As much as I enjoy photographing people, I'm drawn to the strange spaces we create for ourselves. Bathrooms are both predictable and constantly surprising. I document them.
Point of Pines Cabin dominates the lowest floor of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. It came from Edisto Island, South Carolina, a coastal island an hour south of Charleston. Edisto supports both a majority White beach town and a majority Gullah residential population, whose ancestors were taken as slaves from Senegal, Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
I was introduced to Edisto Island two decades ago by Nick Lindsay, my animated poetry prof who made his living building boats and homes on the island. And I’m Glad—an oral history of two farmers that he transcribed—is one of the island’s stand-out histories.
Last summer my wife brought me back to Edisto. She and her family had vacationed there for years before I met them. As an author with German, Jamaican and Chinese roots, Chelle felt drawn to both the island’s simple familiarity and its complicated past. We camped outside of Botany Bay Plantation, a wildlife preserve maintained on land once covered in cotton, worked by slaves.
Photographer and restorative justice pioneer Howard Zehr introduced me to the term “contemplative photography”—a way of using the camera to slow down, practice mindfulness, think imaginatively and renew myself.
Working and living in a neighborhood wrestling with drug addition, rapid development and displacement, I find daily walks with dog and camera to be a good way to wind down and remind myself of what's ordinary.
Funky or tart, balanced or sharp, sours are the first beers I have really liked. I intentionally missed the IPA craze, which unfortunately seems to have taken over most of the U.S. beer world. I can only hope that the same thing happens for sours, because I am 100% on that wagon. Although perhaps part of the allure is that they can be hard to find. To drink at Transmitter, a brewery in Long Island City, Queens, we wandered through a parking lot, below a highway and across the tracks to a warehouse under the Pulaski Bridge.
Other Music was a record shop specializing in underground, rare and experimental music at 15 East 4th St, New York City, from 1995 to 2016. When it closed in June 2016, Yoko Ono, Sharon Van Etten, Bill Callahan, Frankie Cosmos and Yo La Tengo were among the artists who played a farewell tribute show at the Bowery Ballroom.
Other Music still sends a weekly email and maintains a web presence at www.othermusic.com. Former staffer Rob Hatch-Miller and his partner Puloma Basu are also working on a documentary about the shop's history and legacy.
In March 2017, Other Music and MoMA PS1 presented Come Together: Music Festival and Label Market with live performances, films, workshops and panels celebrating the interactive ecosystem of local and international music communities, along with a label fair featuring over 60 participants. Come Together aimed to reassert "the central and essential role that communities play in both the creation and consumption of new sounds," recasting the "fading" record store experience for the current moment. The market was a success, and Other Music will return to MoMA PS1 on Saturday, March 24, 2018 for "more labels, more performances, more fun."
Neighborhood identity is more testy in Philadelphia than anywhere else I've lived, and yet the boundaries are just as fickle.
By one map, I live in Fishtown; by another, East Kensington. My teenager has taught me to say we're in Fishtown—a neighborhood now associated with tony restaurants and plush condos—because his friends aren't allowed to visit him if he lives in Kensington. Type "Kensington, Philadelphia" into a search engine, and you wouldn't send your kids there, either. And yet, technically, Kensington envelops a huge section of North Philly, including Fishtown.
Even as I selectively disown East Kensington, I chafe at how boundaries are bent to fit a neat, popular narrative. A cool new mural in Kensington? That must be Fishtown. A drug bust on Frankford Avenue? Let's call it Kensington.
So I was thrilled this month when the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted unanimously to give historical status to the old Harbison’s Dairy and its iconic milk-bottle-shaped water tower. That tower is squarely in East Kensington, and it's visible from the El train and roof decks for a mile around.
I regularly snap pictures of the bottle as it appears through (quickly disappearing) gaps between rowhomes. I ran this New Year's Eve photo (top) through Twitter's "Fame" filter for social media posts.
Wandering the cemeteries is a New Orleans tourist pastime. The light and shadow of crumbling upright tombs are so beautiful. In a corner of the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District, someone had left a script of King Lear open to the page where Cordelia, rejected by her father, bids farewell to her selfish sisters:
Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,
Who covers faults, at last with shame derides.
Michelle and I took the Crescent line from Philadelphia to New Orleans. The ride is kind of a forced retreat: 25 glorious hours where you can't do anything but read, write, play games on your phone and wonder who lives beyond the back yards and scrap yards clicking by outside.
But Amtrak has a kind of forced socialization policy, too. If you want to meet a few of the people from the other side of the glass, go to the dining car. Parties of one or two are seated at tables for four, facing strangers.
The only morning we were brave enough to dine, we ended up eating pancakes and sausage across from Tony, a volunteer guide with the National Park Service, and Judy, an Atlanta retiree training for his job. We learned that there's a Trails & Rails program that started in New Orleans in 2000 and grew into a year-round partnership with Amtrak. Today National Park Service guides hop aboard more than a dozen Amtrak routes to point out cultural and historic sites along the way. We picked up brochures on music history, civil rights and natural resources and followed the listings by mile markers and Google maps.
Soon after I returned from Indonesia last year, I took a job with New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC). One of NKCDC's biggest projects this year is Orinoka Civic House, a $17.8 million overhaul of the abandoned Orinoka Mills factory in Kensington.
“The Orinoka Mills building was the biggest, baddest, ugliest thing going," NKCDC's former executive director, Sandy Salzman, told Generocity in 2016. "We worked really, really hard with lots and lots of people from the Redevelopment Authority and the Office of Housing and Community Development and Councilman [Mark] Squilla and Councilwoman [Maria Quiñones] Sánchez, the Commerce Department—all these city agencies, to try to get this building. … And then of course, we had to raise the money to renovate it.”
