Wednesday, October 14, 2009

- Not Selling any Alibis

Once upon a time you dressed so fine

You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?

The other night I met up with the first guy I met and the first friend I made when I first went to university. He became a TV reporter and front man and we naturally lost contact over the years. A couple of years ago he was thrust into the media spotlight because he had been found sleeping rough: the latest chapter in his demise through drink and debt. He was in many of the papers and indeed became the subject of a documentary called Saving Ed Mitchell. In this documentary we learn how drink had taken him over, lost him his job (and barred him from further similar employment), his marriage fell apart, the family house was repossessed, and his grown up kids were understandably devastated.

Nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street

And now you find out you're gonna have to get used to it

We see him trudging along the stoney beach at Shoreham weighed down by a rucksack full of the burdens and necessities of his drunken existence. Then we see him, already full beyond excess, honking up, ill, yet making way for still more. The final shot is of him in front of the Priory taking his last swig before who knows what.

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

Now, nearly two years on, Ed has turned his life around. He is well and truly sober and has just received his first pay cheque working for In Excess a drug and alcohol recovery organisation. A couple of things struck me about meeting Ed again. One was that after 36 years and leading completely separate lives (though we both have daughters of the same age born on the same day) the sparks of friendship very much flickered around us as we spoke, caught up and dug deep. The other one was the insight his experience had given him.

How does it feel

To be without a home

Like a complete unknown

In this pride-less place, where he had hit rock bottom and not only lived the life of a homeless tramp but had this exposed and witnessed in the public limelight, he felt that there was nothing ‘lower’ to sink into. In part due to this public profile, he was presented with a generous benefactor who paid for him to go to the Priory and, if he was able to kick the habit successfully, he would be able to work again as a TV journalist for In Excess. This auspicious concatenation of events, coupled with a dimension of not wishing to fail in the eyes of many, was sufficient to lend him the support and give him the propulsion he needed to step into a new realm. Ed talks of how alcohol was added to everything he did until it just became everything he did. A beautiful sunset could not be appreciated as such, it had to be accompanied with a shot of something or other. Now he uses language which is congruent with acceptance, being in the moment, appreciating what is there, being more content. His was no religious conversion. Yet it was a complete spiritual overhaul. Whilst he respects the 12 steps and how they can help some to maintain a path of recovery, and whilst he can see how religion can become a raft for others, his route was different and somehow of his own concoction: in his own words, it had to be ‘-ism free'.

He recommends Viktor Frankl’s book recalling the latter’s experiences in a concentration camp. Some of Frankl’s aphorisms chime in with Buddhist thought such as the notion of the space between stimulus and response inside of which we are confronted with a choice, where we are empowered to act differently than the momentum of all the accumulated habits (samskaras) might lead us act. Here lies the possibility of change. I believe Frankl relates this space to growth and freedom. It seems somewhat akin to the space between craving and attachment (trsna and upadana) in the nidana chain. And it is in acting in this gap that Ed has found his freedom: freedom to do otherwise, freedom not to drink, freedom to grow into a new person into a new phase of life.

Through this new found sense of freedom, Ed feels less separate and more a part of the universe. ‘The Universe is consciousness turned into light turned into energy turned into matter and mass. That consciousness pours through us’, he concludes. Most eloquently, he talks of being made of similar stuff and moving to the music of it, as it flows through him. All of which has led him to the belief that the notion of an ‘I’ or ‘me’ is illusory. I may have been the one who studied Wordsworth at Durham, yet now this social scientist turned journalist is wandering into the domain of Tintern Abbey when he says that ‘we are not generators of consciousness but receivers of it’!

His is a journey of self-help in that his recovery doesn’t have a title or heading to subsume it under, but he would be the first to say that he couldn’t have done it alone. He has made some startling and life changing insights in his journey so far, but how many of us would want to change places to access such insights? How many of us would have been able to get into that gap and work with it and come out the other side?

You can see Ed’s current incarnation here:


Monday, October 5, 2009

- A Note in Passing: Jack Jones

The weight of this sad time we must obey; 

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. 

The oldest hath borne most: we that are young 

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

(Kent of Lear, final scene.)

