What Do I Believe?

When I approach the world, when I must make decisions and when I interact with others, I am always concerned with justice and equity. My favorite words are balance, moderation and fairness. I do not believe in black and white; extremism is dangerous in all cases. At a base level, this is the principle I use as my ethical foundation. I have come to understand the importance of balance – of always finding a middle ground – from my experiences abroad, my immersion in poetry and philosophy and my understanding of art.

One of the first times I encountered a stark contrast of lifestyles – a true black versus white experience – was when I studied abroad in China. Chinese culture, I learned, is collectivist. Individualism is a western ideal that the Chinese regard as selfish and inefficient. I spoke to journalism students who said their drive to become reporters stemmed from their drive to represent their country kindly and proudly. In their eyes, the journalist does not act as a government watchdog, but as a pedestal for which to tout the accomplishments of China.

From career choices to family relations to the dinner table, it is crucial for the people of China to share and to build a foundation with individuals acting together as one unit rather than each individual working alone to build her own tall tower.

In an interview for my summer internship last year, the president of the company for which I was interviewing told me he hated China because no one there thinks for himself.

I was shocked. In China, I saw cooperation, care, brotherhood and family everywhere. The president of this company, on the other hand, saw sheep trotting mindlessly along as the government controls them from afar.

German philosopher Hegel theorized that the development of one’s moral conscience comes from encountering what is “other.” He argues that when one confronts something unfamiliar – be it a strange piece of art, a confusing poem or even a person of another race – she has the opportunity to learn from it, to come to terms with it and absorb it as a part of her own understanding of the world. From this emerges a third self: a new consciousness more aware than the last. Hegel says that this process can continue all throughout life, with the emergence of many “third selves.” I found a third self when I experienced Chinese culture: a self that wished for a blend of two cultures.

When I encountered collectivist culture in China, I understood it as fairness. I found it refreshing compared to the cutthroat, competitive culture in America.

However, I also fear for a population so concerned with supporting its government that it forgoes its own rights and allows injustices to occur with no further thought.

American culture and Chinese culture are two extremes. Stark individualism is not effective because it teaches us to hurt one another for the benefit of our own success. Stark collectivism is not effective because it teaches us to abandon our own passions and drives for the good of protecting the “establishment.” An ideal society exists somewhere between these two points. It exists with a compromise between individual happiness and the well being of others. It exists with sacrifice, with some level of discomfort, but never so much that we lose our own selves in the process. In my own actions, I always search for my own ideal: a compromise.

Miracle People

Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved to take photographs. I remember carrying my Kodak disposable camera through Magic Kingdom in Disney World, the excitement of getting the film developed, finally seeing the pictures I took and marveling at the sudden tangibility of a moment already passed. The first time I got a digital camera, I made my Barbie dolls into models, draped their waxy blonde hair down their slender shoulders and slipped their tiny plastic feet into hot pink pumps. I followed my family around the house and bombarded them with camera clicks, played a syncopated beat with the capture button and counted the beats with the pictures I took. I locked my cat in my room, draped her in feathered boas, topped her head with oversized hats, forced sunglasses over her eyes, and played paparazzi. I cast lightning bolt flashes all over the bedroom until she learned to love the camera.

My camera became a second pair of eyes; I took it with me everywhere, always afraid my memory card would miss a moment. It was better than any toy or Barbie doll, better than any board game or movie. With a button and a screen, I could capture thousands of realities and pick my favorite ones to keep forever.

When I grew old enough to think realistically about my future, I picked up my camera and imagined a potential career: taking photographs for a living. From then on, I started playing with angles and flashes. I strayed from auto shooting and began manipulating the scenes in front of me. But still, I was only taking pictures. I was only freezing moments in time and brightening them on my computer. It felt more like routine, and less like art.

At thirteen I received an opportunity to travel to Europe with a teacher and a few students. My parents stayed home while I walked the streets of Florence, flowed down the Seine River, wandered a maze of art pieces in the Louvre, gawked at the Vatican churches, and stepped back in time in Pompeii. At thirteen I witnessed hundreds of worlds and cultures different than my own. I learned that language is a symphony of communication; I learned that art is emotion in different colors; I learned that people are more beautiful than any museum piece; and I learned that I wanted to spend my life learning. Photography became a way to make that happen.

No longer a routine, I saw something beautiful through my lens. I saw smiles tell stories of success and frowns tell stories of growth. I saw locals breathing life into statues on the street. I saw starving artists grinning wide at young admirers’ sloppy Italian compliments. I saw tiny pale faced boys tossing coins into flowing fountains and squeezing their eyes shut until they knew their wishes were cast into the bright blue water. People became portraits of emotion instead of skin and bones. I decided that I wanted the world to see what I see when I look at a person’s face—I wanted the world to see each other as miracles.

 

How Poetry Informs Journalism

“The skill of writing poetry – the skill of watching – is essential to journalism.”

— A poet-journalist at AWP, 2017

I have always been sure of the distinction between poetry and journalism. Between the structure, the style, the form, and the theme – surely there are no similarities at all. A journalist embodies fact, truth, and nonfiction. He is the unwavering boulder atop the hill, symbolizing that which is real. A poet embodies passion, emotion, and fiction. He is a flower just sprouting, flung about by the wind and the rain. He is impressionable.

