August 25, 2013
It was a dark and stormy night. The rain came tumbling down and from where I sat before the open door and the windows ajar, I could feel a gust of calm, cool, and collected air steal across my skin. Maybe it was the weed or maybe it was the wine or maybe it was that I did not eat, but whatever it was, it invited the heavens through my crown chakra and my eyes lit up in flame as a light flickered in the candle of my brain.
We were speaking of spirits and ghosts, I mean, mostly it was me speaking, most people don’t speak on it so much. So it’s just me adrift in the ether, trying to find the words for the ineffable. And that’s when I understood, it was so much bigger than this. I thought about humans, about how we are the only creatures with two hemispheres to the brain, how evolution has produced this left hemisphere that goes against Nature itself. Ahh, the left brain, home to sequential thinking and language and meaning. The left brain, the thing upon which all of civilization was founded. All thought, all interpretation, all rules, all punishment, all ways in which we structure our very lives are created by, umm, well, some freak mutation in evolution.
The left brain, the thing that allows us to conceptualize Armageddon, is the thing which makes it possible for us to live into the actualization of total annihilation. But annihilation of ourselves and our world and our dreams, for how else will Nature regulate the species that has climbed its way to the top of the food chain except to program it to finish itself off, because that is poetic justice for all we have wrought? But that’s not my point. My point is this: all the Universe is right brain, because everywhere else the left does not exist.
Everything is space and time in its purest sense, and not an interpretation of things. It is shapes, colors, sounds, vibrations, energies, frequencies, things we are attuned to, so more that most, some taking things to the next level. To hear symphonies clear and take note, to transcribe them onto a scale so that when hands play and splay the piano, your energy is felt as though you never died but are alive each and every time your song is played. That it is in these energies that we become eternal, and this is why we seek legacy. To exist long after life is gone and be one with the Universe through its continuity of form. To understand the greatest questions of all: What is the meaning of life? What is life itself?
I never bothered to ask, until I did not know. I just went on autopilot until the engines blew. And then I had to start again. Because I never asked myself the question: What’s it all about?
So many possibilities occurred but the first one was not reality. I had hit the age where my body overrides, and neon signs started flashing. Last. Chance. Motel. (ohh myy). There was a moment that fluttered haplessly by, a moment where I considered the possibility of a child but yea. No. Lies. But! I figured, Children. That’s what Nature wants. Couldn’t be more clear about it, only me…
I’m more Mannered than Natural, which might explain why I think of Freud’s theory of sublimation, explaining the male impulse to create, to make something out of nothing using only his mind, his mouth, and his hands. It’s like Zeus giving birth to Athena. It’s clean, uncomplicated. It has it’s own complexities but all told, it’s a narcissistic impulse. Life, like art, requires balance, and it requires intention, otherwise it’s for its own sake. Art, like life, requires activism to be a force of transformation in the world.
“Everything is art. Everything is politics,” said Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist imprisoned by authorities for speaking freely. Let’s bring it back to this. The freedom of speech is the freedom of thought, the freedom of the individual to fully assert his and her view upon the world (cause it’s all interpretative left brain thinking, in the end). The simple act of blogging, so banal in its ubiquity yet so entrancing in its success, is an act of declaration, an intention set upon the world. In our every word, act, and thought we are forever answering the question: What’s it all about?
For me, it is communication. It is the image and the word. It is the force of personality that allows their creation to change our perception of reality. It is to collaborate, contribute, and to tell the untold. It is to shine the brightest light in the darkest corners, or to take that light and diffuse it with a veil and to cast a muted shadow across a sparkling netherworld. It is feeling, it is a current to sweep away, not only myself but everyone who reads my words and fill them with the spirit that holds me captive in its ethereal embrace and whispers secrets in my ear it knows that I will tell, ohh yess ..
I believe Life Is Predetermined in Retrospect. The illusion of choice is a psychological necessity, but it was only ever going to be exactly what it was. Enlightenment is seeing where we are going years, decades, centuries ahead of the world. Enlightenment is finding the light inside the shines bright, intense, the flame that flickers and burns through and beyond day. It is knowing that meaning is an illusion cast by the machinations of the left brain. Nature gave us this blessing, this curse, this Pandora’s box of words, words, more words to be spoken, told, written and read. Words, we think and speak and breathe in words, symbols, copies of the original idea we can never fully create.
But we strive, we desire, we admire, we pursue, because we are creatures of mind, heart, body, and soul, and it is with out full being that we evolve and grow. We live into the very possibility we imagine in the deepest, darkest aspects of existence we can barely name, and from this nothing comes everything because they are one and the same.
