Notes From An Activist In Training
On Thursday while photographing and standing in 6 inches of water on the overcrowded floating dock, I asked a young man next to me if I could borrow his shoulder to support my telephoto lens amidst the up and down swell of the water. It mostly worked until my lens started really moving up and down well beyond my timing of the swells—and I realized he was crying.
He was an early 20 something moderately tatted guy with an inscrutable political stance, and I thought I was taking a chance by even asking for his help, but necessity trumped wariness and I was rewarded far beyond my request. Not only was I moved by his tears but I found myself welling up too. Hardly anything can deter me from getting the shot I pre-visualize, but in that seminal moment I stopped shooting and watched inside myself as my entire newbie activist history tape-looped in my brain. It was a transformational moment for me, one where I began to jettison my training wheels, and I wanted to share some thoughts for both their cathartic and perhaps inspirational value.
After I closed down my studio and a solo photography career of almost 40 years, I really had no plans. Editorial and advertising photography have a necessarily unpredictable schedule so advanced planning for anything outside of their demands is fraught with frustration. Now was my big chance but I started slowly as I really had no background in actually doing something beyond giving money to social justice causes. So I mostly just amused myself with the freedom of not working. Still, during those first 6 months I began reading a plenty about how much needed to be done in this world to save it from itself. Slowly I began to engage people about these important issues, but often discovered them clueless and listened as they often carelessly ridiculed activist efforts to change our world’s moral compass. Friends still remained friends but I sought out more kindred spirits.
So I joined up with 350’s divestment movement and if nothing else always showed up for meetings. It was a world of public speaking I didn’t really feel comfortable doing but I found a role in support and research and writing. Again, the more I read the angrier I became. Then I started attending other social justice rallies against LNG terminals, for the $15 minimum wage, listening intently to KBOO’s morning programming and paid close attention to Amy Goodman’s interviews (the ones that didn’t drone on and on.) Like forming a chrysalis and lying in wait inside. And I realized that this “show up and be counted” strategy I employed in the divestment group was more than just a way of contributing something, it was a way of gaining some cred among my peers even without brilliant contributions and strategy suggestions. That became important to me in the same way that shooting high level pictures allowed me to feel as equal to my peers and competitors. Only here there were no competitors and that part of me started to shed away too.
As I continued just showing up at LNG and then Pembina events, I actually got out my camera and started shooting again. What was even more surprising is that I felt more pressure to produce brilliant shots than I ever did on big budget projects. I had passion for photography but not so much for my clients.
(Rarely did I ever think my politics and sense of social justice was matched by my corporate clients so at least I got that going for me!) So I again found a niche but as usual it came at a cost. Photography is always outside looking in. Made me leery of only showing up in that role. So I again backed away from photographing the events I attended and started participating as a yelling, foot stomping, prideful individual gaining more traction as one who really does give a shit about what is happening.
Then–it felt like suddenly–I began really caring about the homeless guy on the my path instead of just castigating him as someone blocking my way, really thinking about how that obese woman walking toward me got that way (through likely all kinds of personal family horror stories) instead of just turning my nose up disparagingly, and a host of similar personal revelations which the vast majority of you long ago adopted through either your years of involvement or your early years’ adoption of a more enlightened view or both. Couple that with my growing consciousness about the horrors of capitalism and I felt I was coming more into my own.
So I picked up the camera again, this time for Lac Megantic, only this time I felt I had a role to play along with the consciousness of the cause. That made me feel connected, that my role meant something greater than just producing another good image. And that carried over in an amazing way for me to the icebreaker events. I felt supercharged and dedicated and produced images that helped us tell our story, and in the process mine too.
Best to all, Rick