Photo of the Day #5 
Tuesday, June 17, 2008, 12:02 - Personal, Photo of the Day
Brooklyn

So when I was younger, much younger, I wanted to be an illustrator. More specifically I just wanted to be able to draw accurately. Sadly this was a skill that I never developed but fortunately I discovered photography which we all know is drawing with light. While I left behind my ambitions to draw, I am still interested in graphic representations of the world around me. Because I am a photojournalist I don’t have as many opportunities to indulge this proclivity as I would like but every once in a while I can.


Sign of the times. Berlin, 2007 © Damaso Reyes

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1024 )

Internet Poll 
Sunday, June 8, 2008, 17:08 - Personal
Brooklyn

So the question is: Beard or no beard?

I am thinking about shaving but when I do I look like a teenage girl. Seriously, people call me miss and ma’am. But as you can see, I don’t really grow a ZZ Top type beard. What other people grow in a day takes me a month. So summer is here and I am thinking about shaving but what do you think?


More than two months of growth, kinda sad huh? © Damaso Reyes

Click on this link and vote, I will post the results next week…


So smooth…. © Damaso Reyes

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 915 )

Bridging the Gap 
Tuesday, May 27, 2008, 15:33 - Personal, Commentary
Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Bridge just turned 125!

And you don’t look a day over 100…

This was a beautiful and warm Memorial Day weekend here in New York. I was a bit under the weather for some of it but by Sunday I was smiling and sitting in the sun like thousands of other New Yorkers.


The view from below. © Damaso Reyes

The anniversary of the opening of the bridge serves as a reminder of what we can accomplish when we work together for something greater than ourselves. It is a testament that the space between us can be bridged both literally and metaphorically and that is what we should strive for as a society.


Shadows. © Damaso Reyes

For me that is what The Europeans is: a bridge. Images can serve that function in our society and I hope that this project can serve as a bridge both among Europeans as well as a link between the present and the future. Time, as it always does, will tell…


We can’t leave out the Manhattan Bridge! © Damaso Reyes

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1049 )

Searching & Finding 
Wednesday, May 14, 2008, 14:31 - Personal, Project News
Brooklyn

Sometimes you just have to listen to the photographs.


The writing is on the wall. © Damaso Reyes

All photographs speak, the question is how well do you listen? Since I have been back in New York I have started doing yoga twice a week. I had wanted to do yoga for a couple of years now but I had always found an excuse. Now that I am cooling my heels in NYC for a while, I figured it was a good time to start.

More than anything I just want to increase my strength and flexibility. Sitting in front of the computer for hours and hours and then walking around with a heavy camera is not so good for you body, especially when you aren’t 18 years old anymore. Of course yoga also gives me time to clear my mind, which can be pretty hard at times. If you haven’t tried it I highly recommend it!

Meanwhile I finally finished editing about an hour ago! So over the next few days you will be seeing some new galleries as well as new photographs in existing galleries. You can already visit a gallery from my trip to the DKFZ here. I feel really good about this latest round of images, I hope you do too…

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1016 )

Nursing Home Haiku 
Wednesday, January 16, 2008, 10:39 - Personal
Vienna

Some of you may remember my good friend Albert Somma. While I was back in New York last month I took the train out to visit him in New Jersey at the rehabilitation center he has been living at. Two and a half years ago he was riding his bike through Riverside Park after work and had an accident in which he suffered a severe neck injury. To say the least it has changed his life. He has regained a lot of his movement and mobility over the past two years but it has been a long road full of struggle for him.

I have to admit it was tough seeing him in a wheelchair at first. He was among the most fit and active people I knew, biking or rollerblading nearly every day. And of course he was an incredible singer. That’s actually how we met; he was performing at a club I used to frequent downtown called Torch (which ironically burnt down). He sang the very jazz standards that I loved so much and I ended up shooting the cover photograph for his CD.

In addition to being a great singer Al is also quite a poet. We have been talking for years about doing a poetry/photography collaboration and recently he sent me several haikus. I present them below, matched with some images from the Schomberg Kinder Klinik I shot last year. Let me know what you think….

