Icons of eastern Oregon

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During the past two months, I have traveled widely in Oregon. I always enjoy an Oregon road trip. The high and wide-open plateaus of north central and eastern Oregon, just before the Blue Mountains, rekindled my love of the open road and empty places.

I made two separate trips: one to Condon, in Gilliam County, and another to Pendleton, in Umatilla County. Gilliam County is bisected by the John Day River, a popular fishing and rafting destination. The landscape is dominated by a high plateau and constant wind, making it an ideal location for massive wind farms that sprout majestically above wheat fields. The county seat, Condon (pop. 682), is a charming community that felt alive and loved by its residents.

Pendleton (pop. 16,682) sits on the Interstate 84 corridor, further to the east, straddling a valley near the start of the Blue Mountains. The community is a true Western town. It is famous for its rodeo, woolen goods, and also whiskey. Nearby Umatilla is also famous for the now decommissioned 20,000-acre Umatilla Chemical Depot, run by the U.S. Army that was home to a massive stockpile of chemical weapons.

Agriculture, along with wind energy, are two major economic drivers in this sparsely populated area of Oregon. Native Americans have lived here for millennia. Pendleton lies within the ancestral lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, whose designs adorn Pendleton’s famous woolen blankets and more. The tribe also runs the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, a major economic resource for the area.

Visually, I was mostly struck by the iconic imagery presented by the grain elevators in both areas, along with the towering wind turbines. The site of large, manmade structures in mostly open spaces has always appealed to my visual sensibilities, wherever I may be.

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Easter 2019, suddenly a day of sadness

It is a sad Easter, not a joyful one that most of us had hoped for. I woke up this morning to the news that more than 200 people in Sri Lanka had been murdered by coordinated terrorist attacks that targeted foreigners at luxury hotels and innocent civilians, Christians, at churches.

This terrible day is one of many that we may soon forget, given such attacks have happened at places of worship so many times in the past 20 years.

The news made me think about what I had heard the night before at an Easter vigil that I attended at a local Episcopal Church. I decided to go because I like the tranquility services provide me. I also like listening to a good sermon that touches on things we are too afraid to talk about outside of places of worship, like the meaning of life and death.

The sermon was delivered by one of the church’s Episcopal priests, a former registered nurse. She must have done palliative care, given what she described as her time spent with patients who were on their final journey in life, with hours to live.

She talked about what happens the last hours of life, when patients make a passage from this world to whatever is in the next. She outlined the changes she would see among some patients in their last hours, when they get ready to let go. She described it as a calm and even a glow. She used these images to compare to how Jesus would have looked after the crucifixion and what Mary Magdalene and Salome were expecting to find in the tomb after seeing a gruesome event—the crucifixion of three persons a day earlier. Leave it to a nurse to focus on the details like this and to make us connect with the thing we fear the most in life, which is the end of life.

No one lost in these incidents in Sri Lanka would have the peace that comes in such end-of-life moments. One of the terrible images we saw on the internet showed blood on a statue of Jesus, while other shots showed the victims, where they died suddenly.

What happened was chaotic and meaningless. Most of us likely would prefer a peaceful passing, and be ready when it comes. In reality, many of us will not pass that way, and for some, the passing is tragic and swift, as we saw for many in Sri Lanka.

I have no pictures that capture the end of life or Sri Lanka. I do have some photos of Israel, where events in the life of Jesus reportedly occurred according to the accounts left in the Bible. Here is one from Jerusalem, a holy city to three faiths and, reportedly, where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. The photo is from the interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, reportedly the place where Jesus was crucified by the Romans and entombed.

Easter is meant to be a day of joy and renewal for hundreds of millions of Christians the world over to celebrate the victory of their savior, Jesus Christ, over death, according to Christian teaching.

This year, Easter has another meaning. There will be no joy for weeks and months to come for far too many.

Remembering Rwanda on a sad anniversary

Today, April 6, 2019, marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. During the 100 days that followed its start, the ruling ethnic Hutu government organized the mass murder of more than 800,000 mostly ethnic minority ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the tiny central Africa nation. The world stood by and largely did nothing.

The war and genocide ended only when a rebel Tutsi army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (aka Rwandan Patriotic Army) defeated the government in a fight to the death that ended the mass murdering. Millions of Rwandan refugees then fled the country, leading to destabilization and civil war in neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the collapse of its dictatorship. Years of bloody war in eastern DRC and beyond followed and continue to this day.

I went to Rwanda three years after the genocide and then left after about three weeks. I succumbed to malaria and realized I could not accomplish my larger goal to report on the ongoing genocide trials. Violent reprisal attacks by Hutu extremists were taking place and the body count was rising. I decided to leave.

