Saturday, March 20, 2010

The changes themselves is some kind of story

While rehearsing the precipitously difficult piece in the studio, John Coltrane can be heard saying to his struggling colleagues, “I don't think I'm gonna improve this, you know . . . I ain't goin be sayin nothin, (I goin do) tryin just, makin the changes, I ain't goin be, tellin no story . . . Like . . . tellin them black stories."  Amidst the confounded mumbles of assent from his bandmates, one colleague rejoins, "Shoot.  Really, you make the changes, that'll tell 'em a story."  Surprised by this idea, Coltrane responds, "You think the changes're the story!" Overlapping him a second bandmate riffs, "(Right)... that'll change all the stories (up)."  His voice cracking with laughter, Coltrane admits, "I don't want to tell no lies (on 'em)."  After a group laugh, the second colleague trails off in a sort of denouement, "(The) changes themselves is some kind of story (man I'm tellin you)."

Slide show HERE w/o notes. Press F11 for full screen.
Images with notes below.

Epilogue (short version):

So, look at the pictures like it's a movie. I know they sort of look like one-off National Geographic photos, so you're gonna have to get beyond that. There's more there than it looks like.  There's a perspective in them. Of a character you never see, but that you see through.  There are story fragments and symbols. Those things are loaded. Packed with history and its contradictions. They contain the themes. The notes are helpful with that. There are flashbacks and flashforwards. They have a rhythm and explosions.  Like an improved jazz solo.  It could all be a memory. It could be a dream.  Each photo is purposefully connected to the next.  And a lot of what the images contain is in between the frames.  So it's not exactly like a movie.  You're gonna have to put some work into it.  But I think it's worth it.

Epilogue (long version):

In January 2010, I was invited to photograph the Panama Jazz Festival for the Danilo Perez Foundation. The experience was disorienting. There were practical reasons for this (e.g. a Panamanian dialect that was particularly difficult for me to parse, my unfamiliarity with the city which made even simple daily tasks such as grocery shopping an adventure, or even the necessary haggling with taxi drivers who try to charge foreigners double-rate), and then there were more intangible ones.

Panama presented me with myriad identities. The identity of the Foundation was foremost, since figuring out that identity was necessary to completing the job I had in Panama. But beyond that there were many more. There were the diverse individuals that came across during the festival—students, artists, volunteers, and staff drawn from the great variation within Panama and internationally. Then there was the larger identity of Panama—its history, its present, and its hopes for the future—which was loaded in so many of the objects around me: in artifacts; in its malls and condos; in the names of its streets and in billboards; in old photographs in a diner. And that historical identity was constantly being re-claimed and re-imagined by the Foundation, by other cultural groups, by the government, by businesses, by each Panamanian I met, and by those I saw from afar. Panama itself was in some sense a mola [0.1][0.2]—a layered patchwork of contrasting dark and bright, threaded together by all of those people. And of course, there was my identity. An American in Panama. For two weeks, I was continually confronted by it, but I found that it shifted in my interactions with different Panamanians. It wasn't nearly as solid as the old American barracks in Balboa or the bridge they built to span the Panama Canal. Each day, with each image, I encountered these identities and though it was easy enough to take them at face value, I thought it was important that I challenge and negotiate those appearances. I quickly found out how fluid, intertwined and often elusive these identities could be. It was hard to gain my footing at first, and sometimes it was a bit dizzying. 

I was a stranger to the Foundation prior to the Festival, so my first task was clearly to discover what the Foundation is and figure out how to convey that photographically. I didn't need to address questions of who comprises the organization, or what its goals are; those details are well listed on their website. My basic job, rather, was to capture visually how those aspirations are enacted. In a more complex way, however, I had hoped to convey some of the reasons for, and the sources of, those aspirations. What do they have to do with Panama—its politics, its culture, and its economy? What about them is specific to its history and what is specific to 2010? For several months prior to the festival I researched the Foundation and Panama as much as I could to prepare my analytic eye to aid my literal one.

