"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

what are the chances indeed?

I had to reread this email several times to make sure it was real. This is an unbelievable coincidence, and I am looking forward to getting together with Shawna and her son this weekend!

“My name is Shawna and I live in Lee's Summit, Mo. I am a secretary at an elementary school. A co-worker gave me a UMKC publication, New Letters, to look at because I had just returned from Africa in October with a 13-year-old boy who we are adopting. My son's name is Salvation Joseph and he is from an orphanage in Kajjansi. He has attended St. Mary Kevin and knows some of the children who are there.

What are the chances that my co-worker has this book and that there are pictures from Kajjansi and then to find out that our new son knows some friends? I had no choice but to write and say hi and to introduce myself!! Especially after reading your web site and your thoughts of the kids in Kajjansi and what their reaction to snow would be!!! I can tell you that my son ran outside with his short sleeve shirt on to be able to feel the weight of the snow on his skin. It was like a blind person seeing for the first time. He loved sledding and he loves being cold and feeling the cold air. He tells me, 'Mom, I like being cold. I have been hot my whole life.' He is the most remarkable child (a mom bragging). I have three birth children who are also remarkable in that they have opened their lives, hearts and arms and embraced him into the family fold.

My story of how I got to know Africa and Kajjansi and now have a 13-year-old son from this country is a story I would love to share with you.

I look forward to hearing from you and exchanging how our lives changed in a small village in Kajjansi, Uganda.”

Monday, January 29, 2007

a letter from gloria babirye, one of our sponsored students

"I am called Gloria. I lost my mother when I was still young and I never saw my father since child hood. When my mother died, I was taken to my grandmother and during time I was not studying.

The local council chairman one time came to our home and told my grandmother about St. Mary Kevin Orphanage. He took me there and I was accepted to start studying and staying at the orphanage in Primary Five.

When I completed Primary Seven, I had to start Senior One. The director and uncle Michael looked for me a senior school near the orphanage but this senior school could not understand my problem, they used to chase me out of class because of fees.

It was one evening when the orphanage manager Michael called us and gave us good news that there is no more chasing us out of class, that there is an organization called Change the Truth who is going to start sponsoring us. I got so happy; I cannot believe that I am like other children now, I can get shelter food and education."

My friends, this is what it's all about. Thank you.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

pen pal letter

"Hello. I am twelve years old. I am about five feet tall and weigh about 88 pounds. I have hazel eyes and brownish hair. I have lots of hobbies. Some are the following: Beatles, stars, horses, horse racing, basketball, soccer, going to dances, climbing trees and playing with my little sister. I like to eat, if it is something I like. I eat lots of sweets, which I should try to get away from. I used to chew lots of bubblegum, but when I got 5 cavities I cut down on it. I love to sleep late in the morning. I love to collect stuffed animals and I sleep with them, no matter how big or small. I love television. That is how I waste all my time when there is nothing to do. I like to cook, especially cakes, breakfasts and cookies. I love to baby-sit with younger kids, which I am not yet old enough to do. I have about 10 little friends who love it when I come to play with them. I really can’t wait for when I’m old enough to baby-sit. I love to collect Beatle pictures and listen to their songs. I love any rock and roll groups and will take almost anybodys picture to put on my door. I love sports. Basketball, soccer, swimming and football are my favorites. I forgot to add track. I love to compete against others while running 600 yards or something like that. I also love to camp out. Camp is a blast too, because we canoe, campout, cook and sleep with all the wildernessy things. By the way, I love animals, too. Mostly cute, little ones, such as puppies, chicks, kittens. I like school. It’s pretty much fun after you get to know everybody and learn how the day runs. I make pretty good grades and make lots of friends at school. Well, I think that I have said enough about myself, so…… what’s your name?"

