Author Archives: Tim Porter

When It’s Over

When it’s over. When this is done. When we get back to normal. That’s what we say to each other these days, meaning that once the virus has had its way with us, we will pick up where we left off.

I don’t see it that way.

Yes, schools and restaurants will open, freeways and airports will fill, and friends and families will once again gather to celebrate the benchmarks of life and, for a great many, to mourn those who had to die alone with a tube down their throats.

But we will never be as we were. If we learn anything from these weeks and months of uncertainly, suffering and dying, it is that we are vulnerable. We, as individuals, as a species, and as a communal society built on interdependency, are fragile. Our bodies, each born with an expiration date, can be easily infiltrated by a “submicroscopic agent” and betray us within weeks. The assault of pandemic illness on our civic infrastructure – schools, hospitals, public transport, commercial corridors and even urban greenspaces – transforms these bulwarks of civil society from benign, at times irritating but nonetheless necessary institutions into vectors of death. Our government, increasingly suspect for the self-interest of those who staff it and the lack of competence that always accompanies those who act in favor of political purpose over general beneficence, coils armadillo-like in the face of existential danger.

The virus has pierced the façade of modern life. What we see behind it is not the grand society we imagined our world to be but rather a warren of cubicles, small and windowless, each with only one door, forcing exit and entry from the same point. Here we live, interconnected by unlit labyrinthine corridors, our vision restricted to our cell, unable to grasp the extent or even the nature of the larger organism in which we live with symbiotic dependency. Each of us, so shaped by our own desires, preoccupations and truncated perspectives, is but a molecule in this living network.

All this the virus reveals. No, it will not ever be the way it was. Once a creature feels its vulnerability, once it confronts, unwillingly, its own mortality, it is never the same. A dog, once kicked, is never as friendly. A deer, once shot it, no longer walks so incautiously in the woods. A crow, once attacked, remembers the face of its assailant.

You might say human beings are smarter than animals. Intellectually, yes, but in matters of self-survival we learn more slowly than they do. We perch atop the food-chain of self-destruction. Individually, we kill ourselves with tobacco, booze, prescription drugs and shovelfuls of fat. We humans have yet to encounter a substance we have not abused. Collectively, we pillage the planet for its resources, consume, burn and explode them at a future-be-damned pace, ignore the plaints of our children to save some of the world for them, and manage our companies and run out governments as if nothing matters more than this quarter or the next election.

We are not the dog who has been kicked. We are the dog who keeps kicking himself.

Still, despite our selfishness, ignorance and obduracy, Covid-19 and the great pandemic of 2020 will scar us. Fragility is not easily forgotten. A job disappears in a blink, and with it those few weeks of savings. A grandmother dies. A playwright. Fifty-one Italian doctors. Fifty-one! The official message is: Be cautious. But the inner voice echoes: Be afraid. Be afraid of your grandchildren, be afraid of your neighbors, be afraid of the young lady who rings up your groceries, be afraid of the dog-walker and the deliverywoman. Be afraid of the doorknob, the handle, the box, the countertop. Be afraid of the air, especially the air.

That is a lot of fear to forget, and it will take time to fade.

Eventually, as did the Spanish flu of 102 years ago, Covid-19 will recede into a Wikipedia page.  I will be dead by then, though, and so will many of you. Until then, when this is over, we will go on. But we won’t be the same. Ever.

Being Here

I am trying to be here, trying to be in the now, at home, in this house, together with my wife, alone with my thoughts, along with my fears, focusing on today and not tomorrow, wondering about friends who are also alone, some more than I, hoping I hear nothing terrible about them, nor they about me, seeing, after all these years, that what I thought mattered so much means nothing at all.

At times it goes well, at others less so. Depends on the hour or the news or just my physical state. Today it is not so good.

As bad as the numbers are, and they grow more negative by the day, the politics are worse. The petulance of the president borders on dementia, which I believe he has. His followers drink his words as a serum (some have done so literally and died). He demands liberal governors kiss his ass to be granted federal aid. Sections of the country approach a tipping-point of mass infection, economic collapse and social breakdown. The buffoon boy in the Oval Office wants Jesus to rise on Easter and deliver us from the viral evil.

These realities of the “now” make being “here” difficult. My mind drifts to the disheartening headlines, reports of the infection spreading by magnitudes; of people, voiceless because a tube inserted into their trachea, dying alone in ICUs; of right-wing hucksters who offer to die for their grandchildren; of evangelical sheep-herders who keep open their corrals and promise to heal the fallen among the faithful by the laying on of hands; of politicians devoid of empathy; of the millions of American, mis paisanos, who believe all of this is OK.

Plus there are the worries. All of my family, save one late-arriving younger brother, are in a risk zone, not only for age, but also for an array of otherwise manageable ailments or for having inherited the family trait of self-destructive behavior. What will become of us? If the virus eventually infects 70 to 80 percent of the population, the odds don’t look good. And with death rates among those 70 or older at 70 percent or more, the outlook is even worse.

To tell the truth, I am afraid. I have never thought much about death, although the topic arises more often at my current age than it did even a decade ago, and I have worried about it even less. What troubles me now is that I have possibly lost control of my fate. My future, my family’s future, our country’s future rest in the (probably unwashed) hands of political leaders who haven’t the competence to confront a biological peril that could kill tens of thousands of people, many of whom would likely survive under even a normal, mildly ineffectual political class capable of procuring, producing and delivering the millions of medical tests and pieces of supplies the nation needs.

It’s not that I fear dying (although I am not a big fan of it), but I don’t want the cause of death to stupidity.

As I said, at times it goes well, at others less so.

Getting Through It

Just three weeks ago I was running all over Oaxaca, walking five or six miles a day, climbing hills, carrying bags of cameras and sacks of food, squatting, kneeling, dancing, seeing a dozen people a day, hugging them, photographing them, laughing with them, crying with them, eating with them and cramming into communal cabs with them.

Now, between the virus quarantine and a knee that decided all the activity in Mexico was too much, I haven’t left the house for a week. Other than my wife, who has done the food shopping, I haven’t spoken with another human being in person. The time passes slowly, but inexorably. I read (in English and in Spanish), I edit the photographs I made in Mexico, I chat on the various platforms, I exercise each afternoon with a combination of old-school calisthenics (knee permitting) and new-age yoga, and I spend too much time cruising the news. The mornings seem long, the afternoons short.

In the evenings, my wife and I make one cocktail apiece, sit on the deck or in the tub, and talk about the news. Then we make dinner. We eat late so there is only time for one TV show. Last night it was an episode of “Homeland.”

During the days, the neighborhood is silent. The freeway, visible down the hill from the house, generates a distant, low thrum, barely audible. Two days ago, a helicopter flew over our hill in the afternoon. Last night, a delivery truck, moving quickly, startled us as it passed the house while we talked on the deck. Yesterday afternoon, as I sat outside in the Adirondack chair that used to belong to my mother-in-law, warmed in a sudden burst of spring sun and absorbed in well-reported book about the opioid plague in the United States (Dreamland), a bird screeched from the direction of the massive Monterey pine that stands in the empty lot next to ours. The shriek seemed like one of terror. I wondered if the bird was under attack. Was a hawk after its nest? The screech came again. No, I thought, it’s not a shout of fear but one of attraction. The bird is calling for company. Again it came, and again and again. Maybe eight or 10 times in five minutes. For a moment I thought it was a salutation for me. The bird was alone. I was alone. Why not talk?

This morning when I climbed the stairs to the street to get the papers (hopefully left there by a gloved hand), a man walked by with his dog. He clung to the curb opposite my house, head down, moving with purpose. He never looked up. I said nothing even though I normally would have. That is how we are now, living with purpose, just trying to get through it.

One evening while I was in Oaxaca, I went the gringo library, sort of a club for the ex-pats, to hear a friend read from a book he’d written about his experiences during the war in Vietnam, where he’d done two tours. It was not a militaristic book, nor a nostalgic one. It was more of a yard sale of memories, most of them worn and well-used, but still of value to those who treasure such things. In one episode, my friend, Tom, writes of meeting another vet. The man is battered by the years, but not yet broken. They don’t talk about war. What they talk about are moments – the dead villager, the heat, the insects, the drinking, the girls and what it was like to come home, which at times was harder than being in country. The conversation was neither heartening nor depressing. It was a recitation of what was, an unburdening of truths carried for so long.

It was that conversation that made Tom write the line in his book that most resonates with me. It is this: “The way I see it, we all got through those years, one way or another. We all know what went on.”

In the same period, the late sixties and the early seventies, I felt exactly the same. I didn’t go to Vietnam. I didn’t volunteer and I never got drafted. Instead, I got arrested and I got hooked on drugs and booze. I fought my own war and it led to a lifetime battle. Somehow, though, like Tom, I got through it, as I still do, day by day, winning more often than I lose, which is why I’m still alive.

