All posts tagged: Photoessays

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In Northern Ireland, unaccompanied by grief

If you asked me what one of the greatest paradoxes is in processing my work in the humanitarian sector so far, it is that the settings of the disaster or violence are often stunningly beautiful places. There is a dissonance to interviewing people who experienced wartime sexual violence one day only to make finding a waterfall your greatest driving force the day after that. Ancient ruins and modern ones, side by side. Giraffes and refugees. Crystal clear beaches next to injustice. The urge is there to shout from a hilltop atop I perched that Colombia (or Egypt, or Syria, or Uganda) is unequivocally beautiful – if it weren’t for the critical voice that remains in my head and remembers to ask “for whom?” I have never quite known how to process the beauty or our hunt for it in those environments. Can one truly apologize for beauty? How can we take it in, draw hope from it, without romanticizing what is at the foreground? Is this beauty accessible to all and, if not, what are …

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A fall diary of the moments in between

If this fall were to have a narrative arc, it would read like a bibliography full of texts on narratives, memory, and patterns of violence, with titles like Killing Civilians and Precarious Life and Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community.  James Dawes, whose own book Evil Men has also dominated my thoughts and research this fall, speaks of the moments in between. Dawes and his team, consisting of a photographer and a translator, interviewed convicted war criminals who committed atrocities in the second Sino-Japanese war. He had the following to say about the moments in between the interviews and, while he is referring to interviews and field work in situations of mass atrocities, his words also ring true of the moments next to those consumed by research and thinking about mass atrocities: “I don’t understand how to put these things next to each other. It is like somebody has taken a crowbar and pried open the seams of the everyday, so that the evils we cover over, block out, are now suddenly there, implacably next to …

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Field notes from Colombia: Narratives

In one of my favorite TEDx talks, Chimamanda Adichie cautions against the dangers of a single story. As she narrates, we are “impressionable and vulnerable in the face of a story,” a disarming property of storytelling that I have come to cherish. However, she goes on to point out that this is a risky vulnerability when certain narratives emerge, become dominant, and overwhelm the others. In Adichie’s words: “But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Colombia is rife with single narratives of the type Adichie describes – and, almost paradoxically, they exist side by side. There is the image of Colombia as the land of Pablo Escobar, the guerilla, the paramilitaries. It is the Colombia of guns and bombs, an image that nests most frequently in the heads of those …

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Field notes from Colombia: The honesty of street art

Out of the approximately 271 times I have nearly been run over by traffic here in Colombia, my standing in the street to photograph graffiti accounted for at least 200. My fascination with street art stems from my impression of it as an honest medium of expression: It cannot easily be directed or manipulated by anyone other than the artist herself. For similar reasons, it cannot easily be censored or controlled. Street art tells truths — multiple, often contradicting truths, layered under fish faces or bright colors. In a country that is navigating multiple narratives of conflict and injustice, and the budding inklings of collective memory, even the street art needs the veiled layers. Tell a truth too clearly and you will be painted over. When I left the house this Saturday morning, Bogotá was still asleep, save for its soldiers, who lined the streets more thickly than usual. It is Colombia’s Independence Day and I decided to celebrate by joining Christian on a walking tour of Bogota’s street art. Christian, a street artist himself, …

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Field notes from Colombia: Nostalgia

This field notes dispatch was compiled, as most honest thoughts are, through excerpts of emails to loved ones. It was inevitable. Do not even pretend to be surprised. A few times a month, I publish a column at The Equals Record titled “Eternally Nostalgic” and this weekend I have lived up to its namesake. A recent New York Times article asked “What is nostalgia good for?” Starting from the premise that it used to be considered “a neurological disease of essentially demonic cause,” the article sought to debunk myths surrounding nostalgia and illuminate its positive sides. An unintended benefit of nostalgia is that it, apparently, raises your body temperature, making you feel warmer. In search of warmth, I write to you from Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I arrived in this country to find myself taken aback by the July chill of Bogotá and the coziness of outdoor space heaters. This weekend I fled to Cartagena, in search of fuller, humid air and warmth. If Cartagena were a color, it would be a …