With all the talk lately about the pen pals from Uganda, someone asked me recently if I had a pen pal when I was younger. Apparently I wanted one. This letter was written by me in 1966, but never mailed.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

bye-bye scp

In 1984, a bunch of photography enthusiasts gathered on a monthly basis in the basement of a Kansas City doctor - a photo collector and founder of the group - to hammer out the mission and goals for a fledgling organization called the Society for Contemporary Photography. We were a glorified camera club at first. SCP grew into a downtown gallery space and started having exhibitions of local and regional photographers, then grew in to a larger space and started having shows by nationally known photo-based artists. SCP sponsored the well respected and highly anticipated annual juried show, “Current Works”, featuring internationally recognized curators as its jurors and important works by emerging photographers in its exhibitons.

As of mid-February, SCP will be no more.

Kathy Aron Dowell, the current director and curator, announced today: “When the SCP began, most established institutions and galleries did not accept photography as a ‘viable’ fine art medium. Our mission was clear. Since that time, the photographic community has accomplished a great deal, and we now find photography exhibits and educational opportunities flourishing around the globe. Of course, this is good news for photography, but it also means that photo-centric organizations like SCP face funding challenges alongside institutions with much larger development, staffing and/or Board resources.”

Is this a case of “be careful what you wish for”?

Luckily for Kansas City, we have the Nelson-Atkins Museum, and we have Keith Davis. Since the Hallmark Photographic Collection was acquired by the museum and Keith was kept at the helm, this city will finally get the recognition it deserves for its significant photography holdings, as well its curator who is easily one of the most well respected and knowledgeable photo historians in the country (also a very nice guy).

I guess it was a good run. Twenty-three years. I guess, too, that none of us in Tony’s basement back in those early days could ever have imagined what SCP would eventually become. It does sound kind of unimaginable that photography was not considered a “viable fine art medium.” We’ve come a long way.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

good news!

The Change the Truth fund has made its first grant. Six children who cannot afford secondary school tuition will share our initial gift. These young people, who range in age from 13 to 15 years old, are:

Shamim Nambatya
Florence Namaganda
Edward Male
Vincent Emma
Henry Ssemanda
Gloria Babirye

The fees for secondary school in the Kampala area are $95.00 per term, and there are three terms per school year. These kids want to beat the odds that are stacked against them and are so happy that we’ll be able help them fulfill their dreams. I hope to be able to post something on the blog written by these six students in the near future. You will realize then just how excited and appreciative these girls and boys are.

There are many more at the orphanage who would like to further their education once they have finished their classes at St. Mary Kevin’s. For the younger kids, there are books to buy and classroom supplies to provide. On a more basic level, there are bed sheets that are needed for comfort at night, food and clothing that are needed just to get through the day. There is much more for us to do. If you have not already done so, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the fund. Make your check payable to the Change the Truth Fund and mail it to the Jewish Community Foundation, 5801 West 115th Street, Overland Park, Kansas 66211. It takes just a little to help a lot.


Monday, January 22, 2007

enough already

Kansas City was hit hard with ice and then snow, and I, for one, am ready for spring. Eddie fell on the ice while fetching our newspaper early in the morning and broke his shoulder. Surgery seems to be on the agenda for the immediate future, followed by physical therapy. Snow days were fun when we were really young.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

a very cool kid

I have a young friend - he's 14 - who's a very good artist and also a very good soul. His name is Lee. He and his younger brother, Paul, started a a collection for the children at St. Mary Kevin's as soon as they heard about my trip to Uganda and the Change the Truth Fund. The collection depository took the form of a mason jar. It was placed in the family room on top of the t.v. and everyone in the family has been encouraged to drop in their change at the end of the day. Well, all these days later, the jar holds $84.48, which Lee has just presented to me.

Here's Lee, in his own words:

"I am surprised at how much money we raised. I never missed any of the money that went in to the jar. I don't think that anyone really misses the money. This cause is also very easy to give to. I know that in the "real world" $84 isn't that much money, but for this organization it can help a lot. I will continue to put money in the jar and I hope the best for Gloria and what she is doing."

