Ok, time to get back to posting on this blog. I switched my WordPress site to SquareSpace.com and didn’t like it. I stopped posting, so I guess that is good evidence to quit Square space. My plan is to start posting weekly again. Now I just have to learn WordPress all over again. And avoid the temptation to get caught up in buying a new theme and other time eating distractions.
Every photographer must have a story about the photo they never captured. My story still haunts me. I can close my eyes and still vividly see the images I could not photograph. I was traveling in Asia with an NGO, (non government organization). We were building homes for people left homeless by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. The director had been asked to come to a prison and look at possibly providing some materials for a project in the prison to replace some toilets. He asked me to come along with him to possibly photograph and document the need.
We arrived at a massive fortress of brick and stone that looked foreboding and ominous. There is no feeling quite like walking through massive iron gates and hearing them banging shut closed behind you. No horror movie can send that kind of chill down your back. But before we were allowed to enter past the second set of gates to enter the prison compound, I was asked to leave my camera behind. No amount of arguing and pleading could convince the guards otherwise, even a plea to higher authority made no ground. Asking a photographer to give up his camera and not to take photos is like asking a very pregnant woman after 30 hours of labor to not push.
Reluctantly I left my equipment and entered a prison that was made for 200 inmates but what now held 800 prisoners. 800 men dressed in white pajama, prison garb. Hundreds of them peered down through iron bars and hundreds more were milling around the grounds. I took note of how our height and white skin made us stand out like sunflowers in a poppie field. I pondered the thoughts of how few guards there were compared to the hundreds of prisoners I saw.
The sights I saw made me ache for my camera. How could I not record the things I was seeing? I was seeing something very few Westerners ever see. The more I saw the more I ached and the more I started praying. I prayed, “God never let me forget what I am seeing.” I had the idea that even if I could not photograph what I saw, that maybe I could draw or paint it later.
We walked through the grounds toward the project they wanted to show us. An acrid stench attacked us that was so horrible it defies any analogy I could give. We rounded the corner of a building and come into clear view of what was causing the horrible smell. There was a long row of about 30, little, concrete block, outhouse buildings, each the size of a man. Each little cement shack had a short half wall door for scant privacy. Half of the buildings were fairly new, the other half were in horrible condition. Raw sewage ran freely from them into a drainage ditch that wound to an open sewer.
We were told the city had sued the prison for releasing raw sewage into the storm drain system. There was no money to fix the problem. We were told that they had the manpower to do the project, prisoner labor, of course. Could we possibly provide the bricks, then the problem could be fixed. We promised to take the project back and try to get approval.
We continued our tour of the facility and saw so many things that I wished I could have photographed. There was a large open kitchen where inmates prepared a kind of fish soup in the most enormous vats I have ever seen. I saw a bathing area that was a large round elevated pool of water where a hundred prisoners stripped bare to the waist stood around splashing themselves with water. We were shown a workshop where one man with one ancient sewing machine sat and made little school uniforms. The little garments were sold to raise some, much needed but scant, income for the prison. But one man and one machine seemed so little.
And then in the middle of all of this we met a diminutive inmate with a great grand smile. He introduced him self as a preacher. He was so encouraged to see us and told us in his broken English how God was using him in the prison to bring hope. I have never ceased to wonder at all the places I have been, places where I thought God must have forgotten people and left them. But God shows me He has men that He has chosen and sent into the uttermost parts of the earth to show His love. This small man appeared like a giant for the work he was doing.
Finally, we were taken to the prison commander’s office to speak more about what we could do for the problem. We were offered hot tea. I declined the offer of a beverage. I think I was so overwhelmed by what I saw that I thought saving one cup of tea could somehow provide more money for the prison. The director of our NGO looked at me and intoned that he thought I should drink the tea. I understood quickly that my action was an in-hospitable act and I need to drink a cup of tea when offered to be gracious to our host. So I accepted a second offer and tried to amend my slight to our host.
It was good to get my camera gear back and be let through those massive gates once again. I took a few shots of the outside of the prison, but they don’t really reveal any of what I saw inside. Those images are seared in my mind instead.
I’m happy to say that our organization did provide the needed materials for the project. And that is what was important. Yet I always ask is there more I can do? Could I possibly send some new sewing machines to the prison to provide some needed prisoner rehabilitation? Why do I still see these images so vividly? What can I do with them? Maybe telling the story is part of the answer.
