One of the many benefits I enjoy as a professional photographer is the opportunity to observe and record people and cultures beyond my immediate sphere. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do shoots and exhibit in locations all across our planet.
I was recently on assignment in West Africa to tell the story of the people, culture, and environment of the area. This image of the more than 2,600 images taken while shooting throughout the region shows a part of my journey made in Senegal.
As an artist, my intent when photographing cultures is to free myself of preconceived notions of what I have been conditioned to expect, of prejudices I may have developed, and of the thoughts of images I preplan in my mind’s eye. I attempt to see as a child, being as open as I can, to respond in an honest way to the flood of images I encounter. My job is to share that truth in a way that is clear to the viewer who doesn’t have the opportunity to experience it.
It inspires my imagination.
It abducts, slowly, my soul
Seal away my enslavement.
Veil, malevolent logic.
nonetheless, it sparks my imagination.
i whimper, as my soul is desecrated into ash.
Yet, still it snatches my imagination.
Seal away, the temptation…
deliver me from evil…
Jerry Park May, 2015
I can’t say it had been a great day. A good one, yes, but it had included an exploding rear window on the rental car and a lot of fairly bland miles to go along with a couple of keeper images from an old Army fort near Port Townsend. At any rate, Robert and I had reached that halcyon moment near the end of the day where we pull a chair from the motel room out onto the walkway, pour a couple of stiff ones (which no matter how stiff never seem to come out even and must be periodically amended), light up a stogie and recall our meanderings, past adventures, and other stories that we’ve told a hundred times before. Encouraged by that fair amber lubricant from the wee island nation, tales that never fail to draw guffaws and admiration from the audience of one at just the right places.
We sat facing the side street that dead-ended 50 yards to our right at a bluff overlooking the village of Port Angeles and it’s expansive waterfront. In the distance, barely discernible, lay the rugged coastline of the province of British Columbia. Occasionally, a pedestrian would stroll by toward the observation deck and the zigzagging steps that transversed the cliffside down to the sidewalks below.
We have found ourselves to grow friendlier and friendlier as our ritual proceeds during these sweet evening hours, and we engaged in jovial conversation with the grandmother staying in the room next door, who was enjoying a visit with her local daughter and numerous skittering offspring. After a while another mother walked slowly by, pushing her youngest in a stroller, her other three toddlers criss-crossing in front and back of the ambling procession. The kids were surprisingly quiet, almost subdued. I decided I would work my dependable charm on the tribe and rose to go enliven their world. As I neared the quintet, they froze in place and stared weakly at me in a sort of docile surrender to whatever I was about to do. I smiled and chatted out stereotypical banalities as I glanced from face to face. Still no bounce back, no upturning mouth corners. Except the mother, who smiled slightly, but almost in that manner of deference and meekness that you see in old pictures of slaves and their masters. My charm wasn’t doing its job, so I took a half-dozen photographs and wished them well.
Early the next morning, I was on my way to the free breakfast in the lobby and ran into the grandmother from next door. We started chatting about her grand babies and daughter and I mentioned the other family. What she told me stopped me in my tracks. She had learned that the mother and her children were homeless and were staying in a shelter on the east end of Main Street for a few days until their allotted time was up. And, what’s more, there were four more children in the clan.
In an instant, yesterday’s experience came rushing back, freshly refocused through this updated lens. No wonder the kids were stone faced. Even at their unfledged stage, the endless procession of unanchored days was precluding any childness and draping in its place a mantle of gloom. The mother’s languid expression and posture of the evening before now seemed in retrospect to emanate weariness, numbness, resignation. Years of this brand of life had drained away any vigor, any vitality she might have once had. She was completely at the mercy of others. Indentured to strangers, moving from largesse to largesse. Her burden more than almost any mother with a husband, support system, and modern resources could manage, but
for her? Impossible. My goodness, what went through her mind each day as she gathered or dispersed her brood? Sane, “normal” people, like me, right?, would pose the obvious “why?”. Why did you keep having kids? Maybe they were newly homeless, but the signs pointed to a longer-running situation. And what comes next? What does the concept of a future even mean to someone just hoping to finish today in a safe place, with enough to eat? What happens to these children? How have they managed to stay together this long? Have they ever been in a schoolroom? Played with other children? Slept in the same bed for more than a few days? Treasured their own toys, purchased new just for them, hugged their own doll? Is this life shaping them inexorably to being suited for nothing but more of the same?
And what was I supposed to do, anything? Nothing? Just drive away, shaking my head and acknowledging again how blessed I am, how privileged a life I lead? “There, but for the grace of God...” and all that? Knowing that I would spend this new day however I wanted, choose from any number to appealing items on the menu at all three meals, enjoy again the daily ritual at dusk, and sleep in a room freshly cleaned and prepared for a paying guest, followed by another day filled with that same set of choices, choices reserved for citizens of preferred ethnicity, social category, and sufficient resources?
