documentary exploration

On the importance of stories, and life and death.

This beautiful piece by Jennifer Percy appeared in The Atlantic yesterday. I can’t think of a better time to read this, when there are so many questions about death and life floating in my head. I lost one of my best friends a couple of weeks ago, unexpectedly, in a matter of hours. I had never experienced anything like it before; life’s brutality and inexplicability in such a sudden, raw manner. It is still incredibly hard to articulate the infinite number of thoughts that have crossed my mind in the last couple of days, but this, somehow, comes close. 

The lessons my father taught me as a child all revolved around science. He was an amateur physicist and saw the world through only that lens. I remember him saying that we are all formed of stardust, that the atoms in our bodies began in stars millions of years ago. Or how, if we stepped into a black hole, we’d be turned into a stream of subatomic particles. I remember him telling me about matter depressurizing in space, how our eyeballs would come out of their sockets.

The natural world was a huge part of my childhood. We lived in rural Oregon, between the mountains and the desert, with not a lot of people around. We spent our weekends in the wilderness. Night was very dark, and every night we’d go out and look through a telescope at stars. But they wouldn’t be stars to my father. He’d call them “dying suns.”

If I burnt a gingerbread man in the oven, and cried to him about it, he’d say, “Well, one day the sun’s going to destroy the earth. Then we’ll all be like the gingerbread man.”

This brand of science terrified me—but my dad found comfort in going to the stars. He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

Still, I found the brutal immensity of the universe frightening. My brother and I, like many kids, were shaped by poking through the books we had at home, and we had just two kinds: physics books and Stephen King books. Both were terrifying. So we had to choose what kind of fear we liked best—the terror of the universe or the terror of the clown that lives in the sewer and is going to kill you. I think my brother chose Stephen King and I chose Stephen Hawking.

I pursued a career in science, and in college, I studied physics. I worked with those guys that make Mars Rovers and understand the properties of crystals and who ride in the Vomit Comet over the Gulf of Mexico, imagining themselves space-bound. But I was unhappy.

The language of science was unsatisfying to me. “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible,” Einstein said. But I don’t think human relationships are ever fully comprehensible. They can clarify for small, beautiful moments, but then they change. Unlike a scientific experiment with rigorous, controlled parameters, our lives are boundless and shifting. And there’s never an end to the story. We need more than science—we need storytelling to capture that kind of complexity, that kind of incomprehensibility.

And this is a fundamental problem with writing nonfiction. People say, “How do you write a profile of someone? How do you capture them fully?” Well, you don’t. It’s artifice. There are small moments, little parts, that crystallize—but they are part of something larger that’s always changing and evolving. Even if you’re writing autobiography, you only capture a specimen of a larger self. You’re not ever going to comprehend a life fully on the page, because life keeps changing.

Anyway, I started writing instead of going to my regular classes. I was writing about Russia, because I’d spent that summer above the Arctic Circle studying trees and fish and pinecones and how the Russian weren’t doing a good job keeping things alive up there. It was surreal. Never dark. Lots of vodka. I fell in love with this American and we dated—whatever dating looks like up there—but I could never let him know how much I loved him. I was just dying inside. So I had to write about him to make him, maybe to make him less powerful but also to understand this madness I felt. And so I did. It was really love that made me write. I started reading Joyce and Woolf and Forester, and I felt like a perfectly normal human being when I was inside those books. There was this one professor, David Price, and he talked about literature beautifully. The characters were so real it was almost as if they were hanging out in the room with us. He gave us this short story called “The Ledge,” by Lawrence Sargent Hall. It’s not a very well-known piece, though it does appear in some anthologies, as well as The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. It’s about an old fisherman who leaves the warmth of his wife’s bed on Christmas Day to shoot sea ducks with his son. He promised his son they’d go hunting. In the end, when out collecting the dead ducks on the sand. The skiff drifts off to sea and they are trapped together, the water rising, and they are waiting for their death.

