She almost didn't vote

"Everyone knows me" - at Mtskheta polling station


I saw this woman during an election in the Republic of Georgia in 2002. I described her in my report about it:

She hobbled into the polling station at Mtskheta leaning on a cane, clutching a brochure from a candidate in her gnarled hand. She was running a fever, yet still had managed to walk to the polling station. Less than 5 feet tall and wispy thin, her head covered with a worn scarf, she was nearly invisible in the irritated crowd pressed up to the table where voters were trying to sign in.

Eventually, as the chaos untangled itself, she managed to get to the registration desk. But then she was turned away – she hadn’t brought any identification with her.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” she said, bewildered. “Everyone knows me.” The elections commission member was apologetic, and offered to find someone to give her a ride home to get her identification.

The woman refused, and walked out slowly. I don’t know how far she had to walk, but an hour later she was back, old Soviet passport in hand. She took her ballot into the curtained booth, and cast it in the transparent box.

I will never forget this woman’s determination to exercise her legal right to vote in a free and fair election – a right that she had waited for during seven decades of Soviet rule….

It’s true: I never forgot the woman. Only recently I rediscovered the report that began with this narration of her story.

The report was buried in some training files that I had copied from the computer of Rob Eure, a trainer I’d worked with in Egypt and Afghanistan. Rob had never mentioned to me that he had this report, but he kept it with him during our work on elections in Egypt in 2005.

Tragically, Rob died of a heart attack in Cairo during the project. I still miss his humor and good sense, as well as his thirst for a good story and his heartfelt desire to help other journalists. He was one of the best trainers I ever worked with. I like knowing that he valued something I wrote enough to keep it.

I was glad to rediscover this report, because it includes so many details that I had forgotten – about the journalists, about the difficulties, about my philosophy of training journalists.

I put much time and thought into reports on projects, in the hope that project planners and funders will replicate what worked, and avoid what didn’t work. It’s also a chance for me to assimilate what I’ve learned as a trainer, for each assignment has its own challenges and I draw on past experience to cope with them.

This report describes one of three assignments I had in Georgia from 2000 to 2002, and though a decade old it still includes timely lessons.

Download it here:  Georgia Elections Report 2002

Face that shot 1,000 portraits

IGP7078There’s nothing more intimidating for a photographer than shooting……. a photographer.

Especially someone that you really respect, admire, and want to be like. Who exemplifies standards that you grew up with, and that you don’t see much in journalism anymore.

Well, the photographer is me, and the photographer is Al Clayton.

You might know him for his snake-handling documentary, or for his portraits of rural poverty, or maybe for his funky photos of dead animals.

Al has done so much for photography, for the South …. and I know that I don’t even know 1 percent of it.

Even now, he mentors kids at the local high school. That’s how I got to meet him – we worked together with the students on the Smokey Hollow project.

The chance to photograph him came up as part of the “Faces of North Georgia” project that Sara Lindkrantz and I are doing. Sara and I set up a portable studio at the Summer Solstice Celebration in Jasper, and Al showed up.

I dragged him over and demanded that Sara shoot his portrait. Al turned his back on our little studio set-up. He pulled up a folding chair next to the glass door and positioned himself in the natural light. I held up the drop cloth behind him, and it turned out nice.

Later, when he was talking to Sara, telling stories, I laid on my back on the floor and shot candids of him. Not the most flattering angle, but I wanted him to forget I was there.

I love to just sit and listen to him tell stories, so that is what I was trying to capture here.




Why "Baraka"?

turkey toiletMy travels have taken me through more than 40 countries – but not very quickly.

I waited in a lot of hot and dusty lines, took many slow and crowded bus rides, felt confused and lonely for days on end.

In these long hours, travelers usually just complain, talk to each other, or sleep. I eventually learned to do the opposite: When I’m bored, annoyed, worried, or tired, I look more closely at what is right in front of me.

Instead of zoning out, I pay more attention.

In doing so, I see the organic architecture that infuses even the simplest or ugliest scenes. It is a wealth that is always at hand.

In Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, NC, 2011

The word ‘baraka’ in Arabic means ‘blessing,’ or ‘gift,’ but I interpret it more along the lines of the Sufis, who use ‘baraka’ to mean ‘divine essence.’

So when I thought of what to name my photography business, back in 2006, Baraka Photos seemed perfect. I also had fond memories of the 1996 film, Baraka, which has no narration but takes the viewer on a contemplative journey through the world’s visual rhythms.

At the time I named the business, I had never heard of the future US president, Barack Obama. When he first ran for office I went to some lengths to assure folks that Baraka Photos was not a political campaign office.

My goal was to provide meditative images to help people see their personal connection with worlds that appear to exist far outside of us. This idea carried over into an educational exhibit I produced about the people of Afghanistan, called “Beyond the Mountains.”

Last year I folded the business, but I kept the name for my website. Now I use it in the name of a nonprofit I started, Baraka Foundation, to assist education and information in isolated mountainous regions.