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Five days at the Agape Community in Central Massachusetts, 3 miles east of Quabbin Reservoir. Five days to recover from the disappointment of postponing my trip in June and July 2018 to photograph Palestinian refugees in Northern and Central Europe. Instead I concentrate on water, friends, prayer, and bugs.

PHOTOS

June 17, 2018, Sunday, Agape

Chilly night in the cabin. a.k.a. the Hermitage, sunny, clear, dry, heat expected.

Agape-Quabbin-IMG_0079 SM.jpeg

I am here for 5 days, hopefully 5 blissful days. I am here to heal from the disappointment of postponing phase one of my big plan, Palestinian refugees in Europe. I am here to renew my relationship with the hallowed workers at Agape and the sacred waters of Quabbin. What are my retreat’s components?

I packed into my small, red, wheeled luggage L. had given me 8 years ago when she moved to Oakland. (At the last moment I discovered one wheel did not roll smoothly so I squirted oil and WD40 on it and eventually it freed.)

I contemplated what I would do when. When walk to Quabbin, when walk down the road (spotting a black bear near Gaudet Road), when sleep, when get out of bed, when wash, eat, etc. All on a very free schedule. No rush, no deadlines.

Click here to enlarge

I expect to be surprised (the black bear, meeting J. and A., other guests at Agape, ticks, etc).

I will read books (about solving the Irish Troubles, and Virginia Woolf’s diaries.

I will freely decline invitations to do something (last evening attend a song fest that A. and E. sang at and the 80th birthday party of Paula Green, and Catholic mass this morning).

I will photograph spontaneously (black bear, morning light on the interior of the Hermitage, Hermitage immersed in the woods, etc).

BlackBearAgape_0071

I will only peripherally participate in my various extra curricular, time-sucking pursuits I usually do at home (Palestine-Israel work with New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, Raytheon, E., family, as important as they all are).

I will try to ignore distractions like dear O., granddaughter of S.-B., daughter of T., (O. currently plays around me with her dolls as I try to write this journal in the chapel, which I thought to be private).

June 18, 2018, Monday, Agape

Agape-Quabbin-IMG_0084

Hermitage

Warmer night in the Hermitage, calm, some clouds.

Sitting in the meditation chamber of Francis House looking to the main room, my back to the garden.

The high of the yesterday—biking to Quabbin Reservoir’s Gate 44 and nearly to the intake pipe (fenced off since September 11, 2001), with a diversion right onto the small road immediately before the fence to the water where, lo and behold, for the first time in years, maybe decades, I entered the sacred Quabbin waters, ceremoniously immersed myself in the healing waters, and lingered.

Quabbin map SM

Click for expanded view.

I had surveyed the shoreline for possible boaters and authorities, spotted only a few far off who seemed headed for the boat dock. I felt safe but had decided not to go in naked or to go deep enough to swim. A few minutes into my immersion I saw a boat with 3 men heading my way. Guessing they were environmental police and would at least scold me, at most fine me, I began crafting stories.  From total honesty: “Yes, officers, I am aware of the rule of no swimming, I am ready to accept the consequences, I love Quabbin and couldn’t bear not being fully in the water (perhaps appealing to our shared love of Quabbin).” To a lie, a probably feeble attempt to skirt punishment: “I slipped into the water, with no intention to swim. I was clambering around rocks, and being an older gent, I simply lost my footing.”

As they neared, I thought I observed that they wore brown shirts, a sure indication of a surveillance mission. But, as they closed in, clearly heading toward me, I noticed they were all bare-chested. A good sign. When they were within about 50 ft—I wasn’t sure they saw me, they might run over me—I lifted one hand out of the water (I was lying in about 8 inches, on rocks, blissfully submerged except for my head) and waved. They smiled, waved back, and put-put-putted along. No further incidents.