This is my math. But first we must be whole, fully realized, integrated from the fragments that have accrued throughout our lives. Broken, shattered, scattered shards, slivers, and splinters, held together, falling apart, forever moving forward and looking backward. We are ten thousand things, and then we are one, and when we are whole again, we go through the looking glass to where nothingness is everything it is—
The ether. Michael Jackson said, “People ask me how I make music. I tell them I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song.” And I think about that a lot, how when I stop my mind from chattering I can hear the words. Like, Take this down, on some dictation ishh, and then I realize the cosmic joke of saying, I am a writer, because I ain’t writing ishh.
I’m listening. It’s always being told. We are like dogs—or like Beethoven, if you prefer—we can hear things other creatures don’t. We are given messages, and they are always coming. When resistance ends acceptance begins and the feeling of everything shifts. It’s quite simple to understand, but difficult to master. That’s part of the path, it seems, learning how to walk with grace. But it is to each their own that the answers come, and sometimes it is not the answer so much as the questioning of it. Because it isn’t ever what we think it is. That’s why the question is never answered.
Meaning is but a dream, but meaning is what we love, what we create, intentionally or not, we are forever creatures of the Word. The left brain, the groundskeeper, creating a fine garden of organized chaos, a Dadaist score, a dalliance in a mid-day dream, a Shakespearean sonnet gone wrong. Because…What’s it all about? How does it go down for you? What is the meaning of life? Does it need a meaning or can we say Fuck The Word? Are we called to a higher purpose? What are we doing this for? Do we really need a reason? What is your heart’s true dream for you, the stardust of ten thousand things blown up billions of years ago…
(Originally published on All The Right Questions, March 15, 2013. Much love to T.Q. Fuego and Witty Pseudonym)
August 25, 2013
silence and light, laughter and tears,
the sound of your heart beating against my ear
and you as you are and me as i am
and we forevermore
this dream in my heart whispers without words.
August 25, 2013
Inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce
and that is who we are.
A Constellation of Vital Phenonmena
August 24, 2013
August 23, 2013
Flying High. That’s the way it was, the way it is, the way it can always be. High is a state of mind, of body, of spirit. It is the transcendental reality we call can achieve when we divest ourselves of anything less than the divinity that exists in every existence, every being that sets forth in the Universe. There are many paths to the same place, making life like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, you see.
Destiny is the handshake between God and Man, and it is Destiny that takes us by the hand and draws us into possibility, and it is here that life is actually happening. We have a say in this path, and we can follow its highest course when we align ourselves with eternity. Greatness distinguishes, inspires, and elevates. Greatness is a state of mind, a choice, a willingness to listen to the inner self, the place where the soul resides and speaks in pictures, sounds, and words.
It is in the photographs of Jamel Shabazz that we know our greatest selves. It is in looking at Jamel’s photographs that I discovered the soul, the place where light meets film meets paper meets my eye and my eye meets Jamel. I feel high, ohh so high, flying like nothing else, high off the heady mix of people doing things in places I’ve never been but already seem to know, of people who remind me of a time and a place not too long ago but so very, very far away, only I’m in Brooklyn, like his photos and his photos are all that remains.
Jamel Shabazz for A Thousand Words: Flying High and Crack Kills.
August 23, 2013
August 23, 2013
August 22, 2013
August 22, 2013
August 21, 2013
Once there was a He of the night.
Shadow of shadows, solitary step, He walked many nights to find Her.
Once there was a She of the day.
Twinkle of wheat, dance of light, She walked many days to find Him.
They were always looking for each other, He and She.
The night was always pursuing the day.
They both knew, She and He, the quest for what can never be found.
It seemed as if it would never happen; it seemed impossible; it seemed never ever…
And then dawn came for Him and for Her. Always, forever….
August 21, 2013
It is always happening, always going, always here, now, forever flowing like a fountain gushing forth, and we are splashing in the candy rain, the colors, sights, sounds, only it is silence, silent, not a sound. The photograph, it is so many things, all of which pass before our eyes with a stillness that bespeaks a moment in life, that has taken all time it frozen it, making here and now forever and then—
It is the photographer who see, knows, captures, collects. A magician, transforming three dimensions into two. Depth moves from a physical to a mental space, as we perceive beingness in a world where everything is flat, and we are free to look, to stare, to consider life in retrospect.
