The power is with the people

Joy is subversive. Joy is an essential ingredient in sustaining a successful social justice movement. I know I am supposed to feel joy right now, but I don’t. Fleeting relief might be a more accurate description.

Country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell most accurately described my feelings in his clever tweet last Saturday: “America just got dropped off at rehab.”

The recovery process is difficult, brutally introspective, exhausting – and I would not call it fun. There’s a saying my substance abuse instructor says every class: “Recovery isn’t for people who need it, it’s for people who want it.” And America has got to want it. We have to be willing to heal ourselves and defend each other. The road to reckoning with our nation’s past is long, and it will require authentic humility and sacrifice.

These images were taken from a ‘Defend Democracy’ demonstration (hosted by Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment) downtown LA last Saturday, only a few hours after the Presidential race was called in Biden’s favor. The event felt like place to come together and connect with other human beings in a world that’s been devoid of real human connection for more than 8 months. The full spectrum of leftist politics was on display.

All power to the people.

Soul discovery via self-portraiture

I’ve spent the majority of my life hating myself. It’s not like one thing happened that changed me forever, but rather a thousand tiny things happened  and the pain compounded over time.  This year, in all of its unprecedented isolation, has gifted with me with ample time to heal. I got sober (245 days ago, as I write this), started meditating daily, got a therapist, started a vegetarian diet, and fell in love with yoga again. Before the global pandemic, I did not think I deserved any of these things. Why? I don’t know, exactly. 

I’ve really fought self-portraiture as a genre since sometime after age 12 or 13, when I took photos for MySpace. Perhaps some of you know what I mean when I say: if you hate yourself, you don’t want to be yourself, and if you don’t want to be yourself then you certainly don’t want to see yourself.

It makes sense, then, that starting in my early 20s I decided I wanted to make work about other people. I made work about people who seemed so *unlike* me that I had to use an artistic process to understand what it meant to be human on planet earth.  And I still think there’s value in that. But what started happening was a slow erasure of the self. In lieu of living my own life, I chose to spend my time watching other people live their’s.  

There’s a particularly damaging line of thought that I internalized as a photojournalist and later as a documentary photographer: “Act like you’re not there. Disappear. Be a fly on the wall.” I applied this notion to all of my work for at least six years. Eventually I applied this *watch me disappear!* tactic to all aspects of ‘my’ life.

But that’s changing. I’m here, I’m alive, I’m well, and I have a bunch of camera stuff that I can use to prove it. It took until October for me to want to be in front of the camera and explore who I am not just on the inside, but what that looks like on the outside too. It was a transcendental experience akin to psychedelic drugs. Yes folks, art is a mind-altering drug.

Diversifying my artistic practice with still life and self-portraiture has allowed me to find my soul again. Sunny is just who you’d think she’d be (given her name): warm, fun, welcoming, compassionate and sometimes intense.  This week, I’m starting a substance abuse counseling program with the hopes of helping other addicts understand the power of art and healing. Because it’s not that I think art can save your life, I know it can.

PRAY FOR OUR NATION: Notes from Route 66

I do not pray, I do not practice any religion, but I do meditate daily. I’ve found the notion of a ‘higher power’ to be helpful in staying sober (today is day 203). So I guess it makes sense that when I got my film back from the lab last week, I found a lot of religious and spiritual symbols in my photos.

Somewhere in southern New Mexico.

Somewhere in southern New Mexico.

Brian and Disco outside of Effingham, Illinois.

Abandoned motel in east New Mexico.

I don’t know a lot about Christianity, but the symbols scattered across I-40 lead me to think it’s something that feels compelled to assert itself.  I plan to photograph and understand organized religion - which I think I was already doing here, subconsciously - when we make it through this pandemic.

Given COVID, I didn’t feel comfortable approaching strangers and having faith-based conversations, and yet, some interactions on the road were inevitable. 

The front-desk person at the Springfield motel was a Q-Anon conspiracy theorist, and after he took my ID for check-in, he asked how I felt about Tom Hanks running a pedophile ring out of Hollywood. Then he said we should kill all pedophiles and showed me the tattoo he’d gotten that day on his forearm: the archangel Gabriel.

A woman at the Motel 6 in Flagstaff nursing a 40 introduced me to her German Shepherd which was allegedly trained by the FBI (I believe her). A motel manager let me pay in cash and was absolutely shocked into silence upon discovering that she and I drive the same car.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the trip was experiencing the tension surrounding wearing a face mask in America right now. I look forward to reading some think-piece years from now that explores the complexities of American behavior during a pandemic. The polarity is difficult for me to process. Wearing a mask upset a lot of people in gas stations and rest stops. People’s choice to forgo wearing a mask, in turn, upset me.

Barstow, California.

Leather-smelling air freshener.

Somewhere in Texas.

Bathroom in Catoosa, Oklahoma.

This trip was irritating and unconventional, however, I still came back to California feeling renewed. Maybe I felt a little bit happy? This nation is wild, colorful, unfair, funny, beautiful, ugly, and home. Nothing is all good or all bad, and this realization brings me great relief. 

Using Format