The next phase of this tiny but monumental ceremony was drying off. This forced me to confront the temptations of my iPhone. Mysteriously I had both phone and Internet coverage, even here in the wilds of Quabbin. And earlier I thought I’d discovered the GPS functions well without phone or Internet. While waiting for my underwear and shorts to dry so I could reapply bug lotion and find the path back to my hidden bike, I could cruise the Internet, write people around the globe, phone family to remind them of the day, Father’s Day, and otherwise engage as I ordinarily would when not on retreat. But I resisted. I kept the phone tucked away in my pack and decided to simply appreciate the long moment of sun drying my clothing and body.

Water lapped gently around me and up and down the shore, changing its rhythm with each passing boat. Sun subtly shifted; I reposed myself and adjusted my clothing’s position to accommodate. Wind alternately blew and subsided. Except for the motors, all was deep silence. For the moment I was fully tuned to the earth; Thoreau might be proud of me. What a pristine moment.

Clothing and skin relatively dry, I reapplied my bug lotion, and worried my way thru the thick brush, thick with leaves and branches as well as ticks, to the trail. I noticed, when I expanded my phone’s screen view, I could see precisely where the trail—it had disappeared in the brush—would reemerge. A new era. Does this diminish the importance of observation, leading me to not notice subtle signs of vegetation? Or can I maintain disciplined observation? What would Thoreau do if he had a smart phone? Would he be less smart?

Up the hill, retrieve my hidden bike, aim right at the main road toward the intake pipe, check for surveillance cameras, decide not to scale the short fence (about 4 ft tall, rather than the 10 ft fence I recall seeing just after 911), decide not to follow the path to the baffle dam (where B. told me later he and S. had been regularly nabbed by the green cops), bike up and down numerous hills (when is the last hill?), and home. Wondering, had E., when here in 2014 for an Agape workday, biked some of this same route? Not thru Gate 44 but thru Gate 43 and to the boat dock? I will check when home.

In discussion with J. and D. yesterday, we considered the question of community. “The Agape Community”: where is the community? A., a relatively new arrival, young, thin, and quiet, told me the day before she had expected, when locating Agape in a listing of intentional communities, that there would be a cluster of long-term people here. Other than S., B., and D., no one else lives here for more than short periods. Where are the people?

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The Mission Council, AKA, Steering Committee, of Agape

First, there is the core community of B., S., and D., and, while T., their daughter, was growing up, she as well, making 4 maximum.

Second, there are the visitors— the interns, retreatants like myself, guests like those who attend our annual Francis Day and other special events, and various other drop-ins.

And third, there is the community of memory, people who have been here and died, like Dan Lawrence who was crucial in building Francis House, Alden Poole raising money for the straw bale house, and people in my personal community who I communed with yesterday during my dip into the waters of Quabbin. L. features heavily. Love on the Hermitage floor, camping on Quabbin shores in the winter when she delighted me with special carnal attention, her thrill at meeting Quabbin for the first time, and then the many times we’ve returned here (never in my memory for Francis Day which is odd).

Obituary of Alden W. Poole

Alden Poole, former Mission Council member, World War Two veteran,
former member Veterans’ for Peace, courtesy of the 
Boston Herald

Then C. for Francis Day, me heavily anticipating (maybe she also) intimacy together for the first time. She was so excited, not by the sex which was frustrating because of my elderly problems, but by the quadruplet of earth, activist Christianity, S. and B., and carpentry (I don’t believe she resonated with Quabbin itself). One year, a few years after we’d broken up, she and I found ourselves together here in the winter when I was on retreat. She continues contact with S.

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Maria Termini, 2011, photo by Skip Schiel

And finally (for now) E. We were here in 2014 for a workday. I recall her in the garden weeding; I recall sleeping with her in the large 3rd floor room, improvising intimacy with the door open. I recall biking with her to Quabbin, maybe Gate 43, bringing food for a picnic, biking back up tough hills, walking our bikes. I praise her for giving this aspect of my life a try, but regret that it did not fully connect. Later, when asked how she felt about our visit, she said, “I like everything about Agape except the religion.”