Martha Cooper has been doing her thing since the 60s, archiving urban vernacular with her camera, recording the transitory arts of life as they flash before our eyes. Marty quit her job at the New York Post to photograph the trains full time. To go into the yards and around the way, always looking, always seeing, always aware of this moment in time, this place in space, this landscape of life, a New York that no longer is but always was. Just like graff, time keeps on slippinn, slippinn, like Steve Miller Band say. But thing about art is, This is the Remix, and thas where A Thousand Words comes into play.
T-shirts. Canvases. Cotton is the fabric of our lives. T-shirt game, cause this is America and casual chic is a way of life. The DONDI T is all that I’ve been waiting for. Props to Martha Cooper and Koe Rodriguez. Keep Love Alive.
August 20, 2013
One night in Los Angeles, a sixteen-year-old boy approached photographer Donna De Cesare, saying, “Lady, put me in your book—you can take my picture.” De Cesare recalls the memory of this encounter in Fred Ritchin’s foreword to her new book Unsettled/Desasosiego (University of Texas Press).
The boy did not let up. De Cesare continued her story: “ ‘Am I going to be in your book?’ he asked. ‘I can’t promise that,’ I replied. ‘To make a book takes a lot of pictures and a long time,’ I explained. I told him I couldn’t say for sure, but my best guess was that it would be about three years if all went well. ‘Shit! I won’t be alive by then,’ he responded dejectedly.”
The boy went on to explain that all his homies died before they reached twenty. They were gangbangers. Life on the streets was short, ugly, and violent. The boy didn’t believe he was going to be any different. He, who was never named, is like countless who have come before him, the children lost to a war that has no beginning and no ending because it is played in the shadows, between the borders, and across the Americas. Here are the victims of the War on Drugs: the children.
Donna De Cesare has graciously agreed to discuss her work here. She will speaking at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., on September 11 in conjunction with the War/Photography exhibition currently on view, which. originated at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and came to D.C. from The Annenberg Space for Photography in LA. After D.C., it will end its tour at the Brooklyn Museum (Oct 29-Feb).
I am particularly interested in the way in which the photographer uses the camera as both a means to connection as well as a means to create distance between the self and the subject. Please talk about how you relate to the use of the camera in your work documenting the victims of the drug war over the past two decades.
What I love most about photographing is precisely the way it can engage a relationship. Looking with the camera is similar to listening attentively. I strive for the same comfort level and connection. I want to be as emotionally close as I can so that I can convey as accurately as possible the feelings I receive from the photographic subject/protagonist.
When I’m working I move between moments of “just looking” to moments of “just listening.” This is the part of the work I find most rewarding. When you achieve great trust with a subject, it begins to approximate the sensation of looking in a mirror. You see the other person looking back at you and recognize their difference, but you move in concert. Some photographers refer to it as a dance. This empathic connection may be charged, but it is also fragile. If a person becomes fearful or distrustful he/she will retreat leaving you with a mask.
There are other situations in which the camera creates distance. It can be a kind of emotional shield. I’m thinking here particularly of the photographs I make at crime scenes or during moments of chaos or commotion. These are complex unfolding situations. The photographer must anticipate and remain attuned to the dynamic interplay of action and reaction within a group.
Pulling back not only allows me to see the overall but sometimes it may also help me examine my own looking as I make ethical choices in the moment. This creates a kind of third eye –not objective, but a looking that is at some remove from the subjective curiosity or intuition of “first person” or the intimacy of “first person” to “second person” exchange.
I need this meta-perspective to negotiate the suffering I witness. It is a vital component of my search for an enlarged sense of truth or meaning in the situations I witness.
The photographer becomes both witness and interpreter of the stories they learn, making the photograph both evidence/proof, as well as a constructed narrative of its own. Please talk about the inherent tension between the act of documenting a subject as difficult as the children who have been victimized by the culture of drugs, gangs, and violence, as well as the way in which the photograph itself becomes a frame by which you can share these stories with people from all walks of life.
Documenting this story challenged me on so many levels. I am always striving for a horizontal relationship with the protagonists of the stories I tell—one that is open, non-judgmental, empathic and which does not deprive subjects of their own agency. At the same time I am conscious that as an adult interacting with children and young people I have power and responsibility as well as a different perspective.
I learned quickly that many things I might take for granted are absent or alien or seemingly impossible for children enveloped by a reality of violence, drugs and gangs. I often felt angry, frustrated, and impotent to make a difference of any kind as I worked. But in the give and take of relationships a safe space develops which may permit some solace and growth for all involved. I try then to convey that enlarged perspective through my photographs.