That’s how I view the virus. It’s war. It’s a battle. Not just the disease, but the isolation, the politics, and the sheer lunacy that infects so many people. However, I’ll get through it. We’ll get through it. Somehow. Years from now, we’ll all know what went on.

Home from Oaxaca

I came home from Oaxaca ahead of schedule, something I’ve never done before. After 15 days, I was exhausted. Each day the heat and the humidity sapped me. At night, I’d recover, but not 100 percent, so I started each subsequent day with less than a full recharge. I walked five to eight miles a day. I had a thirst I could not slake, even with a several bottles of water at a time. I lost nearly five pounds. My rented room held the heat and sleep never really arrived for long. The day before I decided to leave, I played basketball with a group of kids for 90 minutes. Afterward, my body barked in loud protest. I answered by changing my flight.

Part of me feels like I gave in, like I allowed a bit of discomfort to drive my decision. That’s my 30-year-old ego talking. Another part of me is soothed by the cool ocean air and the opportunity to stand in the scalding stream of the shower for as long as I want. That is the sound of seven biological decades exhaling in relief.

I returned with a few strong photographs and with memories whose images are even more powerful. Together, they illustrate the great challenge of photography, the effort to preserve with the camera what is seen by the mind’s eye and felt by the soul. I am proud of my photographs, but I am also frustrated by my inability to gather into a frame the vividness, in all its glory and in all its pain, of life in Oaxaca.

When I stand on a Oaxacan street corner and see and hear and smell the chaos around me, I want the camera to vacuum it all in – the noise of the buses, the smell of the sewage and the food vendors, the hunched shoulders of the working men, the wide-bodied grandmothers making passage on the sidewalks with their hips, the sweat and the sun and the steam of the humidity. I want all that in a photograph. That is the picture I have yet to make.

In that sense, I return this time as I always do also with a sense of inadequacy, of lacking either the technology or the skill or both to fill a frame with all that I see and all that I feel. In this image I want the mothers and the children and the dark rooms of dead air in which they live; I want the four Hondurans sleeping on the floor waiting for a chance to sneak into the United States; I want the boy with leukemia being pushed in a wheelchair by his mother between buses on the street because the sidewalks are too narrow to navigate; I want the food – the chicken cooked over a wood fire with tomatoes and chilies, the lentil soup a mother made me before she went to work, the huge plastic glasses of jamaica, the tortas of breaded pork sold on the corner for a $1.50, the smoky, silky mescal that burns and then drains the pain from the body; I want the eyes, dark all of them, bright with laughter, reddened with tears, empty of expectations; I want the nascent beauty of the children and the fading dignity of the grandfathers; I want the conversations – with the taxi driver deported from L.A. who practices his English with me, with the obese sweaty cop and his elegant Belgian shepherd, with the mom who is happy to be pregnant at 35 even though she is without work or husband.

I feel as if I need to make this one picture. I need it to remind me of everything I have done and I do in Oaxaca. I need it to show to people when they ask me why I go there because to explain it with words takes too long.

It is a fanciful desire, to be sure, but still one that nags me.

***

Some other thoughts from the trip:

* Poverty is relative. For a while, I visited a mother and her two kids who lived high on a dry hill in a tin shack. There was no water. The toilet was a hole in the ground. Electricity was boot-legged off a shared power pole. The road was nothing more than rutted trail that ran thick with mud when it rained. Still, I never felt as deep in the Third World at this mother’s house as I did in Oaxaca’s public hospital, where I went one afternoon with one of my favorite children, who had fallen and was visiting a neurologist to see if she had epilepsy.

Outside the hospital, dozens of people camped on the concrete patio, family members visiting hospitalized relatives, or sick people waiting days for appointments. Many slept on cardboard boxes, others used the cheap, synthetic blanks that are so common here to create seating areas that converted to beds at night, and still others had commandeered a row of chairs, stuffed cardboard into the gaps between them and slept on the hard plastic. Buckets of food, scraps of garbage, empty liter bottles of soda and backpacks were everywhere. The faces of the people on the patio bore the weight of lifetime of acceptance of these conditions. This hospital is in one of Oaxaca’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Four blocks from this desperation, moneyed Oaxacans buy Frappuccino’s from Starbucks and shop for clothes in fancy European stores.

* A lot of money for someone who has nothing changes nothing in the long term. My generous friends contributed enough money to help the mother of a boy with leukemia live for months without working, which she needs to do after the live-saving transplant she hopes will come. When I gave her the thick wad of Mexican pesos, her face lifted momentarily in gratitude only to return quickly to its resting visage of resignation, a recognition that no matter how much hardship she endures it cannot guarantee her son’s survival in a society where one’s chances of a long life or an early death are determined at birth. Hers is not a poverty that be bought off with a few thousand pesos.

* Two types of Americans live in Oaxaca. There are those, like the ex-community organizer from California and his wife, an attorney, who use their retirement hours and their professional skills to involve themselves in the community and improve the lives of those who have less than they do. They are in the minority. The majority, most of whom seem to be women, live amongst themselves in an ex-pat bubble, don’t speak Spanish and mix with the locals only when it is time for a festival or an art opening, where they show up dressed in indigenous blouses and skirts and are the first to attack the free food and drinks.

* Intimacy and distance don’t play well together. The closer I get to the families in Oaxaca, the further away I feel when I leave. This is not a new sensation, but on this trip, it grew stronger than ever. I return to a life of comfort, and to a personal calendar that holds fewer and fewer pages, and I leave behind young people with a long future in front of them. For some, the years to come will be good ones of education and family and achievement. For others, there will be decades of labor and sorrow. I wonder how much more of them I will see. I wonder if the goodness I wish for them will ever come to be. I wonder what they will be like at my age, when I am a memory to them, if that.

Looking for (Good) Work

During the early years of the digital revolution, I wrote a wrote a blog that focused on the challenges journalism and newspapers faced in an increasingly digitized society, and the entrenched cultural traditions that inhibited the ability of individual journalists as well as entire institutions to adapt to a changing world that was eroding their relevance and siphoning off their audiences.

I called the blog First Draft, a nod to the description of journalism as “the first rough draft of history.” The blog coincided with a three-year project I did on newsroom culture and learning for a journalism foundation (which resulted in this slim volume of advice) and served as my exit ramp from the professional world of daily newspapers where I’d lived for a quarter-century.

I left voluntarily and more or less at the top of my game – unlike the many thousands of my former fellow wretches who were riffed or bought out of their careers by collapsing newspaper companies. I was seeking something to fill holes the newspaper couldn’t, especially in those days, when news was defined rigidly, when hidebound hierarchies shaped what was covered and how and by whom, and when middle-age managers like myself saw a future in which deep shadows of uncertainty dulled any glow of promise.

A decade has passed. In that time, I’ve been freelancing wherever I can – and celebrating the hustle and the paltry paychecks as rewards for my liberation from management – and immersing myself more and more in photography, the pursuit that drew me into journalism in the first place.

For the last few years, I’ve been photography poor single mothers, repatriated families, children’s shelters and more in Oaxaca, Mexico. It is documentary work and is both intense and, at times, terribly saddening because of its intimacy. It is also immensely satisfying. I feel privileged to be allowed into the lives of these families and angry at the injustice, indifference and corruption that touches them every day. I regularly return home inflamed with the same passion to tell their stories that I felt decades ago in San Francisco during my first years in journalism as an enthusiastic, but unaccomplished photographer.

Therein lies the irony: I am working in what I love the most, photography and journalism, but it is not good work.

Good work? Yes, good work – “work of expert quality that benefits the broader society.” In other words, “good work” is at once personally satisfying and socially beneficial. The concept was the focus of a book (Good Work, When Excellence and Ethics Meet) by three Stanford psychologists that explored the challenges and rewards of doing “good work” in various fields, including journalism. The authors found a direct connection between the ability to do good work and self-fulfillment.

“Doing good work feels good,” they write. “Few things in life are as enjoyable as when we concentrate on a difficult task, using all our skills, knowing what has to be done.” … Good work is “something that allows the full expression of what is best in us.”

I’m not going to go further into the book, but it is well worth reading by anyone who has more than a passing interest in the current collision of values in what is now lumped under the term “the news media” and also between journalists who wish to adhere to the profession’s traditions of truth, fairness and, hopefully, justice, and the politicians and government institutions on which they report. In other words, in a world of lies and liars, how much currency does the truth retain?

For now, though, I am focusing on “good work” in a more selfish way: What I need to do to upgrade my documentary photography in Mexico from work to “good work.”

What I lack the most, I believe, is the opportunity to publish. An image that hides in a computer file is not “good work.” Stories that languish untold are not “good work.” A reporter who doesn’t empty her notebook or a photographer who does little more than fill his archives is not doing “good work.”

That’s what organized journalism provides, not only the opportunity to publish but the obligation to. Journalism does not happen in a vacuum. It is not just the academic, but also the journalist who must publish less the work perish. If good work, as Damon wrote, “allows the full expression” of the best inside each of us, then I am falling short because I have always expressed myself publicly.

