We are living in a moment of purgatory, caught between worlds. The past, present, and uncertain future seem to exist simultaneously. I am familiar with this state. Since being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer, in 2018, I’ve faced a daily existential reckoning: How much time is left? What should I do with the time that remains? What defines me?
This exhibit is a kind of slow-motion history of some of my most foundational, defining experiences, caught in the time warp of the present moment. Mortality, often intertwined with questions of survival, and a fascination with the human condition has been a constant.
The millennium years, 2000 and 2001, were a turning point in my life. In Las Vegas, I found that everyone was an impersonator, trying to live up to an iconic American dream never quite within reach, while Vegas itself lurched out of its identity as symbol of escape, into a destination for vacationing families. I captured the old flying saucer-shaped, mid-century Las Vegas Convention center on the eve of its demolition to make way for the new corporate Vegas.
On the streets of West Baltimore in 2000, the setting for “The Wire”, I found another kind of American truth, this one bitter and desperate. The homicide detectives I photographed were bone weary of death, but not as weary as the black men and women trapped in socio-economic quicksand. Embedded there for over a month, I witnessed the complexities of murder investigations, in which the trail often led towards the drug trade, which had become a cruel substitute to so many for real opportunity.
The millennium years culminated for me with the World Trade Center attacks just a few blocks from my home in lower Manhattan. I am a survivor of one of most epic crimes in history. The toxic dust I inhaled that day, and in the weeks afterwards, is the probable cause of my cancer. The photographs I took that day and in the weeks afterwards are a document of what became a complete shift in my consciousness and eventually in my health.
Through the early 2000s, I worked on several projects in Africa for National Geographic that also changed my consciousness. I photographed the gacaca (meeting in the grass) genocide trials in Rwanda. Nearly a decade after the genocide, in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were brutally slaughtered, the country needed a way to find closure and justice in order to heal. With over 100,000 men in overcrowded jails, the government decided to use a pre-colonial system of justice in which the relatives and friends of the victims confronted the genocidaires with the stories of their brutality. If the genocidaires owned up to their actions and apologized, most of them were released back into their towns and villages to live as free men. To this day, its been a mostly successful experiment in forgiveness and reconciliation.
The earth itself is a mortal being too, caught in its own fight for survival. Nowhere is that more evident than in the glaciers that serve as levees of ice against the rising temperatures that threaten their, and by proxy, our existence. Working in Alaska for National Geographic from 2014 to 2016, I discovered that glaciers were living, breathing entities, actually rivers of ice, changing by the minute, bearing the scars and stories of millennia in their mysterious codes.
In 2019 my immune system was destroyed by chemotherapy as part of my stem cell transplant process I was quarantined in my hospital room at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan for nearly a month, and then was mostly restricted to my home for several more months, not able to spend time with my friends and family. I wore a mask whenever I stepped outside and had to stay six feet away from other people to guard against infections. What I missed most, then as now, was intimate contact with other people. I missed getting close, our constantly changing facial expressions creating real emotional communication.
Since discovering that the mug shot, a seemingly utilitarian form of photography designed for identification, could be a window to connecting with another person’s identity, and in some ways with my own, I have made mug shot portraits of thousands of people all over the world. The unmasked, point blank intimacy that these works require would be mostly impossible now that we are masked. The film “Contact” sequences and combines some of them, in an effort to illuminate both difference, and a collective humanity.
The exhibit "Mortal" was held at the Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson, New York from September 4 through October 4, 2020, in the gallery's historic 1910 carriage house. "Mortal" included 64 works over three floors of the gallery, organized as a loosely chronological narrative, beginning with Lost Vegas and Baltimore Homicide on the ground floor, continuing with Rwanda Gacaca and Glaciers vs. Carbon on the second floor, and concluding on the third floor with mug shot combination/mash-ups, my short film of portraits "Contact", and images from my cancer treatment in 2019, and the pandemic in 2020.