The Face of Return

A year ago, I took an emergency trip to Rhode Island.

My aunt was wrapping her dance with cancer, and probably wouldn’t (didn’t) last the week. In every measurable way, it jarred me.

When I came back, I saw the world a little differently. I don’t mean that I felt strange, or looked at everything and everyone with a whiff of suspicion. That’s grief. I felt that, too, though not as hard as my mother. I mean, literally, I saw the world a little differently.

Maybe that’s when I started seeing stories. As I felt an urge to say, “Hey, just so you know. I’m not sure if you’re there, but I’m feeling this thing right now.”

It was a period of locking in. I’ve heard that feeling called so many things, from Gregory Corso’s “gasoline” to Ruth Stone’s storm winds that tore literally through her body. I’ve said may times I consider it Muse’s hand, guiding some part of me in some direction I wouldn’t have turned on my own. My work—the thing I can and do take credit for—is translating that feeling into something communicable. That’s art. But the feeling, that I must give credit for, where credit is due.

As a poet, I’m used to calling that feeling Muse. I see writing as a reflective art—a something that takes place after. But working directly with Muse is very in-the-moment. I can’t say exactly when that feeling hits for me with a photograph, but I’m pretty sure more than half of it happens later, in editing. I’m very curious to see how that changes.

I work primarily in two media.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 years learning to tell stories with words—something I default to in speech, but never thought about arranging into a series-of-events object in writing. Now I’m figuring out how to tell stories without words, and it’s… well…

Visual stories are elusive. Sometimes the story is someone’s face, or it’s the magnetic pink of a service elevator (true story), or a stranger-than-fiction arrangement of objects on the sidewalk. Or the simple fact of this magnificently strange space… just sitting there. Scanning BART tickets. Waiting. And contrary to all your deepest-held beliefs about this world’s opportunism, no one’s made a picture of it before.

Photographers call it a story, but I think it’s smaller than that. It’s a piece of a story. A delicate, important thing we need someone else to understand. A thing we need to communicate; a thing we need to communicate in order to understand it ourselves.

The photographer’s story can resemble the novelist’s story, or the poet’s story. There is room for narrative; there is room for only the moment of heart-thump; a deep and terrible knowing; the details we manufacture to make limited information make sense.

So, friends. Please.

Grab a seat, tip a drink. Let me regale you with the stories of my second strange return. Tell them at your kitchen table. I culled them rigorously, just for you.

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