Friday, January 19, 2007


Elizabeth took this picture while we workshop students were in the village of Buyingi in the distict of Rakai. It just found its way to me yesterday. I love it. It immediately takes me back to the feelings of pure joy the children had upon seeing one of us "mazungu" walk down the road. The kids just ran up and grabbed a hand, a finger, an arm, whatever was available, or just skipped alongside. It's hard to describe how utterly wonderful this can make you feel. At least, that's how it made ME feel. I can't help looking at this and just smiling. I also can't help looking at this and trying to figure out how soon I can return to Africa.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

a dream i had

Does a photograph tell the whole story? Or does it just reveal a slice of a truth that is revealing itself to the photographer at that particular instant? Maybe it’s not a truth at all; instead a mixture of the photographer’s perceptions, projections and ideals. It’s easy to look at a photo and believe it, and believe that the photographer was simply trying to capture or describe a moment. But when you think about it, about all the choices that have to be made before, during and after a picture is taken, all the complexities that define the person taking the picture, and the relationship of that person to the subject being photographed, it becomes possible to imagine that a photograph is actually a statement about who the photographer is.

I had a dream last night that I had to spend the day walking through my world with a huge assembly of other shooters. And it wasn’t just a normal day. At every turn, at every moment, there was a glorious photographic opportunity. In the dream, we whipped out our cameras in unison and began to record the incredible scenes and people that were unfolding before our disbelieving eyes. The light was perfect, too. No one spoke – there was no chatter about shutter speeds, ISO ratings, or even mega pixels. It was eerily calm as this throng of photographers quietly and thoughtfully made personal decisions about framing, whether to focus or not, whether to shoot from above or below, to tilt the camera or keep it straight, to use a flash or natural light - things like that (not to mention whether or not to give directions to the subject). We were men and women from different parts of the world, old and young, many different colors and religions, rich and poor. I found myself getting frustrated, and I finally put my camera away.

I guess I was afraid that my photographs would ultimately look like everyone else’s.

But when I awoke in a sweat, I had to remind myself that that’s not really possible. We each see things through our own set of lenses. And these are colored by our own struggles, pain, conflicts and joys. The good news about this seemingly tortured dream is that every photo taken by this collection of shooters would have been different. The variations may have been small, perhaps even difficult to detect. But they would have been meaningful, and they would, in the end, tell a story about who was positioned behind the camera. Maybe that’s really what the “whole story” is all about.

Finding one’s voice as an artist is hard.

It’s also what makes doing this, day after day, an exhilarating process of self-discovery.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

a blog to bookmark

Photographers seeking opportunities to exhibit or publish work should definitely bookmark Mary Virginia Swanson's blog. Many of you probably know her and understand how invaluable her information is; now that she has a blog, the lists of opportunities are revised on a daily basis and provide a comprehensive view of what's going on.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

change the truth update

Good things continue to happen! The Change the Truth fund has grown to the point that we are ready to make our first contributions to St. Mary Kevin Orphanage Motherhood. I asked Michael to send me the names of six students who are ready to begin or continue secondary school (this level involves kids who are 12 – 16 years old) but cannot afford the fees. He has given me their names, along with a commitment to following their progress and keeping us abreast of their situations. We will make our first grants, thanks to the generosity of you, the readers of this blog. You are to be congratulated. This is an accomplishment I never dreamt would happen quite this soon! I am extremely grateful for your interest in and enthusiastic support of this project. You and I can only imagine the excitement and hope that these six children will feel because we simply got together and decided to change their truth. I only hope that many, many more children will benefit as we move ahead.

I am busy printing the photographs for the April exhibition. The show will open on April 27th at the Leopold Gallery, which has just announced that it will be relocating to the Brookside area of Kansas City. I am thrilled that the show will be in my own beloved neighborhood. We are planning a wonderful opening reception, including a performance by a local group of African drummers and the sale of beaded jewelry made by the children of St. Mary Kevin’s. A portion of the proceeds of all print sales are already committed to the Change the Truth Fund.