In this context, I miss the newsroom. I have yet to accomplish alone what I did with other journalists, imperfect as it was. I miss the sense of purpose journalism provides. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the demands of deadlines. I miss waking each day with the belief, however misplaced or self-delusional it might be at times, that the day’s work ahead will matter to someone and perhaps make the world a more informed, more just or perhaps simply more functional place.

That desire is a universal characteristic among good journalists. In June 2004, after interviewing dozens of journalists for a project, I wrote that they possessed a common goodness: “ … the deep, abiding desire … to do good journalistic work. They believed to a person that the purpose of journalism is to provide, at the least, information and, at its best, knowledge to their fellow citizens with the purpose of bettering society.”

When these journalists could overcome “the oppressive troika of tradition, convention and production that combine to prevent most newspaper journalists from realizing these good intentions on a frequent basis” they achieved that purpose.

One reason I left the newsroom was that felt I could not otherwise escape that tyranny. What I have since discovered is just as there can be too much tyranny for some people there can be too much liberty for others, of which I am one.

I work better with structure. I work better on deadline. I work better under pressure. I need these things to do “good work.”

All that I had when I was younger even though I was less skilled, less accomplished and more full of myself. However, and I can say this now with the clarified vision of hindsight, I didn’t truly appreciate the work, the people and the basic purpose of journalism until I had it no more.

I want it back. Or as much of it as I can get back at my age. But how? I am too old to be hired somewhere, too experienced to be naïve and to hope to begin anew, and I carry far too much baggage filled with failures and (fewer) successes to share company with those who view reporting and photography as “content” designed to drive clicks.

You might think, given my age, that what I miss is not journalism, but my youth. That’s a reasonable assumption, but I can assure you that my longing for good work is not the waning pang of an aging heart. I would not wish my younger days on anyone (although I admit that certain less salubrious traits of those years served me well in newspapers, which at the time celebrated the aberrant as long as you could hit a deadline.)

No, what I want reflects a desire that only comes with age – the opportunity to do work that encompasses what I’ve learned over the years, that utilizes the skills I’ve acquired and forces me to challenge myself and confront the truths of the world around me. Good work.

Making this happen will be my greatest challenge.

How Was Oaxaca? Well … since you asked

How was Oaxaca? That’s what everyone asks each time I return. It’s a polite, succinct question and what’s expected in return in the form of an answer is something similar in character, such as: “It was great, thanks.”

And after dozens of trips to Oaxaca I’ve learned to limit my answer to what people are expecting, sometimes adding a short augmentation: “It was great, thanks. Complicated, but great.”

Most folks leave it at that and move on in the conversation because in reality only a small percentage of our fellow humans want to hear about our vacations (even though for me Oaxaca is not a vacation; nonetheless, most of my friends see it that way).

The other day, though, someone asked me in Spanish about my recent trip, from which I returned home a week ago, and when I delivered my stock answer she then asked: What do you mean when you say complicated? Qué quieres decir cuando dices complicado?

So, I told her.

I told her about  the single mothers from the children’s shelter that was closed nearly a year-and-a-half ago when the state accused the founder and her family of mismanagement and physical and sexual abuse. I have stayed in touch with some of the mothers and continue to photograph some of them and their kids.

One of the mothers has put her son and daughter in two others shelters run by the Catholic church and now lives in a 12-by-12 room paid for by an older doctor who seems to use her for sex and companionship but doesn’t want anything to do with her kids. The children are the product of a marriage that went bad when the husband’s business failed and he began to drink. He beat her, locked her in the house and made her dress like a man so that other men wouldn’t look for her. I took her to lunch and when we walked by the house in which I rent a room she sat on the steps and began to cry, saying the beautiful colonial building reminded her of the happy life she had before her husband became violent. On the day before I left, we met again briefly in a tiny chapel near her room so I could see her daughter. The doctor won’t let me visit where she lives. He appears to be jealous. The daughter has grown taller in the year since I last saw her and in the chapel she modeled a paper mask she’d made in school as her mother and I sat in a pew. I made a few frames of the girl. The mother took my hand and we sat in silence.

Another of the mothers lives outside of the center of town. She works every day, cleaning houses in the morning, cooking food in the afternoon to sell at her daughter’s school during recess and doing haircuts in the evening. She and her kids – a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old daughter – also live in a single room, this one about 10 by 15, for which they pay 600 pesos a month. The neighborhood is poor-ish and safe except for one thing: There is a guy on her block who is killing cats and dogs. He poisoned this mother’s two dogs and then her cat. When the mom got another dog, he ran it over in the street and left it to die from suffocation, the result of its shattered ribs piercing its lungs. The mother wants to make a poster to hang from the front of her building that will say: Beware! We have a neighbor who kills.

The mother has a new dog now, the uncle of one of the dead ones. To keep the dog from being killed, she keeps it on a small plot of land owned by a friend. We walked there one morning carrying a heavy plastic pot of gruel made from noodles, tortillas and rice and a bag of day-old bolillos – dogs love bread, she told me. It’s a 45-minute slog, most of it up a steep hill. What I lacked in breath when I got there, I gained in view. A half-dozen dogs live on the land, which also features an unfinished cement house. She fed the dogs the bread and gave them water she’d collected from a well we passed on the route, hung around for about 10 minutes and began to walk back. Ninety minutes of walking for 10 minutes of dog time. She loves this dog as much as she hates her murderous neighbor.

A third of the mothers I’d only met a few months ago. She is a smart, street-savvy, tattooed young woman with a 5-year-old boy. This trip we met in her aunt’s house, which sits a dusty rise overlooking the west side of the Oaxacan valley. The house is new, built of cinder blocks and concrete – all of it gray. The floor, the walls, the ceiling – all of it unfinished concrete. Were it not a two-story structure located above ground, it would seem like a bunker. An impressive black-and-gold metal door fronts the street. The second floor has a terrace. The roof grants an immense vista. The house is the product of 14 years of work in a San Diego suburb by the aunt’s husband, who she last saw five years ago. They have two children, a boy 14 who wants to study gastronomy and another boy 5. The father needs another year or two in the States to finish the house.

 

What else?

There were the mother and the father and their four daughters who drove two-and-a-half hours to Oaxaca, much of the journey over sinuous dirt roads, to pick up a photographer friend and I and then continued driving another two-and-a-half hours to the lovely mountain town of Capulálpam so that two of those daughters – the two who aren’t twins and who aren’t deaf – could participate in a folk dance festival that didn’t end until well after nightfall. Ten hours of vomit-inducing driving (not for them, but for me) in a 25-year-old car so their kids could dance. Don’t talk me about how American parents support their children until you meet this family.

There was the day at the horse races in the countryside when I met a fierce looking cowboy whose buddies had nicknamed Bin Laden because, well, because he looked just like the dead Al Qaeda leader. The whole group of them was pretty far drunk when I stumbled upon them. My presence triggered a round of jokes and insults, which didn’t stop until one of the largest of them told me he had a big dick and asked me if mine was bigger. When I answered that I didn’t know, but that he could ask his mother, all his pals roared and one of them offered me a beer. Ice broken.

There was night at the dances when another mother, this one a tall beauty from a farm town who had returned to Mexico after living with her three U.S.-born kids in Chicago and New York for more than a decade, put on a beautiful huipil from the Pinotepa and danced with the other moms from her kids’ primary school carrying pineapples.

There was the lunch on a Sunday in another farm town, where I ate outside the cinder block-and-lamina home of a teen-age girl who is about to graduate from high school – the first in family to do so – during which she told me, as she looked at her two grandmothers seated at the wobbly table: This is why I wanted to come back to Mexico from Los Angeles; my friends there talked about things they did with their grandmothers and I never had that. Now I do. … I couldn’t hide my tears.

There was the nauseous van ride to a valley a few hours east of Oaxaca where a religious man, who with wife runs another children’s shelter, is building a massive round church in the butt end of lush green canyon split by a river that provides the only relief from the valley’s oven-like temperatures.

There were the new kids at the other shelter in Oaxaca – three 3-year-old triplets and a 6-year-old boy whose sweet disposition and engaging smile belie the abuse he’s clearly suffered. At age 6, his legs remain infant-like, soft, flexible and too weak to be able to walk. He cannot talk. He has the height of a 3-year-old (although some of the hardness of facial features betray his years).

There was – as always – the food: The entomadas in Ocotlán, the chilaquilies one of the moms made on the stove in her room; the vegetable soup eaten with the grandmothers; the 40-peso plate of tasajo, frijoles and onion in another market, the nieves in the plaza (several times) and the mescal, the mescal and the mescal.

And there was the photo exhibition at the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo – the reason for making the trip at this time. Seven of us went, those participating in the show, as well as a few spouses and friends. We talked one evening at the gallery (although I mostly croaked, the sound effect of a bad cold), ate together much more, went shooting together and left, well, I’m not sure how we left. We’ll see what next year brings.

