© All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

Written 2003, revised 2010

With gratitude to students at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina who invited me to participate in their Art & Social Change conference, 2003—the interview no one at the College proposed.

If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors.

—Bertold Brecht

1. How is your art about social change?

I don’t make photos purely to produce change; indeed, I try not to think along this line, that what I make and do will change anything. I might harbor hopes, I might have dreams, but I can’t say I usually, if ever, consciously plan to stir social change thru my photos. I remain mindful of Thomas Merton’s plea that artists should not strive to be useful. Their role is elsewhere—play, experiment, delight, make something beautiful, and perhaps at times try to be a social critic.

Pettus bridge

Annual commmorative recrossing of the Bridge, Selma AL, 1999

I offer my photos to others who are the change makers. This could be the Savannah Dept of Community Services in their campaign to honor neighborhood leaders, or the Selma National Voting Rights Institute celebrating another Pettus bridge crossing, or the social service agency in the township of Evaton in South Africa succoring the elderly, or the Quaker Peace Center in Cape Town, South Africa with their multifarious programs in service and change. Or it could be the local Eviction Free Zone in their various campaigns, or Peacework, the late journal of the New England region American Friends Service Committee, and its readers who are often on the front lines of transformation.

South Africa, 1999

But equally important are the mysteries. I think of the woman gazing at my American Indian photos in the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992. Who was she, how might she have changed after viewing my photos, what was her work? Or the readers of the South African Development Fund’s annual report viewing my photos from Alexandra. Would they be moved to contribute money to the Fund which then might be funneled to social change organizations in South Africa?

Bigfoot Memorial Ride to Wounded Knee, 1990

So, in myriad ways, some of my photos might contribute to social change. I am cognizant of that. But my measure is not the change, it is the quality of the photo. Rightly or wrongly, I pursue excellence in photography—beauty and emotional content—rather than political and social effect. My lineage is photography not activism.

2. How do you support yourself in this endeavor?

Thru various funding sources—grants, fees, teaching—also subsidies for housing, food, and medical services. Plus—the community aspect. What I do is deeply embedded in Quaker practice and community. This is the real secret.

3. What difference do your political views and insights have for your work?

That is, how important is grounding myself in the issues?

Vitally important. I read, interview, meditate, muse, struggle, before, during and after any foray into a photo project. Preparing for the Auschwitz to Hiroshima pilgrimage in 1995 I read about the Balkans, Hiroshima, the death camps, Cambodia, Vietnam, and WW2 history. Some reading before, but much after. With the Middle Passage Pilgrimage, similarly, I read about slavery, the civil rights movement, key figures, the South, racism, South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and other topics germane to slavery and racism. And now, with my work in Palestine and Israel, I read A History of God by Karen Armstrong, the writings of Edward Said, various books recommended or given me by friends, the many articles sent me, while attending events about the area and issues, and meeting people who’ve been there.

Hiroshima Peace Dome, 1995

Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage

Even if the preparation doesn’t show directly in the photos, I believe it underlies the appearance and undergirds the photographer.

4. What is your center, your anchor?

A combination of American Indian practice (naming and honoring the powerful forces Wakan Tanka and Tunkashila and Creator), thanking, meditating, Buddhist practice (with its emphasis on the bodhisattva and its non-deism), Quaker practice (the silence, committee work, and clearness groups especially), and remnants of my Catholic upbringing (ceremony, endowed figures like priests, the social witness arm of Catholicism in the Catholic Worker movement, etc). Which in real life means I begin each day with yoga and meditation, walk in the spirit of the sacred, read inspirational and devotional and challenging literature, plunge deeply into my 3 core communities (Friends Meeting at Cambridge, Nipponzan Myohoji, a Japanese Buddhist group that builds peace pagodas and conducts walk and pilgrimages, and Agape, a lay Catholic non violence center), and struggle constantly with the notion of god.

A Buddhist-led Pilgrimage to the School of the Americas, 2009

At the core of my center is silence, sacred silence. This is fertile ground for the inner voice to manifest, that still small voice inside that might be conscience, higher power, pulse of the universe, or god itself speaking. I go to and come from silence, building it into my day, resisting to the best of my ability the impulse given by this mad and reckless society to abandon silence and join the maddening yelling crowd, thereby swamping my center.

5. And what is your path?

Look at my photos, look at my life, and you will see it is an endless faltering attempt to walk the talk. The talk of freedom, justice, community, peace, environmental integrity, and the sacred. The walk of the walk itself—walking, pilgrimage, my photo series from various walking pilgrimages, my relations with peers and family, my teaching.

Phil Downey with Rex, Christmas, 2009

6. What would you do if you realized your photography had grown useless (in the sense of inspiring social change)?

First, how would I know this? What is the measure of utility? Aren’t we called to be faithful, beyond successful? Faithful to the call, rather than effective in implementing it.

Let’s assume I am ineffective as a photographer, measured by lack of effect on the society and lack of attention from audience, critics, and funders. What would I do?

If money dried up, I’d probably have to retool, as I did when that happened 20 years ago with my filmmaking. If the sustaining and confidence building flow of equipment, supplies, grants, gifts, and subsidies disappeared, by definition, by popular demand, I’d have to find alternatives. But if I could continue making photos, even without an audience, I do believe I would.

7. Do you regard yourself as a success?

I regard myself as a work in progress, a stumbling bumbling neophyte, persistent and not always as gifted as I’d wish.