Nursing Home Haiku
By Al Somma

A caretaker washes my hair
I assent, head
cradled in her hands



© Damaso Reyes

I resent the intrusion
Of the nurses, yet call
When I need them



© Damaso Reyes

Help and helplessness
Living side by side,
Bedfellows in the
Yin, yang



© Damaso Reyes
  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 2.9 / 1142 )

Sketches of Wien 
Thursday, January 10, 2008, 14:37 - Personal
Vienna

So I have spent the last three days or so finally checking out a bit of the city. I haven’t gotten that far but I have liked what I have seen. It has finally warmed up a bit here, the bitter wind which filled the streets last week has died down and even our friend Mr. Sun has made a few appearances through the clouds.


I bet it's warm inside... © Damaso Reyes

Now some of you may wonder why I am so sensitive to the cold, after all, didn’t I grow up in New York, not exactly known for its balmy winters (although it did get up to something like 15 degrees Celsius yesterday)? I usually reply that I didn’t like the winters there either! The two winters I spent living in Indonesia were wonderful and I didn’t miss the changing seasons at all. But there is a deeper reason for my dislike of the cold, one that has its roots in my childhood.

I grew up poor. Not lower middle class or working class but honestly poor. There were times when I couldn’t get new clothes for school, times when there wasn’t enough to eat, we ate government cheese and living in subsidized housing with thin, single paned windows and heating that we couldn’t control. All that meant that in winter the apartment was cold. We piled up blankets when we slept, which was fine at night but during the day there wasn’t much we could do.

I remember actually sitting on the radiator cover when I was a child whenever the heat would come on in an attempt to let it soak in to help keep me warm for the hours when the temperature would drop while the heat was off. I remember sitting with my grandmother in front of an open stove, our hands up against a huge pot of water that we used to try to keep things a little more bearable. I remember taking long, hot showers and baths and dreading the minute that I had to go back into the cold of my own home. I suppose this is where my love of saunas comes from.

So for me being cold isn’t simply about being uncomfortable, it is a reminder of hunger, of poverty and not being in control of the most basic parts of your life. So when the wind howls and the temperature drops I prefer to stay indoors, thank you very much.


Sketches of Wien... © Damaso Reyes

But as of late I have gone outside and today I took some photos. More like sketches really, which is how I think of the digital camera. I also took along my Leica and a new 75mm lens I brought just before I left (thanks Fulbright money, thanks!) you will see those photos as soon as I can find a darkroom to work in. So here are the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of impressions of the city…


Store cows. © Damaso Reyes


Lights and Wires. © Damaso Reyes


The Museums Quartier, where I live. © Damaso Reyes


Around the Bend. © Damaso Reyes


Crazy like a Fox. © Damaso Reyes


Down the steps and into the MQ. © Damaso Reyes
  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1162 )

The End is Nigh 
Tuesday, July 3, 2007, 14:59 - Personal
Stuttgart

Well it has been nearly six months and my time here at Solitude is growing short. I suppose that I have been missing this place as long as I have been here but the peace and tranquility that I have experienced since I have arrived will be difficult to replicate. At the same time I am looking forward to coming home again in just a few short days. New York is always most exciting during those first few days after your step off the plane. Since I was born there I will never know the thrill of flying into New York for the first time so this is as close as I can get…


Geneva's main train station. © Damaso Reyes

This time in my life has been important for many reasons, perhaps least of which are the many photographs I have taken. More important I think is the mental development that has occurred since I have been here. I have refined my shooting style and process. I have discovered a rhythm that I hope will carry me though the rest of my time here in Europe. I am making the transition from heavy SLR cameras to lighter rangefinders.

Six months ago I felt as though I had just begun this project; today I will as though I am deep inside of it. As usually happens when I shoot a great deal I fell refreshed and inspired. I have a thousand new ideas of what to photograph and am excited about the possibilities that the future holds.

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1112 )

Ich mochte eine Leica M6! 
Wednesday, June 6, 2007, 02:08 - Travel, Personal
Solms

I am a changed man.


Leica lenses under construction. © Damaso Reyes

Sure I use and enjoy working with a rangefinder but for as long as I have been photographing I have been using SLR cameras. There are a lot of different reasons for this but like most artists I have been evolving my practice over the past ten years. First I found the joy of using large aperture prime lenses. Then I learned to get as close as possible to my subject. Later I learned to make my photographs increasingly subtle.