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Shola Friedensohn, 2014, photo by Skip Schiel

Oh, how inexorably wishes become memories, memories wishes.

So, to answer A.’s question about where is the community in the Agape Community, it is multi-dimensional, a many-layered thing. It is not what most would expect but it is real and true. Just a little hard to view.

What else? A long conversation last evening with D. as we prepared and ate dinner, partly about fatherhood. I had reminded us that the day was Father’s Day; “do you have kids and what is your relation to them?” Not particularly close but his son usually remembers to check in on Father’s Day. I told him about my two daughters, how close I believe we are, but how so far they’ve not contacted me on this so-called special day for dads. No matter, I trust our relationship.

A long conversation with J., the young man with the thick black beard and long black hair, about community, his life in New Jersey, living with his family, all siblings still in one house, his doctoral program in theology. And about my work, the risks I sometimes take. T., the daughter of the co-founders and co-directors, was present as well, an unusual event. She may have heard things about me she’d never known about. That morning I’d played minimally with her adorable daughter, O., in the chapel as I tried to concentrate on my writing. A most energetic little girl, now 6 years old and very vital.

S. has foot problems, compounded by recurring Lyme disease. Last winter she broke one foot when she slipped on ice, and then, compensating, put too much pressure on the other foot, injuring it. Yesterday she was in too much pain to visit the beach with her family.

SuzanneFoot_1726

STAY TUNED FOR MORE

Agape Community is a lay Catholic community consisting of several community-built buildings; a core community of Suzanne and Brayton Shanley, the co-founders and directors; one permanent resident, Dixon George, and a constantly changing set of interns, volunteers, visitors, and retreatants. I am on the steering committee, known as the Mission Council. I helped find the site 3 miles east of Quabbin Reservoir, which I’d explored and photographed for years before we established the Community in 1982.

To learn more about Agape

To learn more about Quabbin Reservoir

To learn more about me and my graphical endeavors

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Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit in June 2017—or writing later. 

Omnipresent yet evanescent, block clubs are sometimes the major outlets for community organizing in the city—especially in neighborhoods otherwise lacking in political strength and clout. 

—A review by Amanda I. Seligman of Chicago’s Block Clubs, How Neighbors Shape the City 

Chicago's Block Clubs

PHOTOS

June 13, 2017, Tuesday, Detroit

Kim Sherrobi, bless her, invited me to a meeting of neighbors called the Birwood Block Club Association which exists in a cluster of neighborhood clubs. Apparently not focused on changing the system that led to the miserable state of Detroit, they focus instead on remediating some of the effects. As I wrote S.F. yesterday (very appreciative of her letter, delayed because she mistakenly assumed she’d written a response to my first Detroit letter—age related memory slippage?):

weatherwise, like in your area, we are hot! but with relatively low humidity which partially mitigates the pain. there is an ozone alert so for this and other reasons, i’ve minimized my bike travels. this evening i visited neighbors, in part to find leads for grass cutters. the grass in my place is more than 1 ft tall.

the international water conference [which I attended for the first 4 days of this trip] has been a mixed experience: lots of important info but little opportunity to participate. it’s the old top down, banking model of education. we are the experts with the info you need and probably lack, so sit in your seats and pay attention. we heard many painful stories from flint folks, the younger ones visibly suffering medical effects from contaminated water. i met a woman at the conference with water shut off experience. she agreed i could interview her next saturday.

today i attended a meeting of neighborhood activists who’ve formed a cluster group to improve their neighborhood. even in warm weather kids tend to remain indoors playing video games so one project is to teach outdoor games like skip rope, hide and seek, hopscotch, etc. imagine growing up without that play. another project which i hope to attend this saturday is to board up abandoned houses. another project is a bike parade which unfortunately i’ll miss because of timing. tomorrow evening i may attend a neighborhood meeting with local police. this is truly the grassroots.

