10 pics for 10.000 words
A giant ideology held tight in my heart collapsed this week, with just 10.000 words.
The revolution happened, like a lot of things, with an index card. And like any creative process, somewhere halfway through, all things you thought you “knew” went haywire. Scratch. Drawing board. But then the reward: new insight. You’ll have to read to the end to find out what it was.
Here’s how it happened.
A month ago when we got to Gangtok, Akira and I sat in the Coffee Shop at M.G. Marg brainstorming projects we could complete in a short time. A job we’d come out for fell through and we had to invent something on the spot. A subject near to my heart at Kismuth is child rearing, and looking at ways different people do it.
I got my thinnest Sharpie out, and wrote: 10.000 words.
What if I could ask ten photographers I admire to contribute one picture each on a theme: “It takes a village.”
“Hey, yeah!” I’d said. “That can look really different to someone else than it does to my brother, my aunt, my cousin, or my oldest friends.” Something that parenting has taught, and that traveling alone with my four year-old in Vietnam underscored, is that you really have no idea what “the truth” of a thing is. Applying the design tool of mood boarding, I thought a collection of images might offer up a bunch of perspectives. Looking at a composite helps you see what emerges there.
In the spirit of dialogue, which invites and engages multiple viewpoints, I approached 19 photographers in a series of waves.
They were people I:
- already knew personally from real life meetings
- have encountered on the road since leaving the US in April
- have been introduced to online
I sent a casual note with a short, simple direction:
Send a pic? A picture. Anything goes. The theme is about the village. Whatever it takes, that’s up to you.
A photographer named Noge Farm, whose pieces I’ve seen coming through Facebook and have no idea how I began to follow, was one of the first to send me a piece. I really love it. A tree. But not just any tree. A mammoth of stems you see in his picture, that’s what really bunched up my own preconceptions about what “it takes a village” looks like, and opened the door for more new news.
I guess I could say being a mother, I obsessed about just one aspect of the village. The part it takes to raise a child.
But these invited images showed me so many other worlds, and viewpoints, and I’m grateful to people for sending them to help me understand many other frames. Literally.
Jessie Gladin-Kramer, whose work I found online while seeking a local photographer to help me with a Design Kompany project that required specific staging and lighting for a product shot, made a piece that I just know she must have had a great time with. A true perfectionist, I wasn’t surprised at all to see that she sent me two versions, the second a slightly darkened version, which she also told me a story about. A story I shared through my weekly e-letter at Kismuth in recent days, because it seemed intimate and personal, too.
Here’s the picture, which she says she. would title, “Distracted.”
Now you probably are wondering why two Gangtok photographers feature here. I’ve met Kunga Tashi and Charles Tirkey in recent days, as part of a monthlong series of informal conversations about design, dialogue, and modernity here in the state of Sikkim in India. A lot of times you can tell who the talented people are by the way they handle their cameras, stay out of the limelight, and say very little. I approached each of them to contribute a pic to this collection, and I can’t quite believe the remarkable technique they both have. Photographers always have their unique signature on a thing, and while Charles captures the rush of Kush, Kunga sees the quiet space.
Some of the best parts about running a design studio mean you get to engage with great talent, and though I never had a chance to find a project that would suit, exactly, I’ve always been a giant fan of the work of Jean-Christian Rostagni, a colorful and politically vocal character in my hometown of Durham, NC. I met him when, in the 90s, I was going through the yellow pages querying photographers about their rates. I was hoping to start freelancing, you see, and needed to know. “Are you a photographer?” he’d asked, point-blank, following it up with an invitation to see some of his portraits. That’s when I knew that I wasn’t going to go into photography myself, other people could do that way better, and I ought to focus on simply finding the projects to collaborate on with people who could do a certain thing with a specific brief. This piece was his contribution.
I’m glad that I also got to meet Lisa Cross, although for just one quiet moment, in Hoi An, Vietnam, when she was there at the same time as Kush and me. One Moment Cafe. I’d almost skipped this town, but was glad I made it there, if only to trade stories about “slow travel,” a term I’d not heard until then, from Lisa. She was in Istanbul when I asked her to share a piece, and that setting is what she shared.
John Adair is one of my favorite people in Seattle. Maybe it’s because he was the only person who talked to Akira and me at our first-ever attempt at going to a networking meeting of this outfit called Biznik. I’m not sure what it looks like today, but back then, John built the entire back-end of that system, and that’s how we started talking. He’s got a keen sense of looking at the world, something you could tell if you went to a photo show he put on in a very loose, accessible way at this comic book shop that maybe now just has records in the Pike/Pine corridor in Capitol Hill. You could buy pictures right off the wall, and they were printed out on regular-looking paper. Nothing fancy. Just portraits of friends, taken in very pixelated ways by a low-tech camera. John’s programming is his real work, but I couldn’t resist asking if he could share one of those quirky pics. I’m glad he did.
Though I haven’t met Andy Berner in real life, I am already excited to find his work through Akira. Sometimes the internet connects us in amazing ways. He was doing a show in New York when he shared this piece, and I was really glad to see such openness in joining me way across the world in an I’m-not-sure-what-this-is-yet effort to gather ten perspectives for 10.000 words.
I had yoga class in Durham with a Finnish woman, Merja Vedenjuoksu, who I’m staying in touch with lately through Facebook. Even though we rarely talked in the hour-and-a-half-long Y sessions for the better part of a year, slowly we started to get to know one another and she invited me and Kush over for a very special small, dense, and incredibly alcoholic Finnish traditional drink as a sendoff for her and her husband. They’re back in Finland now, she’s working at a contemporary art museum, and he’s in academics there. I adore this couple, and really hope to get there for a visit one day. “Come to Finland!” they’d said. I’m the kind of person who definitely will, I replied, and they gave us a boogie board they wouldn’t be needing after leaving North Carolina. Which I wish we’d had the chance to use once before we passed it on, ourselves. Kush cut the cord one day, discovering what he could do with kiddie scissors. But Merja’s photography gives you a lot of depth, and room to look into the far. I like that a lot. I also love seeing what she sees, in Scandinavia.
