Marica's meanderings

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Stories through different lenses

On Saturday afternoon I went to see the World Press Photo exhibition 2005. It was a freezing cold Wellington afternoon. The exhibition was being held at Shed 11 on the Wellington waterfront.

Shed 11, Wellington waterfront, New Zealand

Shed 11 is now used by the National Art Gallery as a Temporary Contemporary Gallery. This was the first building on the waterfront to be refurbished and opened for public use.

The place was packed with people – possibly because this was the second to last day of the exhibition. The easiest way to view the photos was by joining the end of the queue and following it around the building.

The images of the people in the photographs is what really affected me – the stories of them, their lives, their realities as portrayed through a camera lens. They appealed to my emotions. I smiled. I felt sick. I felt happy. I felt sad. More than all of this, I felt grateful to be alive and to be living my life, as it is here in New Zealand.

As we were leaving my husband drew my attention to a poster. As I read the comments of Diego Goldberg, all I could think about was: “he thinks it’s all about stories too!” I couldn’t get his words out of my mind, so I went back to the exhibition the following day to write them down. I wanted to reflect on them and share them with you. However, I wanted to check it was okay to do this, so I contacted World Press Photo to seek their permission. Today I received an email saying I could go ahead. I am so grateful to them for allowing me to publish these words here.

Comments by Diego Goldberg, Chair of the 2005 jury, World Press Photo exhibition 2005:

When people look at the choices this years jury has made in this exhibition and in the book, they will surely ask themselves, as they do every year: has the world changed? They will look for answers, when one of photography’s strengths, one that it surely does better, is to raise questions.

Photography swims in ambiguities and each image is a trip to the unknown. What, where, when, who? And then, obviously, why? The answer is not in the pictures themselves: they serve only as catalysts that stir conscience and awareness. They trigger our mental databases and encourage reflection and nourish our sensibilities. It’s only with complementary information that we begin to walk the path of understanding.

These pictures are a cross-section sample of the state of the world. Culture clashes and inner demons, waves of sand and waves of water, desperation and hope. And blood.

There’s blood every year and to many this is disturbing, as it should be. But many people look at violent events as something foreign, as spectators in horror, and blame the messengers for the message. We don’t like what we see and we’d rather not look at it. So it is pertinent to ask if it isn’t just that photographers raise mirrors and whether what we are actually seeing is a reflection of ourselves.

Since the time of caves and campfires we’ve huddled together to tell and to hear stories. Through them we build our identities, transmit experience and knowledge and deal with our feelings. We sing and dance and write and paint in one big, endless story about the fight to survive in this planet as a species.

Themes are recurrent: we talk about the same things over and over again, but each generation develops its own way of saying them. Shakespeare wrote about love, and so do we. Troy was invaded and so was Iraq. And we read about the Flood in the Bible while the waves come crashing on the beaches of the Indian Ocean. It’s a need and an urge; that’s the way we’re wired. We’ve evolved and the story of our evolution is written, as another story, in our DNA.

The photographs you are about to see are a celebration of diversity: voices from all over the world, different styles from different cultures, events that defy comprehension and tender moments. In these pictures you will smell flowers and gunpowder. You will touch the skin of babies and feel hunger. You will hear the roar of nature and the silence of grief.

And maybe, just maybe, you will be a bit closer to understanding who we are, which is the ultimate question.

Now look at the photos.

I chose a different photo of the year – this one!

I looked at this photo and all I could think about was inspiration, hope, courage, determination. It made me think of my own life. Why you might ask?

My oldest daughter was with me. She looked at this photo and told me how it brought back vivid memories for her too. She told me her story.

The two stories are very connected. We both looked at the photo and we saw stories connected to Damian - my son and her brother. He was diagnosed with cancer when he was ten years old. He survived his treatment (all two and a bit years of it) but then, when his health didn’t get better, he was eventually diagnosed with an incredibly rare chromosome disorder known as Nijmegen Breakage Syndrome. At the time Damian was the 54th person in the world to be registered with this condition.

Damian is now 22 years old. He has survived against all odds to reach this point, but everyday is a challenge. What I saw in this picture at the exhibition was that no matter how difficult Damian’s life may be, or ours may be, there are many, many other people worse off. We have each other, we are loved and in reality we want for nothing. None of us knows what lies ahead and as Diego Goldberg writes above: “the story of our evolution is written, as another story, in our DNA”. Oh, the stories hidden in DNA!

My daughter’s story relating to this photograph was about her experiences being around teenagers with cancer – the fun, the laughter, and the incredible sadness when the disease took over and battles were lost. She looked at the photo and remembered going to CanTeen camps and activities, where it became normal to see limbs lying around. She told me about a time she walked into a bedroom she was sharing with three other girls, and lying in the middle of the floor was a leg. Then there was the time they went to the beach and one of the Canteeners took off his leg before going for a swim. Isn’t it interesting how quickly different can become normal! “Normal” is whatever we understand it to be. It is what we learn to live with and what we accept. Telling stories helps.

There is a wonderful book called Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Remen. She writes:

Everybody is a story. When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is a way the wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us to live a life worth remembering. Despite the awesome powers of technology many of us do not live very well. We may need to listen to each other’s stories once again.

Real stories take time. We stopped telling stories when we started to lose that sort of time, pausing time, reflecting time, wondering time. Life rushes us along and few people are strong enough to stop on their own. Most often, something unforeseen stops us and it is only then we have the time to take a seat at life’s kitchen table.

As human beings, and as educators, we need to listen. We need to take time to hear the stories of others, and also to know our own stories. Experiential learning in action if you like. To feel, is to be alive.

I highly recommend you attend the World Press Photo exhibition 2005, if you have the opportunity. There is nothing like seeing the photos in front of you – it is very different to seeing an image on a small screen.

Oh yes, I almost forgot - make sure you take the time to review the 50 years gallery which contains all the World Press Photo of the Year winners since 1955. Some of them will be very familiar to you, like the photo from 1972.