Poverty and wealth and our lenses on life

I have recently been in several conversations regarding the topic of poverty. Mostly they were sparked by photographs I have made in underdeveloped places where the landscape offers westerners the satisfaction of impoverished iconography—piles of ruble, empty bottle lying strewn in the streets etc. Many of my colleagues point to such visual cues and instantly label the topic of the image “poverty”—some going as far as suggesting that I am exploiting such poverty by making images of it. All the while they fail to acknowledge the intimacy or social interactions depicted in the images.

How sad for us all.

I am reminded of a bus ride in southern Peru. I was traveling with a few people from the United States and a large group of recent high school graduates from a remote Peruvian mountain village. This was not your standard image of western “high schoolers.” Many of the students were well over high school age. In fact, high school was a fairly new phenomenon in their village as access to education was only available in recent years. Additionally, the village is located in a remote region of Peru that still feels the sting of being ravaged by Shining Path terrors of the eighties. Neighbors and village strangers raised many of these high school grads because their families were divided or killed in the past strife. To make matters seemingly more complex, electricity and running water were rare luxuries to most of the villagers even today, years after the turn of the 21st century.

While driving through the Peruvian landscape the villagers explained that their friends and neighbors had taught them many stories and songs—common forms of local entertainment and education. We spent a good part of our bus ride listening to their songs. Men and women ranging from late teens to early forties entertained us with the songs and stories they knew so well.

So, back to the discussion of poverty: I find myself wondering if the colleagues who see poverty where I see community, who see poverty where I see spirit, who see something lacking where I see so many other forms of wealth; I wonder if they can stand up and sing a song taught o them by their neighbors. I wonder if they have friends and family raised by strangers and neighbors who heroically jump in when their spirit and their energy and their physical intervention is needed. I would suggest that we all reconsider our definition of poverty. If not reconsider it, at the very least clarify what we mean when we point to other people and suggest that they are poor (implying somehow that we are not.)

I do not believe we understand what we are saying when we label people who do not have the same material means as us as poor. Certainly there is poverty in the world… vast amount s of poverty in fact. But I would suggest that on many levels, we might very well be the impoverished. Wealth comes in many forms. And generosity of character and spirit are the places where true poverty can begin to be combated. I choose to see the wealth in our shared human experience. And it is my hope that my colleagues find this same point of view someday. Until then, I will continue to make the images I believe to be honest and sincere about how we share life on our small blue planet, across our aggressive geographic, economic, and social borders, in our cities, towns and villages, and among friends, family, and beloved.

I agree that we must acknowledge the cultural lenses through which we look at images… but I also believe we must constantly learn to adapt these lenses to liberate ourselves from the limitations of our own points of view so that we might see the world, and more importantly each other, in new, exciting, and more generous ways.

How hopeful for us all.

If you can’t go fishing…

There are moments when sentiments from a complete stranger offer a peek into the character of the person you are meeting for the first–and likely for the last–time. In my recent move to Michigan I had many errands and little details to attend to establish a new home—unpacking, stocking up, cleaning up etc. On a rainy day, I made a trip to the local shopping mall, where I met a young man in the mall elevator. He was well put together. Clean cut, tall, young man with corn braids wearing some sort of work uniform—black pants, white shirt, a smart, patterned vest with a gold / brass name tag.

We waited for the elevator as strangers do without making eye contact or conversation. When the doors finally opened to elevate us, I invited him to enter first. He insisted in a kind and gentle manner that I step on first. Once in the lift with the door closed we stood across from each other in awkward silence. Never caring much for such silence I took advantage of the foul weather… “Crummy weather eh?” I said. I thought it a fairly innocuous comment but he replied with such clarity about where his heart and mind were under the cloud of a long day at work. His return was perfect.

“Yeh, these are the days this place (the mall) gets crazy. I mean if you can’t go fishing, what else will you do?”

So much for poetry

Tonight in a frantic manner, I chased down sixteen copies of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein to leave with my colleagues at Sametz Blackstone Associates. In the chase, I passed through a Barnes and Noble book store where a nice young man at the counter handed me six more copies. Upon flipping the pile over to scan them into his cash register, he noted “Gee, I always had an image of him being an older gentleman.” There was a photograph of the author on the back. “Well, you know, I think he died rather young.” I returned. “Thats a shame.” said the young man. “Yes, but we should be so fortunate to have accomplished so much in a life time…” I said instinctively. Without pause and before I could complete my thought, the young man behind the counter climbed over my sentiment with “Are you a poet sir?” Dumbfounded as to what inspired this young man to cut in with such a question, I responded; “Huh?”

So much for poetry.

A small footnote to the story, I returned home to learn that Shel Silverstein was actually 67 when he passed away. Funny how youth is truly a state of being rather than a chronology of years.

Can I sing for you?

My interaction at Barnes and Noble (see previous post) flashed a vivid memory forward as if I were in the very moment again: While descending the ruins of an ancient Incan site in Peru, I was approached by a young child. The image was quite fantastic; a long stone stair descent to the base from the steep walls of the Sacred Valley. The sun was setting and the sky was a deep Andean November twilight blue. Puffy white clouds dotted across the panoramic sky. Very few tourists.

About twenty steps from the base of Ollantaytambo I met eyes with a small boy no older than ten years. He was expert at his craft of solicitation. I watched him stretch out his hand for some reward and I listened to his proposition. And now, nearly a year later I can not shake the sound of this childs voice asking “Can I sing for you?”

Why isn’t everyone asking this question of each other without recompense? Can I sing for you?

My Sisters

This evening six women who are doing humanitarian relief work in Southern Sudan treated me and my colleagues to a special dinner in celebration of the launch of their new communications program that we all developed. It was a really great moment actually.

These women are remarkable and powerful in their conviction. And even more so in their deeds. They strive every day to mobilize all the necessary resources to eliminate the strife of women in southern Sudan and Darfur. The Sisters are women of sigificant character and therefore significant means. They are a testament to the notion that an idea and the will to bring it to fruition can change the world… and more importantly, is a worthy pursuit even if its only lasting value affects one other person.

They are, of course, affecting countless people and have inspired me and my colleagues to want to do more to help out. You can help out to. Visit My Sisters Keeper online. Everyone plays a role in the peace and happiness of the world. We are all our sisters keeper!

The Sisters are Gloria White Hammond, Cynthia A Bell, Patricia H Brandes, Ashley Lanfer, Sarah Cleto Rial, Liz Walker, and Melinda E. Weekes.