How was Oaxaca? I’m so glad you asked.

 

Our Oaxaca / Nuestra Oaxaca: An Exhibition

OAXACA, Mexico – The late documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark had a 20-year love affair with Oaxaca, an affection she demonstrated in the many indelible images she made here of children, animals and regional rituals, but also in the passion she imparted and instilled in the hundreds of amateur and professionals who attended her biannual workshops here.

After Mary Ellen died in the spring of 2015, several of us who have become friends through knowing her and working with her in Oaxaca decided to return to Mexico together each year to honor Mary Ellen and continue the projects she had helped us shape.

Knowing of our desire to keep Mary Ellen’s Oaxaca spirit alive, the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo (where Mary Ellen had convened her workshops) invited seven of us to show our images from Oaxaca. It was a bittersweet invitation – on the one hand an honor to participate in an exhibition at Álvarez Bravo, on the other another reminder of how much each of us miss Mary Ellen, as a teacher, as an editor, as a friend.

After much planning by the staff of Álvarez Bravo (and much patience and tolerance by its director, Adriana Chávez, for our lack of understanding of the metric system and constant mangling of the Spanish language), the show opens this Friday, Jan. 20, and will feature photographs by Björn Árnason (Iceland); Ina Bernstein, Chae Kihn and Jody Watkins (New York); and Lori Barra, James Carbone and me (California).

The evening of the opening there will be a reception at 7 p.m. (I will be there and I hope my friends in Oaxaca can come.) On Feb. 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. Álvarez Bravo will graciously host an event with all seven us.

Below, in English and in Spanish, is the introductory text to the exhibit, as well as a gallery of the photos I have in the show.

Exhibition Introduction: Our Oaxaca

Mary Ellen Mark brought us together. Most of us came to Oaxaca because of her. Through her we became friends. Because of her we became better photographers. With her in mind, we come back – to pursue the work we started here, to nurture the relationships we’ve made with local mothers and fathers and children, to become the photographers she believed we could be, to honor her passion and, perhaps, to find hope and inspiration in it.

More than anything else, Mary Ellen believed in the potency of the singular image. “I like a picture to stand out individually, to work on its own,” she said. “… It’s hard. If you get a couple of good pictures a year, you’re doing very well. It’s hard to get a great picture. Really hard. The more you work at it, the more you realize how hard it is.”

As a photographer, Mary Ellen embraced relentless authenticity. As a friend, she wrapped us in generosity. As a teacher, she demanded much and encouraged even more.

Mary Ellen held her students to the same lofty standards by which she lived. Two years before her death in 2015, she told an interviewer who had asked how her photography had evolved during her 40-year career. “I’m not sure it has changed that much,” she answered. “… I’m still just trying to make powerful and truthful photographs — great photographs. Perhaps my standards are higher. I’m less satisfied with what I do. I want to go further. Reach further.”

Go further. Seek truth. Be honest. These were Mary Ellen’s qualities – as a photographer and as a person – and these are the characteristics by which she judged her work and to which she urged us to aspire.

Some of us are professional photographers, some are not. Some of us have been photographing the same families for a decade or more, some are drawn to the spontaneity of the streets. Some of us use the camera to document, some of us prefer to interpret. All of us are grateful to have known Mary Ellen, to have worked with her and to have been counted among her friends. In our work, we can only hope to emulate her, each of us in our own way.

Mary Ellen once said, “Photograph the world as it is. Nothing’s more interesting than reality.” These photographs are our reality, our Oaxaca.

***

Introdución a la Exposición: Nuestra Oaxaca

Mary Ellen Mark nos unió. Ella fue la razón por la que llegamos a Oaxaca. A través de ella, nos hicimos amigos. Debido a ella, nos convertimos en mejores fotógrafos. Pensando en ella, regresamos – para seguir las obras que empezamos aquí, para alimentar las relaciones que hemos formado con madres, padres y niños oaxaqueños, para hacernos los fotógrafos que ella creía que podríamos ser, para honrar su pasión y, quizás, encontrar esperanza e inspiración en esta.

Más que nada, Mary Ellen creía en el poder de la imagen singular. “Me gusta una imagen que resalte individualmente, que surta efecto sola,” dijo ella. “ … Es difícil. Si sacas un par de buenas fotos cada año, estas haciendo muy bien. Es difícil sacar una gran foto. Muy difícil. Cuanto más trabajas en ello, más te das cuenta de lo difícil que es.”

Como fotógrafa, Mary Ellen abrazaba la autenticidad implacable. Como amiga, nos envolvía en la generosidad. Como maestra, exigía mucho y animaba aún más.

Mary Ellen insistía en que sus alumnos se adhirieran a los mismos estándares altos en los que ella se mantenía. Dos años antes de su muerte en 2015, le dijo a un entrevistador que le había preguntado a ella como su fotografía se había desarrollado durante su carrera de 40 años: “No estoy segura de que haya cambiado mucho. … Solo sigo tratando de hacer fotos que sean potentes y verídicas – grandes fotos. Quizás mis estándares sean mas altos. Estoy menos satisfecha (ahora) con lo que hago. Quiero ir más allá. Alcanzar más allá.”

Vaya más allá. Busque la verdad. Sea honesto. Estos eran los atributos de Mary Ellen – como una fotógrafa y como un ser humano – y estas son las características por las cuales ella juzgaba su obra y a las cuales noså urgía aspirar.

Algunos de nosotros somos fotógrafos profesionales, otros no los somos. Algunos de nosotros hemos estado sacando fotos de las mismas familias por más de una década, otros estamos atraídos por la espontaneidad de las calles. Algunos de nosotros usamos la cámara para documentar, otros preferimos interpretar. Todos nosotros estamos agradecidos de haber conocido a Mary Ellen, de haber trabajado con ella y de haber estado entre sus amigos. En nuestra obra, solamente podemos esperar emular a ella, cada uno en su propia estilo.

Mary Ellen dijo una vez,” Fotografíe el mundo como es. Nada es más interesante que la realidad. Estas imágenes son nuestra realidad, nuestra Oaxaca.

The Importance of Truth

timesduterteIt is unsettling to me, someone who has spent the better part of his doing one form of journalism or another, that the brazen embrace of The Big Lie by politicians has become so prevalent that those of us who prefer facts over fiction find ourselves making a case for the importance of truth.

Certainly, the rise of Donald Trump from Manhattan con man to Tweeter-in-Chief and the both intentional and unwitting acceptance by his stooges and other supporters of his fact-free self-serving version of reality has not only fueled the outrage more than half of America feels about their incoming president’s manipulative use of the lie, but has also confronted journalists with a challenge they are increasingly lesser-equipped to face in this age of declining revenue: How to shine the light of truth onto the dark web of lies woven by Trump and his ilk.

I found one answer to this question in the unflinching photography and reporting by photographer Daniel Berehulak in today’s New York Times about the brutal ant-drug campaign by Philippine Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte has unleashed his nation’s police and armed forces on the citizenry. More than 2,000 Filipinos have been killed by authorities since June 30, when he took office, and another 3,500 slain in other unsolved murders. The slaughter – the word used in the headline of Berehulak’s piece – continues with impunity with each murder wrapped in an official lie. The dead, as described in police reports, are often accused of “nanlaban,” which Berehulak describes as “what the police call a case when a suspect resists arrest and ends up dead. It means ‘he fought it out.’ ”

Berehulak’s report, and his savagely honest images, expose Duterte’s lie. Will the truth deter Duterte and save lives? Probably not. But it informs us, we Americans who must now live in nation led by a man whose first instinct is self-preservation and whose first tool is the lie.

Trump and Duterte talked by phone a week ago. Trump applauded Duterte’s brutality and invited him to the U.S. Liars are attracted to one another (see Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin). They need – and use – one another as partners and foils against the truth.

Trump is mendacious (to say the least) and not murderous (for now), but his looming occupancy of the presidency highlights like never before in recent American history the need for truth and its importance to civil society and our democracy.

What can each of us do? One thing is to demand hard truths from journalism and support journalists and news organizations that deliver it. Many Americans are already doing this, as evidenced by the 70,000 new subscribers the New York Times has enrolled since Trump’s election. Truth comes with a price. If we want the truth that we need, then we must pay for it.

Oaxaca: Two Days, Many Faces

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I arrived on Friday night and spent the weekend visiting people and taking photos, one or two of which may be decent. The intensity of life here is extraordinary. In the past two days, I’ve …

* Visited a man who is going blind from diabetes and whose 11-year-old son was damaged at birth by incompetent doctors. The boy has spent his life lying in bed, unable to walk, talk or feed himself, but can communicate through movements of his large, brown eyes and a sweet, wide smile. This father lived in the U.S. for 14 years, working in restaurants in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, and likes to speak English when he can. When I saw him last year, he’d just had his one of his feet fileted into order to cut the diabetic rot out of it and he was blind in one eye. Now, his foot has healed, although he still walks with crutches, but he has lost the sight in his second eye as well. He is 47 and his wife is 37. Each looks at least a decade older.

