20 July, 2016

Life, Death, and Lack of Closure: The perpetual struggle of the inadvertent historian

Foreword

This post is serious. These thoughts and feelings have haunted me for at least the last 5 years, and I've meant to discuss them, but haven't yet, because it's difficult. It's difficult in the same way that I imagine it's difficult to write down that you're suffering from depression, and that it's something that's going to be a part of you for the rest of your life. That you never really escape — you just manage. I have to imagine that other historians face this same kind of conundrum, but what follows is my own version of the story.

Life and Death

What does it mean to remember? What does it mean to forget? Culturally, our sense of the past is tied up in the historical records that surround us, and consequently, the keepers of those records become the tailors of our institutional memory. But with that power comes responsibility. And with that responsibility comes, in some cases, an inescapable sense of duty.

As a documentary photographer, I relish the opportunity to record the moments that reveal the humanity in every story. The moments that demonstrate what we care about and why. And I aspire to retell those stories, so that people might look back and understand what made us tick in those instants.

But that aspiration is also a trap. I knew that I wanted to be a photographer, but I didn't realize that becoming a documentary photographer was an irreversible process that drags you down even as it lifts you up. That once you become an inadvertent historian, you become acutely aware of the ways in which your own inaction affects the world around you.
The trap is that historians wield the twin powers of addition and omission. This means that inaction — the failure to add — is still an expression of that power. Do you add a piece to a museum, or do you not?

When a person or thing goes away, what remains is the legacy. Everyone and everything has a legacy, but what differs is how widely-appreciated aspects of that legacy may be.

Just like a musician, a person might be known only by their family, or also by their friends, and community, and state, and country, and so on. And as with any celebrity, certain aspects of that person's existence might be remembered, and other aspects might remain unknown — nuances can be retained or discarded.
It feels like I sometimes have the power to decide between a person being remembered and being forgotten. Between their legacy becoming better-known or flickering into antiquity. It feels like if I share the record that I've captured, I can create a new memory in a broader group of people; or if it already exists, I can add nuance and depth, to paint a more complete picture of the person or thing that was.

And yet, sometimes, I don't. I let them be forgotten. I let them slip away. And the knowledge that I could do something, but I don't… it haunts me. It gnaws at my sense of self. It undermines my sense of pride at being the best photographer that I can.


The Catch-22 is that by doing anything, I realize that I could always do more. That I can always do more. Why would you stop at a deeper appreciation by friends, for instance, when it's still a shame that their community hasn't heard of them? But why stop at this community when that other community should learn about them also? Knowing about those possibilities, and knowing that I haven't pursued them; that gets to me.

I mean, each step is just a matter of doing the work that I already know how to do. But the aggregate of those steps will never reach an ideal that is not only unreachable (the more things people try to remember, the less of each thing they will actually remember) but also unknowable (who wants to be remembered? Who should be remembered? How should they be remembered?)

The Catch-22 is that knowing that an ideal exists makes me feel guilty when I decide to take steps that don't lead up the mountain. But the knowledge that the mountain is unclimbable — that there is an "up," but there is no "top" — doesn't help me feel any less guilty.

Let Me Count the Ways

This trap comes in three varieties. The easiest to deal with happens when I shoot something voluntarily, and it's not clear that anyone really cares about it. Rationally, someone must have, at some point, but it's not clear whether anyone still does. It's like, who cares about this particular dollar bill, as opposed to any other?

A few years ago, I documented parts of the demolition of a building. One has to imagine that, at some point, that building was someone's pride and joy, whether the people who designed it, the ones who built it, or the folks who worked and created memories within.

Even so, I understand that generic buildings typically don't typically leave much of a legacy, and that there's a vanishingly small possibility that my coverage would reach someone who finds the building (or its demolition) emotionally meaningful.
The second variety occurs when I go into a situation with the a priori understanding that it will be emotionally meaningful to people. I've photographed memorial concerts for two historically-prominent musicians — Herb Pomeroy and Dave Brubeck — and I knew at the outset what I was getting myself into.