Residents are currently moving into 51 affordable one and two bedroom apartments. The building will also contain community space, a small storefront, and NKCDC's new offices. PlanPhilly organized this tour of the space in April 2017.
As part of Paulus Paramma’s three-day orientation to traditional Torajan life and customs, we visited two ancient burial sites, Ke'te' Kesu and the Londa Graveyard. Each included tongkonan—the Torajan ceremonial houses—and sheer cliffs peppered with caves that contained coffins and effigies of the deceased, in various states of decay. Where there were no caves to hold bodies, coffins were cantilevered over the cliff face on wooden frames. Where the frames gave way, bones and broken coffins were recovered and stacked along the base of the cliff.
Ke'te' Kesu has been in use by the same family for 10 generations. It contained a variety of cliffside graves as well as contemporary mausolea.
Jogjakarta has a sultan. I don't pretend to understand what this means, but here are some facts I've gathered that I think are at least mostly right:
- Both Jogja and nearby Solo have Sultans. Both towns have a history of royal houses dating from when Dutch colonizers split the Javanese kingdom of Mataram in 1746 after several Wars of Succession.
- Two hundred years later, when Indonesia was winning its independence, the sultan of Solo sided with the Dutch but the Jogja sultan supported the revolutionaries.
- Consequently, while the Solo sultan is strictly a ceremonial figure, the Jogja sultan technically owns all the land in the city, and has traditionally has had other broad political and religious powers, like being head imam at the city mosque.
- The first sultan of Jogja was Prince Mangkubumi, and he built this spacious, low-slung kraton (palace) downtown in 1755, where gamelan orchestras play for tourists and well-connected citizens hold honorific roles.
Catholic priest Yusef Bilyarta Mangunwijaya (Romo Mangun; 1929-1999) was an award-winning Indonesian novelist, theologian, activist and architect. In 1992 he won a prestigious architecture award from Aga Khan, an international Islamic foundation, for his innovative redesign of a riverside slum area called Kali Code in Yogyakarta.
On an August trip to Indonesia, I had the opportunity to visit three of Father Mangun's sites—the Kali Code complex, a Marian Grotto in the hills above Borobudur that Mangun designed in 1969, and the architect's former home in northeast Yogyakarta.
Mangun believed construction budgets should be put into workers' wages, not expensive supplies. His designs are marked by a thoughtful mix of reclaimed and environmentally friendly materials. Small spaces are defined by changes in level. Judicious use of color knits everything together.
The Ramayana ballet performs every night for tourists with the magnificent Prambanan historic site as a backdrop.
Prambanan—built at the same time as the Buddhist Borobudur—is a 9th century Hindu temple compound a short drive from downtown Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Reliefs on the third balustrade of the main temple tell stories from the Ramayana. On stage, these stories include the tale of an abducted princess—rescued after a white monkey thwarts immolation by burning down his captors' palace—being rejected by her husband as defiled until she also lights herself on fire and is saved by Shiva.
I'm recapping an August trip to Indonesia...
Just down the road from Borobudur (see last week) was a beautiful little Hindu temple. And across the street from that, a source of the infamous luwak coffee made from beans shat by civets. Here you can sample the coffee (either free or 25,000 rupiah, depending) and meet a civet (the one below seen cleaning its feet with its tongue).
The coffee tasted fine, and I bought some as a novelty. Then I did a little internet research.
Tony Wild, who introduced civet coffee to the UK, disavowed the industry in 2013, saying that it's practically impossible to find genuine wild coffee civets, so the coffee mainly comes from caged animals.
And research published in the Animal Welfare journal earlier this year reported that all 16 plantations researchers visited in Bali failed basic animal welfare requirements.
Yogyakarta touts itself as the cultural capital of Indonesia. One of the reasons is Borobudur, a massive stupa that tells the story of the Buddha's early life and past lives in thousands of intricately carved stone panels. Visitors ascend to the top by walking clockwise through three levels of Buddhist cosmology—the world of desire, the world of forms, and the realm of formlessness.
But the people who built Borobudur in the 9th century abandoned it soon after, and it was gradually sinking into the Javanese soil until 1975, when UNESCO funded a massive restoration project to take the whole thing apart, pour a concrete foundation, and reassemble it stone by stone.
Today there are few Buddhists in Indonesia, but for the past 13 years dozens of local organizations have held an annual demonstration on the grounds to elevate Borobudur's status as a sacred site.
Yogyakarta (Joe-jah-KART-uh), or Jogja for short, is a city of about 3.5 million people in its metro area—and almost as many scooters, it seems. Judging from the tourist t-shirts, it wasn't that long ago that Jogja was a city of bicycles and pedicabs, but when financing laws changed and people were able to begin buying motorcycles on credit, they did. Now about the only people you see on bicycles are children and tourists.
Other first impressions from my visit this summer:
• This part of Indonesia is 11 hours ahead of where I live—a daunting adjustment for anyone skipping around the globe.
• Anywhere in the city, five times a day, you can hear the Muslim call to prayer from nearby mosques. The first call is at about 4:30 AM. Often you hear several calls at once, a beautiful and haunting cacauphony of sound that instantly evokes every other Muslim city one may have visited.
• Fried food is highly favored. Yogyakartans also like savory things slightly sweet, and sweet things not quite as sweet as Americans expect.
• This is not the rainy season, but it is humid.
• Few people wear shorts.
I captured this eerie reflection when I was working as a production assistant for a historical film in 2002. I know it was at a historic site in the Washington, D.C. area, but I can't recall where. At dusk, as we were loading out our equipment, we heard a blood-curdling scream that seemed to come from the air above our heads. We looked up, and there, roosting above the front door was an enormous peacock, staring down at us with beady eyes.