tomorrow i attend an editorial meeting of a new publication called riverwise, all about and from the roots of detroit. and in the afternoon, maybe, i’ll finally gain access to the local elementary-middle school, noble, to interview some 8th grade girls who’ve completed a photo project about detroit. on wednesday i hope to visit flint for the first time and begin photography there. a friend has lent me her car thru friday.

one huge challenge of my detroit work is balancing the photography with house maintenance. K., the house owner living in ann arbor, expects me to do at least minimal house work. i swept and dusted, cleaned the tub, fixed some fans, look into grass cutting, and with her moved furniture back after she’d had the rugs torn up and new wooden floors installed. this cuts into my photo time but i wish to help. i pay her as well.

hoping your weather cools off and your work and rc and friendship circles flourish.

Birwood Block Club Association

The block club granted me permission to photograph freely so I plied my usual trade of listening with my ears (and eyes to pick up nuances of language), while using both eyes to search for photographable situations. I find when I tune to the photography, my hearing shuts down. And when I tune to hearing, I tend not to notice ways to use my camera.

The meeting was lively, interactive, synergistic, and productive. Fun as well. It was their first meeting of the summer, which will continue monthly, if energy can be sustained. The dynamic is opposite that of the water conference. The energy reminded me of Global Village Squares that I attended in 2015 in Bethlehem, organized by a team of Israelis and Palestinians, including Eric Yellin. One might argue the purposes of the water conference differed dramatically from those of the neighborhood meetings and Global Village Squares—to provide info. But I suspect forming networks and sharing knowledge and experience, beyond that of the presenters, remains a key ingredient. Or could be.

Birwood Block Club, Kim Sherrobi (R)

Birwood Block Club

Kim has invited me to other meetings today, which I wrote S.F. about. Weaving into today might be a drop-in visit to the Swords into Plowshares Gallery and Clara, its director, to test my laptop connection with their TV. And a visit to the office of We the People of Detroit to meet Sisley, the office manager, and gain more leads for water justice photography.

I reached Kate Levy of We the People, a local videographer and photographer whom I spoke with before coming here. She strongly advised me to not photograph suffering people but instead concentrate on water being shut off, water centers, hotline, etc, and activists. I wonder about this, understanding that too much media concentration on suffering can debilitate a movement but suffering is one of the ventricles at the heart of water injustice in Detroit. Another is opposition and renewal. I think about Eugene Smith’s monumental Minimata, how it skillfully blended both ingredients. The single photo that has risen in prominence from that series is of the mother bathing her daughter in a bath. Yet images of the struggle, especially the meetings with company officials, tend not to be seen as often.

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, photo by W. Eugene Smith from Minimata

I will accept guidance from others, We the People in particular, notably one of its founders, Monica Lewis-Patrick. Perhaps also Kim Redigan if she returns my call.

Free Water Distribution by We the People of Detroit

Yesterday was fiercely hot and for the second day I was mostly indoors and off my bike. Today I hope to drive. George and Wink plan to drop off her car here this morning, any minute now, as they head for a vacation in Canada.

The invasion of the Quotidian

As I wrote S.F., I struggle with balancing photography with housework. K. wants me to find someone to mow the foot-high grass. Last evening I checked with Johnny who greeted me warmly. He told me to ask a neighbor who has the contact info for a grass cutter. I spoke with her, a reasonably long, congenial, and detailed conversation. She claimed that K. has refused to pay Gloria for the grass cutting she does, or maybe she refused to pay a higher fee that Gloria requested. So Gloria no longer mows the grass. I promised to speak with K. about this, but how to do it in a respectful, encouraging way? Perhaps with questions first rather than accusations. And I promised not to disclose my info source.

K. seems to experience a dichotomous relationship with Detroit and the house: holding on to the house which suggests some impossible-to-sever tie, and resisting being here and doing much with the house.