After I left, I did two more projects documenting genocide: in Europe, focusing on Nazi crimes, and in Turkey, focusing on Ottoman Empire crimes. After I completed my documentary project on the Armenian genocide, I was interviewed by a descendant of Armenians who fled the Ottoman Empire and survived the Armenian genocide in modern-day Lebanon. My Lebanese-Armenian friend, who did a story about my travels in Turkey to former Armenian communities, asked me why I did my project. This was my reply. I reflected on what I had learned between the time I was in Kigali, Rwanda, and the time I visited former Armenian communities that no longer exist in the fall of 2001:

My primary objective has been to use my camera as a tool to infiltrate the realm of evil. What ways do people express evil, this thing that seems to define the human condition? How do people express it? Why do they do it, and why do other people allow evil to triumph? What do they accomplish, ultimately, through evil?

That’s the nut I’m trying to crack by examining the genocides of the 20th century. If nothing else, this knowledge helps me live my life better. It’s now much easier for me to understand human history and human behavior because the very worst form of human activity, genocide, strips reality to its essentials. In other words, all that is not essential is not really relevant. Some concentration and death camp survivors see the world in these terms. For example, Robert Jay Lifton wrote about the Nazi doctors, and he interviewed an Auschwitz survivor, a dentist forced to pull gold from the teeth of dead prisoners. Lifton described his meeting with the dentist this way: “He looked about the comfortable room in his house with its beautiful view of Haifa, sighed deeply, and said, ‘This world is not this world.’ What I think he meant was that, after Auschwitz, the ordinary rhythms and appearances of life, however innocuous and pleasant, were from the truth of human existence. Underneath those rhythms and appearances lay darkness and menace.”

I left the memories of my genocide documentary projects behind me, though I still have essays on display on my website. I normally don’t think about these photos, but on anniversaries like today’s, I must reflect and, I hope, remember.

All You Need Is Love, Love…Love Is All You Need

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My mother and stepfather were lucky. They met at the right time for both of them to build a life together and find decades of happiness, love, and companionship. Their connection can be seen in pictures I took of them when we could spend time together. I took all these in Alaska in 2005, when we had one of the best possible vacations together, when I was living and working in Anchorage.

My mom looked as happy as I have ever seen her in some of these shots. I particularly love the shot on the ferry deck, in Prince William Sound, just as our ferry was pulling out the Valdez ferry terminal. I remember this ferry ride from Valdez to Cordova, Alaska, as if it was yesterday. Times are different now, so I appreciate these magical moments I was lucky to share with them.

Iditarod Memories

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There is nothing more true to the spirit of Alaska than the “last great race on Earth.” That race is none other than the Iditarod.

This world-famous and celebrated dogsled race, from the interior Alaskan community of Willow to the coastal community of Nome, covers more than 900 miles of Alaska’s backcountry in the freezing winter. Mushers, leading teams from 12 to 16 dogs, compete for mostly glory and cash prizes for the lucky top finishers. That glory is often international media coverage. Japanese and German media frequently make the visit, to name a few.

The race is followed live by dog lovers the world over. Those with deep pockets and plenty of free time fly to Alaska in winter to catch a glimpse of the annual ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage the first Saturday of March, followed by the official start on a frozen lake in Willow. A few of the rich visitors will pay a handsome fee to ride in a dogsled on the ceremonial 11-mile run that starts the race in Anchorage.

Race Origins and this Year’s Contest

The race’s origins are tied to the famous public health emergency in 1925. A diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, required that emergency medical supplies be delivered, and dogsledders made the journey. A statue in downtown Anchorage commemorates that famous event, honoring the lead sled dog, Balto.

Today’s modern Iditarod roughly celebrates that legacy and mostly follows the same difficult route, over mountain ranges, frozen berms, and through Native villages. Joe Redington Sr., an Alaskan musher whose family legacy remains well-known in the Great Land, worked with Dorothy Page to launch the modern race in 1967.

That first race had 57 mushers. This year there will only be 53, down from more than 80 when I saw the race start in person in between 2005 and 2010. The race has come on hard times in recent years due to dog deaths, drug tests, and feuds. Sponsorships likely have dried up to support a profession/passion that is like none other in the world. No musher can afford this sport without sponsors and/or corporate backers. Each musher is an entrepreneur, as well a master of a team of world-class athlete dogs.

The 47th annual running of the race begins at the ceremonial start on March 2, several blocks from where I used to work for six years. I could walk here from my house.