Again, I grew up in a place where nature was always encroaching on my life, was always infiltrating my feelings—either literally through the wilderness or intellectually through my father’s science lessons. And “The Ledge,” with its deadly, encroaching high tide, spoke to me profoundly. It helped me formulate questions about how the immensity and cruelty of the universe coexists with ordinary love, the everyday circumstances of human beings. The story leaves us with an image of this fisherman caught man pitilessly between these two worlds. It posed a question that became an obsession, and that followed me into my writing: what happens to your character when nature and humanity brutally encounter one another?

In the passage I chose, the father has already hoisted his son up onto his shoulders. The sea is rising. The dog is already dead. The skiff is gone. As the water’s rises over his boots, everything sort of bottoms out, and the landscape that he had perceived and believed to know and control, deteriorates. The image is baptismal, but it’s a baptism of death. Here’s what happens next: 

The boy did for the fisherman the greatest thing that can be done. He may have been too young for perfect terror, but he was old enough to know there were things beyond the power of any man. All he could do he did, by trusting his father to do all he could, and asking nothing more.

The fisherman, rocked to his soul by a sea, held his eyes shut upon the interminable night.

“Is it time now?” The boy said

The fisherman could hardly speak. “Not yet,” he said. “Not just yet.”

The fisherman has made the gravest mistake, the son maintains faith in his father. The choice to maintain this illusion of hope, which neither one really believes in—they both know they won’t be saved, is beautiful. We have to keep that love for other human beings alive at all times, even when the water is rising over our mouths and into our lungs and carrying us towards death.

We never know how we’re going to respond to extraordinary circumstances. We can go into the world, performing whatever role we choose to inhabit, but there can come a point where a performance is no longer possible. The fisherman and the boy keep this going until the very end. But the reader knows exactly what’s going on—and can see through his internal dialogue and his thoughts and the physical descriptions that he’s terrified, and that he’s failed. Not only will they die in the sea—they will disappear into it. Hall makes a point of this. The death happens off-stage, and we see only the aftermath of it—it’s a technique Flannery O’Connor uses too during moments of great violence, because the imagination of the event is so often more terrifying than the reality. But there’s this image we get, which stayed with me forever, which is this starfish clinging to the fisherman’s boot. Even this wriggling starfish conquered this man. It’s such a pathetic moment for human beings.

But it’s not the one that lingers. It’s the fisherman’s words before the sea enters his lungs and kills him. His son wants to know if it’s time to swim. And all the fisherman says is, “Not yet. Not just yet.” I imagine that’s what we all think when faced with our mortality and I like the way we can see the fisherman revise his thinking—softening “not yet” not “not just yet.” The “just” is there because he knows death is inevitable but he’s begging anyway for that one extra moment with his son. We hear these words even into the white space. In this way, Hall has allowed them their own kind of immortality.

To continue with the story, the language of physics didn’t help me bridge that gap. There was an emptiness that physics couldn’t help me dispel. Stories could, though. Talking to people wasn’t enough, but if I could visit a world, and be held there in its arms, then I could invite others inside and maybe they could be held there too. So I changed my major from Physics to English. I think I actually cried when I filed the paperwork—it was that scary to give up my whole plan and start on something new. But I was able to articulate writing something important I’d never been able to say on my own before. And, of course, that’s what literature does. In Chekhov’s story “The Kiss,” there’s a moment that looms large in the main character’s mind—but when he’s sitting around the fire with the other soldiers, and he tells them about the moment—the moment of the kiss—it comes out without the strength or significance it carried in his mind. The story just drops dead. I realized I’d often felt that way, too: that when I tried to communicate with people, that bridge was not always forming. Writing was the first time I felt I could forge a connection that moved both ways, a two-way street between me and the rest of the world.


