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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

PHOTOS

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.

COMMUNITY

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.

FRUGAL LIFE STYLE

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.

RELIABLE INCOME

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.

GOVERNMENT SERVICES

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.

NOT FOREVER QUABBIN RESERVOIR

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.

DELTA PASSAGE, A JOURNEY HOME

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?

GAZA STEADFAST

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.

PRAYER

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.

LINKS:

NOT FOREVER QUABBIN RESERVOIR

DELTA PASSAGE, A JOURNEY HOME

GAZA STEADFAST

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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

LINKS:

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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