Once in Panama, I quickly found that the task of capturing the Foundation's relationship to Panama to be very complex and more than I could practically manage alone, as an outsider, in just two weeks. The Foundation's staff was understandably very busy carrying out the innumerable operations of the Festival, so I scaled back those ambitions and made photographs for the Foundation that were more straight-forward and functional—images that might serve well on a website, brochure, or PowerPoint presentation—images that would be eye catching, informative, and that would reflect the atmosphere and devotion of the staff, artists, and volunteers. You can find the results of that on these Flickr pages (the children's program, the clinics, the concerts).[19]

While I was in Panama, I wanted to make photographs for myself as well, and I had ample opportunity to do so. For those images, my research could come into play and I could begin to figure out how to deal with innumerable identities I faced.

While negotiating those identities, I was immediately wary of the limits to my access. In Casco Viejo, the neighborhood where I first stayed, the environment was particularly tense. This neighborhood surrounding the Foundation is drastically divided between the poverty-stricken and the affluence-stricken. During the day, the narrow streets stream with taxis and tourists that clearly attempt to disregard and avoid the impoverishment there. Police mill around on every other corner to serve as the guards for the tourists and the wealthy residents. Panamanian construction workers rip out rotting floors boards and put up new facades on buildings in which they'd never lived or worked, in a neighborhood most likely far, far from their own, on the other side of the city. Within all of this there was a tension and atmosphere of suspicion that I could tell had existed for a long time. As an American on my own, it was not practical to strike up an interaction with the residents and there weren't avenues for me to do so through a community or public event. Even on the day of the large, free public concert in Casco Viejo many of the impoverished locals kept to themselves. Rather than join the crowds of tourists and well-to-do Panamanians in La Plaza de la Cathedral, they held their own little festivals, just outside the doors of their apartments, in the streets that had been emptied of cars by police. So delving past the startling visual superficialities of their disparate situations was not practical. Without some new line of sight for my camera, some back alleyway into a friendship or a closer interaction, photographing Casco Viejo seemed inevitably exploitative. The images I framed through my viewfinder seemed to either take advantage of, exoticize, or glamorize the poverty or affluence—and the dramatic collision between the two. In the end, I did find ways to interact with and photograph some of the locals—the children who were a part of the Foundation's Infantil program. You can see in the photos on Flickr that they were irrepressibly happy children despite their hardships and the fact that, at least some of them were orphans, or so I was told. In any case, I know many had no adults watching over them and they didn't have enough to eat.

Although you won't see many other photographs of Casco Viejo or it's people in my pictures, this neighborhood set the tone for how I decided to photograph the rest of what I encountered in Panama. I decided to stay away from drawing conclusions about things or constructing anything that might be construed as an attempt at impartial description. Instead, I wanted to convey what it felt like to navigate that undulating sea of identities. I wanted it to reflect my feeling that I was at best watching, as through a porthole, waves flow one into another and into my little boat. Trying to divide up the waves or divine the overall current seemed silly. I should just describe how it felt—how it rocked, how it pitched, how it yawed.

In its final form in the montage above, I arranged the images linearly into an imagined or psychological narrative—not a literal chronology. One image purposefully precedes another, joined to the next by some gesture, person, place, object, visual perspective, symbol, theme, idea, etc. The narrative contains fragments from smaller stories pasted together to reveal what they can about each other. For me, this structure roughly reflects how I move through memory and dreaming, as well as critical thinking (i.e. through associations and apparent connections, with occasional ruptures, jumps, or flashes of insight). I have tried to establish things in the story not typical to photographic narrative such as rhythm and pacing. And of course, I've tried to use devices common to all types of narrative including metaphor, symbolism, juxtaposition etc. I think I'll leave my explanations at that, for the viewer's sake.  If you have any questions or thoughts on the structure, feel free to contact me.  But beware, I have too much to say about it.