Perhaps my favorite Instagram account is David Guttenfelder’s, who has photographed North Korea for years. If I think about it, my visual archive of images of the mysterious country, was empty until a few months ago when I started to follow him. The thought that his Instagram shots of daily life in the country have filled a gap of my visual imagination, is thoroughly fascinating. As is the fact that Guttenfelder has been creating Instagram locations for his photos (previously none existed) as well as using his images to fill Google maps’ photo archive. 

Although he mentions there is no censorship in the images he is allowed to produced, he has also said that he is never alone and some situations have been reenacted for him to capture. In this short interview he talks about how the most surprising thing about North Korea is the realization that normalcy, dailiness and the quotidian are there. Just like anywhere else. 

Here’s a short interview featured in Wired

When Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder first went to North Korea in 2000, he was plunged into the dark—he had to leave his phone at customs, and his hotel windows were covered with black plastic. But over time, the most restrictive country in the world has loosened up, at least for some. In January it allowed foreigners to carry phones; in February it activated a 3G network for visitors. As the AP’s chief photographer for Asia, Guttenfelder now sends out images from the Pyongyang bureau and posts daily to Instagram. In a country without the Internet, a reporter with social media is king, so we asked Guttenfelder for his report from inside:

I was the mayor of the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang on Foursquare until a week ago. And if you’re seeing restaurant check-ins in the capital, my AP colleague and I probably left them. In a country known for its censorship, I’m now uploading photos to Instagram from the streets of North Korea like I would anywhere else in the world.

Through social media, I’m trying to piece together a picture of this country for the outside world, whether it’s a still of an apartment building with an empty playground, a geo-tag for Juche Tower on Foursquare, or a video of a woman ringing up restaurant receipts with propaganda blaring behind her.

No one puts their hand in front of my camera, and no one tells me not to shoot things. There’s no review process. They don’t look at my pictures at all before I send them on the Associated Press wire or my Instagram account. Facebook even asks me to tag my “friends” Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung when I upload my photos.

Until a few months ago, the Google map of North Korea was a blank slate. Now I’m like an explorer, charting the country with my check-ins and photos. The first time I tried to tag a picture on Instagram, there were no preset locations. Now we’re making those too. I’m doing it because I want the geolocators for Instagram, but I’m also doing it in the spirit of an explorer or a mapmaker.


I love, love, love Afronauts, a project by Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel currently being exhibited in NYC. Here’s a little bit of context: 

In 1964 the newly independent nation of Zambia began a space program with the intention of putting the first African on the Moon. The program was short-lived, but it reflected the excitement and ambitions of a young country.

Starting with that story, the Spanish artist Cristina de Middel created “The Afronauts,” a body of photographs, drawings and related sculptures. Fictional in most respects, “The Afronauts” nonetheless opens with an enlarged reprint of an actual letter from one Zambian minister to another, saying that “America and Russia may lose the race to the Moon, according to Edward Mukaka Nkoloso, Director of the Zambia National Academy of Space Research.” The program needed money, though. The budding astronauts “don’t concentrate on spaceflight,” according to the letter. “There’s too much lovemaking when they should be studying the Moon.” What’s more, the 17-year-old who was “chosen to be the first coloured woman on Mars, has also to feed her 10 cats, who will be her companions on the long spaceflight.”

Ms. Middel’s faux re-creation includes photographs shot in Spain of people wearing spacesuits sewn from African fabric, and helmets that were streetlamp globes. Archival shots of African villages are altered to include midcentury astronauts. Defunct concrete-mixing drums double as space capsules, and an image shot in Monument Valley is a reference to U.F.O.’s and otherworldly landscapes.

“The Afronauts” is a smart and charming show. Rather than ridiculing Zambia’s ambitions, Ms. Middel compares them to the dreams of other nations and peoples. But the subject here is also photography. Like her fellow Spaniard Joan Fontcuberta, Ms. Middel shows how the medium promotes both fact and fiction — and how ultimately this helped fuel the space race.

I love the fictional interpretation of a story that seems incredibly surreal, but that fights so many stereotypes and assumptions. If you are in NYC, check out the images. 