Testing the glass. © Damaso Reyes

Today I visited the Leica factory in Solms. In many ways it was very much a pilgrimage. It was like visiting a holy place, a location where photography and photojournalism is still revered in a world where it is increasingly seen as a relic of a bygone age.


Handmade and hands on. © Damaso Reyes

I saw dozens of craftspeople lovingly polishing and grinding lenses, assembling and testing cameras. The pride that everyone there takes in making the world’s finest cameras was clear and made me think about my own practice and what I need to change.

The past five months have given me a wonderful opportunity to find a new way of working, one that is defined by the word SLOWLY. This trip added the final piece of the puzzle. Rather than carrying a 10 or 15 kilo bag full of heavy slrs, I think it is time for me to fully embrace the rangefinder.

Does anyone have a few thousand Euros I could borrow to buy some new cameras and lenses? Or maybe you have an old M3 or M5 that is just gathering dust on a shelf? I’d be happy to put it to good use!


Finishing touches. © Damaso Reyes

I have always felt that knowing what you what is the hardest thing to discover, figuring out how to achieve it always ends up being the easier task.

Special thanks to Michael Agel for showing me around!
  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1134 )

Interlude... 
Monday, April 23, 2007, 14:57 - Personal
Berlin

Here is a little Interlude to keep you entertained, don’t worry, I am having fun….

Lovely Dark and Deep



The view from Solitude. © Damaso Reyes

There are many things that I love about Solitude. The freedom to work at my own pace, the support I get from the staff, the wonderful cadre of other artists who are here with me. But I have unexpectedly fallen in love with the woods that surround us.


Jan Bodin walking down a trail. © Damaso Reyes

I’ve always been a city boy, I was after all born and raised in New York City. I remember taking a field trip in the 5th grade to go apple picking and when we got off the bus I commented to a teacher that the air smelled funny. “Yes,” she replied. “That’s because it’s clean,” she added. Yes we have trees in Brooklyn but I have never spent such an extended period surrounded by nature.


Spring green. © Damaso Reyes

At first the woods were mysterious and a bit overwhelming. Slowly I began to venture in, a few hundred meters at first, then slowly I began to go deeper with the help of some of the other fellows who weren’t as reserved as I was. Before long a short trip into the woods became part of my weekly routine. Then longer trips, an hour, two hours of walking the trails became a daily habit.


Water and woods. © Damaso Reyes

The woods offer a kind of peace that I hadn’t experienced before. Much like in the city you are surrounded and at the same time all alone. But in the woods often you are alone, without another person in sight. During my walks I think about my life, this project, our future together. Sometimes my mind simply wanders unable to grasp a hold to a single train of though.


Bark. © Damaso Reyes

But as I walk through these woods, lovely, dark and deep as they are I feel that I may just find what it is I am looking for if I keep walking. The forest continues to surprise and comfort me.


Nature at work. © Damaso Reyes


Forest man. © Damaso Reyes


Wildlife. © Damaso Reyes


Scary tree. © Damaso Reyes


The view from here. © Damaso Reyes
  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3.3 / 1451 )

2nd Anniversary 
Sunday, April 15, 2007, 13:13 - Personal, Project News, Commentary
Stuttgart

Happy Tax Day! Yes, today is the day when many of my friends back home are rushing to ensure that they have their taxes files (actually since the date falls on a Sunday they have until tomorrow at midnight to make sure Uncle Sam get his pound of flesh).

Today also happens to be the second anniversary of The Europeans. For some strange reason I chose this day to begin my journey into the soul of Europe, boarding a plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport bound for London. Looking back at those heady times it is amazing how far I have come.


Anti-war activist Brian Haw. © Damaso Reyes

Before I began this project it took me a long time to make the commitment to spend God-only-knows how many years traveling and photographing throughout Europe. While it might not sound like a hardship assignment, it was not something that I took on lightly. When I began this adventure I had no idea how it would be financed, nor what kinds of images I would make, after all, exactly how does one photograph the changes Europe is experiencing as the European Union expands? How does such an abstract concept manifest itself? How do you capture something so ephemeral?

