Thursday, May 10, 2012

Only weapons: Notebook and Leica

The contemporary photographer Monika Bulaj states her aim is “to give a voice to the silent people.” After watching her TED talk, I am at once humbled and invigorated.  I am struck by her courage and conviction.  She has been traveling for over 20 years, reportedly armed with only her notebook and Leica, a wonderful little camera that she uses like a nomadic paintbrush to painstakingly recreate the light and vitality from what so much of the rest of the world might be tempted to term darkness.

Addressing the TED audience, she begins “I was walking through the [Polish] forests of my grandmother’s tales, a land where every field hides a grave, where millions of people have been deported or killed in the 20th century.”  She goes on to capture, through word and image, the places and faces she met where she simply shared bread and prayer.  And, fortunately for us, she documented.  Her stunning portraits of both person and place remind me of Georges de la Tour’s evocations in oil paint with browns and ambers, where candlelight becomes almost personified: a silent character in an intimate scene, breathing life into our primal need for hope.  Similarly, Monika’s lovely images are like hand-written invitations, to a party celebrating our humanity, inviting us to a royal feast where stereotypes are smashed, and the most humble among us are exalted and lifted up to be honored and praised for the wonders they truly are.

After showing Through Our Own Eyes,” the documentary created by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education which features historic footage as well as still photographs and local Holocaust survivors’ testimony, from the Kansas City area, I always give my students an open-notes quiz and ask not only why, in their opinion, it is important to “remember” the Holocaust.  But I also ask them to list 3 things they can do, personally, to help make sure the Holocaust is remembered. Two of the most common responses to this last question are 1) to watch movies or read books about the history; and 2) to learn about places in the world where these atrocities might happen again, so we can speak out about them and  not become complacent bystanders.

Monika Bulaj’s art work does just that.  Her photographs are beacons.  They bears witness to her personal quest for a universal understanding of what it is to be fully human.  Like Rembrandt, she literally shines light on the everydayness of human life. After visiting a school in Afghanistan where 13,000 young women hide the fact that they are going to school, underground, among the scorpions,  Monkia recounts “their love of study was so big I cried.”  Her reportage is easily accessible, moving and excellent.  Through the clarity of her still images, we become party to both struggles and tendernesses.  We see our similarities and are presented with a portrait of not just community, but humanity.  Ms. Bulaj seeks out individuals and spotlights their personhood.  She enlightens by looking for commonalities and showcasing them. “I have been walking and traveling, by horses, by yak, by truck, by hitchhiking, from Iran’s border to the bottom, to the edge of the Wakhan Corridor. And in this way I could find ‘noor,’ the hidden light of Afghanistan.”  Her photographs are like personal, intimate offerings, luminous altars, celebrating all that we can be, and they are indeed inspiring.

No comments:

Post a Comment