Hector Garcia Jr., A life apart

Hector

Hector is a name that has come up a lot in my conversations with Lisa Krantz over the last few years. When we first met in 2012 she was already well underway in documenting his struggle with obesity. Something she did for over four years total.

My own struggles with weight issues started to come to fruition around the same time as I lost over 100 lbs. After losing the weight, something in my mind snapped and I felt that I deserved the life I suddenly had created and began taking advantage of everything I had worked so hard for. I gained much of the weight back over the next year.

I met Hector for the first time hours before he died on December 8th 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. Seated in his chair, talking on the phone with a peaceful look on his face. When he ended the call he was delighted to engage with us. Over the weekend I had been listening and reading hours of interviews to help Lisa compile some of the video for the project on him.

When we met, I felt like I knew him in ways that I’m not even sure I know myself. I saw his pain and his fears. I felt my own weakness bleeding through his words. We talked for hours. About counseling. His childhood. His dreams and fears. I told him that I knew what I went through to lose so much weight the first time and that I didn’t want to have to go through it again. He said he understood and calmed my fears. I felt like a child at his feet. Listening. Absorbing all I could from what he had learned thus far about life. He was kind and genuine.

“Unfortunately, I can’t stop cold turkey,” he said during one of the previous interviews with Lisa. “That’s what makes it so hard, that you can never stop eating.” Something that he reiterated during our time together. He compared his life to a druggie having to take a pinch of coke every day. Or an alcoholic having to only take one shot. Every day. I had never thought of this before.

There was hope in his words that things were about to change for him. That maybe this time he would go through counseling with his new insurance. Maybe this time he would try fighting for himself and not for others.

“My life is a cautionary tale,” he said; a phrase that he repeated often.

I asked him what was the main point he wanted to get across from the project and without hesitation his response was that other’s would learn from his family and his mistakes in dealing with children who are overweight. When I told him that his story had already impacted my life, a big smile washed over his face. I kept thinking how brave he was to open up so much of his life to a journalist, to inspect and analyze, how much trust had been developed between him, his family and Lisa.

This is why I think his story is so powerful. As Lisa said at one point, his story is not just compelling because of what he’s gone through but even more so because of the way he articulates the struggle in all of us. His words are vibrant and breathtaking. He opened his heart to us in a way that we rarely do with those closest to us.

I am also inspired by the dedication and empathy Lisa showed while working with Hector. I believe in the power journalism has to change the world but it’s refreshing to watch it unfold before me on so many different levels. The way she interacted with the family the night he died was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in journalism. She mourned with them, heartbroken, while still fighting to tell his story with the most impact.

May Hector’s story and Lisa’s work be warning sign to those of us who struggle with this and bring compassion to those who don’t.

RIP Hector. I’m blessed to have met you.

Click on this link to view Hector’s story by Lisa Krantz and the San Antonio Express News

Hector Garcia Jr., A life apart

Dallas Protest

If I had more energy I would write a rather lengthy post about the woes of being a freelancer and shooting something that, turns out, not one wants to pay for. Which makes sense because like 200 people were arrested in NYC tonight and like only two here.

I will instead just share some photos I would have sent to an agency. Otherwise these images will forever live on a hard drive comforted by cob webs and dust mites.

Yesterday, December 5th 2014, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Dallas to protest race discriminations by police officers. #DontShoot #Dallas #Ferguson #EricGarner #Protest

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Dallas Protest

A culture of dying and the hope of living

I met Korie James in 2009 when I did my internship with BTL in Kenya during which time I wrote an article on him and his work with Bible translation.

I was young, 20 to be exact. I still understand little of Kenya but my thoughts were far less developed then; though perhaps my heart was more open and willing to see.

2009 was a horrible famine year. Still the worst of the last five. As I interviewed James I heard his passion for his people. A sadness mixed with resiliency coated his words. He had hope but it was a tired hope. One of long-suffering.

A few weeks later, when I was home in the U.S. preparing to celebrate my much awaited 21st birthday, Korie sent me an email. He had made it back to his family with a truckload of food but he was too late. He had a few hours left with his mother before she died of starvation.

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In a song by Bon Iver he says, “At once I knew I was not magnificent.” This phrase has been on repeat for months now as I have fallen apart many times over. Under the grief that death brings. I have lost my mind through many world rotations. I have believed the worst of man. Of myself. I have doubted the power of light. Of truth. If truth even ever existed.

Those who have walked through it with me have been braver than myself to sit in the rippled silence surrounded by daunting unanswered questions. There have been only a few words. And when they do come they are covered in a shroud of unexplainable weightiness.

As the cloak has slowly cascaded around me, and I begin to see the world more clearly again, I recognize a renewed sense that I am not here to save. Which is by far the most relieving thing that has come to mind in ages.

