A life-changing experience…..
The expression ‘Changed my Life’ is bandied about easily.
Not this time.
Thirty years ago today (though it now seems hard to believe that so much time has passed), a powerful life-changing event in my own life took place.
I had just graduated from Williams College and had been awarded a Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship.
Each year the Thomas J. Watson Foundation offers 50 Fellowships to college graduates across the United States. They are called ‘traveling fellowships’, because the only hard and fast rule is that you must stay outside the United States for minimum of one year. You come up with a project and go.
My project was, originally, to photograph remnant Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.
At Williams, I had been a double major in both studio art, with an emphasis on photography, and history. My art prof. at Williams was Thomas Krens, who is today the Director of the Guggenheim Museum. It was a good place to get a formal education.
But nothing can beat what the Watson did for me.
Starting in June, 1977, I spent three years traveling around the world by myself with a camera. I used a Mamiya 645, a medium format still camera and I shot in black and white. I brought my own chemicals with me and processed film wherever I could set up a darkroom.
In the first year, I travelled overland from London to Kathmandu, via Iran and Afghanistan. In those days you could. It took almost a year. I lived in small villages and with mountain tribes, photographing all the time.
By the end of the first year, I was ensconsced at the Kathmandu Guest House in Kathmandu, Nepal, writing my first terrible book. The Foundation asked me what had happened to the Jewish project, and so I decamped and headed for Israel (plenty of Jews there, I thought), and would spend another year living and working at the Albright Institute for Archaeology and photographing in East Jerusalem, where, among other things, I learned Arabic.
In the third and final year, feeling comfortable in my basic Arabic, I crossed the Sahara Desert with the Toureg Bedouin and then spent an additional 9 months crossing the rest of Africa overland, washing up in Nairobi with a good case of schistosomiasis. It was finally time to go home.
After three years of traveling the world with a camera in my hand; and at the ripe old age of 23, I had had the experience of a lifetime. To this day I can remember what it was like to wander into Gaza, find a family to live with, get to know the people, and finally, start photographing them.
Years later, my frustration at my job as a producer at CBS News; the sheer lack of intimacy that working with a reporter and crew created; the time pressure to get a story done; led me to once again pick up a small camera, but this time in video, and head back to Gaza. It was from this 3-year experience that the whole notion of the ‘VJ’, and all that all I have done since, has come.
There are, in a lifetime, a few people or places about whom you can properly say as you speak of them: ‘you changed my life’. It is a term we throw about with liberal abandon, yet in truth, when it is real, it is truly are rare and wonderful instant in your life.
The trick is recognizing it when it is happening, which is sometimes hard to do. But when it does happen, it is truly an amazing moment, And, having received so powerful a gift, it is also one that you then want to pass on to others.
In the years that have passed, I have been fortunate in that I have encountered a small handful of people who have also changed my life. Perhaps I was more open to change and to them because of what I experienced when I was 21.
So even if it is belatedly, I want to express my thanks.