* Shared a jet-lagged morning on a park bench with a 79-year-old man while waiting for the coffee shop to open and heard him tell me a story about a squirrel that fell 30 feet from the roof of the store across the street from us. The squirrel, he said, bounced off the ground, got up and ran off. The man sells small hand-woven rugs to tourists and we’ve talked occasionally over the last 20 years. Other than squirrels, he likes to watch long-legged young women in short skirts walk past, which we did together for a half hour.

* Went to visit a gay Oaxacan man I know in the small café he runs in his native farm town. In between making cappuccinos and selling frozen popsicles to kids for five pesos each, he takes care of the family cows and works his 80-year-old father’s fields when business is slow and his help is needed. His family used to raise pigs as well, but no more. Too messy, he said, and too needy – they have to be fed three times a day. He doesn’t want to move to the U.S., but would like to visit San Francisco on Pride Day. Until then, I asked, what can a bring you? A cute, 25-year-old man, he said. I’ll see what I can do, I said.

* Got stuck in this town after dark with five women from Oaxaca waiting for a collective cab. An empty cab can hold five people and I knew I was never going to be able to out-maneuver them to grab those seats so I was prepared to hitch or walk to the highway about three miles away. When a cab arrived after a 45-minute wait, it had four empty seats. The ladies grabbed the first three and with one remaining they offered it to me so one of them would not be left behind solo. I accepted their gallantry.

* Had dinner with a friend who had moved to Oaxaca from California and has struggled through more than a year of financial and bureaucratic complications. The day before I arrived she had an accident in the apartment she rents and strangers helped her get the medical attention she needed. I have never felt more alone, she said. The tears came. We hugged. I left thinking about the solitariness of our existence.

* Sat at a long folding table underneath a massive white tarp licking mole negro from my fingers as I ate lunch with several hundred residents of another neighboring town who had gathered to honor the patron saint of Mexico, the Virgen of Guadalupe. The food was a reward for having sat through a 90-minute mass presided over by an aging priest who exhorted in a slurred, but well amplified voice his parishioners to not abandon the word of The Savior. My companions were a mother and her three children who had lived in the U.S. for a dozen years but had returned home to this town, where she was born and where she lives in the house of her parents. She introduced me to every aunt, uncle, cousin and friend who was there, and I spent the afternoon involved in one hilarious conversation after another with people who found me, the visiting old gringo, to be an amusing curiosity. Some thought my friend and I were married, a subject of much laughter. Many had worked and spent years in the United States, including an uncle who had just returned home from Oklahoma, where he had worked for the local city government and where he had used his pension payment to pay off the mortgage on the house he’d bought decades ago for $20,000.

* Arrived home late last night to find the group of Canadians who share the house I stay in when I am here well into several bottles of wine and mescal and seated at a table headed by a local driver and tour guide I’d known for many years. The last time I saw him was the last day my late photographer friend was in Mexico in the spring of 2015. He’d driven her and I to the airport and was supposed to drive me back to town, but there was a dispute over his fee, which angered my friend, who had used his services for years and felt he was extorting her. She left angry and I vowed to never recommend the guide to anyone. Last night, he offered me a platter of his wife’s excellent tamales and after a mescal or two we hugged as he left.

Less and Less

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Each time I go to Oaxaca I lower my expectations.

Once, I hoped to speak Spanish as fluently as I do English, to be able to joke and to discuss and to engage. Now, I work at making myself understood and trying to grab the gist of what others tell me.

Once, I had a vision of assembling a collection of great photographs, like those of my late friend and teacher, Mary Ellen.  Now, I am satisfied if the computer I carry up the stairs to my homeward-bound plane holds one or two frames that make me, and maybe her, proud.

Once, I thought I might merge my American life and my Mexican life, becoming as a result a more international, perhaps even bicultural person. Now, I recognize how American I am and that, regardless of how much time I spend in Oaxaca, I am not Mexican at all. I view the world in a distinctly American way, for better or for worse. As an example, despite all the negativity of this election year and the disheartening vein of racism, hatred and fear opened by the Trump candidacy, I see a society of opportunity built on principles of fairness and justice (regardless of how often they are unachieved). This outlook is un-Mexican. Even as Mexico advances economically and socially, it remains far short of being a nation of opportunity. Fairness and justice are foreign concepts in a country where the wealthy and the criminal benefit from an endemic infection of corruption and impunity at the expense of the poor and the powerless. Many Mexicans, especially the poor, accept this status quo. Ni modo. I am too American to do so. I will always be apart – ajeno.

Once, I believed, with great naivety, that I and the people I photograph, many of them poor, most of them single mothers, all of them hard-working and dedicated to their children, had much in common. Now, though, I see how wrong I was. Other than our shared humanity – and I cannot discount the immense importance of the human connection I feel to them – we have nothing in common. I live in affluence, where water flows from the shower head in a gushing stream, where the airport parking garage is packed with pricey German cars, where the food is clean, where we all have bathrooms and refrigerators and where we don’t have to sleep in the same bed as our children because we have more than one bed, more than one bedroom, more than almost everyone in the world. They, these good people, these folks – to use Obama’s word – who welcome me into their one-room homes, have none of that. None. Of. That. Although I see their world, I cannot imagine living in it. They neither see my world nor can imagine living in it. Now, I look to share the moment with them, to do what little I can to make a difference. And then I leave.

I returned from Oaxaca last night after 11 days there.

Less and less. That’s what I expect. The desire for more remains, but I don’t expect it to happen. I’m OK with this. I don’t feel as if I am settling. It feels realistic and possible, and therefore it satisfies.

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The Wall

nogaleswall_091716_069_bwThere’s nothing pretty about morning in Naco, Arizona. There’s no soft, early light. There’s no lingering cool of the waning night air. There’s no sense of leisurely awakening, no hint of the unfolding promise that a new day offers.

There’s none of that in Naco. No hay nada de eso en Naco. No, señor, none of that.

In Naco, the day wakes hard and quick. At the sun’s first rise over the Mule Mountains, it sprays the high desert with a fierce light that burns the eyes and, if you’re foolhardy enough to be driving east at this moment, reduces your vision to a fireball of intense whiteness. At 80 mph, it’s terrifying.

A switch is thrown and what scant pre-dawn breeze there was shuts off, leaving in its absence a stifling stillness. The heat follows immediately. Yesterday’s dust, lying where it spent the night, warms and rises from the ground, preparing to cling to whatever passes. My left arm, bearing a trucker’s burn from days of driving, tingles with the touch of the sunlight.

By 8 o’clock, the unforgiving potential of the day is on full display. If you awoke thinking that you, a bipedal spec of life, were somehow in command of the world around you, then morning in Naco, with its sun and heat and dust and dead air, will disabuse of that notion. Who’s the boss, asks the day? I am, it answers. I am.

I am learning this lesson as I am eastbound along a dirt road that parallels the steel fence demarcating which half of this desert belongs to Mexico and which half belongs to the United States. This is the same fence that Donald Trump wants to replace with a “great wall.” I stop frequently – to make a picture, to note where the fence changes height or material, to talk to one of the Border Patrol agents who sit in their parked white-and-green trucks every half-mile or so, engines running to power the AC and cabs facing south, ready for pursuit.

After several miles of flatness, the road slopes gently upward. I stop, get out of my car and walk up a short, rocky slope. I can see easily over the wall. A short distance from the fence a cluster of industrial buildings and conical slag piles mark a mine, perhaps one of the many copper mines that accounted more than a century ago for the founding of both Nacos – the one in Arizona and its cross-border counterpart in Mexico. It is an incongruous presence after so many miles of nothingness.

A quarter-mile past this point, the road both rises sharply and deteriorates from well-graded dirt to deeply rutted gravel. My German SUV, despite its fancy all-wheel drive, is not up to the task. This is truck country. I clamber the 100 yards or so to the top of the hill, where a heavy-duty cattle guard spans the road, a further deterrent to any curious motorist who has made it this far. I find myself breathing rapidly, robbed of air by the heat and the altitude, and am reminded, unwelcomingly, of my age.

Below me to the east, the road and the fence continue. The landscape is ugly and harsh, even though there was rain a few days earlier. The resulting burst of late-season greenery is already withering beneath the brutal punishment of the sun. The earth is grayish-brown. Haze hangs in the air, masking distant mountains and obscuring the route of the fence at its farthest reaches. The rusting, metal ugliness of the fence and the slate-colored scar of the road fit right in, man-made footnotes to a work of nature whose thesis can be summarized in two words: Keep out.

There is no sound. The sun arcs upward without a whisper. The air speaks nothing. The dust waits muted. The sweat, already running into the rims of my glasses, slides in silence across my skin. I have never felt so alone.