Susan, a filmmaker from Minneapolis, is headed to Uganda in three weeks and has graciously committed to spending a day at St. Mary Kevin’s to create some footage of the grounds, the children, the teachers, etc. for use in the fund raising presentation I’ll be putting together this spring. She will also take pictures of the children who have become pen pals to many of you. I’ll be sure to get those to you pen pal correspondents in late February! She will also take pictures of and speak with the children we’ll be sending to secondary school. I think it will be nice for us all to be able to see these children’s faces and to hear their stories. I think that what you will find so inspiring about them is that what they want, more than anything, more than an electronic gizmo, more than a car and more than cool clothes is a clean, pressed uniform, some books and the opportunity to learn.

Please consider sharing information about Change the Truth with someone you know who might be interested in learning more about the orphanage and how to help out.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

water (and this is weird)

Those of you who know my work know that I have a fascination - photographic at least - with water. I talk about memories of being in water as a child in the essay I wrote for Convergence. I love to photograph things, people in water, water itself. I've not given much thought to why, what it means, or anything. I just know I love the way water transforms - the ways things connected to water seem open and endless and always changing.

That brings me to the first weird part of this post. Soon after my mother died, I took a little retreat to a spa in Sedona - one of those places where you can get real new agey if you want - to spend a few days immersed in bodywork, memorywork, crystals, aromatherapy, hiking, meditation, etc. The long and short of it is this: I found a place to store my mother's memory, a place I can get to easily - and it is a visual of a river. In fact, the two of us are in this river together. Seems strange, I know. But it is comforting to feel connected to her in this way whenever I want to conjure up the picture in my mind.

Okay, now it gets even weirder.

Now and then I do trades with people for portraits. I recently made a portrait of Daniel (a young man who works with Eddie and who is also an illustrator) and his family in exchange for a drawing he promised to make for me. He said he'd like to work from a photo, so I gave him one of my favorites old photos - a wonderful picture of my mom and me, standing on a sidewalk beneath an archway of trees while on vacation in Williamsburg. My mom looks Jackie Kennedy gorgeous and is very stylish. I am probably seven or so, looking a little disheveled, my camera hanging around my neck and my saddle shoes slightly scuffed.

Daniel doesn't know me or my work. He doesn't know anything about me, really, certainly nothing about my experience in Sedona. But he took the liberty of changing one thing in his drawing.

I don't know why he did this, but he changed the sidewalk to a river. My mother and I are standing in a river.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

giddy up

My dad is doing pretty well.

Among his daily activities is a walk to the corner with his morning caregiver, George, a kind, attentive seventy-seven year man who also works at the horse track during racing season. Considering that the last time I was here (October), Dad could only get from the bed to the wheelchair (with assistance), these daily treks are significant.

Yesterday we drove through horse country to Berea for lunch. On the way back, we traveled through areas that used to be horse kingdoms, but have now been chopped up into cookie cutter subdivisions.

Yes, I grew up in the capital of the Horse. Even though my sister and I spent a few of our youthful summers at Longview Riding Camp, and later, as an adult, I owned my own imposing, well-schooled quarter horse and even showed her a couple of times, I have never even remotely considered myself a horsewoman. (A cowgirl maybe, but that’s about as far as I let the wishful thinking go). Anyhow, yesterday my thoughts drifted back to the horse-loving days of my childhood.

As soon as I was old enough to run fast, I began riding an imaginary horse. I galloped around everywhere on this guy - to school, to play with friends, to my grandparents’ house, you name it. I would tie my horse up at the front door, where he would wait patiently for me, and then I’d climb up on his back for the ride home when it was time to go. My favorite adventure with this imaginary stallion took place when we rode out to California together with the rest of my family. Unfortunately, I did have to spend quite a lot of time in the car, but it was easy enough to tie him up to the back fender and let him run along behind us on the highway.

For a short period of time, and I do mean short - six days to be exact - I actually owned my own pony.

