Posts tagged ‘humanity’

October 17, 2011

A Master of Documentary Photography Celebrates His Legacy

Earlier this week I took my son to the opening night of a photography exhibit called Mel Rosenthal: 40 Years in Pictures. The evening celebrated Mel’s retirement from teaching at Empire State College, where he was hired in 1975 to  to build a photography program in the South Bronx, alongside teaching American Studies and Media. He subsequently founded the Photojournalism Program at the school’s Manhattan location, and has since nurtured and mentored countless photographers.

Mel Rosenthal has spent the last four decades traveling the globe from Cuba, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and VietNam back to his native South Bronx. A strong believer in the connection of art to activism, he has made it a point to chronicle the lives of people who have been marginalized, misunderstood, or simply overlooked. Venturing into communities outside the mainstream, Mel has also focused on immigrant and refugee communities, exploring their uniqueness in a way that often underscores the universality of human experience.

I first met Mel back in the late 90’s during my erstwhile foray into documentary filmmaking, at a time when he was preparing to publish his book, In the South Bronx of America. We quickly bonded on the topic of our respective creative work. At the time, I was working on a project I had undertaken to examine the lives of Iraqi citizens who had been negatively impacted by American-led sanctions aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime. As my exploration took me in the direction of meeting Iraqi refugees who had resettled in the United States, I suppose it was no coincidence that Mel and I found a common bond in our pursuit of giving voice to the voiceless.

Mel Rosenthal’s work has a way of evoking the simple beauty in the humanity of people. He sees them as they are and communicates his appreciation for them to others by quietly observing them and reporting back on their moments in time. It is obvious that his is a loving eye – not sentimental or cloying, just coming from the heart, and not afraid to accept life as it is.

And indeed, his philosophy on photography as an art form also embodies an elegant simplicity. I overheard one of his former students declaring to him, “You said, a camera’s just a box with a hole,” with the conviction of someone for whom this basic truth had become a foundational support. When another photographer, who had only corresponded with Mel via e-mail prior to this first meeting, asked him, “What do you shoot with these days?” he replied, “I don’t know, whatever I have that’s around.”

A humble, unassuming man, Mel does what he does because it’s work he believes in. He has repeatedly stepped into war torn or otherwise less than cushy environments, to document the reality he finds there, captured in the eyes of the human beings with whom he always finds some common ground. He just knows how to relate to other people.

Although he walks and speaks a bit slower than he did several years ago, Mel has not lost that sparkle of life that infuses his every communication. In this photo, he is telling my son, whom he was meeting for the first time, how lucky he was to have me for a mommy. A short while later, I listened to the two of them trading renditions of radio sound effects they had each learned how to imitate vocally, impressing each other…

You can always tell when someone of significance is in the room. People hover about, waiting to get close, planning what they want to say. Some share inordinate amounts of information about themselves in rushed introductions, others work to be impressive about their accomplishments, to communicate their worthiness to someone whom they admire so much, while all are just so glad to be connected to him in some way. Mel, who has both the toughened exterior of a war correspondent and the soft heart of a child, regards each person he encounters with the same clear gaze of appreciation for their particular connection, listening patiently as he engages with him or her.

Although I never did finish that film, he and his girlfriend Bobbe have never ceased to express their support for me as an artist, and as a human being. Just as all of my unfinished projects have been a necessary part of my own development, I wonder how many projects Mel has in some stage of (in)completion, waiting for him to devote more time to them. Now that he’s retiring from teaching, who knows where his energies will be directed?

One thing is for certain, Mel has inspired countless photographers and other creative individuals to pursue their art in service of humanity. Re-invigorating my contact with him and Bobbe has already got me wondering about new ways I can make myself useful…

This exhibit will be up and running until February 3, 2012 at the Hudson Gallery, SUNY Empire State College, Metropolitan Center, 325 Hudson St., 3rd Floor, NY, NY

Photo courtesy of Ricky Flores

May 8, 2011

Let’s Consider Our Humanity for a Minute…

Hi Everyone, it’s me again.