In the words of Thurgood Marshall, “I do my best with what I have and who I am.”

Thurgood Marshall

Or as Philip Berrigan is rumored to have once requested for his tomb stone, “He tried.”

Philip Berrigan

Or the late historian and activist Howard Zinn: “It is the job of the artist…to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare to say things that no one else will say.”

Howard Zinn

Or the German artist, Kathe Kollwitz: “While I drew, and wept along with the terrified children I was drawing, I really felt the burden I am bearing. I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate.”

Kathe Kollwitz, self portrait, 1923


Mitakuye Oyasin: All My Relations, American Indians, 1990

Auschwitz to Hiroshima: A Pilgrimage, 1995

A Spirit People, Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, 1998-99

Visions of a New South Africa, 1999

A Buddhist-led Pilgrimage to the School of the Americas-part 1, 2009

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All photos made in January 2008

Complete set


Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza, January 2008




Gaza City

To enter Gaza one needs a permit from the Israeli authorities, the District Coordination Office (DCO) for Gaza. And one needs to apply thru an international non-governmental organization, a NGO. Since 2004, I’ve gotten a permit thru the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and only once, in 2008, did I experience difficulties—nearly one hour of sharp interrogation at the Erez crossing.

Planning my work in Gaza to begin on July 20, 2009, I wrote the director of the AFSC’s Quaker Youth Program in Gaza. She began the application process more than one month ago. Ordinarily the process takes no more than 2 weeks. However, after the devastating violence by Israel on Gaza for 22 days beginning on December 27, 2008, including possible war crimes on the parts of several parties, the process has become more complicated. In fact, Israel prevented  the UN team investigating alleged war crimes from entering, so they had to go thru the Egyptian crossing at Rafah.

When Amal, the director in Gaza, phoned the DCO to learn about the application, either no one in the office answered the phone, or they told her, call back, we’ll let you know tomorrow. Frustrated after repeated tries, she asked me to call. Same response. Then two days ago they informed me that the AFSC was not registered, not accredited with the privilege of applying for a permit. This was the first either of us heard. Why, we wondered, hadn’t they told us that earlier?

This strikes me as deceitful, unjust, wrong, and suspicious.


Ibrahem Shatali, program officer

Furthermore, let us ask: what right does Israel have to control who enters Gaza, especially when they systematically prohibit humanitarian workers like myself? Yes, maybe they have a right to prohibit weapons and fighters, altho this could be debated. A population has the right to defend itself, as is claimed frequently in justification for Israel’s brutal attacks on Gaza. And yes, Israel surely has the right to control entry from Gaza.

Suppose Canada or Mexico fortified its border with the United States and unilaterally decided who could enter the US and who would be prohibited. There would be an outcry against this shocking use of power—silence concerning Israel. Why?


My case is a microcosm of the larger situation: vast injustice, to the point of breaking international laws and contravening UN resolutions.

I suffer minimally. I am not stranded at the Egyptian border with thousands of other Gazans pleading to be allowed home, stranded without amenities in the heat or cold, without water, some of us dying. Egypt colludes with the US and Israel in maintaining its border. Nor am I stuck inside Gaza as were some 25 Fulbright scholars last year who Israel prevented from leaving. Nor am I lethally afflicted with injury or disease, untreatable inside Gaza by the limited hospital facilities, often without medicines and equipment in repair, qualified to leave for medical care in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or even Israel, but blocked at Erez.


Skip Schiel, volunteer photographer and photography teacher

My suffering is minor. I live in a flat in Ramallah, with food, water,  shelter from the sun, and with friends and colleagues. I can continue my photographic work. I’m only prevented from serving in Gaza, making photographs for various organizations about their humanitarian work—the AFSC Youth Program, the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and the Palestine Water Authority struggling valiantly to purify the polluted saline aquifer water and treat at least partially the vast sewage created by 1.5 million human beings in one of the most congested, poverty stricken regions of the world. And I might not be able to offer photographic training thru the Youth Program and a university.

Unlike most Gazans, I might be able to communicate with a few people in the global community, touch them with a story, a photograph, a message, a plea. Not just for me to enter Gaza but for Gaza to be free, for acts of violence to stop and be adjudicated, responsibility taken, and reparations made by the responsible parties. This is my hope, my prayer, my request.


If you’d like to help, please consider contacting your Congress people (if you’re a US citizen, or the equivalent if you’re outside the US), best if in person with a group, but by phone, email or some other means, to demand: 1. remove the restrictions on entering humanitarian workers, 2. open the borders for humanitarian aid, 3. hold all parties accountable for violence and breaking international laws, and 4. end the siege, free Gaza.


Please feel free to forward this widely.

A minor update about the permit.

As of today, July 27, 2009, there is still no progress. But I just learned that the Middle East regional coordinator of the AFSC youth programs, Thuqan Qishawi, is also prohibited from entering Gaza, as is an American intern, Grace. This exacerbates the problem and allows me to claim that the entire program is jeopardized by this closure. If any wish to add that to messages to the legislators, please do. Other NGO’s report similar problems.

Of course, for years, the AFSC staff in Gaza is usually prevented from leaving. So this is a gigantic problem for any Palestinian programs with branches in the West Bank and Gaza. How can they coordinate?


Free Gaza

Alice Walker: Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters “the horror” in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel

AFSC in Gaza

Expanded Vision: Our Trip to Rafah (honoring Rachel Corrie), January 2008

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