I’m still trying to figure it out myself.


Waiting in Amsterdam. © Damaso Reyes

One of the most insidious concepts one learns in school, especially art school, is the idea of certainty. More often than not we are trained not to explore, to try and to fail but to follow the more certain path, the one where our natural talents lie. I remember one moment in school when I was talking to a professor in his office towards the end of a particularly challenging class. He told me, with a touch of sarcasm, that he was going to let me pass the class. I shrugged my shoulders and thanked him, but I also informed him that the reason I took this particular class was to have a chance to stretch myself, to try something new rather than just continue taking the kinds of documentary images I already knew I was good at. My new endeavor produced few results, but not for a lack of trying. In effect I had failed but I had learned a lot through the process, something my professor didn’t value as much as I did at the time.

Two years ago, as I had done so many times before, I set out on a path without knowing where it would lead. As familiar as uncertainty has become for me I nevertheless boarded that plane with a great deal of trepidation. As a photographer I never know what kinds of images I will make but that doesn’t ease the fear that in the end I will make no images at all. An irrational fear to be sure I what I fear even more is the sense that my work has become easy, that the challenge is gone and no matter what I can make great images. When that happens I will be well on the road of decline.



Destroyed Home, Kosovo. © Damaso Reyes

So what has the past two years brought? Well I have shot in the United Kingdom, Kosovo, Spain, The Netherlands and this year in Germany. I’ve shot hundreds of rolls of film so far and taken thousands upon thousands of photographs. Year one saw an incredible burst of activity and travel. Year two I only worked on the project for ten days or so, most due to lack of resources. It was a year of contemplation and reflection; downtime I feel like I learned a great deal from. As I have said many times, this project is not just about taking photographs; it is about logistics, planning and fundraising, something I have always had difficulty doing.

This year will be the most productive of all, with me shooting for perhaps ten months out of the year. I am also living in Europe full time and plan to continue to do so for the duration of the project, a necessary but important step.


It's not going to Stop! © Damaso Reyes

I feel that the project is finally reaching a critical mass, one that will allow me to work faster, travel farther and delve deeper into Europe. It is an exciting time; I finally feel that the years of planning and hard work are starting to pay off. But it is also now that I must redouble my efforts. I must work even harder to spread the message of the project and to continue to expand my support network, without whom this project would not be possible.

For those of you who read this blog regularly I would ask that you consider what you might be able to do to help the project along. Advice is always welcome, so are donations
and sponsorships. But more than anything else this project needs forceful advocates. Each of you in your own way has the power to spread the message of what I am trying to accomplish. You are influence makers, power brokers and leaders. The Europeans will only truly become successful when there are dozens of people who are as passionate about this as I am. Think about the power that you can bring to this endeavor, how together we can show Europe and the world an image of itself that it has been reluctant to see: a people united by much more than what divides them.


Waiting in Berlin. © Damaso Reyes

If you dream of a world in which the desires of a few do not dominate the needs of the many, then join me. If you aspire to a life where our common values set the agenda rather than our financial interests, take up my cause. If you still believe in the power of the still image, in the power of art to move and influence our society then I ask you to join me on this journey of exploration. Finally, if you dream of the world as it could be, if you still have hope that people of good will can come together and change our society help me make that a reality.

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1066 )

Three Down, Three to Go... 
Thursday, April 12, 2007, 16:44 - Personal, Commentary
Stuttgart

Well it has been three months since I arrived here at Solitude and it has been an intensely interesting experience both personally and artistically. It has been a time of contradictions for sure. I feel like I have worked hard and at the same time not hard enough. I feel like I have taken some great images and at the same time not nearly as many as I would like. I think I am starting to understand Germany but I also know that I am just scratching the surface of this society. Even with a long term project like this one, where I am spending years of my life photographing I feel like I might not get as deep as I would like. At the same time I understand that I am far too deep in the forest to really see the trees.


