It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Vincent Versace!
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
—Martin Luther King
I have come to treat this, my annual installment on the anniversary of Scott’s “Guest Blog Wednesday,” the same way I treat my birthday. I try to spend my birthday the way I want my year to be. For this annual blog post I endeavor to write it the way I want my heart and spirit to go for the rest of the year.
Change takes but an instant. It is the journey to change that often takes a long time. The moment of change, the defining instant, when you are at your core different than you were the moment before. It is as if in comparison to all other moments in your life, it feels like you have just had a momentary lapse of reason. An island of understanding in the sea of confusion.
So I want to tell you about the momentary lapse of reason that occurred when this picture took me.
It eventually came to be chosen for the cover of Asian Photography magazine. (Read the article here)
I was asked to come to India to teach Indian photographers how to “see” their country differently. It was an amazing experience, more for me than for my students, truth be told. I was interviewed about my work for the article in Asian Photography after having done a radio show interview on Mumbai’s Radio One 94.3 just before we left to travel to Varanasi for the workshop. But that’s not the story I want to discuss. What I want to talk about is the moment that this picture took me.
The journey began a few years back when I photographed Aung San Suu Kyi.
To get the opportunity to photograph her as part of the American Photography feature on Burma that I did for the 2012 January issue, the promise I made was to do “right” with my pictures. It was not until over a year later I discovered what that meant. (You can read the guest blog I wrote about the experience here)
Journey As The Destination
It was early January, just before sunrise, a very long way outside of the city of Mandalay. It was myself, Kyaw Swa Min—“Joe” for short—and our driver. It was a chilly 85 degrees (it was January after all), and we had spent three and half hours driving on what the locals affectionately refer to as the “Burma Super Highway,” which is a dirt and gravel road so full of pot holes and cliff-like ruts that you are frequently thinking that Columbus was actually wrong and the world is indeed flat. We arrive at 5 a.m., half an hour before first light and about an hour before sunrise.
How we wound up here is because Joe said he knew this place…. FYI: for the 12 years I have known Joe every one of my great Burmese adventures starts with him saying, “Vincy… I know this place.” This time “the place” was just outside a village that makes bricks. The village was located next to a bend in a river that had a huge clay deposit.
The reason I was told I wanted to be there was because of the profound lack of motorized vehicles and the amount of morning fog that happens on the river that time of year. So off we went and there we were. After shooting the moments just before sunrise and the sun rising, we are now faced with having traveled three and half hours and having basically captured two “pretty” shots. Which means we have three and half hours to get back to where we started and I have two shots. Parts of my backside still hurt from the ride there and the thought of going the same we just came was not exactly something to be looking forward to. Which is when I saw smoke that was now coming up from over a hill, which means fire, so I followed the smoke.
What was over that hill was a village that makes bricks—bricks upon bricks upon bricks as far as the eye can see to a perspective point. Keep in mind that it is 6 a.m., and the brickyard is in full swing. They have been up for awhile. Making bricks, stacking bricks, “firing” bricks (baking them), gathering clay. I even watched a boy and a girl in the process of falling in love.
I found myself lost in these moments, witnessing moments happen in front of me at the speed of life. All of which was happening in beautiful light. When you have moments like these, who needs coffee to get your heart racing and your mind to wake up?
As we started moving into the city of never-ending bricks and light, there were children everywhere playing in the bricks. Keep in mind it is 6 a.m. And the morning is filled with the laughter and giggles of children.
So as I am blissfully clicking away in snot-encrusted child photography heaven, Joe starts talking to the adults who are amused by the big tall goofy “hello person” playing with the children. (The reason the Burmese refer to Americans as “hello people” is because Americans always wave and say “Hellooo” no matter where, what, or when. So the Burmese wave and say “hello” back. If Burma is anything it is a polite society). During the course of his conversation, he finds out the reason why there are so many children about at 6 a.m. There is no school, not because there is a holiday—there is no school in this village. So the children play amongst the bricks while the parents work. What this also means is that most of the villagers do not know how to read and write well, if at all. It is also the responsibility of the older children to look after the younger children.
The highest anyone was paid in the village was $3.00 a day for a 12-hour workday. The factory ran 7 days a week because of the demand for bricks, which was due to the lifting of sanctions and the growth happening in the urban areas of the country. If you think about it, we spend more for a cup of coffee than these highest paid workers make in a day. The life expectancy age of a Burmese man is 57 and the life expectancy age of a Burmese woman is 62. The life expectancy age for men and women in this brickyard is 50.
As Joe was telling me all this, the moment that the picture of the girl who became the cover of Asian Photography magazine took me. It was that moment that I realized what Aung San Suu Kyi meant when she said to “do right with your photographs.” Her request was not about putting your money where your mouth is, it was about putting your art where your heart is. At that time I experienced a momentary lapse of reason. I was changed. At that moment I decided that I am going to build a school. I had no idea how; I just knew I had to do right by these people.
“One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”
—President John F. Kennedy
We have traveled in different ships to get to this moment in our lives, but we are all in the same boat now. At this moment, if you have read this far, you and I are literally on the same page. The issue I’m about to discuss is not an issue of liberal or conservative, or the religious belief you hold. This issue is about the one defining thing we all share. We are all humans that live on the same planet. Whatever affects one directly, ultimately affects all of us indirectly. Are there many things that need fixing in our human experience? There surely are. Can you fix all of them? You surely cannot. But the best you can do is fix the things you can. So do that. If everyone did that at least once, just think where we would be today? Tomorrow? A year from now?
So my goal is this: I want to use the power of the camera to build a school in this village. I want to use the power of the camera to create something that will take the experience that affected one person directly and use it to affect as many people as directly as possible.
The etymology of word “photography” means to write with light. Thomas Jefferson (among others) said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Well…TJ did not have a digital camera. Because the camera is mightier than the pen. Which means that a photographer wields a light saber.
I have started the site CameraIsMightier.org. The first goal of the site is to build a school in this village, using art to do it. My plan is to first create a limited edition set of four 17×22 portfolios, then to create a book from the 137,000 captures I have of Burma to help keep it going.
What I need is help.
I am asking for help from the collective all of you. From straightforward legal advice, to help and ideas about book layout, to ideas of how to expand the thought of fixing things that we can with our art, creating a forum to show the things that take us. If you have an idea, send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to help the school project send an email to email@example.com.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King said, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” Next time you drink a cup of Starbucks there is someone in this world we all live in that has to toil all day to make what you spent in a moment. If not for them, take pause for a moment and think of their children playing in a brickyard whilst they work. That you, one person, have within your power to make a difference in life. All you need do is try.