"This year, September 13 marks the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords. It is also Yom Kippur. On this holiest day of the Jewish calendar—a day of atonement—I hope my Jewish friends will remember my Palestinian mother.
Her story begins with an injury. In 1948, when she was four, my mother’s forearm was stripped to flesh by a tipped kettle. Cooled and dried, the wound scarred smooth as tanned leather. And in my first memory, I am a toddler kneading that taut skin, easing my colic into sleep.
It was a kind of sacrament, I now think. In gentle touches, my mother and I learned: Hurt, eventually, heralds healing. But what becomes of wounds that won’t heal?
That question weighs heavy on my mother’s mind this week, as she and I recall two decades of failed U.S. attempts to help end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—a conflict that has defined all but four years of my mother’s life.
She was still in her 40s when Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn. But two decades on, as she approaches her 70s, my mother is beginning to reckon with the possibility that she will live out her life in exile.
She is not alone, of course.
My mother is part of the last generation of Palestinians born before 1948, when the creation of Israel displaced three-fourths of the Holy Land’s indigenous population.
That inescapable tragedy—displacing one people to shelter another—is the unhealed wound that sustains the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Like any wound, it must eventually be exposed. And if it is to truly heal, Palestinians and Israelis must make of the scar a source of succor, not fear.
After all, my mother, like others of her generation, is no threat—not to those who know and love her and certainly not to an entire nation. For Christmas, she knits Bethlehem-themed ornaments and sells them at church bazaars. She stands at a plastic table, this woman from the Holy Land, and regales wide-eyed American children with tales of day trips to the Sea of Galilee.
That life of more than six decades ago is too far-gone, though. Like any person with more years lived than left, my mother is too wise to inveigh against the inevitabilities of time. Instead, like millions of her generation who remember a land before loss, what she really wants is something more elemental. She wants the right to access those memories, on her own terms, as she looks back on a life in waning.
But to revisit them, like any person should have the right to do, my mother needs permission—not from the quixotically named Palestinian Authority, but from Israel. That cruel reality, more than any other in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, adds enduring insult to injury.
Still, my mother and I maintain hope that she can return someday, without the indignities of interrogation. Much of that hope, it must be said, derives from the Jewish experience. After all, what nation knows better the injustice of depriving a people of their history?
Some months ago, I gave a lift to an Israeli author whose grandfather’s signature is affixed to Israel’s declaration of independence. In the trunk of my car, where he had just put his suitcase, there was a box sealed well before my years and, in my mother’s scrawl, labeled: “History.”
My Israeli friend asked about the contents. But I couldn’t answer. Whenever I asked my mother what her History held, she demurred, saying only: “Keep it in a cool, dry place.”
I understood why when I opened it myself. In that box, I found hundreds of faded, yellowing photographs—my mother’s history, hidden all those years in sepia stills.
There she was—tomboyish and slight—beside her mother, who was stitching. And there were Solomon’s Pools, where my grandfather drowned.
These were the Holy Land’s apocrypha, I thought, subsumed for so long by another’s narrative. They told us: Ours was a land without a people. Ours was a desert, and they made it bloom.
But history, the images showed, had been sullied. They showed my mother, laughing on a terraced hill, land stitched with olive trees. They showed the vine, made famous not by wine, but by my grandmother’s stuffed grape leaves.
The lesson, I think, is this: the Holy Land holds histories that, with time, can be taught to coexist. My mother’s is one of them. As she navigates her own, inner peace process, I hope that one day, in her lifetime, it leads home.”
Samer Badawi, The Daily Beast

I’m not sure if I am allowed to republish this, but this is so beautifully written. 

"This year, September 13 marks the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords. It is also Yom Kippur. On this holiest day of the Jewish calendar—a day of atonement—I hope my Jewish friends will remember my Palestinian mother.

