Documentary Photography

And so a year passes

A year has passed since my mom died from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an illness that will crush and humble most mere mortals, and even the brave and the strong.

I had been awaiting for this day, contemplating its meaning as it got closer and then arrived.

The markers of time the past year have been unlike anything I can remember.

Collectively we have lived through a global pandemic, which was just taking off right after I flew home. The United States’ imperfect democracy nearly collapsed under the continued assault by Donald Trump and his fascist enablers. Wildfires engulfed my state, and I worked through that for weeks as part of the state’s response. Now I find myself working on the state’s pandemic response, never slowing down.

I am relieved my mother is no longer suffering, nor her husband (my stepfather).

I feel like I have changed too. Luckily my solace has been the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

At the ceremony of life for my late mom, on Feb. 11, 2020, the church choir and musicians performed Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (from Cantata 147).

It was if Bach was speaking to my heart across time and space and said: Peace had come. Her journey had ended. All would be fine. I listened again to this piece over the weekend, and it brought great comfort. Bach’s music has let me say farewell.

Eleven Months in and 2 Million Lives Lost

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This week, the world reached a grim milestone since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan China in early 2020. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center reported the global death count from the pandemic had topped 2 million, and was growing daily.

Some days I feel like I have awoken in an alternate reality, seeing mothers walking by, wearing face masks and pushing baby strollers, like I did this morning. It was jarring. I never thought I would experience this, though I always deeply sensed something like this might happen.

I felt that uneasy feeling of disconnect just after the start of the new year in Portland’s Lloyd Center district. I had come there to visit a dentist around noon.

Ordinarily, the business and retail area on the city’s east side would be filled with people, particularly on their lunch hour. Instead it was eerily silent and devoid almost entirely of the site and sound of humans.

I stopped to spin around in a circle, and realized I was alone. We had already retreated, globally, to the safety of closed spaces, eschewing contact, to avoid catching the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

I took a few shots of empty urban spaces of my cellphone, to capture that moment. Looking at the photos now, they look and feel disquieting, just like the scene outside my window of the mother and children, masked out of fear and caution.

Swimming Is Silenced

 

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I live about a half mile from the Sellwood Outdoor Pool. It’s a public swimming pool located in Portland, Oregon’s Sellwood Park that is loved almost to death by its patrons.

During a normal summer, it would be filled to capacity with screaming kids and their parents, many who are lower income, as public pools remain one of the most affordable ways to entertain kids and keep them healthy in Portland and most U.S. cities.

On a typical summer night, I used to pass by the pool and hear the kids’ yells, screams, shouts, and general pool noises kids make when they were being themselves in water. But not this summer.

The City of Portland, like nearly all major cities in the country, shuttered its public pools in the spring to prevent congregant spreading of COVID-19. This decision makes public health and human health sense. From the perspective of physical, social, and mental health, it represents a cruel outcome of the mismanaged national response that leads all the way to the situation room with President Donald Trump as the one who helped make our country’s pandemic the most lethal and worst managed in the world.

We are heading into Labor Day Weekend now. In normal times, the pool would still be open in the evenings and all weekend, particularly with temperatures predicted to be hotter than 90 Fahrenheit through Labor Day. The kids will have to find something else to do this year, and they will lose the chance to be kids and learn how to swim.

Closed pools and closed schools are taking on an air of dystopian reality, which we have seen created in unnerving films like Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 thriller Children of Men, where a strange disease had rendered humanity sterile, leading to all schools being shuttered because they no longer served any purpose. Oddly that film’s tension, pitting radical leftists fighting a right wing autocracy, seem to have predicted the spectacle in Portland. The people in the film even resemble the protesters here and the police forces that have engaged them in Portland for more than three months.

I am not fully confident we will be out of this pandemic by next summer. Even with the optimistic timelines given by the United States’ more credible infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, returning to normal is no guarantee by next summer. Right now I do not believe the pool will open next summer.

For me, the posted sign by Portland Parks and Recreation is another naïve promise that we will get back to normal, when everything going on now is entirely abnormal. The professed optimism almost seems insulting with the silence.

A poem and photo about marriage and Alzheimer’s disease

This week marks the six-month anniversary of my mother’s death from Alzheimer’s disease.

I can hardly believe how quickly time has passed, amid the blur of a global pandemic and President Donald Trump’s ongoing catastrophic administration that seems to poison everything around it.

Still, our own lives go on, and each of us marks the passage of time in our own way.

My stepfather shared a poem he had written this week, marking another marker of time. On the occasion of the 38th anniversary of his marriage to my mom, back in August 1983, in University City, Missouri, he sent out his poem to some family members and others about his life as my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease caregiver.

I felt a huge lump in my throat reading this. Those seven years when my mom progressed from mild to severe conditions were unbelievably hard. He did everything in his power to ensure my mom stayed home and was loved. I have no words to describe my gratitude, even when some days it felt strained. He did all of the hard work. I can never repay him.

He gave me permission to share the poem online. I’m doing that today. I guess my mom is still on my mind. I am still missing her. This will take more time.

