Photographing Loss

BlogHer Original Post

“Ah, another Mass Destruction Family Tour. It’ll be just like old times.”

--My brother, Robert

Post-Hurricane Katrina, the world tried to digest scores of raw images of the devastating aftermath. A few months later, I headed down to the Gulf Coast to investigate for myself – seeing is believing, as they say.

My sister-in-law drove me up and down that reeling Mississippi coastline and, thanks to her quick braking reflexes and sudden U-turn abilities (“Wait! Stop! Go back! I need that boat in the tree!”), I, along with many other folks, tried to document Mississippi’s ghastly situation. Though I was on a noble mission (the national media focused almost entirely on New Orleans) I couldn’t shake a distinct vulturous feeling.

Fast-forward to this past Thanksgiving weekend. My tribe and I headed to the little mountain town of Green Valley Lake to see how the family cabin survived the recent Slide Fire. Nestled in Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains, GVL is often overlooked as others head to Big Bear or Lake Arrowhead, which is just how we like it.

Purchased in 1958 for a whopping $5800, our wee brown cabin survived but much of the town was in ruins. Once again, I brought out the camera to document and once again, I felt a shudder of shame. Seemingly, I have all the urges of photojournalist but perhaps, not the spine.

I felt particularly guilty photographing a group of neighbors sifting through the ash, helping one family find evidence of their former lives. Was it fair to photograph what was obviously a difficult time? I tried to keep my distance and not focus on faces, just the overall scene.

We’d spoken to the homeowner who talked about losing his four-story home that he’d raised his family in for the last 40 years. Ironically, he and his wife were soon leaving for a European vacation that they’d purchased long ago. “Sure, we’ll go explore another continent but when we get back, we’ll be homeless,” he said, his eyes tearing up. He shook his head, hardly believing that the word applied to him.

I know there are photographers who can capture the human experience at all stages but I am still quite shy at times – especially when the moment feels too intimate or too private. Having a human look into your camera is asking them to be vulnerable to your interpretations and that is an awful lot of power.

A great photographer has to possess calm confidence and, to a larger extent, kindness in order to have their subjects stand emotionally naked before them. The Native American belief, that being photographed steals one’s soul, suddenly makes clear sense to me in these situations.

Standing in the road, shooting the remains of a home, a woman headed toward me. She was a local and I prepared to deliver my lame apology in the form of an explanation. I started to sputter, “Hi. I hope you don’t mind, I was just wanting to show my friends who care about this place and what happened here and- ….” But she cut me off with some tips: “I was just going to tell you that you can get a much better angle down the road. Three remaining fireplaces in a row – a great shot. Also, if you keep going, there’s another scene you’ll want to get ….” No apology needed, apparently.

What would you do if a baby coyote were deposited on your doorstep? If you’re writer/photographer Shreve Stockton, you’d raise it and more importantly, you’d blog about it.

Shreve promptly named the 10-day-old ball of fur “Charlie” and began documenting his progress and relationship with Shreve, not to mention, the orange tom cat, Eli. Shreve’s photographs and observations will make you fall in love with Charlie and the idea that we humans can give back to Mama Nature, sometimes, when we’re not even trying.

“From the beginning, I have made the commitment to let Charlie decide his destiny; to do right by him without attaching my own desires to the outcome or interfering with human logic. You can join me in seeing what unfolds.”

--Shreve Stockton

So, if you haven’t already, do visit Daily Coyote and prepare to be charmed. And while you’re at it, check out Shreve’s other blog, Vespa Vagabond, chronicling her three-month cross-country adventure on a Vespa. As one gas station cowboy said to her: "If it weren't impolite, I'd say that takes baaalllls.”

Attention: I’m recruiting a Special Field Agent to check out The George Eastman House, the 50-room mansion in Rochester, New York where Eastman lived with his mother. The opulent building now houses The International Museum of Photography and Film and stands as a “three-dimensional biography” of Eastman and his life’s passion. Eastman was primarily responsible for sparking a boom in amateur photography by creating the ‘Brownie’ cameras, which sold for $1 from 1904-1916. (Oh, how I would LOVE to get my grubby mitts on one of those.) The museum houses 25,000 of photographic technology, including one of the first movie cameras. Squeal! Any takers?

For those who keep a close eye on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her hairdo, there is no source greater than Princess Sparkle Pony. Written by some clever dude in DC, the persona (just the ‘About Me’ photo alone is worth a visit) is described thus: “Princess Sparkle Pony is a gorgeous, glittering Princess Pony with molded decorations and sparkling hair. Her body is pink and is adorned with fine, multicolored glitter.”

The telling photos, taken straight from the media, along with biting commentary, provide a safe pink window on the life of gal-about-world, Condi Rice. One of my favorite recent headlines: “NATOlicious.”

Anyone who has ever been to Spain longs to return. When I visited in 1990, I was completely charmed by its architectural beauty and art-loving atmosphere. Resident photographer Carlos Lorenza has created a Barcelona Photoblog in tribute. He illustrate his city with flair by showing “images of a modern city, combined with personal style” while inviting site visitors to “travel to Barcelona through my camera, know more about my city and towns nearby.” Gladly.

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