Patrick Wright makes photos and videos in Seattle, but when we’d met at one of the “Design Korner” meetups that Akira and I used to host with another couple at the Stumbling Monk in Capitol Hill, he was working in programming, or something. Our meetup was made for people to come along and talk about passions, and Patrick brought his camera. What started out as a first-Mondays event moved to first-Fridays at Vermillion once Kush was born, because the Monk said they couldn’t have minors. I miss those Belgian beers, one of which Patrick snapped a picture of in a very natural, easy way, and the image stayed with me. That’s why I asked him to help us make images every so often at DK, and why he was one of the first people I also hoped would say “yes” when I asked him to describe “the village” in a pic. This one, he says, came from his iPhone, a sign of the times we’re in.
Changing it up with surprising results
When this started, I really thought it was about the pictures.
About understanding how people see things.
About gathering up frames of references, to make sense of the data, and see what truths might emerge. What is the village? What does it do? Why is it important?
I’m loosely interpreting this, but I really loved discovering how wrong I was. Let me explain.
About five years ago I had my son. Growing him up with just one other person (and I realize that one other person is a huge blessing), but there was just one, and that got to me.
I’ve been raised with images of gigantic joint families in India doing the work of bringing up a kid together, of really long parties for your birthday with people who’ve known you your whole llfe. Friends. Neighbors. Grandparents. You name it. But the reality of having my own kid, in Seattle, where neither I or Akira had ties, way far away from everything that seemed to be villagesque, well, that was the start of thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m in this… ALONE.”
The alone-ness quality sank in like steel piles might pierce the Earth.
Much processing later, and coming to terms with the new state of being as someone who by necessity has to make a lot of calls on the parenting do’s and don’ts with the consultation of just one other person, well, that led to some new insight. The village I idolized wasn’t really a real thing. Not in the modern world. This contemporary lifestyle leads us to disconnection much more than real intimacy. That’s why the real value of this project started to make itself clear as something much different from what I’d originally hypothesized.
In the way that the West wants us to draw concrete conclusions based on observed or gathered facts, I’d imagined that the collection of imagery about how it takes a village could confirm what I already believed.
But NO ONE submitted pictures of children being raised happily by a throng of villagers, and elders, and friends. (The image by Charles is something that he sent kindly after taking a shot of my son, and I just put it in because I think it’s a great shot, and maybe he wasn’t thinking it would wind up here, and maybe that’s not exactly kosher in a scientific experiment, but we are so qualitative here. And he is a great photographer, too.)
But the point is, no one sent pics of children.
Unlike what was in my head, the village, to the contributors here, isn’t about families and get-togethers in tribal circles. Not at all.
What I found out
Here’s the upshot.
The simple fact that people shared, that’s what I realized the village IS about.
The folks whose works are shown here aren’t getting paid for their contributions.
They’re not even 100% sure I will keep my promise to not use their pictures in any other way. (I promise I won’t!) But still, it took a lot of emotional currency for these artists to press “send” with their work, and step into an uncomfortable space towards me, anyways. No guarantees, no accolades, awards, recognition in a predictable form, or even assured follow up.
Especially when you consider some of the photographers are completely unknown to me, and me to them, before now, it is remarkable. Photos are personal.
Sure, there were other people I’d queried who didn’t participate. They didn’t respond at all, or they said they’d send something and then enthusiasm petered. Or they needed to be reminded, which I did, and was happy to do. One person told me he was in the middle of a move, and could I check back in a couple of months.
Ten pictures. I didn’t think that gathering 10 pictures would be hard. But the thing is, it was.
I get it. I really do.
People didn’t know me from Adam sometimes, and why should they be bothered sifting, sorting, sizing, and sharing? Would it be worth the effort? Would I really follow through? What would the deliverable be, and would it matter? Those are all fair questions. I don’t judge anyone who didn’t choose to connect with me in this way.
Opening to vulnerability means putting your work on display.
As far as time goes, I have always recalled what my drawing teacher at Seattle Central, Don Barrie, once said as kids brazenly ignored naked models to glare into the glows of their mobiles, “Let’s focus on the drawings, please? Everybody has the same amount of time.”
What, I wonder, made the difference? How did I know if someone would take that leap of faith and share something personal only knowing that I might do some vague “thing” with it for a project as unspecific as “10.000 words.”
My new hunch is this.
People are in search of something. Something that we’ve never talked about in day-to-day business, or in non-profit organizations with lofty mission statements that are just trying to pay their own salaries, or in the ego-centric world of making art, or in circles that are built on one person being in charge and telling everyone else How It Is. No. That’s all shifting. Today, people are looking for a new model of currency.
A currency of connection.
Making meaning through sharing what we have, what we can give, and what we can discover together as we go.
Sound too idealistic to be true?
Orangutan Swing is all about hoping against hope that this is the new way of paying it forward: trust.
Thank you to the following photographers, once again, for trusting me, and Orangutan Swing, and sharing a piece of your story here.
John Adair, USA
Andy Berner, USA
Lisa Cross, Istanbul
Noge Farm, Japan
Jessie Gladin-Kramer, USA
Jean-Christian Rostagni, USA
Charles Tirkey, India
Kunga Tashi, India
Patrick Wright, USA
Merja Vedenjuoksu, Finland
I appreciate you being open to this experiment in dialogue.
Now. Game on.
What should the theme be for “The Next 10.000 Words?” Want to share a pic? Anything goes.