She Never Complains    

Years go by, years, not months.
It’s true that she becomes a child,
A little one, unable to care

For herself. If you love her,
Care for her, she will love you
In return, hold to you as her

Only one. You are. She knows
Her friends no longer call
Or visit. She will do anything,

Say anything she thinks will
Keep you from deserting her,
Though she knows a day is coming

When you must, can no longer
Care for her, and there is
Absolutely nothing you can do.

Years pass. Years. You become
Accustomed to her gradual
Decline, forget there is an end,

One day notice she no longer
Watches television, wants her
Daily walks, would rather sleep.

One day you realize she is blind,
Almost deaf, and your life
Together has neared its end.

You know. She knows, never
Complains. Soon you must live
Alone. She understands.

Group portraits in black and white

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It has been years since I have been in a black and white darkroom, using chemistry to develop film and prints. I miss the intensity and joy of that process and the work that is needed to take lasting black and white photo portraits.

This week I was digging through my boxes of old prints and found a couple that I gave to a friend, who is featured in one of these two group shots. One is of his extended family who I have known for decades now. The second is of my friend in Vietnam, with his public health colleagues in Hanoi.

The warmth I find in a black and white group portrait, taken on film, can’t be replaced by digital. Digital may provide a level of sharpness and clarity, and simplicity. It still lacks the feeling I always experienced seeing my prints slowly emerge in the developer bath under the safe light of a darkroom, reeking of chemicals.. More than 15 years after I took these shots, I still feel that emotion.

Take a good look and describe what you see

Faces are amazing tapestries on which we paint our reality for the world to see.

Yes, many wear masks. Some are so clever, they can deceive others and eventually themselves, and their faces become a testament to their character of falsehoods and lies.

Fortunately for most of us, we show a lot about our life, our struggles, our joys, and our character in the tableaux we show to others.

I have been taking portraits for decades, always looking at the face as my window to the soul of others.

On occasion I take selfies to look at myself and my world at the moment I click the shutter.

I took these shots over a three-week period. During that time, I visited my mom, who was ending her seven-year journey battling Alzheimer’s.

I came to be with her and say goodbye to her in late January 2020. That visit was impossibly hard, and my look captured my sentiments being with her at her extended care facility, when I knew the end was not far away. That is shot No. 1.

The second picture is a selfie I took at the St. Louis Art Museum, a place we came for decades, even as she was slowly succumbing to this horrible disease. We still could find joy and beauty in this great palace of art. Picture No. 2 is from a place we stood many times together the same day of my mom’s funeral in mid-February 2020.

The last picture, three days after the funeral shows me after my trip to St. Louis was ending. I was sitting in a daze on the Portland MAX train, completing a ritual I had done for seven years, going to visit my sick mom and then coming back, not knowing how many more trips I would have to take. This time felt totally different. I felt the weight of my mom’s passing and a sense of both relief and sadness realizing this long chapter had come to an end with the only way that it could.

Leucadia Memories

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In September 2014, and quite by accident, I found myself in the mostly high-end Encinitas, California neighborhood of Leucadia during an eventful visit to San Diego. The trip was pivotal in my lifelong quest to know my biological kin and then write a book about the decades-long journey.

Leucadia played a small part in that adventure.

The community lies in north San Diego County, along the Pacific Ocean and in the hill just above the waterfront. An Amtrak rail line runs through the community, connecting San Diego with Los Angeles.

I found the people to be friendly and the surf shops, coffee shops, and eateries very laid back. People looked prettier than average, but in San Diego, I discovered that was common too.

One website called it: “Eclectic. Funky. Hip. Happening.” The same article went on to describe houses selling for north of $1 million. To me, that’s far from funky. But the community is unquestionably cool.

I came here looking for a hotel that was close to the ocean, yet far from the city. This was the perfect spot. I immediately fell in love with its mellow vibe. It was a perfect place to launch my beach runs and hang out in the local cafes.

I came back again in 2016, this time to try surfing, take a quick holiday from Portland, and work on my then draft memoir. The place felt mostly the same, except a restaurant had closed and a new brewpub had opened.

In another life, one where I had great financial success, I could see myself here, for at least a couple of years. In my case, I had to settle for two short stays that are now fading away.

Here are a few shots from those fun visits.

Happy Canada Day!

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I spent eight and a half years of my professional life working for the Government of Canada, for its Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now called Global Affairs Canada). I did that as a U.S. citizen, working for the Consulate General of Canada in Seattle and then for the Consulate of Canada, Anchorage. I enjoyed every minute of that experience, serving the Canadian people and helping build better relations between the peoples separated by the world’s longest and most peaceful border.

Tomorrow, on July 1, Canadians the world over and through that “blessed land” celebrate the confederation in 1867, known today as Canada Day. It’s a joyful time, and Canadians I know celebrate it traveling, with friends and family, and often in Canada’s beautiful outdoors.

To all of the Canadians I know and never met, thanks for providing me the wonderful opportunity to have visited your country, work for your country, and celebrate its values and traditions that remain a pillar of openness, democracy, and freedom the world over.

I took this photo during one of my many trips to Ottawa, when I worked for Canada. I positioned myself on Wellington Street, looking northwest on Parliament Hill to the Eternal Flame and the Parliament Building, the seat of Canada’s national government. If you ever get a chance to visit Ontario, add Ottawa it to your list. It is a beautiful city, and this building is among the finest I have ever toured.

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.

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.]