[1] In the distance, Casco Viejo—the old colonial city built by the French and Spanish in the 18th and 19th century and what is now a rapidly gentrifying, starkly divided, neighborhood of Panama City.  A lavishly renovated building there, a new home for the elite or a hotel for tourists often abuts a decaying apartment still inhabited by the long-time, poverty stricken residents.  This is where the Foundation is based and where the last and largest public concert of the Jazz Festival was held.  The area in focus in this photograph includes the neighoborhoods of Chorrillo, Santa Ana, and Caladonia—a vast swath of slums that completely encloses Casco Viejo.  Crime and violence is high there, and I was frequently warned (by colleagues, local police, travel books, the US embassy, websites) to stay out unless passing through by cab.  A Foundation leader informed me that a volunteer had been robbed in Santa Ana at gunpoint in the first week I was there.  My hotel manager told me that criminals from these areas find their way into Casco Viejo at night, so I should try not to leave the building after dark.  A taxi driver pointed to a brothel on the outskirts of Casco Viejo where, he told me, I could find many beautiful whores.

[2] The Bridge of the Americas. The bridge spans the Pacific opening of the Panama Canal and is a key part of the Pan-American Highway.  This system of roadways stretches from Alaska to the tip of South America, with only one gapthe Darién Gap, in Panama.  The Darién region of Panama, which is near the border with Colombia, is remote and relatively lawless.  This has made the area an ideal place for both indigenous groups to live relatively autonomously and for guerrilla groups, such as FARC, to base their operations. [0.3] This bridge was built by the US between 1959 and 1962. At the opening ceremony on October 12, 1962, "pro-Panamanian" protesters disrupted the ceremony and removed the memorial plaques on the bridge. [0.4]


[4] The somewhat ominous silhouettes in this and other photos are not birds of prey, but rather vultures.  They were a common sight through Panama City while I was there, likely feeding on the large, sickly fish that washed up on the shore as well as the refuse of the city's inhabitants.

On one hand, the vulture has a sullied reputation in western symbolism, clearly the result of its diet of choice as well as its ruddy, bald and wrinkled head, it's sharply hooked beak and long talons. On the other hand, any ornithologist will tell you that the bird is an indispensable part of the ecosystem.  Along with bacteria and fungi, vultures help to break down the dead and decaying matter, keeping the important carbon and nitrogen cycles flowing, and insuring the health of the ecosystem.

[5] A cliff edge of the El Valle volcano. [0.5]

[6] Marcos A. Gelabert Airport, more widely called Albrook airport.  A public airport now, it is located on the site of the former American Albrook Air Force Base, an important base for the protection of the Panama Canal during the Cold War and well as World War II.  Although it never experienced action with any of the major world powers, there was an "extended firefight" at it's gates during the 1989 American Invasion of Panama. [0.6]  Today, mostly private and small regional planes used by tourists, businessmen and well-to-do Panamanians use the airport.  The vast majority of Panamanians use the Albrook Bus Terminal to travel, which is located directly adjacent to the airport.

To the left of the photo, stretching into the distance, is the Panama Canal.

"Here is formed
The squads that look after
The heart of the democracy."

(I'm doing my best to translate these on my own, but if someone has a better translation, I'd be glad to use it.)

[8] A memorial commemorating the 21 Panamanians killed during riots between Americans and Panamanians on January 9, 1964.  The reasons for the riots are complex, and you can read a little about it here [0.7].  Roughly, however, the riots were spurred from the tensions the between Americans and Panamanians over the right to control the Canal Zone.  An important part of asserting that right, for each side, was the symbolism of flying their respective country's flag.  When, in 1964, American students hoisted the American flag outside of the American Balboa High School in the Canal Zonewith the express intention of flying their flag aloneit set off a protest by Panamanian Students who demanded that the Panamanian flag be flown along side it.  In the altercation that followed between students, as well as American Canal Zone police, the Panamanian flag those students had brought was torn.  The crowds became angry and the Zone Police responded with tear gas and eventually gunshots.

For the 21 people who died in the ensuing fight, and to remember the Panamanian struggle for autonomy, January 9th is a national holiday in Panama known as Martyrs' Day.  The memorial pictured here is located at the site where those riots beganthe old Balboa High School.  This building is now an administrative building for the Panamanian Canal Authority and it is where all the Foundation's clinics were held for Panamanian students during the second week, and where many of the Jazz Festival performances took place.  All the photos in this project that show classrooms, auditoriums, as well as the concrete steps and stairwells that look typical of many American high schools, are part of that old high school complex.