I am here to love and be loved. And it is in loving that we also share in the suffering of others.

“The only life we know now is suffering,” a Daasanach village elder told me in late 2013 while sitting inside his dome-shaped hut near Illeret, Kenya. “Twelve to 15 years ago things started changing, especially the climate. Things are upside down now. Every year is worse than last year and it makes me scared for the future,” he said.

Traditionally the Daasanach are a nomadic community on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia, but in recent years they have put an emphasis on fishing and have adopted a more sedentary lifestyle. They are a tribe of between 60,000 and 80,000 people and are a marginalized people group with little political power, remotely isolated, exploited, and vulnerable to famine and disease. Because of their mobility, they are given little attention by either nation’s government. Their geographical isolation leads to further neglect. By road, it takes three full days of driving from Nairobi to reach a decent-sized town, with scarcely a fellow vehicle to be seen along the way.

Over these last five years I have seen the Daasanach as having a culture of dying. They live on the brink. Death comes often. Indiscriminate of age or gender. It comes with a vengeance.

“Our cows and goats are so skinny they often don’t produce milk,” a tribal elder said. “We work hard to tend to these animals just for them to die? It’s just like we, ourselves, are being slaughtered. Now we are just waiting for people to die. It won’t be a surprise to hear of someone’s passing.”

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Death has never been more real to me than it is now and in this grieving I am also realizing that they have a pretty accurate handle on life, based on this understanding of death.

Because when you live your life knowing that it could all be over soon, you’re willing to do extraordinary things. Fear is something to be tamed and harnessed and driven into the sunset.

We are all fools locked into our own hopes that maybe we will do something that matters. We are all searching for a way to save ourselves. All the ways we plaster over the wounds. Ours and theirs. But it’s becoming the most liberating thing not to save, but to share. To share deeply my wounds and the wounds of others.

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I share their story because they trusted it to me. I share their story because I believe they will find a way to change their lives.

I get it. Because I don’t want to be reminded either. That there are race riots and terrorist attacks. That there are orphaned children in Syria or tsunami victims in the Philippines that still haven’t been able to rebuild their lives. Because the world is just too big and how can any of us really make a difference.

I share this with you because the brokenness in me sees hope in them. And that’s a message I want to share with the world. Take a moment to watch this video and see if the same message comes true for you. If it does, think of doing something about it.

Want to see more images from the community? Check them out on my webiste, here.

A culture of dying and the hope of living

Joan of Arc

It is only my calendar that can remember the exact date. My mind knows it happened, but refuses to accept more than that. Even acceptance is often a struggle.

It’s been two months since I found out and the tears are still as frequent now as they were then. Though now I hide them more. I wipe them away before anyone in the car with me can see. A speck of dust caught my eye.

I realize that this is grief and loss in a way that I have never known before. Anger and sadness well up from nowhere and linger in that soft place inside me. We are all still reeling, I believe, evidenced in our consistent conversations of feeling lost and broken without her. Sometimes we try to spur each other on. Sometimes we just sit in the silence together knowing that there really isn’t much left to say.

I am broken more for humanity, and it’s loss of her. Oh what waves she was going to make. What pots she was going to stir. But every time I take a good picture I still want her to be one of the first ones to see it. And then I weep for her mother who has been so strong.

Now I know some part of me believed that if she was out there fighting, maybe I could take the back seat more. I could rest easy knowing that at least she was out there telling the stories of those who no one wanted to listen to.

Now I know I could never have been more wrong and that we all must fight our own fights as hard as we can.

After her funeral I placed a candle under the feet of Joan of Arc in Notre Dame. I prayed for them both to give the rest of us strength to carry on. I prayed for their souls and for mine. That I would not be scared anymore. That I would be able to let go of myself in order to love others well.

In the book “Get the Picture” by John G. Morris, he refers to the death of famed war photographer, Robert Capa, by saying, “Bob belonged to the world” and this surely is the truth of Camille Lepage as well.

From France to Egypt to the Kenyan border of Ethiopia, I have roamed since. I have lost control of my grief many times over in each of these places.

I push myself forward, now, knowing that she would have been pushing too. I am a far cry from a war photographer, but I know there will always be stories that need to be told. Issues that need the light shed on them.

This is why my bank account is empty and my hard drives are running out of space. Because I refuse to let Camille’s light burn out or her flower fade. Because I must follow my own path as fiercely as she followed hers.

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“We are like slaves…”

This is the Daasanach fight. Coming soon… their story.

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Honoring the life and death of Camille Lepage

Camille Lepage, a 26-year-old French photojournalist died on Monday May 12th, 2014 in Central African Republic.

I stare at these words in internet articles, Facebook posts, in conversations, and all I can think is that poor girl, that poor member of the journalist family that I didn’t know. Because I’ve never known anyone who died in combat photography. It just doesn’t happen outside of the Bang Bang Club.

