And Then There Was Love: Photography and the Power of Myth as Metaphor for Transformation and Transcendence

January 18, 2018

(for Chris and Abi and all of the people with whom I worked in the VMC, ca. 2008-2018)

“If you really want to help this world, what you have to teach is how to live in it.” (Joseph Campbell)

Whether actively or passively, each one of us creates our own myths about who we are, who others are, how the world functions, and what our purpose is. We interact with one another within the framework of these myths every day. Myths are basic to human existence. They change as we change, within time and space and culture, and the tools with which we create them also change, but the basic necessity for these stories—these myths—remains. A good myth comes from and perpetuates a state of connection and balance with ourselves and the universe, while reckless myth-making both comes from and perpetuates a state of disconnectedness and confusion.

The ability to distinguish between empowering myths and harmful ones is a skill that serves us well as we embark upon what the great mythologist Joseph Campbell calls “the hero’s adventure”—a series of actions throughout our life, thrust into motion by love and sacrifice, beauty and pain, that leads us each on a path of transformation and growth—and if we’re lucky, once in a while transcendence—back to center. Birth. Transformation. Death/Rebirth. This is the cycle of life for each of us, and as it is in literature and film, it is the path of the hero: There is a protagonist (birth). S/he embarks upon a journey that involves struggle and pain and difficult lessons but is ultimately fueled by steadfast love and unbreakable loyalty to a greater cause (transformation). S/he completes the journey (death/rebirth). This is why we read, why we watch films, listen to music, look at paintings, look at photographs. This is why we create. We relate to these stories, because they are our own. We look to myths and heroes as metaphors to show us how to live our own lives courageously. And if no suitable empowering myths or heroes exist for us, we create them.

Social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers, and this ability is the secret of their power and achievements: they see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.” Only a year after the daguerreotype was introduced in 1839, Douglass began sitting for portraits. But these weren’t just any portraits. At a crucial point in United States history, he harnessed the power of picture-making and his ability to “see what ought to be” to challenge the country’s perception of black people—to challenge a horrifyingly reckless myth (racism). He removed the contradiction between what is and what ought to be by creating self-portraits that conveyed the dignity of being black. Nearly a century later, Gordon Parks used the camera in the same way: to challenge racist stereotypes and take control of the way black people were visually represented in the media. And in present times, the writer John Edwin Mason drives home the same point: “By making the pictures we do, we’re not just reflecting the world in which we live, but we’re envisioning a world to come.” It seems obvious that even in our image-saturated culture, there is still enormous potential in the intentional use of photography as a tool to empower, to create myths that serve the higher nature of our humanity and are capable of transforming ourselves and our communities.

While not as eloquent a photographer as Douglass and Parks, or as wise a mythologist and philosopher as Campbell, I, too, endeavor to remove the contradiction between what is and what ought to be. By photographing wilderness areas, I wish not to simply add to the ever-growing digital catalogue of mountains and forests, but to express these places as my own physical manifestations of center. The images I create are a reflection of the world that is, as well as another world that I envision to be possible—one in which we seek to act from a deeper awareness of the interconnections between the human and the wild. By making portraits of people, I wish to honor the unique experiences that are held in the body and in the eyes—to convey the dignity of a human being navigating countless myths, some positive, some negative, and to see them as possessing all of the courage and compassion I believe it takes to live in this world. Through the creation of images, I ask the same fundamental questions that all human myths seek to answer: “Who am I?” “Who are you?” “What is life?” “How do we live it?” After an eight-year enlistment in the U.S. Army, I sought to develop a visual language that could help veterans communicate our experiences and navigate the myths surrounding military service. I recall the first Engage the Light workshop when I worked with local veterans to make very simple expressive images from the immediate environment, filling the frame with color, line, shape, or space. After ten minutes of wandering the room with cameras pointed every-which-way, we all sat down in front of a projector screen and looked at the images, listening as we each discussed what compelled us to make the photos we did. Colors, lines, shapes, and spaces all became metaphors for feelings, hopes, dreams, nightmares and fears. There were some tears, and there were a lot of laughs. And there were a few new myths created that night in the back room of Yoga Bean coffee shop in Lubbock, Texas, that for a moment in time transcended the world that is and became a world that we all envisioned, together. This is the power of myth as a metaphor for transformation and transcendence. Photography is one of many tools that can help us wield this power. Community is another. A community can blend and shape our myths into entire worlds of shared collaborative vision. I learned this from a very dear friend.

I was first introduced to the Celtic Ensemble shortly after beginning doctoral studies at Texas Tech in 2008. The ensemble fell under the umbrella of a larger organization founded by Chris Smith—the Vernacular Music Center—that fiscally and pedagogically supports opportunities for students to engage with different music traditions from around the world. This comprehensive approach to learning and sharing music resulted in a community of artists that is just as diverse as the musics they study. I had not experienced this kind of inclusivity within the classical music world and was fascinated and inspired by its impact on the students as well as the local community. The VMC had fully and consistently engaged a multi-faceted, participatory community (not merely an audience, nor merely a musical ensemble) where everyone felt welcomed and encouraged to engage at the level they chose and with whatever contribution(s) they chose, be it song, dance, instrument, the making of fine spirits, fellowship, or any number of other things. I took to my camera, bringing it to concerts in recital halls, blues nights at coffee shops, Irish sessions in pubs, and into private homes to photograph ceilis; and when I sat down at the computer to edit the images I’d made, I understood that what I was seeing was more than just students and teachers making music in all of these spaces. I was witnessing artists using their art as a tool to live honestly and compassionately in a world that so often is neither honest nor compassionate. I found myself deep inside a world—envisioned by Chris and brought into physical existence by everyone who ever believed in it—that was transcendent. Music wasn’t just notes on a page. It was falling in love, getting hurt, hurting others, learning from mistakes, and doing it all again with a little more grace and awareness each time. It was singing and playing songs that brought insight to our myths—the ones that made us proud and the ones we wished we could forget. But even more, it was learning that all of this—this hero’s adventure—happens to each of us within a web of interconnectedness. Community is key. And within that web of community is an awful lot of love. Those who have been to this transcendent place are forever changed. For nearly ten years now I’ve photographed it, and whether or not I’ve been successful, I have endeavored to show in my photographs what I know to be possible: a world that does indeed contain multitudes, with love enough for all.

“Photographs can draw passion, beauty and understanding. And then there is love.“

(Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photographer)

"We all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories. And we all, every single one of us, no matter who we are and no matter what’s been taken from us or what poison we’ve internalized or how hard we’ve had to work to expel it – we all get to dream.” (N.K. Jemisin)

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