Documentary Photography

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.]

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.

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.

Reliving my past dark days

 

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Halloween is approaching. I have never been a fan of this holiday.

Perhaps I don’t like it because I feel during my life I had enough real-life scares and unsavory characters to make a holiday that makes light of horror seem absurd. Or maybe I just don’t feel the spirit to dress up and change my identity to escape from my reality. It could be that too. I have been this way most of my life, and it is OK.

With the holiday approaching, I was thinking about a real place that was my personal place of unpleasantness. That would be Huntington, West Virginia, and Chesapeake, Ohio, just across the Ohio River.

This region, on the edge Appalachia, remains trapped in intergenerational poverty. Huntington today is as impoverished as it was in the years I spent there, periodically, in the 1970s. The city today has a poverty rate of a whopping 30 percent, with median income just below $30,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It feels as if good times have still never come.

I came here for years after my parents divorced, spending weeks at a time. My sister and I would visit my father, who lived in Huntington and then across the river in Chesapeake. Those are not pleasant memories for me. I briefly describe them in my memoir, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, which I published in May this year.

All of the places captured in these pictures have a special meaning for me. They are part of my memory of unhappy times, when I had to get tougher than I thought I was, and do that much quicker than I thought I could. I came back here in 2015, in order to revisit those many swirling memories as I wrote my memoir that tracks my life through bad times and good.

So to honor this holiday, with tens of thousands if not more drunken revelers cross dressing, wearing zombie outfits, play acting as if they were cast members of fantasy shows, or perhaps becoming something fun even, I give tribute to All Saints Day on the Catholic Calendar and Día de los Muertos on the Mexican calendar. Here are some black and white shots, from 2105, reflecting on that time when I confronted those things that frightened me and likely should have beaten and broke me.

Read my book and learn how well things came out in the end. Trust me, I did well when one measures success and fulfillment in the span of one’s lifetime. You can order my book today and learn how I did it.

The landmarks and urban landscape of South St. Louis

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During my last trip to St. Louis this month, I did not find time to do as many photo trips in the city as I had planned. Because my activities took me between south St. Louis County and University City, I limited my picture-taking to neighborhoods of South St. Louis.

St. Louis, as long as I have been alive, has been one of the most divided cities by race I have ever seen. There is a long history of redlining, federally supported programs like the Interstate Highway System, and private lending practices that have contributed to entrenched racism in how residents of this great city have been segregated.

Historically, the north side of St. Louis, north of Delmar, has been the home of the majority of African-American residents. South of Delmar and south of Forest Park, one finds a larger concentration of white residents. Neighborhoods like the traditionally Irish neighborhood of Dogtown or the Italian-American neighborhood of The Hill are two of the more famous areas in South St. Louis.

University of Iowa history professor Colin Gordon’s masterful book on the racial and economic history of St. Louis, Mapping Decline, provides an in-depth look at this history and its legacy that is now visible throughout this fallen American metropolis that I still love. (You can see his maps of these racial divisions here.)

These photos have no central theme other than highlighting noticeable landmarks, including the former St. Louis County Insane Asylum, also called the Missouri State Hospital, which housed the institutionalized mentally ill. I also found an array of small businesses, my favorite frozen custard shop in the universe called Ted Drewes, some landmark bars, and the brilliant Turtle Playground (known also as Turtle Park), which sits across Highway 40 from the St. Louis Zoo.

While taking these photos, I met a property manager and groundskeeper by the major mental health facility that sits on the highest point of land in the city. She asked me what I was doing. We had a great conversation how she constantly sees photographers coming to properties she cares for, taking pictures of decay. She said she didn’t understand why they kept coming. I laughed. I told her that I loved St. Louis and felt attached to its fate. I told her I took pictures because every building and every business had a story, about people and a community that are worth remembering. I think she appreciated learning my passion. We are now connected. That is the power of telling a story.