A photograph can be a forensic record—it records what is visually evident. But I think it is also always a tool of imagination. In freezing the frame it speaks the language of metaphor as well as the language of fact. My mission is to distill what I learn by “being there” in order to enlarge understanding. I aim to reach people who would never choose to enter the places I visit. But I am also always thinking of my subjects. What might they learn if my images could help them recognize their own story, in the photographs of other children who would otherwise be their “enemies?”
When creating Unsettled/Desasosiego, you appear charged with a tremendous task, going through both your own life experiences as well as those you have met over the years, in order to distill a narrative thread that extends beyond time and space to tell the story of the Drug War. Please talk about the most empowering challenge you faced as a photographer and an author to reflect upon your work, and the larger story itself?
When I sat down to write the book I had already produced a website and I had lived with many of these images and stories for a decade or longer. In piecing together the narratives, which form the website Destiny’s Children, I worked consciously with the layers of these testimonies. My approach there was to follow individual life stories of four young people I’d come to know over a period of years. Each story is emblematic as well as idiosyncratic. All make evident how quickly poverty, trauma and misguided social policy contribute to the stigma and marginalization that so many youth face.
Two young people are engulfed by the violence and suffer tragic ends. Despite occasional setbacks, the other two are able to muster inner strength. Each forges a path that defies the expectations of a cynical and selfish social order. I included a timeline with pivotal moments of upheaval in a history binding the US and Latin America. I added hypertext links in the stories, so that the reader could drill down discovering context for the issues that emerge at different points in the protagonists’ lives.
Having done the website why do a book? One reason is that books slow you down and they offer a different tangible encounter. They also are not prey to the pace of changing technology. I designed my website first in html, then in flash and now just a few years later it would require expensive re-coding to make it accessible on tablets and smart phones. As physical objects books have presence, and if well made and cared for, longevity. I knew the book would need a different structure and narrative strategy, but it took me awhile to embrace a first person approach. Putting myself at the center felt awkward at best. And my worst fears involved the many pitfalls–from hubris to sentimentality—in which that choice of voice might become ensnared.
But I kept turning a recurring experience over in my mind. When I give talks about my work, someone in the audience invariably strays from the discussion to ask about me: Weren’t you scared? How did you get them to trust you? Was your life ever threatened? These are not the questions I wanted my work to provoke or engage. At first I found them irritating and at odds with my work’s intent. I was in part trying to reveal how stigmatizing our projections of such fears are for the young people in my photographs.
But as I sat with my discomfort, I realized I had to find a more effective way of highlighting the mechanism of prejudice and the unconscious ways it filters our perceptions and responses to people who don’t fit our norms. I hadn’t always known what I now know. I realized I could take the reader back to my beginning. By invoking the image of a younger less self-aware self, I could use memoir to chart my own path of discovery. The selection of personal anecdotes could move the reader from a small personal story to an insight and a larger collective history marking points of connection across time and space. It was at times painful to relive experiences as I wrote, but as I grew to trust my voice I began to enjoy the process and fell in love with writing again.
We have created a culture of complicity in the Drug War itself, that to me on the outside feels like an extension of the old myths of the frontier, the outlaw, the “cowboys and Indians” where the bad guy was good and the good guy was bad, and the world appropriated this narrative in order to protect the United States government. This could be a huge stretch on my part, so if I am off base, please feel free to reel me in, but what do you see as the reasoning for criminalizing the most disenfranchised populations in the Western hemisphere today?
Your mention of our frontier mythologies of “good guys” and “bad ones” is of course nowhere more evident than in Hollywood movies. And that is perhaps the only place such one-dimensional characters exist. Real human beings are always struggling with the nuances and moral complexities of our choices. But “outlaw” “cowboy” and “indian” myths immortalized in classic westerns nearly always vilified those who in some way resisted “civilizing” colonization. The brutal loss of life, theft of land and displacement suffered is presented as inevitable. I think we need to remember that slavery played a role in the push westward too and that Manifest Destiny was the zeitgeist of that age.
Some legacies die hard. Today the Drug War is colored by similar biases in the guise of “American Exceptionalism.” It has played a significant hegemonic role in US power relations with Latin America—although of late many South American countries are questioning and challenging its premise. One has only to look as far as Mexico to realize that increased militarization has resulted in increased corruption, mayhem and bloodshed with little tangible impact on the expansion of illegal drug markets.
And here at home there is overwhelming evidence that the Drug War is endless and unwinnable. With 5% of the world’s total population, the US has 25% of the world’s imprisoned population placing it at the top of the prison industrial complex. Moreover, Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness demonstrates the racialized nature of this deplorable state of affairs—1 out of every 15 black males over age 18 and 1 of every 36 Latino males over the age of 18 is incarcerated in the U.S. compared with 1 of every 106 white males in that age group. As an Urban Institute study recently pointed out, when you factor race into the rapidly expanding chasm between the richest 1% of Americans and everyone else you are left with an inescapable conclusion: we live in a culture that has criminalized poverty at the same time that poverty has surged.