Of course, that doesn't mean that my falters and doubts around the coverage of those events don't follow me. It just means that I knew going in that they were going to follow me. Cold comfort, for certain.
The most personally jarring version happens when I walk into the trap unknowing and unprepared. I take photos every day. Sometimes I do a good job, and sometimes I don't — sometimes I take a passing snapshot so I can catch a train or get to a meeting on time. Thus is the nature of compromise.

And sometimes it happens that those snapshots become historically relevant. Then I kick myself for not having given the moment the attention it deserved. Or sometimes I take good photos but don't publish them, and I kick myself for that as well.

The example that's been on my mind of late deals with Airship Ventures and the SF Bay Area airship rides they used to offer. I had the good fortune to go for one of those rides — aboard the largest airship in the world, at the time — and I took photos of the adventure. I never did anything with most of them.

A few years later, I discovered that the business had shut down, and that the airship itself had been dismantled and sent back to the manufacturer in Germany. How... what? So what to do? Do I put the effort into writing a post — adding a memorandum to the institutional record — or do I deal with my never-ending pile of more recent work?

Here's a hint: I still haven't published anything, and I still feel guilty for continuing to not do so.
The most infuriating thing, of course, is that I know about the trap, and yet I have no idea how to avoid it. Worse, the better a documentarian I become, the more situations I'll find myself in where I hold a canonical concrete record of that situation. Perhaps, the only canonical record of that situation. And, consequently, the more situations that will come to haunt me.

Like a Sisyphean Pokemaster, I hold onto the demons of my past, even as I work to collect the demons of my future. Perhaps the only winning move is not to play. But then again, inaction is action.

30 June, 2016

Devastated (Stores from the 25, part 4)

A car race is an environment where pragmatism and optimism can go hand-in-hand. I interviewed my friend Andrew during the race, and when I asked him about a time in motorsports when he felt devastated, his answer was simple:

"I think that is yet to come. Motorsports is pretty much the most fun thing I've ever done, and I haven't lost a car or anything irreplaceable yet, so it's always been worthwhile."

In the photo, he sits in the driver seat as the team gets everything ready for his first night-racing experience. I've mentioned in previous years that optimism alone typically doesn't get you through the night safely. It might be one piece of the puzzle, but it's still only one piece.
Vehicle lighting is essential at night. Both so that the driver of a vehicle can see the track, the vehicles, and any unexpected obstacles; and also so that other drivers can see that vehicle. A stopped vehicle that has no lights (or, that has lights that aren't visible to approaching traffic) is a sitting duck, and a recipe for disaster.
Lights make it possible to for the driver to see what they are approaching, and flaggers make it possible for drivers to know about situations that they can't actually see yet.

For the 25-hour race, two rotations of flaggers switch off during four ~6-hour flag shifts during the race. And just like the pit lane workers, they have to bundle up and be prepared for whatever climate conditions may occur during the race. The flaggers are so important that the race pauses (full course yellow, cars circulate but no passing is allowed) during the shift changes.
Spotters offer more of a competitive benefit than a safety benefit, but that competitive advantage might mean that a driver can be more conservative during stretches of the race that are more treacherous. For instance, if you can maintain position without having to dive-bomb slower cars into the corners in the rain, you're a lot more likely to avoid contact when mistakes inevitably happen. Generally, the spotters find a spot with a clear view of the track, and relay any relevant details back to the team over radio.

Here, a spotter stands on a hilltop bench above the back half of the track (near turn 9), and looks on as cars pass over turn 5 in the distance.
For drivers and crew, it also pays to stay warm and to avoid hunger and dehydration. The inevitable fatigue of spending dozens of hours on alert, and of dealing with a deluge of rain for half of the race, will add up on their own. Other sources of physical discomfort just make things worse.

