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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Photography and the Art of Speaking Our Peace

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Long before I started photographing, I was moved by images that captured my attention and enlightened my awareness of the world at large. On many a rainy afternoon, lost as a child in the photo essays of Life Magazine and National Geographic, I entered the lives of people around the world, pondering the contrasts between my life and theirs.

In my teenage years, there was an abundance of images that sank into my heart, cut short my innocence. Images from the March on Selma, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, from the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings, all showing a level of violence and intolerance I was not prepared for. I was impressionable then, as I am now?moved by what I see, changed by what I experience, led to action by what I believe.

Most of us, at some point, have a desire to make a difference in the world. We want our lives to matter, our words to be of use. And for those of us who traffic in images, we want them to speak eloquently of that which matters to us, to be the metaphor for who we are, what we believe in and stand for.

Dorothea Lange was invested in creating images that would alter the public?s attitude about migrant workers. Walker Evans was committed to making photographs of tenant farmers that would inform and inspire people to action. Lewis Hine, in his crusade against child labor, created images that did what dry statistics and lengthy speeches never could do. Robert Capa, who despised war, photographed five of them in an attempt to record its horror and monstrous stupidity, believing that ?the truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.?

Having seen their work and read of the national response and reforms their pictures generated, I understood the power that photographs could have on a level beyond the personal, saw how images could help shape a national consciousness, create an awareness that could lead to enlightenment, action, change.

Buoyed with this knowledge and faith, in the mid-80s, during the massive global buildup of nuclear weapons, I embarked on a peace pilgrimage around the world. Armed with 200 rolls of film and a slideshow of the U.S. peace movement, I was determined to use my photographs in the service of the people, to share with as many folks as I could these images of activism, of commitment to harmony and a safe home for all the world?s children.

In order to create a culture of peace, a culture that reflects our reverence for life, we need stories and symbols that heal and guide, that help us remember we are part of a whole. It?s hard, in a society bent on power and profit, to remember what life is really for. Harder still to connect with one another when most things serve to keep us separate. But stories help. Pictures help. And every contact with a lover of life brings us one step closer to loving our own. My journey was a search for those images and stories, an attempt to discover and reveal our oneness around the globe.

In Japan, I was invited to speak to a group of A-bomb survivors at the Nagasaki Association for the Promotion of Peace and to present my slideshow, Focus on Peace. Before that we would watch the premiere of a Japanese film, one which included recently released American military footage of the Nagasaki bombing.

I sat in the back of the room with Mr. Matsunaga, director of the organization, who served as my translator. The lights went out and the film began with a slow pan of the Nagasaki Peace Park. Paper cranes and colorful flowers filled the frame until a jump cut took us to the cockpit of a U.S. plane on August 9, 1945.

We watched the bomb drop. Watched the deadly cloud devour the city. And then from the ground we watched what followed. Mr. Matsunaga, his calm voice silenced, collapsed into tears by my side. The survivors in front of us sat still as sculptures. Frozen in time, they stared ahead, some gasping as they saw themselves on the silver screen, stumbling through the rubble of charred corpses. Dazed and burned, they were calling for families they would never find. Quiet sobs filled the room while we witnessed the re-run of a nuclear holocaust.

When it was over, no one moved. No one turned on a light. We sat there in the dark amidst sobs and tears, trying to recover. When the lights came on and I was introduced, I stood there before them and started to cry, and it was only at their urging I could carry on.

I spoke slowly about the slides we were going to see, with Mr. Matsunaga at my side translating my words and my hopes in whatever way he could. Then the lights went out again, the music started, and images of millions of people working for peace began to dissolve into each other.

There were no words being spoken. Just the pictures and voices from the International Children?s Choir singing Let There Be Peace on Earth. These images of colorful, festive, life-affirming demonstrations had more power that day than any I remember. Symbols of a solemn commitment to peace washed over and comforted us. They delivered us, if only momentarily, from the fear of such a holocaust happening again, for how could these millions not make a difference, their passion so clearly exposed and revealed?

After the slideshow, the survivors came to the microphone and one by one spoke of the profound impact these photographs had on them. ?I did not know so many people cared about what happened to us...we thought we were all alone in our struggle to prevent this from happening again...seeing all those Americans caring about peace encourages me in my struggle...how can we fail if there are so many of us??

I had been so immersed in the peace movement during those years of nuclear frenzy that, until that day, it had not occurred to me that others weren?t aware of it, had no idea of its magnitude. These survivors did not even know there was a U.S. peace movement doggedly resisting the production and proliferation of nuclear warfare. And it made a difference to them to find out, to see all those pictures, to witness others in solidarity with them, working as hard as they were for the same cause.

One photograph could not have done it, but those eighty images, one after another, blended with that music?it had an impact, told a story that bolstered their courage, honored their experience. What had happened to them did matter after all, and these photographs were evidence of how much.

Nothing in the world could heal their physical wounds, their irradiated organs, their burned and disfigured faces and limbs, but a healing occurred in their spirits that day, passed on through these portraits of comrades in action.

We can and do inspire each other in this life, and if a photograph does nothing more than inspire one person to feel that, somehow, his life mattered, her pain served a purpose, then that one photograph ought not go unseen. We can never know the reach of our work, never know when we share a photograph to whom and why it might make a difference, never know how our small images contribute to the global picture as a whole.

But what we do know, from our own experience and the experience of history, is that photographs can change the course of the things, turn one?s head, alter one?s thoughts, enlighten one?s darkness. To shoot with that awareness, to know our images, made of light, can contribute light?that is the true joy of photography. The End

Jan Phillips is an award-winning writer, speaker, and multi-media artist. She is the author of The Art of Original Thinking-The Making of a Thought Leader, Divining the Body, God Is at Eye Level - Photography as a Healing Art, Marry Your Muse, Making Peace and A Waist is a Terrible Thing to Mind. She has taught in over 23 countries and conducts workshops nationally in creativity, consciousness, and spirituality. You may subscribe to her free monthly Museletter at www.janphillips.com


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