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Field notes from Colombia: The solitude of research

I cherish the solitude of field research. I have come to love the long silences of bus rides and solitary meals alike, even though I realize that to the Colombians who surround me, the sight of a girl choosing to eat her ajiaco alone is a peculiar one — so peculiar, in fact, that seven of them (!) decided to join me after pointing and whispering for a few minutes last week. I cherish the spontaneity of how interactions form when you are completely alone, when you can say ‘yes’ to the prospect of any conversation because you are not shielded by another human, a book, or the appearance of busy-ness. And yet, field research can also be lonely. The processes I am directing this summer remain fascinating to me. I get unreasonably excited about designing qualitative research, spending hours devising effective and sensitive interview questions, and slowly watching patterns emerge from the stories. From ‘the data’, as they say — as I should say, but stories are more than data to me. I enjoy …

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Remembering warmth

I am the person who is perpetually cold on airplanes. I fly to the Equator wrapped in a pashmina, to a desert in a coat. The layers are a necessary hug in the middle of transition, as though I need to hold myself tight to face the new winds. And then there is always that moment of stepping out of the airplane and into the warmth. The shedding of the layers, of skin that does not feel necessary anymore. The return to warmth has always felt like a release, like a return to self. For four years, while I was working in the field of gender and armed conflict, I shuttled from desert lands to countries straddling the Equator. My bones forgot winter. When I first landed in Boston, I did so with a nostalgia for the seasons and a commitment to celebrating them. Celebrate I did. I photographed fall with the curiosity of what Mary Oliver calls “a bride married to amazement.” I was born for colored leaves and crisp mornings, and for summer seas …

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Reflections on an experiment: One photo a day

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) vulnerability, mortality, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” — Susan Sontag“ Darling, do we have to sleep with Susan every night?,” he asked, pulling Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks from underneath his back. “She pokes me!” Well, she pokes me too. We seem to seek the jarring comfort of particular writers’ words at different epochs and this is the Susan era. Actually, it is always the Susan era, the Joan days, the Mary mornings. Even though I am currently absorbed in Sontag’s diaries, only to realize she was a more complex, eloquent 16-year-old than I could have ever aspired to be, I was first acquainted with her during a course on authoritarian cinema as an undergraduate. I do not remember the text, I cannot provide you with a reference, but I remember what the page that contained the excerpt I am recalling looked like. Her passage spoke …

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Fall fragments

By Friday morning, I can only think in fragments. My brain has expended its analytical and synthesizing capacities and all that is left are quotes. Little fragments of wisdom are swimming in my head, crystallized from weeks’ worth of discussion on gender, conflict, international development, the life of aid practitioners, peacekeeping operations, and negotiations. I am craving a forum to share my learnings — even more than that, I am craving the presence of mind and cleared space in that cluttered head with which to isolate that which is worth sharing. A year ago, I was writing about the crackling of pomegranates, about Jerusalem’s portions of beauty and suffering. I was longing for this: the classrooms, the crowded brain, the rushing thoughts. The notes, the notebooks, the fall. The leaves. I could not shut up about the leaves. I miss the crackling pomegranates — the crackling life we led then. It was a life tinged with warm light and apple-flavored smoke, steps on stone streets and heartbreak around every corner. We are profoundly shielded from …

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With the salt on your back

[For Part I — Milos: the alleys, wander over here.] This is why I nearly boarded an international flight in a bikini. There is nostalgia to the sun on your back and the sea in your hair, the slightly damp clothes from the last dip into the Aegean. These waters are gravity to me: they envelop me in a hug I do not want to break, they pull me in and feed my reluctance to leave. The afternoon of Friday, July 27th found me on a sailboat in Milos, Greece with the Aegean sea-foam splashing onto bare legs. That evening, I was due in Athens. The next morning in Rome, the next evening in Atlanta, the morning after that in Mexico City. This is the story of how I brought my salty hair across the world, of the Greece I carry with me.