To me, no one ever acknowledge or discussed the significance of this site.  Students flowed in and out and interacted with other Panamanian students and Americans like me with such levity that it wasn't until the second or third day of classesfour days after Martyr's day had gone by without anyone making note of it to me—that, as I was sitting down to gather myself on the steps in front of the eternal flame, it struck me where we were.  The riot was quietly all around us.  Panamanian flags were strapped to each pillar below a martyr's name, they dotted the rest of the Canal Zone and climbed up the hill to top of Cerro Ancón, where the largest flag of them all wavered over Panama City.


[10]Center: "He who embraces the profession of G.P. by conviction, knows beforehand that his youth, his future and even his own life are committed with the discipline, respect, sacrifice and all of the vicissitudes that his career entails."
(Special thanks to Fredy Guzman for help on the above translation.)

Right: "Armory"

[11]"The Ethical Code of the Police
I am the guard of the Presidency, of the Law Enforcement of Panama, I am a custodian of my country and to my superiors I owe loyalty, respect and discipline. I recognize my obligation to maintain integrity, loyalty and honesty. I promise to be a personal example, to maintain the high standards of the police and to enforce the laws professionally."

[12]  A wise sources tell me this may be a banyan tree, but it may not be. I only saw a handful of these trees during my time in Panama.  Their thick trunks bulged and grooved as if wound with stringy tendonssome of those tendons dripping down from the branches above. I found this one on Cerro Ancón, a small park that preserves a jungle on the tallest hill in the south-western part of Panama city.   When I first saw this tree, it seemed to me as if own roots were extending out of the ground, wrapping around the trunk and up into the branches, and weaving in and out in some fierce struggle with the rest of the tree above.

[13]  The top of Cerro Ancón, a small park that preserves a jungle on the tallest hill in the southern part of Panama city.  At it's peak is this enormous Panamanian flag.

The hill remains largely undeveloped because it was under the control of the US Canal Zone Authority until  the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977, when it was hand over to the Panamanian government. [0.8]  Control of the hill is now under dispute between private Panamanian citizens, who would like to keep it a public park, and telecommunications companies that want to further develop it.  While, I was there I saw many signs propped up in windows and poked into lawns decrying private development of the hill.

The park overlooks Casco Viejo, to the south, and the slums surrounding it.   And to the north, lies Balboa.  These were the two primary sites of the Jazz Festival.

[14] A typical, unrenovated, colonial apartment in Casco Viejo.  This one happens to sit directly across Calle 3a (third street) from the Ministerio de Gobierno y Justicia (Ministry of Government and Justice).

[15] A window in the Ministerio de Gobierno y Justicia (Ministry of Government and Justice).

[16] In the morning light, the alley side of a typical, renovated, colonial apartment in Casco Viejo.

[17]  Panamanian Public Forces patrolling Casco Viejo during the Jazz Festival.  This pseudo-military force and the Panamanian police are a constant presence in this gentrifying neighborhood—ostensibly both to reduce the crime rate and to serve as the guard to the President and government, which is housed here.  Although a standing military is technically outlawed in Panama, these forces (which are distinguished from the police by their black and sometimes green uniforms) can be seen quiet often, conspicuously brandishing large automatic weapons as they dart around the Casco Viejo on ATV's.  At times, such as the one pictured above, they patrolled the neighborhood in a small parade, weapons at hand or slung over their black shoulders in the scorching sun.

[18] "I will shout for joy"

[19] As a side note, some thought went into arranging the images in those Flickr sets. They reflect not a strict chronology, but instead the mood of the event and the structure of some of music I heard. For instance, if it's not clear, the photographs of the clinics are arranged with a distinct rhythm—which in music might be denoted as 4/4 time, beginning on 2. The structure of the concert photos is intended to be more free, something like what I heard in a solo riff from one of the saxophonists pictured there.

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