But if the journalist is as tough and immovable as we are made to believe, how do we have such powerful and provocative stories as Seven Days of Heroin? If the poet is truly a whimsical fool always meditating on fiction, how do we have such grounded, realistic narratives as Kate Daniels’ In the Midst of the Heroin Epidemic?

The fact is the poet and the journalist are not as different as they may seem. Further, both forms thrive when they are in dialogue with one another.

I stopped writing poetry when I entered college and declared myself a journalism major. I am a serious writer now, I told myself. No more musing over heartbreak or changing seasons. It’s time to get serious. Two years later, when I took a creative writing class, my poetry was different than it had ever been. It was no longer cluttered with messy descriptions. It was grounded in specific, intentional images. It was real and it was true; my poetry was no fiction.

Suddenly I found myself backtracking. I wrote poem after poem about the sources that had long vanished from my life but continued to haunt me almost weekly. I wrote poems for the boxers I photographed for three months. I wrote poems for the Kent State maintenance worker who came out as a trans woman to me, a reporter. I wrote poems for a bubble artist in Florence, Italy, who was kind enough to tell me his story. I wrote poems for all the people I met and abandoned through journalism.

The good reporters are the empathetic reporters. But they are often the ones who struggle the most. How do we grapple with time? How do we push ourselves into a person’s life, memorize every detail, witness such vulnerability, and move suddenly onto the next source without thought?

Poetry is a space to answer the questions that journalism cannot. Poetry often exists in journalistic work for the sake of sanity. We need a space to write subjectively, to write our own truths and our own feelings.

I am a better poet because of my education in journalism. But I am also a better journalist because I grew up as a poet.

Poetry teaches us to find meaning in the absurd. It teaches us to watch, to listen, and to react. The number one rule in poetry is to write what you know. Though poetry is not always concerned with the absolute truth of a matter, it is concerned with honesty. Poetry is not mere fiction.

My life as a poet has taught me to observe. Every tiny detail from the smell of a room to a flickering fluorescent light to a man’s crooked teeth can inform the narrative I am constructing. Nothing should ever go unquestioned. Even when covering hard news, I try to paint a picture: Who are the characters? What is the setting like? What is the story here? Why is it happening?

At AWP last year I met Leorna LaPeter Anton, a journalist who started as a city hall reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. She said she always put storytelling in her stories in small ways. She said that even though she started off small, she made the most of it. In 2016, she won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Storytelling is an art, and it has its place in journalism.

Author and journalist Amy Goodman said, “Go to where the silence is and say something.” Journalism aims to uncover silence where there should be discussion. It offers fact and it broadcasts truth. Poetry gives us the power find the meaning under the silence. Poetry helps us make sense of the Whys in the world. Poetry gives us empathy. Poetry allows us to be kind to others and ourselves. A poet is a journalist without deadlines. A journalist should always ask the poet’s favorite question: why?

Storytelling is Timeless

Before cameras, before newspapers, before journalists themselves, a different mode of communication existed. Not just in the form of anecdotes told by parents to calm their restless children before bed, but around bonfires, between the shelves of libraries. Legends, of heroes, of epic journeys, of comedy and of tragedy, all passed down through generations to tell the tales of those who walked before us.

We photographers hold no monopoly on storytelling.

Though most photographers do not claim to be the sole experts in the craft of the story, many carry a special side of arrogance in their camera bags. Photographers believe they are the torchbearers of a modern era in storytelling – that some prophetic god bestowed upon them the power of Composition to single-handedly document the world through a viewfinder.

I am no exception. In fact what drew me to photojournalism in the first place was the faultless blend of my two loves: photography and storytelling.

Before I ever picked up a camera, I picked up a pen. I climbed trees in the springtime and stayed nestled between the branches until I had successfully filled every page of a journal with stories. I read poems to my parents in the backyard. I took walks over dead leaves in autumn and wrote down words like crunch and crisp.

Somewhere in the last two years, that little girl who used to hide in trees and read dictionaries for fun lost herself behind ISO, f-stops and shutter speed. When learning the mechanics and the practicalities of photography, the art often finds itself shoved to the side while the numbers and figures and histograms take the spotlight.

Since my first photography class here at Kent State, I have become a developed photographer with exceptional technical skill. I learned to shoot in manual mode, learned the differences between lenses and have sold my soul to Lightroom. In doing so, I have also lost my passion – my voice.

I fear that photography nowadays is only ever judged on its ability to shock. Who can get to the crime scene first? Who can snap the most heart-wrenching portrait of a starving child? Who can walk with the ranks and show us what war really means? Of course all of these images hold a level of importance, but photographers are not merely record keepers. We do not exist only to incite discomfort. We must first understand ourselves as artists and as creatives. We must employ empathy and listen as much as we watch.

I am tired of being a photographer first and a storyteller second. More and more, I long for my pen, my journal and the tallest tree I can find. When I march out of this institution with four years of education behind me, I do not want to be another news-hungry photographer. I want to be loud and passionate. I want to be armed with three things: a camera, a pen and a great big torch billowing with the proud flame cultivated by the tradition of genuine storytelling.