Her story begins with an injury. In 1948, when she was four, my mother’s forearm was stripped to flesh by a tipped kettle. Cooled and dried, the wound scarred smooth as tanned leather. And in my first memory, I am a toddler kneading that taut skin, easing my colic into sleep.

It was a kind of sacrament, I now think. In gentle touches, my mother and I learned: Hurt, eventually, heralds healing. But what becomes of wounds that won’t heal?

That question weighs heavy on my mother’s mind this week, as she and I recall two decades of failed U.S. attempts to help end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—a conflict that has defined all but four years of my mother’s life.

She was still in her 40s when Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn. But two decades on, as she approaches her 70s, my mother is beginning to reckon with the possibility that she will live out her life in exile.

She is not alone, of course.

My mother is part of the last generation of Palestinians born before 1948, when the creation of Israel displaced three-fourths of the Holy Land’s indigenous population.

That inescapable tragedy—displacing one people to shelter another—is the unhealed wound that sustains the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Like any wound, it must eventually be exposed. And if it is to truly heal, Palestinians and Israelis must make of the scar a source of succor, not fear.

After all, my mother, like others of her generation, is no threat—not to those who know and love her and certainly not to an entire nation. For Christmas, she knits Bethlehem-themed ornaments and sells them at church bazaars. She stands at a plastic table, this woman from the Holy Land, and regales wide-eyed American children with tales of day trips to the Sea of Galilee.

That life of more than six decades ago is too far-gone, though. Like any person with more years lived than left, my mother is too wise to inveigh against the inevitabilities of time. Instead, like millions of her generation who remember a land before loss, what she really wants is something more elemental. She wants the right to access those memories, on her own terms, as she looks back on a life in waning.

But to revisit them, like any person should have the right to do, my mother needs permission—not from the quixotically named Palestinian Authority, but from Israel. That cruel reality, more than any other in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, adds enduring insult to injury.

Still, my mother and I maintain hope that she can return someday, without the indignities of interrogation. Much of that hope, it must be said, derives from the Jewish experience. After all, what nation knows better the injustice of depriving a people of their history?

Some months ago, I gave a lift to an Israeli author whose grandfather’s signature is affixed to Israel’s declaration of independence. In the trunk of my car, where he had just put his suitcase, there was a box sealed well before my years and, in my mother’s scrawl, labeled: “History.”

My Israeli friend asked about the contents. But I couldn’t answer. Whenever I asked my mother what her History held, she demurred, saying only: “Keep it in a cool, dry place.”

I understood why when I opened it myself. In that box, I found hundreds of faded, yellowing photographs—my mother’s history, hidden all those years in sepia stills.

There she was—tomboyish and slight—beside her mother, who was stitching. And there were Solomon’s Pools, where my grandfather drowned.

These were the Holy Land’s apocrypha, I thought, subsumed for so long by another’s narrative. They told us: Ours was a land without a people. Ours was a desert, and they made it bloom.

But history, the images showed, had been sullied. They showed my mother, laughing on a terraced hill, land stitched with olive trees. They showed the vine, made famous not by wine, but by my grandmother’s stuffed grape leaves.

The lesson, I think, is this: the Holy Land holds histories that, with time, can be taught to coexist. My mother’s is one of them. As she navigates her own, inner peace process, I hope that one day, in her lifetime, it leads home.”

Samer Badawi, The Daily Beast

I’m not sure if I am allowed to republish this, but this is so beautifully written. 


RAW Chiefs.

My fellowship ended a month ago, and before I get into a longer reflection of how wonderful this year has been, I wanted to share my final work. For those of you who have heard me speak about RAW Chiefs for months and months, you can check the final product at www.rawchiefs.org.

I created all the material, as well as building the site. We had a lovely screening on July 10th and most of the people featured in the videos came to watch them (probably the most stressful two hours of my entire fellowship).

image

It has been a wonderful year and I am so thankful to all of those who shared their stories with me, allowed me to ask them millions of questions, and welcomed me at their homes and workplaces.