I like this shot. I like the color, the composition, the border, but most of all what I like is the mystery. Everything in the photo, the angle of the veil, the contrast of lights and darks, the contrast of the bright floral colors and imagined color in the shadows, the bare shoulder, it all draws your eyes to those lips. The lips whisper the bride’s story. What do you hear her whispering? What story is she telling?
Floods, hurricanes and tornadoes leave people’s lives strewn everywhere. As you walk through a home devastated by a storm you see every former possession of the family that once lived there. It is like everything was put into a blender and then poured throughout the entire home. Like a keepsake gravy that has seeped into every nook and cranny. Each item looks up at you and screams tell my story. A muddy and storm bedraggled dolly still cries of the loss from the child who once played with her. A bigmouth Billy Bass, still in its original box sings the blues that it was a gift never given. A homemade, hand-painted Christmas star made out of pine, tells of holiday memories made in this home. But this keepsake now rides high in a wheelbarrow that will deposit it in a heap. The heap that waits for an end-loader to dump it in a truck. The truck will take it to a designated site where all of the keepsake gravy is poured into larger and and ever larger piles.
The home is eventually swept clean of all the 2 x 4 driftwood, venomous snakes, stinking, moldy drywall and all the keepsake gravy. Then it is sprayed with a chlorine bleach mixture to make it inhabitable by humans again. The past is sterilized. A family will start a new life in this home. The life of a survivor. And new keepsakes, with fresh memories, will adorn the walls once again.
It’s OK to question your faith. Often in the midst of crisis or a disaster people ask “Why God?” or “Where is God?” A few days ago, an enormous earthquake caused mass destruction in the country of Haiti. People are asking why God? God is big enough to handle questions and He will answer yours.
I have traveled with Service International to many disasters sites. I’ve helped people hurt by war, hurricane, tsunami, poverty and hunger. I’ve seen some pretty horrible sites of human suffering. I’ve asked the question, too.
I found my answer on the first trip I took with Service International to Zimbabwe, Africa. I was at a low point in my life, battling depression… and questioning God. I had a long standing question for God. My question usually came after I saw God do something good. Then I would ask, “Yeah, but what about the starving children in Africa.” I think I had come to believe that God was evident in our wealthy churches in America, but was not to be found in Africa. I kind of think God was tired of the question and decided the best way to answer it was to take me to Africa and show me.
Africa changed me. I got there and found it worse than I had imagined. I experienced some awful sites of poverty, hunger and AIDS. I found my faith lacking. After God emptied me of all of the junk I was full of, He began to show me just how much He cared for the children of Africa. He showed me the enormous faith that the people in Africa had in the midst of the many challenges they face there. I saw some true faith displayed by people who I thought I was going to show my faith to. And I saw God do amazing things for the children of Africa whom He loves so much.
Today, I heard a new anchor on CNN asking “Why God?” He got his answer from a reporter on the ground in Haiti who said that he did not see the earthquake survivors asking why. Instead he was incredulous that they were thanking God and praising Him. They knew the earthquake was not caused by a loving God. They knew that He was their hope and only salvation.
What the earthquake survivors may not know is how God is tugging at the hearts of the world to help the people of Haiti. Some people will go and some will give. And there are those who will do nothing but blame God. I encourage you to question Him instead. He has your answer. I’ve found mine. I will be going to Haiti to help hurting people. Maybe your answer is there too.
More of my story of my experience in Africa can be found at my website “Heart of a Cobbler”.
Randy Travis is a unique performer. His deep, distinctive voice is easily recognized on the radio. But he is unique as a person too. I’ve had the privilege of photographing him on several occasions when he performed with his band at a small, intimate, venue at St. Louis Family Church in Chesterfield, MO. In this setting Randy is given the opportunity to relax and really open up. He has shared some very personal things with the audience and the audience in return allows him the freedom to get real.
Randy and his wife Elizabeth, donated a fully outfitted truck and utility trailer to Service International. It was extensively used for relief work for Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Katrina, and for flood projects in Missouri. I mention it as just one example of how I have been able to see Randy Travis. I’ve had the privilege to see him as few people can see a star of his prominence. I’ve seen his love in action. He is more than a good song. He is the real deal.