Then comes the bird. It is a hawk flying 50 feet above the ground, moving from south to north. It glides with innate purpose and strength of wing over the wall. It doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t falter, doesn’t concern itself with documentation. Is it an American hawk coming home from a night of hunting on Mexican soil? Is it a Mexican hawk sneaking into the United States to deprive American hawks of snakes and rabbits?

It doesn’t matter does it? A century ago the hawk’s ancestors flew this land. They lived under the sun and in the heat, finding sustenance in a forbidding land that has killed thousands of men, women and children who have tried to cross it. And centuries from now, after this steel wall has rusted into ground, the hawk’s descendants will fly this same route, looking for ways to sustain its life and those of its progeny.

As people do. As people will. Wall or no wall.

The Curse of Religion

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Ever since Man invented the concept of “God” as a means to provide answers to the baffling origins of life and to soothe the inevitable and irreversible arrival of death, he has been killing other men, women and children in the name of god.

Five-hundred or so centuries into the self-aware existence of our species, the slaughter continues.

The homophobic Orlando massacre is the latest deadly embrace by a deranged individual with a weapon of the “word of God” – words written 1,400 years ago and which proscribe killing gay men by stoning them, burning them or tossing them from a high wall.

Sadly, killing homosexuals with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle is so much easer than these ancient punishments. Thus far, there has not been a terrorist attack on U.S. soil in which 49 people have been stoned to death.

It is, however, too simple to blame the easy availability of guns in the United States for the bloodshed in Orlando (although we can hold gun access responsible for unending string of shootings on high school and university campuses).

The true culprit is religion, primarily Christianity and Islam (although other modern religions as well as more ancient ones – the Aztecs come to mind – have shown themselves to be just as bloody in the enforcement of their beliefs.

  • The Christian crusade against the Muslim world dispatched up to 3 million souls to their competing versions of heaven.
  • Muslims, during the Ottoman empire, attempted to scrub Armenian Christians from the empire, killing up to 1.5 million of them in the process.
  • Hitler, inspired in part by the Armenian genocide, cloaked his fascism in the robe of Christianity and killed 6 million Jews (a Holocaust that, in turn, fuels both the current Christian-Muslim wars in the Mideast as well as the violent hate crimes committed in the United States by neo-Nazis such as the KKK and other right-wing extremists.

There’s more – so much more. Muslim women stoned to death for being raped. Marathon runners bombed to death for being Christian. Thousands of Christians killed by other Christians during the Inquisition for not being Christian enough. Millions of indigenous peoples in North America either murdered to driven to their deaths for being “pagan” by Christian conquerors from England, France, Spain and Portugal.

The deliverance of death as a means of interpreting the mandates of god is not religion’s only crime. It is also guilty of forcing Muslim girls to live in ignorance and fear for their lives should they dare to be educated. It is guilty of condemning poor young Catholic women in Latin American countries to continued poverty by preaching against birth control and thereby enabling teen-age pregnancy. It subjugates Jewish and Muslim women to the will of men, denying them full participation in their lives. It spreads hate – against gays, against foreigners, against non-believers – and in doing so encourages group-think and herd mentality: Us against Them (with the Us always being morally superior and adhering to the true god).

I must be naïve, I realize, to wonder how these ancient beliefs persist – beliefs inscribed by men who knew nothing of science, little of geography and not much more of any life other than that in their own tribe. Not only do they persist, but they shape cultural norms, infiltrate public policy and far too often lead directly to violence, either by some lonely, disconnected guy with a gun or by an entire nation with modern weaponry at its disposal.

If there is a god, it has cursed us with these religions.

Dreaming in Spanish

dreaming in Spanish

I’ve been back from Mexico two weeks now and I am still dreaming in Spanish. Maybe I’ve finally mastered the language or maybe – since my dreams are mostly anxiety driven – I’ve simply become bilingually anxious.

In today’s dream I found myself stepping out of a hotel in Oaxaca onto a cobblestoned street. The street resembled Alcala, the city’s main tourist corridor. It had a gradual incline to it, with the upper end leading to a colonial church and the lower end stretching to a distant plaza. But it wasn’t Alcala. There were no stores selling indigenous tchotchkes, no ambulating street vendors carrying armloads of scarfs and no short-skirted young women handing out shots of sweetened mescal. The buildings were low and old. Muted colors covered their facades, and those that housed businesses advertised them in fading signs. This was a working street, a place for locals not for visitors.

Standing in front of the hotel, I noticed that the streetlights were on, but the sky had not yet gone dark. I had a camera in my hand. I looked both ways and turned to the left.

Then, as things happen in dreams, I was in a restaurant and seated at the end of a long communal table placed along one wall of large room. The table was occupied by a large, boisterous group of older Oaxacans, the type that patronizes the Bar Jardin in the zocalo. The women wore helmets of hair hardened by permanents and the men sported jackets with wide lapels they they’d purchased many fashion seasons ago. The only unoccupied seat at the table was the one to my left. The remainder of the restaurant were empty save for a couple who sat in a far corner near the windows. They held wine glasses in their hands and sat very erect.

A deep sadness engulfed me as I looked at the nearly vacant room and heard the loud voices and laughter from my tablemates. I wanted to join in, but there was that chair between us, a gulf my schoolroom Spanish could not cross. A waiter came and I ordered something to match my mood – a bowl of vegetable soup.

As I ate, more diners came. Someone set up another long table to my right and it filled immediately with a dozen younger people who all knew each other and who had arrived well buzzed. They ordered mescals and peanuts and snacks.

The owner of the restaurant came by, a woman wearing a loose, leopard-print blouse. Her hair was sprayed into a golden, cotton-candy whirl. She wore thick, dark-framed glasses like those you see on fashionistas in New York and had painted her ample lips bright red.  I’d like my check, I told her. No you don’t, she said, I know you. You’re going to stay and drink mescal. She smiled a Cheshire cat grin.

Maybe she did know me, because that is what I might normally have done. Not that night, though. Without replying, I stood up from the table and walked into another room, a dark place, maybe a reception area.

When I returned the atmosphere inside the restaurant had shifted dramatically to the weird. The two long tables were raucous. Two of the younger people had stripped to their underwear and were laying lengthwise along one of the tables. Flowers adorned their bodies. All around them their friends laughed and drank and fed themselves from platters of cheese and chips and peanuts.

Next to me, a half-dozen men, all of them rotund, moist with sweat,  glistening with pomade, and exceptionally drunk, were involved in a heated conversation. Before I could say a word, one of them turned to me and said, “She paid your bill.” I seemed to understand. I dropped more pesos on the table and left.

Outside of the restaurant, I found myself in a narrow alleyway. Coming toward me were a dozen or so people dressed in striped pants, tall boots, eccentric hats, and flowing scarfs they had wrapped around their necks and draped artistically across their bodies. They were pierced and tattooed and large in personality. The men were rambunctious, the women alluring. They looked like circus performers. The corridor was so tight we bumped bodies as we passed.

“James, James, is that you?” I heard myself saying. I recognized one of the men, a photographer I knew from some workshops I had taken in Oaxaca. He worked for a newspaper in Los Angeles and we had been together with some other photographers in Mexico just several weeks previously. He had grown a beard and wore a brown fedora decorated with a striped yellow hat band.

You’re still here, I said, stating the obvious. Yes, he said, I’ve been traveling. I had been looking up at James as we spoke and I noticed that he was standing on the shoulders of another man, an older, grizzle-faced fellow dressed in black and wearing a bush hat. I had seen his face before, but couldn’t attach a memory to it.

James’ boots pressed into the man’s shoulders. In between them sat a young buy. He wore white clothes and his feet draped around the man’s neck. That’s some load you’re carrying, I said to the guy. He nodded and slid me an understanding smile. Did I know him?

ClarkSummit_120907_43Before I could say another word, a shoving match broke out between one of the members of the troupe with whom James was traveling and a well-coiffed hipster type who had entered the alleyway with two friends, another man and a woman. Everything about them was sharp and pointy – tight, tailored clothing, hair-dos razored to perfection, well-honed attitudes of superiority. The hipster slid backwards from the shove and dropped in slow motion, looking like the falling Don Draper in the opening sequence of Mad Men. The man in black jettisoned James and the boy and bear-hugged the guy who’d shoved the hipster. It was over.

Once upright, the slickster and his companions elbowed their way past me, the woman, tall and angular, keeping her gaze up, and the men, eyes flaring, silently daring me to say something. In a second, they were gone.

Only James, the guy in black and I remained. Let’s go make some pictures, James said, and we walked out of the alley into the light. Instead of being in Oaxaca, though, we were in San Francisco, standing in the backyard of one those row houses in the Sunset or the Richmond. The yard was small, cluttered with discarded furniture and damp from recent rain. To the right was another house, and the cyclone fence separating the two had a hole in it. James ducked through the hole, walked into the adjoining yard and began photographing a chicken that was caged up there.