My home (as a short-term guest)

 

My kitchen

In the evening I put out the trash, including the pile I’d insisted on making when working with K. Old cords, phones, pre-vinyl recordings, water pipes, etc, and will recycle cardboard boxes. This represents some of the very little that K. has trashed. Among the still huge collection of useless items that if cleared might clear the brain as well.

Both Kim’s, Sherobbi and Redigan, seem driven. Kim S. told me yesterday she’s trying to slow down, drop some of her projects. Kim R. is known as a highly committed and hard-working activist. Incentives or quests, other than the obvious and political, for this bruising pace of work might lie in their personal stories, something not satisfied. Is it for a partner, a loved one? Does this also motivate me?

Photography

I worked further on my first set of photos, portraits from the conference. I struggled hard to develop something worth viewing from the series of people speaking against the large screen which projected their images from other events. The differential in color, contrast, and intensity of light is nearly impossible to bridge. Using a combo of decreased exposure and decreased contrast (contrary to expectation) led to the best I’ve been able to do so far. I sent S.F. my first image from this current phase, of Maureen Taylor, fiery leader.

Maureen Taylor

My new iPhone is useful: unlimited phone calls, texting, maps, hotspot, compass, current location, and instant info are among the most useful tools for me. I am less easily lost, more easily in touch, perhaps less easily confused.

This is regardless of the endlessly vexing problems I’m having with Internet speed and hotspot use.

Despite the heat, despite my uncertainty and worries about my project, despite the noxious house tasks I should take on, despite questions about SF, I try to retire each evening to the large soft chair in the front room and the hassock to read more in the current issue of Sun Magazine. This calms me and readies me for a long sleep on the cushions on the floor in the sunroom.

While speaking with K. yesterday about the house, in particular about the heat, the absence of openable windows, the possibility that I could keep front and back doors open, with barred gates locked, to blow cool air thru the house, I mentioned my vision of someone knocking on the door, pointing a gun at me, demanding entrance. What would be my options? Duck and hide? Open the door and be robbed? Resist and be shot?

She tried to placate me suggesting this would never happen. I remain unconvinced. Thru the night I kept the doors closed and locked, fan on low blowing on me. This morning I opened the door to the cooler outer world and turned fans on high.

TO BE CONTINUED

LINKS

“With few resources, block clubs find ways to stabilize and rejuvenate communities across Detroit,” by Aaron Mondry, December 2017

Interview with Kim Sherrobi, Hanan Yahya 2, 2015

Birwood Block Club FaceBook page

Littlefield Community (near where I stay)

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Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit in June 2017—or writing later. 

A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

—Chinese proverb

PHOTOS (from another neighborhood near mine)

June 12, 2017, Monday, Detroit

First phase 

The water conference is over. Now I need to develop my own contacts and find my own people to photograph. I can’t rely on intrinsic contacts that the conference provided—the speakers. Today [June 12, 2017] I plan to contact We the People of Detroit, trying Kate first, then Monica, then Kim Sherrobi. This could prove difficult.

Kim Sherobbi

Kim Sherobbi, 2017

Weaving into this photo process, the house process. K., the generous owner of the house I borrow,  texted yesterday evening that she expects to arrive here today “b4 12,” using the language of texting. During a long phone conversation earlier, we had discussed the grass, bushes, plumbing, fans, cleaning materials to buy, etc. The grass remains uncut, the bathroom plumbing is clogged, I repaired one large floor fan by attaching an electric plug, and discovered a loose fan blade on the other floor fan that had caused the rattling. I haven’t found a way to fix that.

I attempt a delicate balance between photography and house, between my Detroit mission and my Detroit residence. The latter demonstrates for me life in Detroit, a comparatively privileged life albeit, but touching lightly on matters many Detroiters face regularly with more severity.

I began my first Lightroom (LR) post production work last night, on the first conference batch of photos. Quickly I realized I apparently hadn’t remembered to reinstall the LR catalog to my portable drive. So I use the old one on the laptop. K.’s phone call interrupted me but I returned to the process. Even tho late in the evening, tired, I managed to import about 25 photos into LR for work today.