Thinking in Jakarta... © Damaso Reyes

Perhaps that is the best part of my time here: having the freedom to think, something I have been doing a lot of. I spend a lot of time thinking about the future, where I will go, what I will photograph and how I will make it happen. Before I started this project I had no earthly idea how to answer any of those question, I simply had a vision and a shaky belief in myself that I might be able to accomplish it. Nearly two years into this endeavor I am actually managing to make it happen and with the Fulbright and Burns fellowships I feel like the project is starting to get some traction with someone other than myself. But there is a long way to go…

And the next three months? Well I do have a show here at the end of May to prepare for, which will take some time. I also plan on heading to Berlin later this month and traveling and shooting as much as I can with the time I have left. But don’t worry, there will be more long walks in the woods…

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1174 )

When it rains... 
Friday, April 6, 2007, 09:43 - Personal, Project News
Stuttgart

“Ask and ye shall receive” the Gospel of Matthew tells us. That’s the interesting thing about clichés, there is at least a kernel of truth in them, otherwise they would not be clichés. I suppose it is possible that the universe heard my plaintive cry about not feeling accepted and decided that Damaso deserves some validation. So to quote another cliché, when it rains, it pours…

Over the past few months, usually in the afternoon, I focused my psychic energy to some room in Vienna, where a group of distinguished people were no doubt gathered around a conference table debating the merits of different candidates. Apparently my focused thoughts, or my talent or proposal or blind luck, seems to have swayed them.

I am a Fulbright Scholar.

Yes, I am as surprised as you are.


Pretty much how I feel right now.© Damaso Reyes

I figured since there was only one slot that it was very unlikely that I would be so honored as to be selected. But next January and February I will be an artist in residence at the Museums Quartier in Vienna.

There is little doubt in my mind that this is indeed a turning point in my life, one that I have worked very hard to achieve. But to say that this success is mine and mine alone would be dishonest. Thanks go to Audrey Jonckheer at Kodak, Elinor Tatum, Publisher of the Amsterdam News, and Deb Willis, Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at NYU for writing me recommendations. I am sure that the kind words of these three strong women played no small role in securing this fellowship.

That I have been given such an honor speaks volumes about the people who have trusted and supported me over the years. I still have a long way to go but your faith in me and my project has sustained me even though the darkest of hours. It is with that faith that I continue on this winding road.

But wait, there’s more…

Just days after I learned of the Fulbright, while I was happily snapping away in Hamburg, I received an email notifying me of an additional honor. I am one of ten American journalists selected to receive an Arthur Burns Fellowship. That’s right, this summer I will be back in Germany, working for some big time publication, stirring things up. It truly is an embarrassment of riches but after hearing the word NO so many times over the years these two fellowships allow me a sigh of relief.

During one of my many walks in the woods over the past few weeks I often thought of what I would do after my time at Solitude ended. I began conjuring creative ways of keeping the project going and none of them satisfied me. Now I have a little more breathing room to continue to create. I look forward to taking full advantage!

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1094 )

Hafen Hamburg 
Friday, March 23, 2007, 18:42 - Travel, Shooting, Personal
Hamburg

Well I have to say that Hamburg is pretty amazing. I am having a great time, taking photos and running around town. I am lucky enough to be staying with my friend Ewa, who I met at Solitude during a symposium a few months ago.

Today I shot at the Port of Hamburg, much thanks to Christian at the port for facilitating the trip. Hamburg is the second biggest port in Europe and the largest by far in Germany, bringing tens of thousands of containers into the country every day and shipping them out as well. That Porsche you drive probably came through the Port of Hamburg. The day started cold but clear as we drove along the warehouses and cranes to the slip where a recently docked ship form China was being unloaded. As you can imagine the scale of everything at the Port is huge from the 40 foot containers to the 40 meter cranes that unload the ships which are longer than football fields. Giant blue container moving cars zip along the wharves looking like something out of a Lego set gone crazy. Containers were sacked six high, creating instant neighborhoods of corrugated steel. The little kid in me loves all the big trucks and ships and I had a wonderful time photographing them, at least until the rain and wind picked up towards the end of the afternoon, but my long underwear and waterproof Mountain Hardwear coat, pants and hat kept me warm and dry throughout.


