I live in a normal neighborhood but I do not lead a normal life.
One of the unsettling effects of bouncing from culture to culture is the disconnect from my own culture, and even my own neighborhood, when I come home. Spend a while in a third-world country and you’ll return with some funny stories about local customs, but you’ll invariably carry an unsettlingly clearer understanding of the stark contrast between the haves and have nots on our planet, as well as an unfortunate grasp of the good and the bad, not just among those in positions of power, but also individuals and groups “doing good.”
In writing this, I am hoping to explain to my neighbors and in a broader sense for the group that comes to this site, how being a contributing photographer for National Geographic can skew how you think about the world and how it gives you a worldview that can be hard for people in your bedroom community to understand, and why I know how it is that sincere people with good intentions often cause collateral damage they could never imagine.
Last week I was in Suriname, a small country in northeastern South America wedged between the Guyanas. I was with Amerindians (mostly Wayana) who were carrying thousand-pound boats through the jungle around rapids. There were eight of the thousand-pound boats to be exact, and it took 20 men to carry each boat, sometimes dragging them for 3 kilometers. They spent weeks doing this so they could cut a hole in one of the most remote jungles in the world, so that 20 of us could drop in by helicopter.
One of the men that cut the hole in the jungle was this guy:
We were lucky to drop in by helicopter, but we came back out by boat and all those boats had to be dragged back out of the jungle on multiple portages. And, yes it was a mess of equipment, food, chain saws, boat engines, 50 gallon drums of aviation fuel.
This is the hole we dropped into:
The Suriname jungle is a very foreign place, there were botflies, which inject eggs under your skin—you can feel them moving around and when they hatch they secrete a natural anesthetic so you don’t feel them come out; sand flies that carry Leishmaniasis, a flesh eating parasite; spiders the size of pie plates whose footfalls you can actually hear in the forest (this tarantula injects a hemotoxin via one-inch-fangs that liquefies its prey and then it sucks said prey back through the same fangs that deliver the venom); and such torrential rains that I actually started dreaming about dry socks.
It was so wet that every night the cameras went into a box filled with silica gel to dry out the interiors of the lenses. I learned the hard way that expensive, weather-sealed lenses take longer to dry out.
I also learned I am grateful that at home I don’t have socks hanging like Christmas tree decorations from the ceiling of my bedroom in hopes that they will dry after many days. That I don’t have to continue to wear the clothes that have turned to cardboard with sweat and all the muck I waded through the previous day. And that I normally don’t slide out of bed into a few feet of water and have to be evacuated by helicopter because the entire place is flooded, overrun by a river that was our friend the night before.
So, then I fly home to Sewickley, an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh where we bought a home 25 years ago, and I run into the opposite situation—a problem of wealth run amuck.
My wife is fighting a local church group that wants to tear down a house right behind us. It is one of the last Beaux Arts mansions from the industrial age and they want to raze it and build a youth center and a parking lot to combat the current “dangerous” parking situation in a town many people nickname “Mayberry.” I am listening to this rhetoric only a few days after multiple helicopter flights with an African pilot who was still reading the helicopter-training manual.
Somehow, zoning language was changed for a few short months (now changed back) that allows the church to pretty much go unchallenged on their plans, and church leaders said on video they would do an immediate “humpty dumpty” to this historic structure, so no one would be able to put it back up again.
One problem is that this houses’ ultimate genesis is from one of the trinity of American architects (Wright, Sullivan, Richardson) and the direct connection to this house are his disciples who were “Carnegie’s Architects,” and the folks who made all those incredible Carnegie libraries.
So the appropriate analogy would be if an oblivious entity wanted to tear down or gut Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water to put up a soup kitchen.
One of the rooms in the mansion. You can sign the petition to save this house HERE.
My wife was somewhat manic about this when I came back from the jungle and I was just trying to pay attention to my feet. Once they finally dried, the skin cracked into patterns much like those drought photos you sometimes see in newspapers.
But the strangeness and disorder of this “service religion” and the disconnect I always feel when I come back stuck around longer this time because of the church’s actions, and I kept wondering how much “good” are they really going to do for this incredible price?
The first story I photographed for National Geographic Magazine was a series of portraits of people who had made their own communities better for the anniversary of Earth Day. All of these people made a difference with virtually no funding—without a mansion to work from.
Whether it was saving a vacant lot in Harlem for a community garden or stopping pulp mill pollution in the Okefenokee, they all labored from an un-endowed base.
