When I was 13, I won the award for best 8th grade artist. At that point, I figured I might have some sort of knack for art and so I fell onto the path of creativity. Over the years, much to my dismay, my talent progressed painfully slowly. When I was 30 I actually began making a fairly decent living as an artist. It has been a roller-coaster. I now make my living with art, photography and music. I have seen, up close, within a nose-length, (because that’s as far as the museum guards would let me go), Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait,” Michelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel,” Seurat’s “Grande Jatte,” Monet’s “Water Lilies,” among many other great masterpieces. But in those 30 years, there has been only one painting that has brought me to tears. It is a portrait of a business man, hanging his head down and leaning his hand against the Vietnam Wall, and reflected in the wall are several of his fallen comrades, one also with his hand touching.
This painting was done in 1988 by Lee Teter, and I believe that’s about the time I first saw it. To me, this represented the mourning of what could have been. What those men could have become.
This week I am going to a place where a leader declared war on his own country. I am going to Cambodia. The killing fields. At one point, I will be standing inside former high school Tuol Sleng, which became known as code name “S-21”, a prison holding victims awaiting torture and death by the Khmer Rouge regime. Photos of the prisoners line the walls of S-21. Accurate records and photographs of many thousands of victims were kept, and were acquired after the regime was forced out.
How will I stand in this building? Me, departing from a village where people will pull off the freeway to rescue a grasshopper who decided to hitch a ride on a windshield wiper. Where stray dogs or cats are scooped up and whisked to the vet to be rehabilitated and given a good home. Where a friend in need will be tended to at the drop of a hat. How will I stand in this very room where the total opposite on the spectrum of humanity occurred. Thirty years ago, as I was being handed my award for best artist, on the other side of the world, human beings were being exterminated for being intelligent. For wearing glasses. For speaking English. For playing a musical instrument. For having a college degree. How does one stand on their own two feet in a spot where their brothers and sisters fell in the blink of an eye, wiping out an entire generation of would-be artists, doctors, musicians, writers, photographers. Can you imagine if all the members of Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Queen, AC/DC, or Heart had been murdered by our own government? James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Karen Carpenter - killed for having a voice. What about Clint Eastwood, Dennis Hopper, Morgan Freeman, Jack Nicholson, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton? There would be no Star Wars, no Jaws, no Saturday Night Live or Carol Burnett. There would have been no making science projects with my Dad from instructions from the Childcraft Encyclopedia, Volume 11 -" Make and Do". "Roots", by Alex Haley, one of the best books I've ever read, would not have been written, and would not have went on to enlighten my generation to the horrors of slavery, segregation, racism. This was my childhood. This is what was going on here in my country when I was a kid - an explosion of creativity. Over there, was an annihilation of creativity.
So how do I stand in this high school that became a prison? I plan not to stand until I have first knelt and paid my respects to these people who could have been my mother or father. In which case, my two younger sisters, born in the late seventies, would not exist. There are many brothers and sisters who do not exist. Many books unwritten, songs unsung, words unspoken, pieces unperformed.
I am going to Cambodia as an artist, photographer and musician, and my job is to capture the extreme beauty and unimaginable ugliness in one of the most intriguing places on earth. I am a part of a magnificent project, brought to life by people from my village. A project that honors the story of these lost souls.
Well, I'm back at the five-star resort that is home. I arrived in Los Angeles one hour after I left Bangkok. I'm in an actual time warp. I feel like I traveled to another time. In a way, maybe I did. I stuck out like a sore thumb in Nepal, as if I were a visitor from the future or outer space. Some people were amused or entertained, some were welcoming, and some were annoyed and imposed upon. I got my first taste of what it may be like to be a professional travel photographer. It is hit and miss. Some people understand, some don't and some don't care. Children always want their photo taken. The tiny ones are fascinated and can't stop looking with their beautiful wide eyes. The elementary kids like to goof off for the camera and then they are thrilled to see their photo immediately on my live view. Older boys like to pose and be cool when they see me point at them. Maybe I'll be showing it to some pretty girls? Most people that you ask will let you take their photo, some will shoo you away with a turn of their head and wave of their hand. Then there are the ones you wish you hadn't asked. The ones that are so beautiful you want to see them greeting you every time you enter your own home. I saw one such woman in Nepal, and now she is only a snapshot in my memory forever because I asked and she said no. She was about 70 or so, sitting in a second story window. The building was grey with light blue shutters and she was hanging out the window, smiling at the huge crowd of people walking on her street. She would catch someone's eye every now and then. She was dressed in the most brilliant, flowing purple corta. I said hello and asked if I could take her photo, pointing to my camera. She smiled kindly and shook ner head "no." I smiled back and waved and was on my way. This is when you wish you were 30 feet away with a zoom lens. That woman in her window is embedded in my mind clear as the moment I saw her. And what's strange is that in my memory of this composition, the street and surroundings are bright and clean and full of flowers and plants and pleasant aromas. But it couldn't be. It was dirty, just like every other street. And it was raining. I remember because I had to uncover my camera when I saw her and covered it again when I walked off. Nepal may be dirty and grimy and seemingly depressing at a glance, but the people make it colorful and bright. I did not see an inch of grey fabric anywhere. The teenagers and young adults dress pretty much like we do in America - stylish jeans and t-shirts or dress shirts if they're really cool. The men wear nice pants and colorful shirts. But the women - no matter where they are, what they're doing, or where they're headed, they are dressed to the hilt. Flowing, bright fabrics with sparkly things all over. Women on motorcycles, women gathering water from the local well and then doing laundry or bathing their kids. Women killing the chicken for dinner or tilling the garden. Each and every one dressed pristinely in these stunning cortas and bejeweled flip-flops. It rained for four days straight while I was there. My friends and I had mud caked on our shoes and pants. The streets consisted of a sea of dirt mounds and potholes. Motorbikes, cars and buses splashing and sloshing here and there and I did not see one Nepali woman with the slightest dot of mud on her pant leg. What is that about? They must have a secret. A secret that not only keeps their attire in order, but that brings light and peace to a place of need and chaos. There is something much deeper here. Something we can't understand if we haven't lived seven generations in the same house, like our friend Ramesh. The same street, the same dirt floors, the same second story window. Something deeper than what a camera can capture. That's why she said "no." I'm not supposed to remember her moment, I'm supposed to remember "her."
I am in what sounds like a city in the middle of a jungle. There are monkeys squeaking, birds squawking, dogs barking, motorcycles honking, crickets chirping, monks singing, people conversing, yelling, and spitting, all outside my window. There are tropical plants, marigolds, obscure fruits, cherry trees, and bamboo. Dogs, cows, goats and monkeys run wild, and cats are on a leash. I am in Nepal. Children scoop water from a puddle in the street into a plastic container. What are they using that for? Don't think about it too hard. Things here are exactly what they seem. There are no questions. Just as Buddha said, it is that simple. The little girl is going to drink the water. The little boy is diving in the river where the bodies have just burned and been dumped in. Yes, that is a cow head on the side of the road. Boys are holding hands and wearing pink and they don't care. It is all right in front of you. No one is hiding anything, except maybe a smile, but that is not hard to reveal.