As expected, Internet speeds vary greatly depending on location. Near the school, it is upwards of 10 MB/S (megabytes per second). Near my house, about 5. On my porch about 2. Inside the house about 1. So for some purposes I might sit on the porch for Internet.

Logistics and friends

Since yesterday was so hot and an ozone alert was in effect—plus I needed to give my crotch some healing time and I felt lazy—I did not once ride my bike. Not even tempted. W. arranged to deliver her car here tomorrow; I can use it thru Friday. My central hope: get to Flint. Best if thru contacts, but even without I plan to drive the 70 or so miles and roam the city looking for elements of the water crisis. What might be visible? The Flint River, for one.

To check water use I read the water meter yesterday, after my first week here, giving me two more weeks to monitor water use. It reads 134.91, units mysterious.

I also checked the yards for possible seed planting. No luck, also no garden tools. So I scratch that idea. Instead, I’ll tend the tea roses, cutting two sprigs and bring them inside to grace my dwelling.

Washburn House_6392

My Washburn Street house, Northwest Detroit, 2017

For the first time in this trip I walked this morning around the Noble School grounds, about four blocks away, and maybe one half mile around. I recall other walks when I first thought decided to meet the principal and ask permission to photograph. This process so far has been fruitless. I recall walking in November with snow on the ground. I recall photographing the old dying tree that I photographed again this morning, this time against the rising sun.

C. finally returned my email, writing that he’s been busy with work, family, and house, but he’d like to take me out for lunch, maybe with one of his kids, but he wrote nothing about our movie and photo projects. I suppose I can conclude that they are all off. At least our friendship seems to continue.

Today I promised K. I’d talk with Gloria and Johnny about who can mow my lawn. Who might they recommend? Johnny keeps his lawn well shorn, as does Gloria. I reiterated to K. who sounded desperate last night that by not living here (she grew up in this house when it was an all-white neighborhood), not having someone as caretaker or reliable tenant, increases the burden. She constantly complains about the high cost of maintenance. Altho she has done remarkably well improving and maintaining it—storm windows, fridge, washer, sun room doors, (my favorite room, where I love to sleep on the floor, pilgrim style), and most recently the wooden flooring—she is often despondent about the value of the investment. She also seems to do little to rent it. Only twice in my 7 years, Jimmy, and then some students at a local college.

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Outside my window, Buena Vista Street, November 2014

How would I house myself if not for K.? Or what even with K.’s place available might be better housing? Share with Barbara H.? Ask others? Rent? Buy? Squat?

My neighbor Gloria and local stories

After I’d settled on the porch for lunch, Gloria, my neighbor across the street, sat with me yesterday. She told me the following: young kids have torched the corner house across from mine three times. Johnny once owned it. Her water bill varies between $25-50 depending on whether she is alone or joined by her daughter who has heart problems and her grand daughter. She has cared for a handicapped man who recently bought a house down Washburn across Buena Vista. For 6 months he lived there without water and I presume heat. She brought him food, water, and used clothing. A woman with kids and a mother squatted in a house on our block. They used the backyard to crap, creating a fierce odor that disturbed neighbors who had them evicted. The streets have not been cleaned in recent memory, despite city-installed signs that declare street cleaning is imminent. Trash goes out Monday evenings, tonight, for pickup tomorrow morning. Large stuff pickup is bi-weekly on Wednesdays. The city might fine folks who put out containers too soon. She didn’t know of a plumber to call after I’d mentioned my clogged pipes.

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Gloria, 2011

Gloria is a good source of local info and a reliable and helpful neighbor. I would formally interview her except her style is not suited for an official interview, too giggly and repetitive.