My parents surprised me with him for my 10th birthday. He was suspiciously unkempt and had a mischievous glint in his eyes, but he was small and cute and had black and white spots. (I named him Salt and Pepper). We kept him on a small piece of property my dad owned at the time. I gleefully rode him on my birthday, the day I got him, whooping and hollering and doing my best to be out west somewhere penning cattle and keeping a lookout for Indians. I went back six days later to ride him on my brother’s birthday. Since I didn’t have a saddle or even a bridle yet, it was all “bareback and grab the mane” for this lil cowgal. At some point during our roundup on this second day together, my new pony became terribly excited when a nearby farm dog started chasing a nearby rabbit. Trusty old Salt and Pepper decided to start chasing both the dog and the rabbit, and well, as you can guess, I eventually ended up on the hard dirt wailing, sporting a left wrist which had been snapped in two different places.

After an emergency run to the hospital and some late night birthday cake with my brother and the rest of the family who had waited up for us, my father completed his first and last foray into the horse business. The “gentle” horse for which he had skillfully negotiated (he revealed to me today that the agreed upon sum was thirty dollars) was promptly sold.

So much for this girl’s dreams of becoming the next Dale Evans.

My dad is doing pretty well. We have had some good laughs together, and we’ve had some nice, quite moments together. Mostly, though, I think we enjoy remembering and sharing the good stuff from the past.

Monday, January 08, 2007

moving on

And now I am in Kentucky, visiting my father in the house our family has lived in since 1960, sleeping in my old bed with the pink and green floral dust ruffle in my old bedroom with the matching pink and green floral wallpaper. Of course, it is easy to feel eight, twelve, sixteen years old again when I am under this roof.

Since my mother died, the sounds and smells and rhythms of the house have changed. But little else has. Things have not been rearranged here. It is very easy to simply forget that she is gone and sit in the kitchen waiting for her to waltz in wearing her long silk robe to cook up some French toast for breakfast.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

team justin

We returned to “Bubbie’s house” to finish pulling the last of the nails, toss the rest of the trash, and sweep up the remaining bits of dry wall, insulation, broken glass, rusty nails and ceiling tiles.

We put off throwing the remainder of dishes, glassware, vases, silverware, books, etc. into the debris pile until the afternoon, just before we were ready to leave. It was heartbreaking to throw these things away. The son of the homeowners had already sifted through these items, and we had been given instructions to dispose of what he had left behind. No more than fifteen minutes after we reluctantly added these once beautiful things to the huge pile of disgusting, moldy junk, a car pulled up and idled in front of the house. There were two African American women inside. They rolled down the window and stared at the sad scene – the house taken down to its studs, the towering pile of garbage in the front yard.

Some voice somewhere told me to go over and introduce myself to the two women. I learned that they were mother and daughter, and that the mother had been the family’s housekeeper for fifteen years. These were “her people” she said. She told me she just needed to come by and see the place one last time.

Yes, of course! She would love to have the dishes that had not been broken when we tossed them onto the trash heap. Well certainly, she would love to gather a few mementos. We walked through the house together, and she showed me which corner of the living room the piano had been in and talked about how the grandchildren used to love playing it. She explained to me which side of the kitchen the dairy dishes were kept and where the Passover dishes were stored. She showed me where a set of handsome portraits of the six sons had hung on the wall. She recalled that she used to make the family’s favorite, fried chicken, on special occasions. Yes, everyone called the woman who lived here “Bubbie” (how did you know, she wondered). She said that this is so much for her to bear but that she has had to endure a lot of pain and sadness and loss over the past year and a half.

She and her daughter loaded the dishes, a moldy quilt (she told me it had sentimental value) a couple of pretty crystal vases, a warped, faded and badly scratched photograph of the six grown sons and a chipped mug that said Bubbie on it into the back seat of the car. They lingered for a while before they pulled away.

Our team, which we named for our foreman, then piled into the van and took a drive through the lower 9th Ward. It was an emotional ending to an emotional day.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

who we are

The “camp” has swelled in size to close to 150 people now. Four groups joined ours yesterday afternoon: folks from a church, a Christian sports camp, volunteers from Americorps and a huge group of students from Rutgers. It’s impressive that so many college kids are willing to give up part of their break to help others.