In honor of Mother’s Day and my maternal instincts that extend well beyond my own child, I want to present you with this thought. If we can get ourselves to think about at least one other person in the world outside our immediate circle and do something to more fully understand them and their suffering, their humanity, then we will be taking a significant step towards making the world a better place. For once we make that type of emotional connection to another human being, it’s hard to not consider following up with some action. We just have to take it one step at a time.

It almost doesn’t matter which person or people you choose. There are plenty of options of people in need. Just pick one and go from there. But in case you need an idea, here’s one: Iraqi refugees.

Many of us are living fairly comfortable lives. Even though we all have our share of problems and struggles, in general, the situation here in the US is qualitatively different from that of any people who are living in a war torn region where car bombings and other random attacks are a daily occurrence, and the very fabric of normal existence has been ripped apart by drastic deficits created in the basic infrastructure. Such is the case in Iraq. It has been like this for the vast majority of Iraqi citizens for over 20 years, largely due to the impact of US policy towards that country. The level of suffering of the Iraqi people has been well documented, and it’s pretty damn staggering. Currently there are over 4 million displaced Iraqis, many of whom are now living in a virtual state of limbo in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

After 9/11, Iraqis were unfortunately (and, as there is much evidence to prove, mistakenly) associated with those who would do harm to the US. With that kind of negative legacy, inspiring support for Iraqis among Americans continues to be a daunting task. Several artists I am proud to know have undertaken projects that provide a way to help American people to grasp the very basic human aspects of the situation and relate to Iraqis as fellow world citizens, not too different from ourselves. I truly believe that making this connection is our only hope. When people hear their stories, they are moved. It’s that simple.

Check out the following creative endeavors which I believe go a long way towards evoking appropriate understanding of and sympathy for Iraqi refugees and will hopefully inspire concrete action on their behalf:

No Place Called Home – A one-woman show written and performed by Kim Schultz, commissioned by Intersections International, based on her experiences hearing the stories of Iraqi refugees she met in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, performed in NYC, Washington, DC and South Bend, Indiana, and now launching a national tour.

The Unreturned – A documentary film chronicling the plight of five displaced middle-class Iraqis, living in Syria and Jordan, by filmmaker Nathan Fisher, seen at festivals in the US, Europe, Canada, Syria and Japan.

Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage – A comprehensive book chronicling the last twenty years of the near destruction of Iraqi society, featuring searing historical documentation and in-depth interviews of Iraqi refugees living in Syria and Jordan, as well as western countries, written by Michael Otterman and Richard Hill with Paul Wilson.

These artists, who are each committed to making a difference in the lives of our Iraqi brothers and sisters, have my complete admiration, as I, too have worked on a creative project illuminating the plight of Iraqi civilians, but unlike each of them, I was unable to complete my own project.

My film, “Christmas in Baghad,” which I worked on from 1999-2001, looked at the impact of sanctions after the first Gulf War on the lives of Iraqi citizens and their family members living here in the US. I never forgot the quiet dignity and generosity of spirit I encountered in the families I met and grew to care about during production. I, too, had a similar experience of hearing the stories of brave and sad human beings who had endured incomprehensible suffering for reasons that were beyond logic. These stories also burned a place in my soul.

And that’s why I’m sharing this information with all of you. Read Mike’s book. Check out Nate’s film. See Kim’s show. Better yet, arrange for a reading, a screening, a performance. Maybe even a panel discussion with all three of them! Contact me, I know them all. I’ll hook you up.

I’m not trying to overwhelm you. This is just me introducing the topic. Take in what you can right now, I just wanted you to know there are options moving forward. But we can take it one step at a time. For now, just consider the fact that it could be important to all of us. To our humanity. Think about it. I’ll get back to you…

With gratitude,

Deborah