An ocean of containers. © Damaso Reyes


My ship has come in. © Damaso Reyes


Up and Away. © Damaso Reyes


Big Wheel, Keep on Turning... © Damaso Reyes


Container Movers. © Damaso Reyes


Temporary City. © Damaso Reyes

Today is also a happy anniversary for me as well. Twelve years ago I truly began my journey as a socially conscious adult. That warm day in March I went to my first demonstration, where thousands of students from the City University of New York had gathered to protest rising tuitions. City Hall Park in lower Manhattan was jammed with placard waving and chanting young college students. I was there with my camera and documented it all including when the police broke up the end of the demonstration. I felt alive, excited by the energy of the students and the passion with which they protested. I became in the movement myself giving speeches and organizing demonstrations and that day set me on the road of journalism with the idea that a few, motivated people can change the world. Every year I think about that day and how different my life might be if I hadn’t gone downtown that day. Life is full of twists and turns and I when I look back at my short life I am amazed at where I have been and how far I have come. I feel lucky to be living a life without limits, one where I can go as far as my talent and passion can take me.

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1166 )

Off to Hamburg... Interlude.. 
Wednesday, March 21, 2007, 18:59 - Personal
En Route to Hamburg

So I am off to Hamburg for about a week. I will be shooting at the port there and hopefully a few other places. In the meantime, another interlude to satisfy the masses…

Date Unknown
Brooklyn, New York

In all honesty all I really have is memories of my father.

Recently my mother called me to let me know that it was his birthday. He is well into his 70’s and makes somewhat frequent trips to the hospital. Other than my mother there is no one in my family to whom I am close, and most people would even dispute that I am even close to her.


At my Mother's house. © Damaso Reyes

My father and I are separated by many things.

Age

Culture

History

I couldn’t be more different than he is if I had planned it. Yet without him I wouldn’t be here. A few years ago I sat down and, like a good journalist, I interviewed him. You see I don’t know much about my father. He has always been around but never been there. Since I could remember he has been less than a kilometer away but never within reach. He left not too long after I was born. He settled close by, started the semblance of a new family but he never disappeared. He and my mother have always been good friends despite what happened.

He was always the man with five dollars for me, twenty on my birthday.

He was the man who took me to work with him once in a while when I was on summer vacation.

He was the man I always saw before I could forget him but that I never really remembered.




My Father's Shoes. © Damaso Reyes

He was always taller than me; he still is.
As some of you know I am the last of three children. There is an eight year gap between me and my sister, ten between me and my brother. I was in no way planned but somehow I became the hope where there was none.

I have exceeded expectations.

I have fulfilled dreams.

When my father came to this country he could not have imagined me. He could not have dreamed that I would question mayors and cabinet members; that I would stand in the same room with royalty and photograph the rich and famous. He could not have believed that I would be who I am and who I still could yet become.

I am not angry that he was not there. He seems to have had his reasons.

But I miss what we never had.

I do not enjoy our strained moments when he occasionally stops by.

There is no question that I am his son but I wish there was a way that I might have known him better.

But he brought me into this world and for me that has been enough.

He has smiled at my successes, even if he hasn’t truly understood them.

I am what he couldn’t become and perhaps that is the true meaning of fatherhood: reveling in the life that you have brought forth.

I don’t know. I am not a father. I haven’t disappointed anyone on that level….

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1095 )

Interlude... 
Saturday, March 17, 2007, 21:16 - Travel, Personal, Commentary
Stuttgart

So I have been somewhat busy editing photos, taking long walks in the woods and planning some shoots for next week so I haven’t been blogging too much. But I promise that soon you will see the fruits of my labor, or at least the vegetables. In the meantime I think I will begin a series of interludes describing some past experiences so you can get to know me and my work a little better…

March 30, 2004
Kibuye, Rwanda


The hole was already a meter and a half deep by the time we arrived. The drive took over an hour, first over the newly paved roads which had recently been constructed and then over gravel and then dirt roads which took us continually west towards Kibuye, a small town which overlooks Lake Kivu.

The day began with a clear blue sky but as we headed west and up in altitude a fine mist began to envelope our Landcruiser. As we continued along the pothole filled roads I watched the hilly landscape through the occasional breaks in the weather. The terraced rice patties, the gentle slopes and intriguing valleys kept me occupied for most of the journey.