How I Enjoyed the Ceremonial Start Day

While living in Anchorage, I would always catch the race at two places. I would arrive early at downtown, before the dawn broke, to watch the racers and their support crew unload their sleds and dogs early in usually freezing cold conditions in downtown Anchorage. The night before crews of municipal workers would work til the early morning hours hauling in snow from streets normally plowed clear. At this staging area, dogs were kings and queens and mushers were royalty. Everyone, like me, was taking pictures.

I then would head to midtown Anchorage, where a family I knew hosted an annual Knapp’s Crossing Iditarod Party, just outside of the University of Anchorage. The dog teams would run by, the Knapps serenaded them with trumpet songs, and everyone cheered.

The pictures here date from 2007, the year cancer survivor and famous musher Lance Mackey won the race after competing and winning in the earlier Yukon Quest dog race between Fairbanks and Dawson City.

[Ed. note: I updated this post on March 3, 2019, to correct the number of mushers who competed between 1005 and 2010. The correct and revised number, “more than 80,” is listed above.]

Family on my mind

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The past six months have been a challenging time for my family. Things got more challenging over the last three months, and especially last week. I wish I could have been closer to them during these times. My sister is mostly on my mind now. I wrote a tribute to her this week and am thinking of her now. This is the image that captures only part of her, but one that seems the most appropriate at this time.

One of my favorite websites that I have turned to the past year to steady my ship as it sails through stormy waters, like the gales blowing now, is The Daily Stoic, created by author Ryan Holiday. It has been a good friend when the storms brew. Here’s a line he wrote about duty, notably to family, that I am embracing now with the latest challenges facing them: “‘Whatever anyone does or says,’ Marcus wrote, ‘I’m bound to the good…Whatever anyone does or says, I must be what I am and show my true colors.’ He was talking about duty. Duty to his country, to his family, to humankind, to his talents, to the philosophy he had learned. Are you doing yours?”

‘A pair of star-crossed lovers’

 

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Tonight I had a wonderful call with an old friend, who I first met during another chapter in my life.

We have stayed in touch over the years. Talking about our journeys in life, I felt a wonderful affirmation about the importance of friendship and keeping alive the ties that hold us together. That short call left me deeply touched.

So, I dug up these photos I took of my friend and their spouse, who I also have gotten to know. They capture what William Shakespeare famously called “a pair of star-crossed lovers,” but without the tragedy of rival houses in Verona. I took these snapshots in June 2011, when I was living in Seattle and finishing a graduate program, and they had driven to town for a short trip.

I did little to plan for these pictures. All I did was compose the frame. Their warmth and affection did the rest. I have always said, photos never lie.

I am glad to know such great people.

Snow and winter in St. Louis

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If you have not heard, snow and cold have returned to the Midwest causing all manner of havoc. I grew up in St. Louis. I remember it as a city that regularly experienced winter. Cold temperatures and snow were the norm. That is not true anymore.

I mostly left the city in the 1980s, and I have returned repeatedly since to visit family and see the good people I know there. Since that time, with global warming, winters have become milder in the mid-Mississippi Valley. Snow and winter became less predictable.

However, the austere beauty of St. Louis in the winter still excites me visually. I love the contrast of the white snow and the dark, red bricks that were used to build many of the homes, factories, and warehouses.

Here is a sampling of some winter shots from my archive. All of these were taken in south St. Louis, where the city takes on a different winter feel with cold and snow.

Fun fact: The National Candy Company factory building, shown here, is on the National Register of Historic Places and was once the largest candy factory in the United States.

Being Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan meets with a fan at a book signing in Seattle (1999).

“In the pantheon of movie action heroes, there is only one true god, and his name is Jackie Chan.”

The Washington Post, 1998

When I found myself deep in the bush in northern Uganda in June 1997, a 12-hour bus ride from the nearest city, I had one of those memorable conversations that can only happen with people from different cultures and life experiences.

I sat outside of my darkened guest house, under a star-filled sky, talking with a young man. We had just met and were trying to learn what we had in common. We instantly found a shared love: Hong Kong action films starring Jackie Chan.

He couldn’t believe that I knew about the Hong Kong film star, or that I had favorite Chan films and even favorite Chan action sequences. We laughed and formed a memorable, short-lived bond because of the artistry of perhaps the world’s most famous action star and Hong Kong-native, Chan. We both loved him because he spoke a universal language on film that blended action, dance, grace, and physical comedy.

At that time, Chan already was a bona fide celebrity, having made dozens of Hong Kong action films few Americans had ever seen. Those films set the standard for physical comedy, death-defying stunts, and creative genius in a genre I can only describe by calling it Jackie Chan cinema.

My favorite of his actioners is the 1994 classic Drunken Master 2, which assembled some of the most elaborate stunt work I have ever seen.

As with all of Chan’s films, he did his own stunts and racked up countless broken bones and even near-death experiences.

