When a gallery exhibited some of Melissa’s and my photographs, we were asked to supply accompanying material—so we put together this simple little book. We are working photographers, and we seldom get a chance to stop and ponder our work. But for this little book, we did. I printed 2 x 3 foot sheets of thumbnails, which we cut out and left on a counter for weeks. Melissa periodically rearranged them into diptychs and so did I… our only motive was to have pleasant pairings. Sometimes the pairing hinged simply on a gesture, a similar embrace, an emotion, color, or whatever just felt right visually. Other times the pairing worked as opposites—as in the yin and yang of life. When we reflect on this visual language, it isn’t so surprising that connections are made across cultures. But what was startling was seeing that these connections exist across species as well.
Duality, Dualism, Pairing off, Mind and Matter, Body and Soul, Two-part harmony… none of these are new concepts. If you just look at how species pair off… duality surrounds us. Not to mention that Melissa and I have lived in dual cultures for the last decade or so, and there are two of us contributing to this project. And more fundamentally, as we bounce from our comfortable little culture to radically different ones, we wonder about the basic nature of ourselves—and the patina of culture layered over those basic needs.
The hierarchy of needs for any animal is: food, safety, and sex—in that order, according to a researcher I was with when they reintroduced wolves into Yellowstone. These basic requisites are at the core of every one of us, but in humans they lie beneath layers of culturally specific patina that simulate diversity. These needs are more complex because they are inter-related. Simply put, there are two things driving us at any given time. And confusion between our inner beast and our culture’s groupthink, between what is “animal” and what is “human,” shows up over and over again as we go about lives and our work as photographers.
The food part of this dynamic is simple: If you do not eat, you die. Bouncing between St. Moritz and Sudan made me think differently about the world in general, but especially about food. In one place there are many layers of cuisine to choose from, and in the other, the only choice left was for leaves in the tops of the trees because the ones on the lower branches had already been consumed by the many people driven out of their villages.
Safety and sex are much more complicated. As I write this, I wonder why the villagers I have been photographing designate some children “cursed” and kill them? Sex is very free in this village but if a child is created before the father has gone through a ceremony where he jumps over the back of a line of bulls, the child is killed shortly after birth. The mother, by tradition, puts soil in the infant’s mouth and leaves it in the bush to die. The animal instinct to protect her young exists, but it is overruled by the “group think” of her culture, which dictates she kill her own newborn child. Group think in Pakistan makes a boy believe it is not only justified but necessary to stone his sister to death if she flirts one too many times with the neighbor boy on the roof top. Family honor trumps protecting one’s own flesh and blood in both of these cases. These situations are criminal and perverse to outsiders, but make perfect sense to those within the culture.
Moving between contrasting cultures can be challenging, but it brings fascinating insight into how we are all connected. Younger and amateur photographers often want to show how wacky, how different people are. All Melissa and I are really interested in, at this point in our lives, is showing how we are all basically the same.
We are connected—maybe this is my religion—we are flawed, we are malleable, we often don’t recognize the very basic drives we have, and our animal nature gets subverted through culture, religion and other group thinks. But at our core, we are all the same. And by all of us, I mean ALL of us. As I’m photographing a grizzly bear eating a salmon like a popsicle, I’m wondering what is for dinner. As I’m riding across open savannah in Ethiopia, the guide points out a dik-dik and says, “Where is the other one? They all travel in pairs.”