Fundamentally, endurance races are about extending that comfort as long as possible — the more comfortable you are, the better you can focus, and the less likely you are to make mistakes. The fewer mistakes you make (as driver or crew), the more time you spend turning fast laps, and the less time you spend waiting for the tow truck, or fixing things that broke.
When you put enough puzzle pieces together, this is what it looks like. The #45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Audi R8-LMS dominated the race from sundown onward — they outlasted the faster cars (none of which made it to sunrise), and once the rain started falling, they passed other cars everywhere imaginable. Corner, straight, it didn't seem to matter. By the end, they placed first overall with a 35-lap margin over second place, and a 59-lap margin over third.

31 May, 2016

Together and Alone (2016 National Pole Vault Summit, part 3)

Pole Vault is kind of a team sport, but it's kind of not. At the end of the day, it takes an individual effort to clear the bar. Regardless of the size or strength of a vaulter's support network, the support network can't grab the pole and step on the runway.

(Vaulter: Hiroki Ogita)
But at the same time, the support network helps to inform, guide, and motivate that individual effort. A good coach will learn the strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies of a vaulter, and will strive to provide feedback that helps that particular individual perform at their best.

(Coach: Tim Mack; Vaulter: Mark Hollis)
But then it's again up to that single vaulter to figure out whether and how to incorporate that guidance into the next attempt. There are no substitutions. No pinch hitters. It's just you, the pole, and the crossbar, every single time.

(Vaulter: Mary Saxer)
And then when the attempt is over, regardless of whether things went well or poorly, it's just you on that mat. At least for a moment.

(Vaulter: Kylie Hutson)
When the moment is up, though, the "I" often turns back to "us." Vault friends are often close because they can commiserate. They can understand the feelings that might seem irrational to someone who only watches from the sidelines.

(Vaulters: Tori Peña (left), Kylie Hutson)
And sometimes their congratulations are a little more meaningful as well. Here, Seito Yamamoto (left) and Daichi Sawano join hands after Yamamoto eclipsed Sawano's Japanese National Indoor Record, with a 5.77m clearance.

(Vaulters: Seito Yamamoto (left), Daichi Sawano)
At the end of the day, it takes an individual effort to clear the bar. But it feels so much better when you're with family.
The full 2016 National Pole Vault Summit series:

26 May, 2016

Proud (Stories from the 25, part 3)

Around 22:30 Saturday night, Rob Rodriguez climbed into the #10 Catfish Miata (supported by CRE / Jackson Racing / AIM), got settled, and adjusted his mirrors. Then he drove out into the darkness and what would soon become a deluge of rain. I caught up with him 13 hours later, with a scant 30 minutes left on the race clock, and asked about a time in motorsports when he felt proud.

His team had just clinched the second-place position in the open-cockpit ESR class at that point, proving more reliable than cars that were faster by 15 seconds per 2-minute lap. But the story he focused on had happened two months prior.

"My proudest moment in motorsports was when my son beat me in a Spec Miata… We started side-by-side. We had never raced against each other, and I saw him for the first three corners and then he just left me."

"Y'know, there's nothing like father-son out there," Rodriguez reminisced. And I think that sentiment is shared. It reminded me of how many families I see at the races. How many times I see people sharing their love of the sport with people that they care about, regardless of whether those family-members are related or not.
Every year, families and friends congregate to watch (and sometimes help) as the cars lazily form up on grid.
Street photographer Jamel Shabazz pointed out that families often like to be photographed together. That's true here as well.

I've been fortunate to spend hours upon hours with the folks at Edge Motorworks. And even though they've spent months and years in each other's company, they still take photos to capture their times together at the racetrack. There's something about a family in the midst of a unifying pastime that is worth remembering.
And you see it again when suppertime rolls around. You've gotta eat something during a 25-hour race, but seeing people come together at the same table reminds me that these teams are more than just individuals striving for the same goal.
The mid-race reunions remind me that some families are created by choice, and that many race teams are families in disguise. They share food and shelter; they help each other out when they can; and they band together when times are tough.
And the post-race reunions remind me that different kinds of families can overlap. Here, Monica (center) and Ken, wife and husband, safety crewmember and race driver, share a hug during the safety crew's post-race parade laps. There's nothing like family.