In a Chan film, you can feel the brutality of a fall, the smack of a blunt weapon on the back, and the sweat falling off an actor’s face as a fist cracks their jaw. One of the funnest choreographed set pieces I adore comes from his 2003 Owen Wilson buddy flick set in Victorian England, called Shanghai Knights. In one scene, Chan riffs on Gene Kelly’s graceful dancing, using the Singing in the Rain soundtrack, as he escapes a gang of English ruffians with a deft touch that the great Kelly would adore.

Finally Meeting my Favorite Action Hero in the Flesh

A year after my trip, in 1998, Chan burst into the lives of American filmgoers with his buddy action comedy Rush Hour, co-starring Chris Rock. Since that time, Chan has continued to crank out films at a furious pace, and continued to get injured and trash his body as only Chan can.

In 1999, I finally saw my film icon for my first and only time at a book signing at a Seattle shopping center. That is where I snapped this photograph. There were hundreds of fans, waiting in line to see their beloved action star and have him sign a copy of his semi-autobiographic memoir, I Am Jackie Chan. The intensity of the adoration astounded me. I could suddenly understand why a young man in Uganda felt that personal connection.

To a filmgoer, Chan provides a guaranteed promise of pure cinematic escapism. The plots, outside of his earlier kung fu genre pieces, are flimsy at best. The films mostly provide a vehicle for him to cleverly battle his foes, improvise escapes from impossible closed spaces, experience immense physical pain, and somehow save the little guy. Anyone who sees a Chan film knows that Chan has beat himself up for all of them and is fighting just for them as he gets pummeled by bad guys in all directions, before he manages to limp away and escape.

A Star Is Trained

Chan likely draws from the deep well of his own tough experiences  being born in poverty, in 1954, in gritty and bustling Hong Kong.

A new Chan memoir just came out, Never Grow Up. The co-written tome provides insights into the cruelty of his brutal childhood and teenage apprenticeship and growing up poor in the former British colony. When he was 7 years old, Chan’s parents placed him in the China Drama Academy, a facility that cranked out performers for Peking operas and other popular acrobatic shows. Left by his parents who went to Australia, Chan was signed up for a 10-year “contract” that more resembled old-fashioned indentured servitude.

According to a story about his memoir in The New Republic, his formative years, were stark and brutal: “For ten years, Chan trained all day long, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., with breaks for lunch and dinner. Along with the other boys, he slept on a thin mat, on a carpet encrusted with sweat, spit, and piss. When he misbehaved, he was beaten with canes; when he fell ill, he was told to suck it up and keep practicing his kung fu.”

It was during that time that star we love as Jackie Chan became that Jackie Chan, through the process that only comes from intense study.

The same story notes the China Drama Academy helped blaze the trail for Chan’s success in three ways. It created lifelong friendships with fellow action stars like Sammo Hung, who helped out Chan in his early films and later co-starred with him. It gave him the skills for stunt work and martial arts, which was the currency of the Hong Kong film industry when Chan came of age in the 1970s and later. It also “turned his body into an instrument that could withstand ungodly amounts of pain.”

That pain is nowhere to be found in this picture I snapped above. I remember a feeling of elation that I finally met a man who spoke a universal language that can bring together people around the world, rooting for the underdog, who always manages to escape calamity with cosmic luck, his fast fists, and the will power to win.

The Totems of Ketchikan

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The totem artworks of the first peoples of Southeast Alaska, coastal British Columbia, and western Washington are among the most powerful art forms in the world.

These beautiful creations can be found in the historic communities of the first peoples of these regions, including modern-day Ketchikan, Alaska. The Tlingit and Haida Tribes call this area home, and their cultural, economic, social, and totem art traditions are alive and well, amazing visitors from around the world.

I visited Ketchikan several times during my six-year stay in Alaska from 2004 through 2010, when I worked for the Consulate of Canada, Anchorage.

I had forgotten I had these images until I accidentally found them in an old digital archive. I wanted to bring them out of the shadows and into the light.

These images date from 2007, so the totems since that time have been weathered by the relentless rain and moisture of that beautiful, soggy corner of North America.

If you visit, Ketchikan, by ferry or on the Alaska Marine Highway, you can find the totems at the Clans Totem Circle, at the Totem Heritage Center for historic poles safeguarded in climate-controlled protection, and at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.

To understand the meaning of this intricate artwork, the myths, and the natural world that inspired these magnificent creations, you should first understand the stories of those who created them. Try exploring the stories about Alaska’s Tlingit and Haida peoples.

The official site of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska provides a great resource on the priorities and heritage of the first people’s of Southeast Alaska. I hope you get a chance to visit Ketchikan and the other communities where these cultural traditions continue to thrive.