I have far fewer answers than I have questions, and some of those carry a measure of guilt I can’t seem to totally shake. I have no new revelations, just an emotional jumble of gratitude, sorrow, and hope. Yes, gratitude that I’m not there. Sorrow that they are. And hope for those children, hope against hope that at least one of them escapes and begins to bend the curve, to rewrite her story, to show herself and a disheartened rest of us that surprises do happen, and sometimes they’re really good ones.
Power…that’s my secret. If you ever see me practice or compete, though, you’ll recognize it instantly – and then it’s not much of a secret. Before the accident my power came from the confidence I had gained from twelve years of rodeo. Twelve years of up-before-dawn, hauling hay, studying the ring, training my body; but most of all, twelve years of saddle time. In control and unafraid, I was strong and I knew what I was doing.
Now, half of my body is literally powerless, disconnected from its control center and flapping in the wind. Still, it’s power that makes what I do possible. For years after the wreck that snapped my spine, I was useless. The feeling of moving through the air, of my body and the horse’s body being one and the same, wasn’t even a memory – more like a dream that could never have been real. Before, it would have taken rivers of water to put out the fire that burned inside me. What I got instead was thousands of pounds of metal, snow and ice, dumped on my body in the pitch black of night, erasing any sign of flame or ember in me.
I quickly set two goals: 1) ride, and 2) rodeo. I didn’t know how I would reach them, only that I would. Setting the bar this high scared my family and doctors. They were afraid that not achieving these goals would finish me off; so I used their fear as the kindling to light a new fire inside myself.
At first, Power wouldn’t come near me in my chair. He recognized me, but didn’t know what to make of me. It took months before I could approach him, and months more to earn his trust. Meanwhile, the two halves of my body went in opposite directions: my legs withered, while my torso and arms grew as I worked to build the muscles I would need to ride and, of course, race.
Now, my arms are bigger than most men’s arms and my core is rock solid. My saddle sports a seatbelt and my legs get strapped down at the thigh. I cannot feel anything from the waist down, my legs barely more than window dressing.
Before, rider and horse were one and I could feel the pounding of the engine – my engine – as we cut through the air. We are one again, but now it as if I’m on a magic carpet and Power is making us fly.
It had been a good day and we were tired. But it was the good kind of tired when your body feels the effects of doing the things you enjoy, the things that matter, like swimming in the ocean and building sand castles and teaching a five year-old how to swim. A fine crab-cake dinner and a couple of body warming beverages ushered in the evening as daylight began to fade outside our window. With the kids tucked safely in bed, we wandered out to the covered veranda to enjoy the remaining evening light. A lull in our conversation revealed the faint and distant rumblings of an approaching storm. Undaunted, our twilight chatter continued until an abrupt boom of thunder silenced us, immediately heightening our senses and anticipation. When the lightning started and it was no longer safe to be out, we stepped inside and waited.
Finally, riding the wind like a horse-back messenger hell-bent on delivering his dispatch, the storm arrived, shrouding the blue-green lucent waters of the Gulf we had so enjoyed earlier in the day. The vaporous gathering released a dark, gray veil of rain densely suspended between the clouds and sea, sporadically illuminated by charged flashes of light. In my southern-infused way of thinking, what we were witnessing was a gully-washer.
When things died down, we ambled back out to watch the luminous after-show. As I mounted my camera to the tripod, lightning continued to dance in the distant clouds. My first few attempts at capturing the familiar, yet ever-fascinating emissions of light were futile. Eventually, the stimulated air began to calm and the remaining elements of positive and negative energy collected in a single cloud. And I realized that I was running out of time. Doing my best to time the next burst, I opened the shutter and waited. Precipitously, in grand fashion, lightning flashed one last time resulting in a memorable image, at least for me.
Photographs speak to us in myriad ways. Some dig up lost memories; others summon an emotional response, pulling us, repelling us, reminding us. Personally, this image reflects a near-perfect summer evening with those I love the most, the freedom of an uncluttered vacation mid-set, the secret wish that life’s special moments could occur more often and last a little longer. Mostly though, the image reminds me that the Creator can engender miraculous, untamed spectacles of incredible power and beauty well beyond man’s mightiest attempts. And once again, I am humbled to recognize that He is God...and I am not.
My Chilly Mo
Chilly Mo is long, sharp and mean
She carries the shiver that the night winds blow
She’s etched with all the fears I’ve ever been.
Her bone carved handle has a grip on me. I can’t let her go.
She’s my Chilly Mo.
Chilly Mo be silent
Chilly Mo be swift.
You may be a god-send
You can be my gift.
A fight for twenty minutes of peace.
Some bright warm place
Where thoughts of death cease
And no tally of gains or loss
Oh, Chilly Mo you are my liberator, you are my cross.
Soak me in the Jordan, where the ancients go.
Or lance my lungs and set me free.
She is the sum of the love and evil I have sown.
She is my Chilly Mo.
Chilly Mo be silent
Chilly Mo be swift.
You may be a god-send
You can be my gift.
Take me quickly, take me clean.
Take me when my eyes are shut.
Take me when I dream.