Being There

Don’t get me wrong: I think technology is incredible.

Just this morning, I listened to a compelling story on NPR about the video captured by passersby who witnessed the murder of Oscar Grant, the 22 year old man killed by an Oakland transit policeman in early January.

Passengers on the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) pulled out cell phones and video cameras, capturing the chain of events leading to Grant’s death. The indisputable details rendered by these digital images stand in stark contrast to the dubious defense being forwarded by the officer. Those who captured these images uploaded them to the Internet, creating a body of evidence that, while public and extremely controversial, is likely to play a critical role in the process of justice-seeking.

I also think about the person with a camera phone who captured the first image of the US Airways flight that landed on the Hudson River a few weeks ago, establishing the trajectory of the visual narrative of the emergency landing, documenting rescue efforts before any conventional media arrived on the scene.

These are just two examples of the ways in which technology is shaping everything around us: accidents and crimes, justice and injustice, even the very stories we tell about what happens to us and to others.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, more.

In fact, I think that we’ve only just begun to tap into the power of technology as a means of human connection and communication, and we have a long, exciting, promising way to go.

BUT…

There are times–and they are increasing in frequency–when I find myself wondering if we can put down the cameras, the phones, and the video cameras, and simply be where we are and experience the moment.

The thought first came to me at the inauguration. I didn’t carry a camera or anything else; wary of security and aware of my own physical capacity to hold lots of gear in the cold for hours at a time, I decided to leave it all behind and just be in the moment.

Despite the flashes of regret I felt as I watched other people snapping photos of this inarguably historic moment, two weeks later, I realize I don’t rue my decision at all. In fact, I was only more sure that the decision was right for me when I asked one of the adults in the tour group I was leading, “What did you think of President Obama’s speech?” “Oh, I didn’t really hear it,” he told me as he fiddled with his tripod. “You know, I was too busy taking pictures.”

The relative affordability of cameras, cell phones, and video cameras has expanded the documentarian impulse to an immense group of people. Attend any event of significance and you’ll find dozens of folks with Canon digital cameras, a set of lenses, and an iphone. Often, I’ll be among them. I own all of this gear (except the iphone), and then some, and I use it to eagerly capture as many moments as possible.

Sometimes, though, I feel the conflict of not really having been in that moment myself.

In her tightly constructed essay, “Photography: A Little Summa,” Susan Sontag argued that photography–and one can extend photography’s embrace to include visual and auditory documentation of any sort, I think– has become an “enterprise of notation.” It consumes us with the desire to capture something, like the hobby entomologist pinning his specimen to a board. It preoccupies us so that we are less capable–even, as Sontag argues, incapable–of feeling and acting.

Which brings me back to Oscar Grant.

What was going on behind the camera? Outside the frame? Was anyone holding a phone or a camera actually concerned about what was happening to the man lying face down on the platform as one officer punched him in the face, apparently unprovoked, and another shot him in the back, killing Grant? Or were they thinking, “This will be great for YouTube!”?

Watching some of the footage, it’s clear there was a critical mass of civilians “documenting” the incident. Did any of them feel empowered or impassioned about intervening, about doing something other than holding a camera phone in the air and recording Grant’s last breath? As of this writing, more than 700 (and closer to 800) videos have been uploaded to YouTube about the shooting (though some, it must be noted, are compilation videos and videos of newscasts about the incident). Some of these videos have been viewed more than 200,000 times. But what does the video do besides leave the viewer with a sense of helplessness and rage? Although these videos are likely to become–have, in fact, already become–important influences in the outcome of the criminal case brought against the officer, the question becomes: Is that enough? What if some of the people had put away the phones and cameras and really been there, had really been witnesses, in the true sense of the word?

It’s an extreme case, to be sure, but I don’t think we should let the lesson be lost upon us (and really, I’m writing this more for myself than for anyone else): Sometimes we need to just show up and be present. Sometimes, we just need to live experiences, instead of trying to document our way through them.

At Last!

There were so many many moments from inauguration week in Washington, D.C. that moved me to tears:

*Standing on the mall with an estimated 1-2 million people from 6 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, sharing conversations with people from around the country and the world who couldn’t be anywhere else except here;

*Watching elderly and disabled people brave the cold and do whatever it took to make it through the inauguration pomp and circumstance;

*Listening to President Obama’s inaugural speech;

*Feeling a flood of relief as the helicopter lifted the Bushes into the sky, finally, finally signaling the end of an era;

*Watching the 40 kids and adults on the tour I was leading have transformative moments as they just took in everything around them.

But just when I thought I couldn’t cry anymore, I went back to my hotel room on the night of the inauguration and saw this on TV:

and then, Robin Roberts’ interview with Beyonce:

“I’m so proud of my country,” she says. “I’m so lucky to be alive at this [moment in] history…. He makes me want to be smarter, he makes me want to be more involved.”

Me too. At last, I finally feel that this country has been returned to the people. And now, it’s time for us all to get involved and be the change we wish to see in the world. What part will you play?

“When I was 31, it was a very good year…”

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo & Julie Schwietert Collazo

As the last two weeks of 2008 spin towards history, I find myself in bitingly cold New York City, where I’m wrapped in at least two layers of clothes by day and sleeping under two comforters at night.