Today saw the commemoration of the life of Jack Jones, trade union leader, who died earlier this year. It was a moving affair with tributes from all quarters of the labour movement world including Spain where he went to fight against Franco in the thirties. In this era of celebrity culture where a few moments of fame and notoriety are dangled on the same piece of coarse string in front of an ever increasing would-be constituency of keen takers who seek out the limelight just because it’s there, Jack Jones’ life and times are 96 years’ worth of reminder that becoming well-known may just be a by-product of having spent a life dedicated in the service of other people. At the core of Jack’s life was an unstinting mission to improve the lives of others. His socialist syndicalist beliefs were so deeply established that it was easy for him to follow them through with self-less acts and actions. What came easy to him, many of the rest us would find difficult to emulate. When he retired from the T&G he started the pensioners’ movement with the same amount of vigour and dedication and commitment. And success. He stood for far more than the wages and conditions side of trade unionism, important though those concerns are. Just today Tony Woodley, the current joint General Secretary, of Unite (the latest incarnation of the T&G) reminded us that this is part of his legacy when he said that what the union fights for now it isn’t just wages and conditions but for the happiness of its members. Sardhu to that! ©

Friday, October 2, 2009

- In the Scene only the Seen

"An impeccably formed quarter of a tomato, cut out of the fruit by a gadget with such perfect symmetry. The peripheral flesh, homogenous and tight, in a beautiful chemical red, is of a consistent thickness between a strip of shiny skin and the bit where the pips are displayed: yellow, with a regular consistency, held in place by a thin layer of greenish jelly along the bulge where the heart is. The latter being of a gently attenuated granular pink, begins from a recess on the underside via a membrane of white veins from whence one extends out towards the pips – albeit in a slightly hesitant way. At the very top, a scarcely visible accident has occurred: one corner of skin, come unstuck from the flesh by one or two millimetres, imperceptibly juts out."

In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1953 novel, Les Gommes, at one point he describes in wonderful detail, the segment of a tomato. It is so precise and exact yet it comes to stand generically as such for a quadrant of tomato. In the photographic equivalent or attempt at replicating the written into visual discourse, the representation remains singular and precise – even though we can’t eat either depiction and experience the experience of eating a tomato. I don’t know what surface R-G’s tomato wedge finds itself on but mine is clearly on a white plate. The photo is clearly a mise en scène – as no doubt is R-G’s description at that point in the novel. No matter how simple the shot is by shutting out whole battalions of signifiers, whole regiments are nonetheless there even in the so called neutral choice of background, as well as with whatever distortions and propensities the lens, ISO setting and aperture bring to it.

By attempting to limit and shut out certain other signifiers it’s as if we are trying to lead the viewer down an avenue of apparent simplicity where what is seen is just a tomato, a wedge, a quadrant of tomato. Yet in order to do that, at a fundamental level, we have presented not so much what is seen as what we (photographers) want to be seen as the seen. Clearly we do this all the time with more complex images. Take my picture of the rupa on my shrine. It is simple enough notwithstanding what it is of and what it represents with the addition of the two items I have added to it, a symbol of blue to remind me of Akshobya and a book at the Buddha’s feet to represent the Dharma. There is a plain background which I manufactured so as to further isolate the figure. Actually what I saw with my eyes is closer to what is apparent in the other shot – you may just make out my shrine in the top third of the picture, about a third in from the left. (Unconscious use of classic thirds maybe?)

I am not sure I want to start taking all my pictures in this way, somehow trying to replicate a seemingly haphazard way in the human eye scans and absorbs the visual environment, but it is somehow an encouragement to be simpler in approach and to try less yet at the same time to deepen our understanding of what is going on and what we bring to a picture. These are not neutral choices and they may be made through instinct and ignorance. As photographers we always bring certain elements to a visual situation and overlay it with choices and pre-conceptions. We rarely - if ever - just take things as they are. Even the simplest of pictures is highly pre-constructed.

The same could be said of mind. How often do we really see ‘things as they really are’? How often do we just see what our eyes show us, hear what our ears deliver, use our imagination not for mere fantasy but for access into the nature of reality instead of seeing what we hope, want, dread and fear to see, and hearing the unsaid and imposing so many narratives onto our experience like some over-worked Bollywood metteur en scène? ©

Bahiya of the bark garment, after asking three times, gets a teaching from the Buddha in which the Buddha says "In the seen only the seen, in the heard only the heard, in the imagined only the imagined and in the cognised only the cognised."