Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Dark and The Light (not to be confused with b&w)

Fluid Dynamics #14, 2005

I feel like I’ve been from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other over the last few days. Last night I conducted focus groups among people whose financial condition and outlook are, by their own definition, “very poor.” They are a weary lot, heavy with guilt, disappointment and defeat, narrow of scope and desperately short on hope.

They want to look forward. But for many the farthest they can see into the future is the next payday, and making it to even that juncture requires a capacity for creativity in eking out the remaining financial vapors from their last payday.

If you’ve ever been in this condition, you know it’s debilitating. You know it takes a toll on your body and soul. You know you’re scared to answer the phone or the door or go to the mailbox. You can’t begin to feel confident enough to adopt an optimistic outlook, much less visualize a sky of any color but gray.

Contrast those feelings with the mood of the crowd I was in last Friday. On that day I attended a conference put on by NASA in the style of TED, the international nonprofit that promotes “ideas worth spreading.” The audience of roughly a thousand people attending TEDxNASA, as the event was called, was composed mostly of aerospace engineers and climate scientists. There were a few educators and students, a few aerospace contractors, a few nonprofit representatives and a few business people like me on the prowl for commercial and institutional inspiration.

In striking contrast to the debt-ridden members of last night’s research study, a defining characteristic of the TEDxNASA crowd was that they were almost entirely focused on identifying and exploring possibilities. They were all about potential. They asked What if? Why not? and How could we? They’re not trying to dig themselves out of a hole. Their work and their passions provide them with the freedom to be limitless in their thinking about both the here-and-now and the world of fifty or a hundred years from now. (Here’s a clue: they’re looking beyond planet Earth.)

Two sets of people living in the same community. One hopelessly mired in a swamp of debt so profound that they see no way out, the other almost completely free to explore new ways to live, work and interact. Just as citizens of 1909 could no more have imagined how different the world would be in 2009, the TEDxNASA crowd assumes that many of the social structures, technologies and health and social norms that frame the way we live today will have been replaced by new technologies and cultural norms a hundred years from now.

What does this have to do with photography? It has to do with making space to be creative and taking whatever physical or cognitive steps you need to take to make yourself part of and cognizant of the wider environment around you. I think I’ve mentioned before how sometimes when I go out to make pictures I have to shoot a bunch of photographic equivalents of what writer Anne Lamott refers to as “shitty first drafts” before my photographic eyes really get into gear.

For many of us, the allowance of freedom to express doesn’t come easily. Still, even those of us who fancy ourselves as Observers or who focus, as I do sometimes, on the “small moments” need to kick ourselves occasionally into new orbits. The greatest opportunity we who fancy ourselves as makers of creative gestures can waste is the opportunity to look forward and outward and, in doing so, warm up and stretch our perceptive muscles.


  1. excellent observations and so well put...
    Photographically, I find looking at amazing works by others, whose approach is very different, to be so inspiring and it can provide that necessary "kick" -
    As to our place in our lives, in terms of attitude and economics ( the first part of your essay) most of us probably fall somewhere between your two examples...
    And metaphorically, the attitudes of the NASA folks towards their careers is just a good example of how to view our lives in general - as full of potential and exploration. That may have to be a learned thing, but it's a good lesson to learn...

  2. Well said--by both you and Belinda.

    Sadly, those folks in the first part of your post are probably so stressed and caught up in the understandable fears and concerns of their day-to-day existences that it's hard to conjure up the feelings of possibility that are so freeing. This really is a very difficult time for many...

  3. I LOVE Fluid Dynamics #14.