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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.

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Cherry blossom boom

We have now passed the peak week for cherry blossoms in Portland. It is always an amazing sight to behold, up and down the wet side of the Cascades, particularly in cities where arborists and planners have planted cherry trees.

Now that I live in Portland, I take walks that put me in their path. I took these the last week of March 2018 at Reed College, where I attended many years ago. I always remember the blossoms from those years telling me the end of the year was close at hand. They gave me comfort and hope during that time, always.

Testing my new tool, the Panasonic Lumix DC ZS70

(Click on each photograph to see a picture on a separate picture page.)

For many years, most of the pictures I have taken were with my point-and-shoot camera, a Canon. After nearly 10 years with my current point-and-shoot, it was time to retire it. I researched the market and settled on a Panasonic Lumix DC ZS70. It got good grades from online reviewers. The price range worked for me. It also features a Leica lens.

So far, I like it. I thought the panning feature wasn’t tack-sharp, at least without a tripod. The close-ups seem sharp. I thought the 4K video was surprisingly crisp, even on the maximum zoom setting of 720mm (the lens is a 24–720 mm equivalent). The zoom shots, which I do not expect to have great quality, turned out more detailed than I was expecting in my first tests. I plan to use this on my day trips surfing on the Oregon Coast, where I can’t afford to leave expensive gear alone in the car or risk break-ins.

One downside is the raw format file feature isn’t readable with my older version of Lightroom. I’m not going to upgrade my operating system just yet to fix this.

At this point in my life taking pictures, I gravitate more toward visual storytelling than image perfection. You can tell a good story with medium and even low-quality equipment. What matters is your talent, less so having the most expensive glass and brand on the market.

For the record, my favorite camera equipment I use is a Fujifilm X-Pro 1 and a 24mm Leica lens. (Here is a sample of how my images look with it.)

These test shots were all taken on Nov. 17, 2017, near my home in Southeast Portland.

Alaska’s fall colors win the prize, hands down

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I lived six years in Alaska. I loved fall more than any other season. In Anchorage, in southern Alaska, fall came fast and furious, anywhere from early to late August, usually through the first snowfall in mid or late September on the neighboring Chugach Mountains. We called that ominous first snow “Termination Dust.”

The colors astounded me. Blueberry bushes burned fiery red. Birch trees lit up into canopies of shimmering gold. The mountain valleys were colored with splashes of oranges and shades between all three colors.

I had many favorite destinations to hike and climb during the crisp weeks. My favorite short getaway was Eagle River, in Chugach State Park, about 30 miles east from downtown Anchorage. It’s one of the most magnificent valleys with a paved road in North America. I came here frequently, particularly during my first few autumns in the Great Land.

One can take dizzying hikes up the bear-filled valley to an overlook over the Eagle River that sucks one breath away in its dizzying beauty.

These shots all date from outings in September 2005. I still think about my time there this time of year. I do not think I will find a prettier place to spend a cool fall day in the wild, knowing the seasons are changing and the dark winter is about to descend. The colors are nature’s last gasp of brilliance before the cold dark of winter falls.

Remembering Jerusalem on Easter Sunday

I visited Israel and the Occupied Territories in 2004. It was one of the most amazing experiences I can remember. I saw tension, conflict, and beauty in a land that is revered by three monastic faiths and billions of people. Here are a couple of shots I took in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the spot where reportedly Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

Churches made St. Louis great

Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.

St. Louis is one of the greatest cities in the United States for exploring the magnificent architecture of American churches from all Christian denominations. The city’s strong Catholic roots, still powerfully expressed through the Archdiocese of St. Louis, are expressed in the great St. Louis Basilica, but also in other churches, cathedrals, basilicas, and worship halls around the city. Most are still functioning, but some have closed because of the city’s precipitous population loss from nearly 900,000 in 1950 to nearly 300,000 in the 2010 census.

Churches from the Catholic and Protestant strains of Christianity provide testimonials to the city’s confidence in itself, its industry, its people, its future, and its identity that the city may have been favored by their lord and protector. I challenge anyone to give me a greater constellation of churches in an urban area than St. Louis. I’m sure Detroit, Chicago, and maybe New York might offer a good fight.

Here is a sample of four churches I took during my last visit. One, St. Agnes Church, owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis, closed in 1993. It fell victim to the city’s slow and painful decay.

St. Louis, once the kingdom of beers

St. Louis during the 1800s established itself as the epicenter of American brewing, notably of lager style beers. The city became a destination for many German Americans, among them titans of a new American industry: beer production and beer distribution to the masses. These families were dubbed “beer barons.” The early kings were the Lemp family and the Anheuser-Busch dynasty. The prevalence of underground caves in St. Louis made it ideal to ferment suds, which lead to great local fortunes. The Lemp’s fortunes waned in the early 1900s, before being finished for good during Prohibition. The Anheuser-Busch dynasty survived, with Budweiser becoming the so-called “King of Beers.” As a St. Louis area teen, I of course grew up on these pale, not-so-tasty brands.

The Lemp factory site still exists as a historic area in south St. Louis, near the riverfront. Close by is the even larger, and massive, Anheuser-Busch complex. For St. Louisans, beer symbolized one of the few industries that still made the city great through the 20th century. But globalization that also brought the downfall of the city’s industrial sector also led to the downfall of Anheuser-Busch to subsidiary status. In 2008, the Belgium brewing conglomerate InBev borrowed massively and acquired the home of the clydesdales for $52 billion, turning Anheuser-Busch into a junior partners, known now as Anheuser-Busch InBev. The sale brought jeers of “traitor” to billionaire investor Warren Buffet who supported the sale, and short-lived and quickly forgotten protests and yells of, “”Hell, no, Bud won’t go.”

The mighty factory still churns out the mediocre suds that are trucked nationally and globally, but the king is dead. Long live the king.

During my visit in June 2016, I drove by both factories–the old Lemp site, the Anheuser-Busch plant–and even the old Falstaff brewing plant. You still find signs of the glory in the city’s urban, aging taverns. Rome was great, and its mark is everywhere. This is how the beer kingdom’s reach can be seen today, a brick factory and the aging and dying liquor establishments that mark its footprint.

Paying my respect to the Flatirons

Three years ago I rolled into Boulder, Colorado, during a whirlwind cross-country drive from St. Louis to Seattle. I was stunned by how congested and sprawling the Denver metro area had become. However, I found the Flatirons lived up to their reputation. These are the heaps of mountainous granite that jut out of the front range of the Rocky Mountains above the city of Boulder, all accessible from a lovely city park call Chautauqua. The place was packed with locals, out-of-town visitors like me, and climbers. I even saw a hang-glider packing his gear up the hills.

So, if you go to Boulder, carve out half a day. Take a hike. Enjoy the scenery. Get some altitude and say hello to the many nature lovers on the trails. Happy Memorial Day weekend, all.

(Click on the image to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Lafayette Park and Fox Park, endurance and decay

St. Louis’ iconic architecture defines the city’s legacy as a once wealthy and prosperous community, before its decline in the post-World War II years. Freeways smashed through historic neighborhoods, like Fox Park and Lafayette Park,. Today, they provide enduring examples of building styles in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

I spent a morning in Lafayette Park and the Fox and McKinney park neighborhoods. There were signs of decay, reminiscent of Detroit, but no where near that scale of destruction. For me, St. Louis is a place with tightly packed homes on modest lots, built out of brick, and with care and craftsmanship. Even the crumbling apartments retain a quiet grace.

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)