This was my second trip to the Central African nation which ten years before had been gripped by a hundred day genocide which took the lives of more than a million people. Jimmie, my best friend, was sitting next to me in the car, equally lost in his own thoughts. Finally we arrived at the hospital where we were supposed to observe the exhumation of a mass grave which was dug and filled during the genocide. As part of the tenth anniversary commemoration the Rwandan government had encouraged citizens to find the remaining mass graves which filled the countryside and exhume the bodies in order to give the dead a proper burial. We were to observe one such exhumation.

Raymond Kalisa, a Rwandan filmmaker who was working for CNN during the 10th anniversary, was our guide and slowly we walked toward a spot under a large tree where many people had gathered. A young man in his early twenties was telling his story. He had been at the hospital at the time and had witnessed the massacre. He was sure that this spot was where the bodies lay hidden for the past ten years. With no preamble young men began hacking away at the soft earth, much the way it had been disturbed ten years earlier, with picks and hoes.


Searching for bodies at the hospital. © Damaso Reyes

For nearly two hours they dug but other than a few animal remains the dead remained elusive.
Our small group went back to our vehicle and set off towards the Lake where we were told that another, smaller exhumation would be taking place. Again, silence filled the car.

Thirty minutes later we were walking up a small hillside. By the time we arrived the hole was already a meter and a half deep, villagers, some incongruously wearing their Sunday finest, were gathered around the sides of a long, curving trench which had been cut into the hillside. They observed us with eyes that seemed to ask “why are you here?” Raymond told them that we were journalists here to document the exhumation. They returned to watching the trench, which was slowly growing deeper as men young and old took turns removing the sticky clay soil which buried their dead.


Digging up the past. © Damaso Reyes

Soon after we arrived a femur was found. It was carefully placed into one of the many empty rice sacks which had been procured for the exhumation. Soon more bones followed, then a skull. The onlookers watched on nearly impassively, occasionally pointing to some remains and whispering among themselves. Small children flitted about the edges, curious to see what was going on, unaware of the magnitude. These young souls had been born long after the evil that swept over their nation had left. The eyes of their parents bore silent witness to the horror that the landscape had endured.


A young child plays with a skull. © Damaso Reyes

Throughout it all I moved silently around and occasionally into, the trench, documenting the men’s work and the terrible product of that work. The camera protected me from the content of the images I was creating: a freshly discovered bone hoisted out of the trench; a skull slowly cleaned of the cloying soil which had kept it hidden for a decade; the decomposed dress of a two year old who had been brutally murdered and casually dumped into the trench. Roll after roll, I went about my work, trying to be a professional.

After two hours and twelve rolls of film I turned to Jimmie, who had been observing and occasionally speaking with the villagers. “I’m done,” I told him. He seemed slightly surprised but understood. “If I don’t have it already, I’m not going to get it.” He nodded his head as I sat down on a nearby rock and watched the villagers continue their work.


Bearing Witness. © Damaso Reyes

Five years earlier during my first trip here I was determined not to let me feelings get in the way of my work. What I realized afterwards is that it was not wise to let myself grow too distant from my humanity. Truly it was the thing which allowed me to do the painful work that I felt was my calling and to deny that would be to deny myself. Standing at the side of that trench, overlooking a lovely valley I knew that I couldn’t take anymore photographs. I had imposed on the situation enough and I knew that taking more photographs would be bad for my soul, or what was left of it.

There is of course this deeply rooted myth that when you photograph someone you take their soul. I believe the opposite is true. You can’t photograph something like an exhumation without leaving part of yourself behind. There is some kind of essential trade that happens when you photograph difficult situations: a piece of yourself for an image. We don’t get a high or take any joy when documenting other people’s pain, in way through creating a document of an event we share it, and often we would rather not. But in creating a connection between the viewer and the subject the photographer himself must act as a bridge. And that has an effect.


Searching the past. © Damaso Reyes

For me that day has remained with me and always will. When people ask me why I am an atheist, I tell them that story and the dozen others that I have borne witness to. No God I want to pray to allows such horror. When people ask why I don’t believe in God I ask them in turn why do they believe. For me that day simply confirmed what I already knew: the goodness or evil in men resides solely with them; we have no one else to turn to, no one else to blame….

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1188 )


Back Next