New York has been my home since I moved here in 1999 after graduating from college, accepting an internship, and deciding to stay. It’s a city I love for a thousand reasons at least.

But in 2008, I didn’t spend a lot of time here. It was a very good year for travel–the best yet–and now that I’m finally settling down at home for a period of more than a week, I’m sorting through the year’s (and a 250 GB hard drive’s) photos, stories, and memories.

Here are a few I wanted to share with you….

JANUARY, Cuba/South Carolina, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Puebla, Tijuana, San Diego, Pacific Coast Highway, and San Francisco:
Francisco and I started the new year apart, he with family in Cuba and I with family in South Carolina.

We met up at our part-time home in Mexico City, made quick trips to Cuernavaca and Puebla, crossed the border, and then drove the Pacific Coast Highway before…

FEBRUARY, New York:
We practiced settling for a while in this city where we met each other and where we both feel at home. We saw a Gonzalo Rubalcaba concert, watched old buildings be demolished and observed the new contour of this city begin to take shape.

MARCH, Mexico City & New York:
A split month, half in el DF and half in New York. In DF, I’m working on an assignment. In NYC, I’m a passionate observer of my own neighborhood.

APRIL, New York, Washington, D.C.:

It’s spring in the city, one of the very best times of year for a New Yorker. But I’m getting restless. I organize a trip to Washington, D.C. for my mom’s birthday.

Francisco and I also meet fellow Matador editor and the amazingly talented photographer, Lola Akinmade. Still, there are stories all around, as there always are, no matter where we are.

MAY, Cuba:

I visit Cuba for the first time since Fidel handed power over to his brother, Raul. Of seven or so visits to Cuba since 2005, this is the most special one, filled with incredible moments.

I interview Chinese Cubans, spend hours with a Cuban musicologist, & work on a documentary about Juan Antonio Picasso.

Francisco’s son and I go to Mariel, where Francisco set off from Cuba in 1980. We visit Cojimar and Hemingway’s home. And I celebrate Mother’s Day with Francisco’s mom and the mother of his son.

JUNE, New Orleans:

Francisco and I meet up in New Orleans to volunteer with the Culinary Corps and write about New Orleans. Seeing the state of New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina reminds me why traveling and stories are important & why I believe so passionately in both.

JULY, Colombia:

A full month in Colombia, with the bulk of our time spent in Mompox, where we meet the coolest kids in the world and begin making plans for an after-school program for them.

We also visit Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, and Barranquilla.

AUGUST, Guadalajara, Mexico:
Back home in Mexico, we also visit Guadalajara on assignment. Not only does Sally Rangel and the staff of Villa Ganz set a totally new standard for service and hospitality, we discover that Guadalajara is quite possibly the only city where we’ve enjoyed every single meal we’ve eaten in restaurants. We were also fortunate to participate in and interview others who attended the Iluminemos Mexico march for peace.

SEPTEMBER, Perote and Veracruz, Mexico:

Perote: The town that tourism forgot. Not for long, if we have anything to do with it. Along with our friend, Carmen, we toured the San Carlos prison, visited an ostrich and orchid farm, dreamed about opening a bed and breakfast in an abandoned hacienda in the middle of a corn field at the base of some mountains, and found ancient pottery sherds just littering the side of the road as we drove up into the mountains. We also happened upon a local boxing match.

We drank strong coffee and had my palm read in Veracruz.

OCTOBER, Mexico City & Oaxaca, Mexico; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:

October was all about connection.

We met Matador member Teresita and her husband, Ibis, at our home in Mexico City, reconnected with my old friend, Arely, and her husband Ivan at an airport restaurant, and visited with weavers at their home and interviewed protesters in Oaxaca.


I also traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to report about the military detention facility there.

I could have spent weeks there. In any event, I have a notebook full of stories that I’d like to write.

NOVEMBER, NYC, Washington, D.C., Chile:

NYC: To vote. Of course.

Washington, D.C.: To blog live from NPR on election night.

Chile: The press trip of a lifetime: 7 days. Santiago, Valparaiso, Punta Arenas, Torres del Paine. Cordero (lamb). But most of all… incredible people: Roberto, Francisco, Andres, Paloma, Carolina… que buenos son!

DECEMBER, Puerto Rico:
Francisco and I moved to Puerto Rico (shuttling back and forth between the island and NYC) in 2005 and left for good last December. While we had no active plans to return for a visit, our friends Wally and Marina asked us if we wanted to take care of their dogs for a couple weeks while they went on a much-needed and deserved vacation.

It was nice to see the sun every morning, to feel it on my skin, to watch as it penetrated just-rained skies and made light shows with rainbows, and to collect the grapefruit it ripened and scattered the ground with.

As visitors, we also went to places we’d never visited as residents, including the small island of Culebra and the town of Guanica, where the US invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War 210 years ago.

*

As I write this, I begin to realize that everything important is left out. It’s the people and the stories, and there’s a hundred folks at least. And for every person, a hundred stories.

I haven’t forgotten a single one of them. The stories are on the way….