Agonizing Affections

Agonizing Affections

 

For my first Terra Cultura blog entry, I wanted to share some new and very personal work with you. I chose these photographs because I think they resonate with our ethos, which is a turn back to the real: real food, real people, real talk about survival. We are facing a crisis in our everyday lives, and it is both a crisis of means and a crisis of feeling. Economic inequality and climate change are things you can chart on a graph, but with each day that passes, our smiles grow flatter, our laughter more shallow, our minds more distant from our bodies and from each other. This almost imperceptible motion flirts with fantasy, but make no mistake, it is happening. We know this because we live it. I want to build a more just world, and I also want to work towards a sustainable model of emotion where our happiness and our enjoyment are not perpetually waning. These two things are connected, and they come together in our efforts to build community. Emma Goldman may have said “it’s not my revolution if I can’t dance.” If she didn’t, it’s a great line anyway. These photographs are an attempt to get back to the real, but they’re also an attempt, on two shaky legs, to build community through looking, to think about how we mourn, and also how we come together. Photography is one place we can go to start rebuilding our lives. I know, I did it.

 

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I spent most of last summer traveling. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was deep in mourning. My life had taken an abrupt turn, and what was once solid ground had vanished beneath me. I buried the books where my future had been written. I put the rest of my things in storage, I moved out of my house, and I left California. I wanted to go somewhere without dust or wildfires. I wanted to feel something familiar, and I wanted everything to be different. I wanted to feel the same way over and over and, like William Carlos Williams, I wanted to begin again. So of course the first place I went was home.

 

I began my trip in New York. I stayed with my sister in Bushwick for a week, taking day trips to visit my parents in Westchester. My father’s Parkinson’s disease had worsened, and spending a casual night at home was no longer an option. Excruciating pain made him unable to sleep in bed, so he slept on the couch. But truth be told, he barely did any sleeping. The last time I was home in March this had already become clear. That visit, whenever I got up to pee in the middle of the night, his eyes were always open, silently watching me. At other times, he would scream in pain for hours on end, unable to find a comfortable position, then he called for my mother to get him up and take him to the bathroom. I stuffed my ears with tissues. Then I couldn’t take it anymore.

 

 

One of the first pictures I made was on my way home to see my parents from my sister’s house. It shows a mother bending down to tie her son’s shoes on the front stoop of her apartment. The son is looking down at her. His hair is freshly parted. Neither of them notice that I am there. The boy’s sister is standing behind him. She is the only one looking at the camera. Her hair is covering half of her face. This photo is empathetic: it asks us to identify with the son, both too young and too old, and the mother, who is overbearing but sweet to her boy. But it also asks us to sit with the shame the sister, which is the shame that we all feel about our families in public, and to experience that discomfort together.

 

I stayed in Brooklyn for a week. The day before I left New York, I discovered a hard lump on one of my testicles while I was taking a shower. I did what any level-headed man would do: I started drinking. The next day I woke up in media res to a wicked panic attack and a pounding hangover. I went to the City MD on 23rd street to get checked out. The doctor was concerned, so she ordered an expedited ultrasound. The ultrasound tech could barely look me in the eyes. Afterward the procedure, I walked down Fifth Avenue in a haze. In the subway, I began to sink into the floor. When I got above ground at Dekalb, I got a call from the doctor. The ultrasound came back negative, the lump wasn’t cancerous. As to whether or not I could have children, well, I wouldn’t be able to find that out until I got back from my trip.

 

 

As I walked to my sister’s to pack my things, I made a new picture: two little girls playing in front of a laundromat, and the big washing machines looming in the background, behind the clear glass of the front window. I had thought about having children nearly every day for the past two years. Now, newly single and with a questionable testicle, these children made me profoundly sad, reminding me of what I had lost, the centrifuge of melancholia. Looking back on it now, I can’t help but focus on the girl’s smile in the middle of the frame. Though I was obsessed with what I had lost, the photo testifies instead to what I gained: this gleeful connection with another human. At that moment, I was stuck in my own thoughts, but in trying to make sense of my surroundings, I had begun to think about a future time outside of mourning, when I would be able to laugh and dream again. Trapped in the clutches of sadness, I was already moving on.