The group from Nechama consists of about 45 people from all across the country. We range in age from late teens to mid seventies. Everyone is a mensch, in the true sense of the word. We are Jews and non-Jews. We are students and retirees, medical professionals, social service workers, business people. The team with whom I worked yesterday was made up of all women, with the exception of one (very sweet) guy and our foreman. It was very cool to do such heavy, hard, manual labor as a group of women. It felt really good and really empowering.

I was among those selected to stay back at the camp today to do the cleaning detail. I am taking a break from mopping so I can post this. I’ll probably have the afternoon to myself, so I plan on wandering around on my own making pictures.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

day three

This morning we entered the wrecked, former home of an elderly Jewish couple. It was obvious from the parve, meat and dairy signs on the dish cabinets, the tzedakah boxes, and Kiddush cups, among other things. (Trust me, this could have been Bubbie's house). Unbelievably, there was still food in the pantry. The couple has since moved to New Jersey – the husband has Alzheimers. Their son is affiliated with Tulane. I assume the house will eventually be put on the market.

There had been eight feet of water in this neighborhood. The water settled at five feet and stood there for a long while. The house was a mess. Mold, cockroaches, maggots, mice, and mostly ruined stuff.

This work we’re doing is important, I suppose, and it makes us all feel really good to be pitching in. But one has to wonder if the recovery of these outlying areas of New Orleans is really an attainable goal. The devastation is so huge; it’s impossible to truly wrap your mind around it. Even if three or four families from each block do restore their homes and do return to these neighborhoods that are in the flood plane, how will the sparsely populated communities ever really function on a full scale again? And, of course, what if another category four or five hurricane rips through this part of the world again? Sam, who was born and raised here, and who clearly loves New Orleans, has caused me to begin thinking about this on a different and perhaps more realistic level, and with each ounce of physical effort I now invest in this monumental task (and oh, we are such a miniscule part of what is being done and what remains to be done), I consider more and more the alternative possibilities and solutions.

On the other hand, how can you possibly deny someone their neighborhood… their home?

More photos.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

days one and two in nola

Crow bars, pry bars, MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), more dust and mold than you can shake a fist at (and you know lots of fists have been shaken down here during the past 16 months since Katrina hit) hard hats, face masks, piles of debris, ruined family photos, cockroaches, heavy hearts and sore muscles. Kind of sums up my first two days on the job with Nechama.

The first day my team and I worked on a house in the neighborhood of Arabi. We finished the job of taking it down to the studs. We removed a million nails, sheet rock, molding, floor tile, etc. At the end of the day we power washed the inside of the house, making our work truly sparkle. We applied three different coats of stuff, the last being Clorox, to prevent more mold from growing. It was when I was shooting the water on the beams, though, that it struck me how odd it was that the powerful force of water was again making a connection with this house, this time in a more healing fashion, of course. But I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like when the water rushed in on that horrible day in August, 2005.

The idea is that the family who lived in the house will come back and start over. The houses we are gutting are owned by people who put their names on a list with an organization called Operation Blessing, and that list is being shared with groups like ours who come down to help.

Today we worked in the lower 9th Ward. The destruction down there goes on and on and on. Some people have come back, but honestly we did not see too many of them. During our lunch break, I wandered into the house next door to the one we were gutting. Nat and Clara, the homeowners, were there gathering belongings from their second floor to take back to their FEMA trailer, which is parked, in Clara’s sister’s front yard. The water had gotten as high as the ceiling on the first floor, so most things upstairs were salvageable. Well, except for the part of the house that the tree fell on.

The past two nights I have had dinner with Sam and Abbie. It’s been wonderful seeing them. Last night they gave me a bunch of Advil, a heating pad and a pile of soft blankets, and I slept quite happily on their couch.

Here are some photos I have made the past couple of days.