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.

 

When We Eat Together

It was my second hot pot dinner of my trip to China and I had already fallen in love with this signature meal of the Sichuan province. The waiters brought out the familiar favorites (chicken, beef, noodles) and the Chengdu specialties (duck tongue, quail egg, lotus root), and, immediately, hands from every direction collided over the boiling broth in the center of the table. Chopsticks flew from plate to plate. Our Chinese friends dumped more food on our plates than on their own and spent most of the time searching on their phones for English descriptions of the mystery meats we were all devouring. It was then that our new friend Mike (I failed to learn his Chinese name) announced to the table: “When we eat together, we are like brothers – like sisters.” And for a moment – there was quiet (the most shocking thing to experience in a hot pot restaurant).

I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss American food while I was in China, but it lacks a crucial element of Chinese dining culture: the community built at a dinner table. Ordering food was a discussion – a table-wide compromise determining what food would satisfy everyone equally. After that came the delicious chaos of actually eating. Elbows collided, food flew, broth splashed, chopsticks clamored, and everyone shared everything. Nothing was claimed by anyone. The food belonged to the table.

Not only was it a chance to share food, but also a chance to share ideas. With our friends from Sichuan University we talked politics, language, education, and even High School Musical. The food was a bridge over an ocean – a shared experience to shatter any cultural barriers we once had. After that meal, I really did begin to see these friends as family. Mike’s words were the truest words I heard in China. And that meal was the best meal of my life.

Months before I embarked on my trip to China, I was not so excited. In fact, I was mostly scared. Every time I shared with someone my plans to fly overseas and take part in Sichuan University’s Summer Immersion Program, I was not met with encouragement, but with confusion and fear.

“China? Why?”

“What do you expect to gain from that?”

I met with the unfortunate discovery that we live in a world of borders; we see the differences in each other rather than the similarities. We plug our ears and refuse to listen to the wisdom other cultures can offer. In this heavily globalized world, we have become more divided than ever.

Mike opened my eyes to the importance of learning from our friends across country lines. He taught me to drop my prejudices at the boarding gates and enter new countries with an open mind and an open heart. I owe it to him to hold this knowledge with me and to continue sharing it with my future friends around the world. I owe it to him to continue my travels abroad.

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.