The guy in black yelled, “James, c’mon!” When James didn’t answer, they guy looked at me and said, “I’m done with this.”

And I woke up.

 

Oaxaca Together

OaxacaScenes_021216_008Some of us were in Oaxaca recently. We went at this time of the year because this was when Mary Ellen Mark always went and she was how we knew each other.

After she died last year, we went to a party in her honor on the terrace of a rich man’s penthouse in N.Y. Afterwards, we drank mescal, looked at photographs and vowed to return to Mexico – together, one more time.

Five of us made it. Two others had to cancel. Between our promise to return and the actual trip, our little venture had grown. More people joined us – Mary Ellen’s husband, her assistants, some friends, a pair of spouses. All in all, we grew to a good group of adventurers, artists and admirers.

Also, Mary Ellen’s friends in Oaxaca wanted to honor her, as did the Bravo Center for photography and the photographer who’d taken her place in the workshop she’d led for 20 years.

An exhibition of Mary Ellen’s work was put together, as was another of her students’ photographs (including ours). Maggie Steber, the new workshop leader, invited the five of us to show our work to her students. The shows opened. Speeches were given. Stories were told. Tears were shed. It was all beautiful and moving.

After the events, though, and the late-nights and early-mornings, it was just us – the photographers. (Oh, and Mary Ellen’s husband, Martin, a filmmaker, who got exactly what we were doing and why we were there.) That’s when we worked, which is what Mary Ellen would have wanted the most.

We returned to Mary Ellen’s haunts and to the individual projects she’d helped us develop.

Twice we went out together, first to San Martin Tilcajete, where the townsmen slather grease on their bodies and run about and later to Teotitlan del Valle, where faithful Catholics rise early and march through the streets to the baleful wail of a single trumpet.

Separately, we visited the people we’ve been photographing, some of them for a few years, some of them for longer than 15 years.

Jody took the bus up to Paula’s house on the slopes of Monte Alban. Paula was a girl when Jody first photographed her. Today she is a mother. She lives where she grew up, amid the same poverty.

Lori photographed her “girls”: the deaf twins who live in the mountains and the teen-age roommates who sleep in bunk beds in an evangelical orphanage.

James spent time with the Lopez family, as he has for nearly 20 years. They earn their living picking plastic bottles and cardboard scraps out of the dump.

And Bjorn? Well, he was Bjorn. He walked about as he does and found order amid the Oaxacan chaos and captured it with his camera.

I arrived before the others and left after them. Those days when I was soloing, I worked on my project, photographing the mothers and their children and learning their stories. But when the others were there, I wanted to be with them. I felt like something special that I’d had – and that we’d had together – was slipping away and I wanted to hang onto it for as long as possible.

So, I tagged along.

Jody and I went to Abasolo, where a young boy lives who was severely damaged at birth. Jody has photographed him and his mother and father for many years. The father is now going blind from diabetes. After we left their house, we walked to Marino’s café for a coffee and a chat and then to a nearby house where Jesus lives, a boy I’ve been photographing. He, too, was born badly and must use a wheel chair. When I think of Abasolo, I think of Jody and I wanted her to meet Jesus so she would think of him, too.

Lori and I visited Coco in the women’s prison near Tlacolula. Coco founded Hijos de la Luna, the children’s shelter, and it was Lori who took me there for the first time one day when I was frustrated with my photography and unsure what to do. That visit changed everything about the way I make pictures.

James took Anja, who was participating in the workshop, and I to see the Lopez family at the dump. Afterward, we rode in the family’s twin-cab pickup to Zaachila for lunch. The truck stalled at every topé and the food was terrible and pricey, but the talk was good and Reina, the mother, made me promise I’d come visit her even though the Lopezes are “James’ ” family.

I made very few good photographs this trip. The best images are in my head – Lori and Jody editing on the terrace of the hotel; Bjorn lit by the screen of his laptop while showing his work at the Bravo Center; James extracting his massive Hasslblad from its bag at the dump; Martin, standing alone in the street in Teotitlan, dressed in a parka, headphones on, capturing the eerie music of the procession.

This is my Oaxaca. That was our Oaxaca. I hope we can all hold on to it.

Lessons from Oaxaca

Casa Hogar Benito JuarezSome things I learned in Oaxaca this month:

* A young mother who lives in a dark, concrete room with her 5-year-old daughter and is struggling to scrape together the pesos she needs for food and rent told me that if you hug another person for 20 seconds your depression will go away. It works. It also produces tears.

* Another mother I’ve been photographing has a son and a daughter. They live in a building of eight rooms where everyone shares the sink, the shower and two bathrooms. A pimp and his prostitute recently moved into the room across from theirs. On the daughter’s 10th birthday, as she was eating a special breakfast her mom had made for her, the prostitute left her room, passed by the family’s open door and teetered into the dirt street in front of the building wearing 5-inch heels and several square inches of blue spandex.

* You can’t take raisins or dried apricots into the women’s prison because prisoners will ferment them and make booze, but dried pineapple is OK.

* You can’t wear a gray T-shirt into the prison, but I do look pretty good wearing a beige women’s sweater.

* The son of one of Oaxaca’s most thuggish and corrupt governors, José Murat Casab, is running for governor. This is a dynasty that makes the Bushes and the Clintons seem like Disney characters.

* Diabetes is everywhere and seems to touch nearly every household. I met a man who lost part of one foot to the disease and is nearly blind. If he had $600, he could save the vision in one eye, but he doesn’t have the money. Down the road, a mother whose only son is confined to a wheel chair is now also caring for her dying, diabetic mom; a 71-year-old farmer showed me a photo of his first wife and his oldest daughter, both dead from the disease; a minister who runs a children’s shelter has a bedridden wife whose kidneys are failing; the aunt of a friend who has a coffeehouse has it; as does my wife’s godfather. A 2012 study found nearly 50 percent of the population affected.

* A lot of dogs never make it to the other side of the highway.

Going Manual

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A few months after the death of a good friend – someone I’d only known a short while, but who in that time had touched me deeply – I fell into one of my periodic funks. It was toward the end of summer and despite the good photography I was doing at some county fairs in California a recent birthday had triggered an unusually harsh self-evaluation of my work.

None of it seemed to have any depth. It seemed flashy, contrived and superficial. I wanted purpose. I couldn’t see any.

One morning, I turned, as I have before when I could not inspire myself, to the work of my friend, who had also been a (much more accomplished) photographer. I opened her newest book, which she’d finished just before she died. Her black-and-white photographs documented the difficult life of a teenage prostitute as she’d grown older, mothering a brood of children along the way. The pictures were intimate, made from in close by someone who inserted herself into the tiniest moments of her subject’s life and used her camera unflinchingly, directly and, at times, confrontationally.

I closed the book, somewhat saddened by what I haven’t done, but also emboldened by the passion of my friend. Keep going, she used to say. Go back. Try again. Almost, almost, almost.

Not long after that day, I bought a new camera, a Leica. I wanted something smaller, less obtrusive and more intimate than the big Nikons I still use. I also bought one lens, a 28mm. The camera is digital and therefore still weighty, but it fits nicely in my right hand and I love the smoothness of its metal, the near silent squish of its shutter and the seamless focus of the lens.

It is the latter that has given me the greatest challenge. After years of the rapid, auto grab of the Nikon lenses, focusing by hand was initially frustrating and, now several months later, still can be. I have missed shots entirely and I have focused in front and in behind on many others.

There is an upside though – a big one. The necessity to really look – really, really look – through the rangefinder in order to focus has forced me to slow down. I must be more patient. I must anticipate. And, most importantly, I must trust in my subjects because they, too, must wait for me, and in those waiting moments I find more intimacy.

I do not believe owning a camera similar to the one my friend used will make me more like her. Nor will it by itself improve my photography. But, it is fair to say that in part I bought the Leica for her. Each time I touch it, each time I lift it to my eye, each time I see the frame fill up, I think of her.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a children’s shelter in Mexico working on a project. A group of boys were kicking a soccer ball toward a fence. There were in the sunshine and I sat in the shade of a large tree. I waited and waited, trying to find focus on the moving shapes – something that would have been so easy with the Nikon – when suddenly one boy stopped nearly in front of me. He took off his hat, held it in his hand for moment and then tossed it back on his head. I made two frames. I think my friend would have like this one (above).

Backstory: How I Backed Off and Made Better Portraits

Chuck Collins, YMCA

When I first started making portraits of people, everything I shot was tightly framed. It was all about the face. I came in close and measured my success by the details I could see. The more pores the better as far as I was concerned.

Some shrink, I’m sure, could attribute my desire to fill the frame with face to some unaddressed childhood need or perhaps a lack of adult intimacy, but it probably had more to do with the Yousuf Karsh portraits I saw in school and my desire to replicate those (not that I ever did).

CollinsChuck_120814__0087Today, as much as the face still fascinates (and as much as I still want to focus on follicles), I’ve backed off. Now, I’m looking more for context than closeness. I want shape, posture and attitude more than detail.