The first pictures I took in Iceland were at a place called Berserkjahraun. According to the Eyrbyggia saga, this area, in the far western corner of the island, near the glacier Snæfellsjökull, was the site where two Berserkers, hulking laborers from Sweden, were murdered by a farmer. I was piloting a two person camper through western Iceland, and so far most of my trip had been focused on relaxation, stopping by community pools here and there for a soak. My camper wasn’t rated to drive along the steep gravel and dirt roads that ran through Berserkjahraun, but I opted to anyway, the legend of the trolls that lived there was too irresistible.

 

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I photographed countless extraterrestrial lava flows, dark volcanic masses with emerald green moss collected like the electric dust from nuclear fallout. On my way out of Berserkjahraun, I snapped this photo, which is the one that sticks with me from that day, of a desolate looking mound. Yet, for me the image of desolation is not complete. Instead of being closed off to life, the picture offers different possibilities for looking. How do the patterns of lichen organize our vision? Where does the well-worn path on the left side lead? The image asks us to think about how we look, and what we typically are looking for in a picture. The complexity of the barren image keeps my eyes moving continuously across it. I want to see the mound as a whole, but I find it impossible, so I begin again…

 

 

In Reykjavík I met up with a colleague at the University who I collaborated with on a small piece of writing about the Icelandic revolution in 2010. We had a beer on a terrace looking out over the city, and he asked me if I had heard about the Presidential election. I said no. He explained that the President of Iceland was much like the Queen of England, not much power compared to the Prime Minister. But the guy who was supposed to win was a friend of his, a historian at the University, and he said given my interest in Icelandic politics, I should go to the campaign headquarters and check it out. The election was the next day.

I headed out in the icy June morning, walking west from the city center. The headquarters was not far, and to my surprise it was a hole in the wall in a strip mall next to a used car dealership. An aid greeted me at the door, and I explained that my friend Jón had sent me, and I was wondering if I could meet Guðni Jóhannesson. The headquarters was small, and mostly full of women (who I was later told were in the President’s family) bustling around, making sure everyone had enough to eat and drink. It felt like coffee hour after church. Guðni was deep in conversation with a few serious constituents, but by this point, the aid told me, it had become clear that he was going to win. A moment later, I was standing in front of him, and he had a confused look on his face. I said something to the effect of congratulations Mr. President, and he said it’s not over yet, and I chuckled. There was a moment of awkward silence. Then I asked him if we could take a selfie. He thought about it for a moment. Then he said to me, “President Obama takes sefies, yes?” I nodded. “Sure, let’s do it.”

Unfortunately, that photo didn’t turn out. There’s one on my Instagram feed that looks great, but it’s not a part of this black and white series. So the photo I chose was a portrait someone made of Guðni during his campaign, hanging in the corner of the room, in the kids area, above the toys.

 

 

I was also in Iceland for the historic European Championships football match against England. I watched the game downtown with thousands of other Icelanders. Famously, 10% of the country had left to watch the game live in France. If I had to guess, I would say another 40% of the country was out in the streets. The game was a tense back and forth affair. I captured a moment of nail-biting agony at the half, when Iceland was up 2-1 and struggling to keep the lead. The image ties us to several moments at once: anxiety, teen love, boredom, and the interminable feeling of standing in a crowd. There are other intangibles that you can’t possibly see in the photo. For example, it was past 11pm, and the sun was still out overhead. The girl with cornrows is wrapped in the Icelandic flag, and there was a child sitting at the feet of the girl in the foreground. It’s always fascinating to me what my photos capture and what they leave out. We can only learn so much from looking; the rest must come from being together in the flesh.

 

 

And then it was time to leave Iceland. Next I made my way to Spain, then eastern Europe, and that is a story for another photo essay. But before I left, I snapped this photo in the airport of a young boy with his eyes closed, silhouetted against a porthole that opened onto the tarmac. The words floating above him read: “I believe in the life of the grasses and spring without end.” Mourning my own loss as I was, I’m amazed to see how much intimacy I shared with total strangers. In my life as a scholar, I’m writing about Walt Whitman’s poetry, and his words come fluttering back to me now. In “Song of the Open Road,” he writes: “Here is adhesiveness–it is not previously fashioned–it is apropos; Do you know what it is, as you pass, to be loved by strangers? Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls?” In our most desolate moments, photography can teach us how to look lovingly at one another. This I know. But after that, it is up to us to carry out with our actions and our words the intentions that began in our eyes.

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