This is a woman from my first National Geographic story who saved huge amounts of green space in New Hampshire even though she was not wealthy.
This is a man in Harlem that fought to make vacant lots into community gardens:
I’ve seen people do a lot of good with very little, but I’ve also seen organizations like the UN waste huge amounts of money with only marginal results. I flew into the Congo from Kampala once over a huge parking lot full of hundreds of brand new, white Land Cruisers with “UN” emblazed on the roofs. Those Land Cruisers and UN workers were funded to work in the Congo, but of course they preferred to stay in a nice, safe town like Kampala instead of in the Congo that has a government that is just an amalgam of warlords.
A story I did in the Omo River Valley for NGM in Ethiopia is probably the best example I have about NGOs and church groups throwing money around without a good outcome.
A dam is choking the Omo Valley and aid organizations flocking to get contracts with USAID and help because the ages old, flood-recession agriculture will no longer work with a dammed river and the sorghum harvest they depend on will disappear. The fear is that these groups are all heavily armed and ethnic tensions run deep, and that when they start to starve, they will also start killing each other.
So the organizations see the need and are building schools, giving irrigation materials, and doing weekly distributions of sacks of sorghum and other food aid.
But these groups are not factoring in their cultural disconnect. When you give the locals fresh sorghum ALL the time, they can ferment it ALL the time and be drunk ALL the time. There are reasons for harvest festivals—it is the time of year you can ferment your crop, get drunk and celebrate. If you have two good crops in a year, you can have two good parties, but the NGOs are interrupting the natural cycles and alcoholism has gone out of control.
Throwing money around can go awry. That’s all I’m saying.
Child getting drunk on sorghum beer – Omo Valley, Ethiopia
At the same time, I understand that NGOs need money to operate.
Religion is not always “good.” The Catholic priests I’ve stayed with in the Congo are preaching to Africans that condoms don’t stop AIDS. One constant in my life is the interaction of institutions of do-gooders on relief trips that live in spiritual or ideological bubbles.
I remember having to go out of my way to help a church group in Iraq that went in to proselytize Muslims. This is a long story . . . but they ended up naked in the desert and stripped of their possessions, because they didn’t pay enough attention to the cultural environment around them.
As I write this, neighbors in my town surrounding this house-wrecking church have signs in their yards objecting to the church’s hubris and there are multiple groups poised to take them to court if they don’t do the right thing. This is a prime example of a group living in their spiritual bubble without understanding or seemingly caring about the physical environment around them. But that physical environment is slamming into this church in the same way the bandits slammed into the proselytizers in Iraq.
I have plenty of other examples of folks who don’t need a mansion to feed some refugees or give cub scouts a place to salute a flag or organize a “muffin ministry,” but because this situation is on my mind, I woke with a very vivid flashback last night. I remembered being in an MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders) hospital in a southern Sudan war zone. I met the doctor in his refuge, under what I can only describe as a ratty, aluminum-pole, picnic tent, and his hospital, a small, thatched hut, wasn’t much better. Inside were war victims, Kala-azar patients, pregnant women, and undernourished children and gunshot victims. It was bleak. That doctor not only delivered many babies that day by making huge incisions (because it is fast and there are less medical complications, except when the mother has to go back the next day to gather firewood), but he did so between patching up a number of guys with gunshot wounds. Some died waiting for him because they were on the wrong side of the triage. I could see that he was trying to figure out how to work faster. I could also see how much good he was doing every single day under the 140° sun.
Woman with unknown skin disease being comforted in MSF field hospital – South Sudan
Soldiers with gunshot wounds that I transported in a chartered aircraft to a MSF field hospital – South Sudan
Carrying wounded soldier to a plane I chartered for an assignment – South Sudan
The church community in my town has been helping refugees. This is commendable work. They are feeding them, helping with education, doing good things for these people who are getting a new start in life.
But I just have to wonder if any of these refugees were one of the many lives that doctor saved that day under his glorified picnic tent.
The disconnect that I bring back with me looks at the relative, disassociated wealth in each of these equally important relief efforts, and tells me clearly that you do not need a mansion to save a man’s life or to feed him once he is safe and sound in my neighborhood.
I can’t tell you what that MSF doctor was really thinking or what my neighborhood church group is thinking and feeling. But I would suggest that opening a shelter or community center in Braddock or Aliquippa or some other devastated, former steel town could do a lot more good than destroying yet another historic structure for yet another parking lot.