Some of that change in approach came from maturing as a photographer, but much of it also comes from the assignments I have. Frequently, I find myself making a portrait of a person simply standing or sitting somewhere and I need to use the environment around him or her to create an image that is striking, or at least has some snap. Also, many art directors want openness (or negative space) in the frame so they have the option to overlay type in that area.

Because I rarely have any control over the location or the timing of the shot, which means I’m often having to make something interesting under either muddy skies or full sun, I’ve become attached to using a single strobe to isolate the person from the background.

These images of Chuck Collins, CEO of the YMCA of San Francisco, illustrate what I mean. Marin Magazine asked me to photograph Chuck and I met him on a moist, gray December morning at the YMCA’s facility in the Marin Headlands.

I arrived early and looked over the place. It was bleak. Empty buildings. No kids. Windswept grounds. The vacant basketball court had appeal, though, as did a small empty amphitheatre with low, wooden seats. Both had strong vertical structures (the hoop and the flagpole) I could use.

Chuck helped, too. A good-looking easy-going guy, he gave me enough time to adjust the light several times and even helped me lug the battery pack from the basketball court to the amphitheatre.

I liked the results, which you can see in the images on this page (bigger versions below). The magazine, as it often does, chose a different frame, but that’s why they pay me – to give them choices.

You can see more of my photographs of interesting people at photography.timporter.com or here.

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“Spotlight”

Spotlight the movie Before we went to see the movie “Spotlight,” the film based on the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into widespread pedophilia by Catholic priests and the church’s systemic cover-up of the abuse, my wife, a former newspaper hack like myself, said, “This is going to make us sad.”

And it did.

I never won a Pulitzer Prize, although at various points in my career I have worked with people who have. I presume no claim to their honor, but mention this as a way of saying I understand the work ethic, focus and passion that propelsordinary people who are good journalists into extraordinary people who are great ones.

“Spotlight” highlighted the scarcity of those things those people in my life.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 8.21.01 AM    Ever since I left the newsroom in San Francisco in 2000 to join a start-up, a short-lived, but lucrative adventure, I’ve wondered how to get back – not to a newspaper, necessarily, but to journalism and to the sense of purpose that imbues all the best moments of its practice.

But, I am poorly self-directed, too easily distracted and (still) foolishly insecure, a terrible recipe for someone hoping to resurrect an idea he abandoned and left molder in the closet of past decisions. Suffice to say, I didn’t find my way back (the unsuccessful itinerary is another story.) “Spotlight” made me wish I had.

This is not a regret (those I possess, but they have to do with people), but a realization made in the unforgiving light of age. I am not one to look back too often, but it’s fair to say that when I do I linger. I see the choices not made. I see the roads rejected. I see the work undone. I see the people left behind.

It would be easy, and natural, I think, to conflate the nostalgia of those newspaper days with hormonal headiness of youth. I was young then, and headstrong and arrogant and just smart enough to learn things quickly, like so many others I worked with. We were inflated with purpose, self-worth and the potency of the (then) power of the press.

Is that what “Spotlight” made me miss – my youth? Or, was it the journalism and, in the realm of the old San Francisco Examiner, the assemblage of great talents and even greater egos who produced it at its peak?

Probably both.

The Journalism Problem: Why I Can’t Seem to Tell the Best Story I’ve Ever Found

DalaiAll of my adult professional life I have been a journalist of some sort or another and with varying degrees of quality.

Through most of these now 40 years I adhered to the canon of the trade – objectivity over bias, fairness over partisanship and fact over belief. In the last decade, however, my views changed, especially during the several years in which I wrote a blog (First Draft) about the constraints these core principles imposed on a profession whose defining practices were under assault by a digitally empowered audience and other disruptive technological and economic forces.

I came to see how the he-said-she-said definition of objectivity favored stenography over narrative and defined a “story” as something that always had two sides, regardless of how ludicrous, shallow or blatantly false one of those sides might be.

I stuck with the concept of fairness longer, but eventually it, too, was eroded when I began to consider the impact a simple phrase such as “in all fairness.” In a story, for example, about immigrants forced into indentured servitude in a sweatshop, must a journalist “in all fairness” give voice as well to the person who has economically enslaved these women? When Donald Trump bleats about Muslims or Mexican rapists, must a reporter “in all fairness” allow his spokesperson to rationalize such racist remarks? I once thought so, but I no longer do.

Of those canonical components of traditional journalism, what for me persists is the principle that facts matter more than belief (or opinion, if you will). Underlying this principle is a foundational layer of logic that things are either true or they are not and that the evidence of these truths can be found in facts.

I realize, of course, that the retail value of fact in the realm of politics and much of the rest of public discourse in the U.S. has fallen to nearly zero, but following the advice of my wise mother I am not going to jump off the bridge just because the other kids are doing so. I cling, comfortably, to the notion that facts enable those of us who care about such things to define what is true and what is not.

Here is where my problem lies.

I have come across, quite by accident, perhaps the best story of my journalistic life and I don’t know how to tell it because the facts of the story are not only elusive, but I think they will never be known (at least not to me).

I believe a terrible injustice is being done, but I can’t prove it.

I believe a powerful, politically connected person or persons have pulled enough levers to imprison a woman who less than two years ago was honored by the Dalai Lama for her compassionate work with poor children, but I can’t prove it.

I don’t believe the grave charges that have been compiled against this person and her family, but I can’t prove that what they are accused of doing never happened.

I believe I know the truth in this case, but I can’t prove it.

What is more important: what I believe to be true or what can be defined by the few, verifiable facts that exist, which is very little? Is it more ethical to write about what I believe to be a terrible injustice and risk being proven wrong when someday perhaps more contradictory facts emerge or to stay silent and let others who are more partisan champion her case?

I feel somewhat embarrassed to be even asking these questions because what moral center I’ve managed to keep intact over these years is shouting at me to write what I believe. Countering that cry, though, is the cautious reasoning of my remaining journalistic mind, which argues that anything is possible, that even good people do bad things and that is why stories must be told from the facts rather than from beliefs.

Truthfully, I am not looking to anyone else for an answer. It will come – it has to come – from me. Voicing this dilemma, though, enables me to better parse its components. Stay tuned.

Fort Point, Lost in the Familiar

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A long time ago, when I first studied photography, I wandered the parks and other public spaces of San Francisco carrying a camera loaded with film looking for light and shape. I never made any memorable images, but I enjoyed the capture of the moment and solitude of the experience – and still do.

PhotoStoryOne of my favorite locations – and that of many other would-be art photographers — was Fort Point. It was a wondrous, messy collage of brick walls, stone stairways and long hallways that bisected barracks whose wooden floors and plaster walls were in lovely decay. Light burst into the building through long, tall windows and slithered along the steps of the stairwells. The Fort was thinly staffed and the deep, dark cul-de-sacs of the gun mounts provided ample private space to photograph the texture of the weathered brick or, quite often, the alabaster curves of a girlfriend’s body.

Today, Fort Point is cleaned up. The barracks are refreshed and repaired and host orderly exhibits of past military life. Families hike the stairs and shoot selfies on the roof beneath the yawning maw of the Golden Gate Bridge. Everyone is fully dressed.

Nonetheless, I return when I can, as I did yesterday. After several days of sickness, which overlapped the chaos of Thanksgiving and the return from a difficult trip to Mexico, I sought shelter in the Fort while returning to Marin from SFO, where I had dropped off KT.

I put the new little camera in the bag and walked the along breakwater that connects Chrissy Field to the Fort. As I entered, I dropped a couple of bucks in donation box in the entryway – what a deal, I thought.

Out of the chill wind, I daubed the moisture that these days forms in my eyes from the cold, and saw, to my relief and pleasure, that nothing had changed since I was there about a year ago. The Park Service has managed to upgrade the interior and preserve the exterior. Nicely done. What persists is a sturdy physical link between my ever-lengthening past and my increasingly tenuous present.

Fort Point, like those other photographic haunts of my Kodak-fueled youth – Golden Gate Park, Telegraph Hill, Powell & Market – always ignites a complex set of feelings. With remembrance of innocence comes wistfulness. With recognition of the physical space comes comfort. With the arithmetic of time comes anxiety over the diminishing sum that remains. With the touch of the camera comes anticipation.

It is the latter, above all else, that brings me back to this space beneath the bridge – the physicality of the camera and the instantaneous sense of intimacy it engenders in me. As my right thumb finds its resting spot on the back of the camera, as I feel the weight of the German metal in my hand, as I adjust the lens with the fingers of my left hand and as I point the glass toward a wall or a stairs I’ve photographed many times before, I become lost in the viewfinder. The moment engulfs me and I yield, at last, to its comfort.

Odd, isn’t it, that such a feeling could persist with such strength for all of these years? It draws me back again and again, and I respond, knowing that in those times when I need to find myself I must go  where I can lose myself.