Aerial Washburn Bunena Vista far SM

General area of my neighborhood in northwest Detroit, 2017

Aerial Washburn Bunena Vista close-marked SM

My neighborhood closer, my house marked with a pin, 2017

LINKS

“In northwest Detroit, residents have been revitalizing their neighborhood for years,” by Melissa Anders (September 2017)

“2 shot, killed in northwest Detroit June 2017,” by James David Dickson (June 2017)

“Requests For Proposals for northwest Detroit neighborhood include 100 houses, 257 vacant lots,” by Kirk Pinho (July 2016)

Statistics for my NW Detroit zip code (2015)

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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

dorothea-lange-washington-yakima-valley-near-wapato-one-of-chris-adolfs-younger-children-farm-security-administration-rehabilitation-clients

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

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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

Ghost Bike, with my folding bike in the background

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)

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Downtown development

Downtown development

Ghost Bike, with my folding bike in the background

Ghost Bike, with my folding bike in the background

 

One should avoid picturing a land which can never be reached, and arousing hopes never to be fulfilled, for the indulgence only makes existence harder.

– Haniel Long, Notes for a New Mythology

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

PHOTOS

September 11, 2016, Sunday

Yesterday was another day off, either the first or second of this trip. The weather was windy and wet, my destinations such as the refineries and Capuchin farm were distant, I debated the risks of bicycling, and finally, reluctantly, decided to remain home and do: house work. (I biked only to the liquor store for a pint of Stout.)

Yesterday I did not attend or photograph the following:

A street fair in Midtown (AKA Cass Corridor)

An auction in Indian Village which would have provided entrance to homes

An exhibit of antique cars at Greenfield Village

The refineries

Eastern Market

A Greening of Detroit Farm

The Earthworks Farm of the Capuchin Franciscan Monastery

Did any of this significantly affect my project? What would I have photographed if I’d persisted? Would volunteers be working in the garden and farm? Would the street fair have been fun and exuberant? Would I have been drenched or driven back by strong winds?

I will never know. This is one of the minor mysteries of my project—the places, people, events, issues, things that I missed.

The days before my last in Detroit close in. What might surprise me today, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, what remains of this trip—and for the rest of my life? And which of these surprises will be important?

Here are a few surprises thus far on this journey, some or all I told Karen about yesterday as we sat on the front porch eating fish, stir fry veggies, and Basmati rice, while watching the sun descend:

Bike accident (she noticed the bright red glaring gash on my knee)

Visit with Latoyia, the principal at Noble School  (and with this a discussion of whether the blue shirt Karen lent me that I wore to the visit resembled a prisoner’s shirt)

Johnny inviting me to photograph him—and his horse, both in costume

The ghost bike (she’d asked to see recent photos, they included the bike, I did not tell her about my fears concerning bicycling)

Gloria’s aunt dying and Gloria going to Arkansas for the funeral (how Gloria is such a reliable neighbor)

And possibly a few others.

Are any of these significant?

I forgot to tell her about Kitty inviting me to give a forum about our Palestine-Israel process at my Quaker meeting in Cambridge Massachusetts. That the process represents a major surprise for our community, a form of unity around one limited aspect of that explosive situation.

Billy L wrote, in response to my short description of my Detroit project:

Sounds very “safe” skip. I understand your motivation on the ” radical” end by allowing folks who are not close to the Motor City happenings a look at what is going on but what about the entities on the other side of the line? The perspective of negativity  experienced by the working poor? I hope you are successful with your assignment and wish you the best.

Safe? Which aspect of my project did he refer to? The entire project? Safe? I must consider this.

As a general description of my Detroit project I’d written:

As most people now realize, Detroit has become an icon of the failed post-industrial city in the United States—suffering poverty, racism, corporate dominance, and corruption. However, as always, there is another side: resurgence through urban agriculture, grass-roots politics, arts activism, and the high-tech auto industry. With my photography I strive to expose the seeds of the new Detroit miracle. 

To be continued

Other than that, Icarus, how was the flight?