Camille faced death so many times and always made it out alive. She was always going to make it out alive. And she wasn’t just any combat photographer, she was Camille, my friend and hero.

IMG_2284Over the two years that we have known each other, I suppose I’m lucky that so much of our conversations were over email and Facebook messages. In those words are now a living testament to her life and her soul.

Maybe I’m lucky, too, that I never shot with her in a combat zone. Our conversations were idealist ones, about changing the world… always changing the world. She was my strength on those dark days that pushed me back to the light.

“You, as a photojournalist, are the messenger, you’re not the one who will implement new laws on Human Rights in Russia or Chechen, you’re not the one who will put rapists in jail, you will not cure Aids and won’t give food to all of those who are malnourished, but you’re the one, and that’s essential, who is going to denounce those things. Your job, or at least that’s how I see my role, is to make it as appealing as possible so people can relate to it and ideally put pressure on those in charge and whose role is to make things change!” – Camille Lepage, December 1, 2012

In Jaunary this year we slipped away to Mombasa for a vacation. She said it was the first time she had truly rested in years; she didn’t even take her camera which she noted hadn’t left her side in as long as she could remember.

Our last night together, we closed down the bar by talking with the Maasai guards who were there. It was quite a sight to behold. She and I and six Massai dressed in full traditional clothing. We must have talked for an equal number of hours. I remember how intently she asked them questions, about their culture, their families, if leaving their loved ones behind for work was hard. She asked nothing that would relate back to her. She was intent on knowing them inside their own context.

Meanwhile I was asking questions like, “How do you guys feel about tourists and white people in general?”

She looked outward for her questions. I looked inward.

I sat and listened most of the night. I watched her. And learned from her how to learn from people.

Earlier that day she told me, “You need to not see them as different. See them the way they see themselves. Show them as if they were white. You need to look at them as if they were your brothers. Stop thinking about you, you have to think about them.”

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Photo by Camille Lepage from the series “Vanishing Youth”

Some people are writing her off as a loose canon, which isn’t true. I don’t know that fearless is the best way to put it either. She had fear. She was scared at times. But she never allowed that fear to keep her from pushing towards telling the stories that no one wanted to hear. Maybe that’s the difference between her and so many of us. She wasn’t afraid of her fear. And she knew that her life was no more valuable than those who were dying around her.

She would be so excited about the international attention her life and her photos have now brought to the conflicts in CAR and South Sudan, but so devastated that it took a Westerner dying for people to pay more attention to the 10’s of thousands of Africans that have died the same horrific deaths in the last few years. She would be appalled to know that her death is being given so much attention whilst so little is given to theirs.

In an interview for Petapixel in 2013 she said, “I can’t accept that people’s tragedies are silenced simply because no one can make money out of them. I decided to do it myself, and bring some light to them no matter what…. I want the viewers to feel what the people are going through, I’d like them to empathize with them as human beings, rather than seeing them as another bunch of Africans suffering from war somewhere in this dark continent. I wish they think “why on earth are those people in living hell, why don’t we know about it and why is no one doing anything?” I would like the viewers to be ashamed of their government for knowing about it without doing anything to make it end. The killings of civilians in the Nuba, Blue Nile and Darfur have been going on for 30 years, and yet all the governments are still turning a blind eye on them. I don’t understand what makes it okay for Omar Al-Bashir to kill thousands of innocent people with no one saying anything!”

These are statements that she communicated over and over again in our conversations. This is who she was and how she saw the world.

In 2012 I lost another dear friend to which Camille responded, “I’m sorry for the loss of your friend… I hope you’re ok. But it really does prove that you should enjoy every moment in your life, as something might happen at any time and you don’t want to have any regrets”

At 26, she lived a fuller life than most people I know in nursing homes will have seen. She told me, more than once, that she knew she was going to die young and it’s obvious that she lived her life with that in mind.

There are many other things I want to say about her. Many other experiences of hers that I would love to share. How many days we struggled in coming up with the title “Vanishing Youth” for one of her projects. How many times she told me to get off my ass and do something with my life. How many jokes. How much love. But that’s what friendships are about, unique moments shared between two people.

My hope and prayer is that we all honor her life and death with what we have left of ours.

Losing her has shattered my world. Living the way she did is the only way I know to bring the pieces back together. I hope I can bring further insight to the stories she felt called to cover. That I can shed more light on the issues of humanity. It shouldn’t take the death of one Westerner to get us to see that conflict is an ongoing injustice in Africa that must be stopped. That was her battle cry. We should make it ours.

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“What matters the most is that you’re doing something to make the world a better place. And you have to believe in this. It’s important… you think with your eyes, and that’s all the world asks you to do” – Camille Lepage, July 26th, 2013

Honoring the life and death of Camille Lepage