For the boy there is always a question. What is this? What is that? Names and origins. An endless string of why’s and how comes. Those are the little explosions that make the motor turn. All these little journeys that I take into the country of myself. I ask myself, why am I this? Why I do feel that? What is it that stirs within me this feeling of ecstatic wonder over things I often cannot name or locate on a map? Is it God, I ask myself? Is this how God speaks? And what is He telling me? And why is He so cryptic?
The sinuous and often painful experience of learning something true, of understanding something with real, lasting value, requires of me, it seems, a Dantean odyssey through ring after ring of heavens and hells. A billboard could fall from the sky and still I would not see it for what it is. I need to dig, to mine, to be broken in pursuit of my truth. What I need to know does not come to me in a deluge, but a trickle. I see seemingly random images. I overhear words, tossed off casually. I intersect with certain pieces of music, with characters from history, with bits of stories, with random strangers, that build up layer upon layer of meaning that always, always, seems to coalesce into a pattern of frighteningly relevant truth. And part of that pattern is the photograph. The photograph as a unit of meaning. The photograph as personal message. My photographs. The act of searching for, and being open to, an image, a subject. Then exposing that subject, and framing it, putting the frame of myself around it. Then later, much later, communion with what I saw.
Consider the boy. He is, in this moment, perfection. There is no more perfect being, no more perfect form than the child. He is, at once, all things good. He is utterly innocent, utterly clean. He is, at this fragile phase of his life, untainted by the world he inhabits. He knows no horror, no shame. He knows no regret, no despair. He does not know what all of these larger people who surround him are capable of under the right conditions. He is pure love-energy. He is pure joy. He is yet untouched by hatred, envy and fear. He is a being of pure white light, an angel incarnate. He is, right here, right now, everything we could be if only we tried. And I was just like him once. What happened to me?
Many of us who have grown up, do not see what the boy sees. We don’t occupy his moment, nor our own. We live in the past and in the future, balancing fear and regret, anxiety and shame. The boy sees only what’s right in front of him. And he is entirely himself, expressing here his unbridled joy. His energy is effusive, palpable. It is directed upward, like a fountain, his arms outstretched in the shameless jubilation that only youth dares convey.
I see, in his shadows the shape of musculature, tendon, bone. I see in his puckered mouth the puckish child, all too aware of being photographed, of being watched and admired. He is posing. He has already learned how to alter his image for the camera. He intuitively understands what works, what will yield the attention and the love that children require of us, the guardians of children. His eyes are shut, his head is cocked and his torso is twisted, like a dancer in mid-turn. All is coiled energy, unsprung, and somehow the photograph captures this. A swagger in one so young. The thrill of being admired, of being loved, for exactly who you are. All of that is somehow captured in this image, this reflection, this photograph.
My photographs are messages to me. I rarely write about photographs of human beings, but this photograph is a message.
The boy is life. The boy is hope. The boy is what I once was before I lost it. Before it was stolen from me. Before I gave that all away. The boy is me, in 1971, when the mysterious world around me began to make sense, when I began to process what was once an inaudible hum of background voices. Grown-up talk. Johnny Carson. The 6 o’clock news. Words that once sounded like foreign languages. Vietnam. Body count. Hostages. Bombs. And following these words there were images. My first memory of the power of photographs. The naked napalm girl. The Kent State scream. I was, at the time, a child of light. But unbeknownst to me I was becoming something else. I remember so well my first Holocaust photographs. I remember in vivid detail the first time I saw a man who had been lynched, immolated. I was just a boy. My skin was smooth and clean. My arms were skinny but strong. I had the grace of a tiny dancer with a Buster Keaton style.
It’s no wonder I cannot stop asking why. It makes perfect sense that I seek some kind of answer in death. Because even now, 40 years later, I won’t allow myself to believe that what we do to each other is true. And he is a counterweight to that, this boy. I need him to help keep me alive, and sane. There is beauty in the world. There is a different kind of language then the one I learned. This boy is a master of that language. Some call it God. Some call it love. But it’s the same. It’s the same.
o O o