The culture of fear and selfishness dominating our country for well over a decade has hardened our hearts and crippled our minds. We once waged war on poverty. We now wage war on the poor. The real threat to our national values and freedom is these habits of mind and ways of seeing that make this seem inevitable. The children whose lives I’ve documented are caught in this drama. We have made our myopia their tragedy.
With the publication of Unsettled/Desasosiego, what do you hope to achieve by way of creating awareness and inspiring activism? What can we, as individuals, as a group, and as a society do to begin to address and unravel this incredibly complex problem that has claimed so many lives?
I published this book because first and foremost I wanted to restore to the children who are the protagonists in my images and stories the basic humanity and individuality that is denied them when they are seen as “child soldiers,” “gang members,” “migrants” or any other reductive category. Once we are able to connect to their stories, our tendency to dismiss or to excuse our complicity by focusing narrowly on some of their own ill-conceived choices melts away. We can then begin to take in the panoply of factors limiting their options. That is when we face some choices of our own.
We live in a culture that brands and markets products and causes alike. While gestures such as purchasing “fair trade coffee” or donating to relief efforts are certainly good starting points, for putting “your money where your mouth is,” the big issues clamoring for our attention require more.
The Drug War’s human repercussions are an issue “eco-system” where, youth violence prevention, gun safety, criminal justice reform, immigration reform and other concerns meet. Whether one finds direct hands-on work with youth most rewarding or is drawn to policy reform advocacy, there are many points of entry for individual and collective action at the local, national and international level.
In many ways I am cautiously hopeful. The public health paradigm of harm reduction pioneered by academics and activists in violence-affected communities in the 1990s has gained institutional currency even in places that were long resistant. There are indications that the next generation of leadership in Central America has learned the folly of relying exclusively on repression in their approach to gangs. And countries in Latin America have grown skeptical of the US prescription for battling drugs and organized crime. Uruguay’s recent decision to create the world’s first nationally controlled legal marijuana market is a crucial public health experiment to watch.
In this era of instant communication, constant distraction and expectations of quick results, it is easy to feel lost in the forest. Ultimately the message of my book is take your time– look, listen, make connections. Social movements for change need patience and commitment for the long haul. That is perhaps the most enduring lesson of the US Civil Rights Movement. Decide what you can do and commit to it with patience, heart, and faith in collective forward motion.
August 19, 2013
In the early morning hour,
just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
and take a drink of water.
She asks, “Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth.”
He says, “There is nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
This is how Hallaj said, I am God,
and told the truth!
The ruby and the sunrise are one.
Be courageous and discipline yourself.
Completely become hearing and ear,
and wear this sun-ruby as an earring.
Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.
—Rumi, The Sunrise Ruby
August 19, 2013
A portrait of the artist is his subject, that which he stands before, for it is through his eye through his mind through the very pressure he asserts at the tip of his finger as he sets forth, that very moment he aims, fires, and shoots, that fraction of a second captured as the shutter clicks, the photographer stands before the Universe, eternally.
It is the photograph that is evidence of his path, a path cut and carved with great swaths of panache and pride, a kind of knowingness that camera creates, that shutter click is really a wink, a tongue placed firmly in cheek, cheekie, all these good things. It is the way we stop time and set it free, releasing the eternal into the Universe, eternally.
Joe Conzo happens, is always happening, wherever he goes be sure to know, there will be scenes, people, stages upon this earth, be it the sidewalks or the streets, be it the performance palaces and the neighborhood parks. Joe is New York, the Bronx to be exact. Born and Bred, represent. A gentleman of the old school, from a time and a place where you stood your ground, because ground is sacred, and from the ashes of flames arose the greatest generation because they fought the war on this here homefront. They stood for the people—our people—and they won.
It’s bigger than hip hop. Hip Hop was born of this. We see it in Joe Conzo, and we see it everywhere he goes. The Hell Lady of the Bronx begat a soul that continues to share of himself, here with Koe Rodriguez for a Thousand Words, with photographs of Paul Newman and Charlie Chase. This is how it was, how it went, almost all of us missed it except Joe, who was there, just as he always is, with a camera in hand, a big smile and kiss, a twinkle in the eye, and a story to tell. Because he knows. Joe Conzo He is the revolution made whole.
August 19, 2013
These are my thank you’s.
For what is in my name
But a call to fate?