– W. Eugene Smith (about his Pittsburgh Project)

LINKS

“It’s boom time for developments in heart of Detroit,” by Louis Aguilar (January 2016)

“Detroit Resists fires back at Venice Biennale’s U.S. pavilion curators over community engagement”

Suspect arrested in gas station shooting caught on high-definition surveillance video

Detroit Street Watchers—”I’m doing what people think is crazy,” said Walter Gildersleeve (the founder). “I go through these abandoned houses, I go in the back of these yards.”

Ghost Bikes

“Fatal bicyclist crashes surged 57% in Michigan last year”

 

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The universal door manifests itself
in the voice of the rolling tide.
Hearing and practicing it, we become a child,
born from the heart of a lotus,
fresh, pure, and happy,
capable of speaking and listening
in accord with the universal door.
With only one drop of the water
of compassion
from the branch of the willow,
spring returns to the great Earth.

—Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (as quoted by Thich Nhat Hanh)

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Courtesy of Bread & Puppet Theater

I suffer the perpetual difficulty of pure listening. No distractions, no meanders, no questions or reflections of any sort, the purest form of listening possible. Deep listening as taught by the venerable Zen Buddhist monk, poet, and activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. No visual observations or any other sensory input. Is this even possible? Is listening ever pure? Is the mind ever truly empty? Could the Buddha do it, when in his prime? Could Thich Nhat Hanh himself when healthy? Can anyone teach pure listening? What might be some techniques?

Shifting to my usual tool, photography, I might ask the same questions. Photography without distractions—or are distractions important to expand vision? Photography without…without what? What is the essence of pure mind photography, expanded vision, seeing as if the other senses were detached, the mind itself dormant so that the connection between scene observed and camera is clear, only the retina and camera sensor involved, a direct channel?

Have I ever achieved pure or deep listening? Possibly I do it best when in conversation, not in simply listening. And photography, pure and deep photography, maybe when most attentive to the larger world—including my inner world—I make the purest photos, the most powerful. Where was my mind’s concentration when I met the young men in the Gaza city park and chose one (or did he choose me?) to photograph?

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Gaza City, 2012 c.

What was my thinking? Did I see his eyes thru my viewfinder, my frame, via the inner mechanism of my camera? Did I concentrate better because I was distracted by thoughts about the camera’s settings, position, the scene’s lighting? How pure was this seemingly impure process that may have resulted in what some say is a beautiful, moving, extraordinary photograph?

Then, shifting again, to my life. How can I live a pure life? How does pure listening help, if it does, pure photography, if it does, pure eating, pure sleeping, pure fucking, if any of these are possible?

I pray. That seems to help. I call on and regularly thank my muses, maybe surrogates for what others might name god or higher power or inner light or the divine or spirit.

(Asked of Thich Nhat Hanh in 2001 shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Towers and Pentagon) If you could speak to Osama bin Laden, what would you say to him?…

If I were given the opportunity to be face to face with Osama bin Laden, the first thing I would do is listen. I would try to understand why he had acted in that cruel way. I would try to understand all of the suffering that had led him to violence. It might not be easy to listen in that way, so I would have to remain calm and lucid. I would need several friends with me, who are strong in the practice of deep listening, listening without reacting, without judging and blaming. In this way, an atmosphere of support would be created for this person and those connected so that they could share completely, trust that they are really being heard.

After listening for some time, we might need to take a break to allow what has been said to enter into our consciousness. Only when we felt calm and lucid would we respond. We would respond point by point to what had been said. We would respond gently but firmly in such a way to help them to discover their own misunderstandings so that they will stop violent acts from their own will….

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Deep Listening Hut, constructed in homage to Thich Nhat Hanh, in his root (first) temple, Tu Hieu, Hue, Vietnam, photo by Skip Schiel (copyright), 1995

(Thanks to Louise Dunlap, Aravinda Ananda, and Joseph Rotella whose workshop on writing and The Work That Reconnects inspired this writing and several more possible blogs to follow.)

LINKS:

Thich Nhat Hanh on Compassionate Listening | Super Soul Sunday | Oprah Winfrey Network (short video)

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