Alcatraz Island in Full Colour: On Taking the Plunge into Photography

A year ago, living in California, I headed to the infamous Alcatraz island — a rite of passage for all bay area Californians locals and tourists alike. And thankfully, sunny (for once!) San Francisco did not disappoint in providing a good experience.

We think of Alcatraz as it is portrayed culturally — black and white, bleak. We think of the inside of the prison walls, of the stories which have been passed through oral tradition by way of campfire stories and through the big-name Hollywood media machine. We think of the cell block, of sensory deprivation and stark interiors, and of the stories of the haunted pasts of the people whose lives often ended on the island (sometimes, of the stories in which these haunted pasts surpass the limitations of the grave). We think of the “ghost hunting” shows with artificially-tanned, muscle-bound hosts, castigating the dead for their perceived inadequacies in life and jumping at the slightest indication of something which could evidence their own black-and-white, apocryphally-informed opinions. Often, we think of the tourists as perhaps the most colourful addition to the site.

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Our imagination captures the idea that our experience in visiting such a place will be the same as our inner vision so permanently that anything which suggests the contrary can come as a shock — and sometimes, a cultural faux-pas, perhaps seen as “glossing over” the darker side of its representative means. For how can a place beset with memories of such pain, darkness, and sometimes, the worst examples of humanity and best examples of poor choices, be anything but what we have heard?

When I visited Alcatraz, I had been grappling for weeks with the decision to buy my first professional camera (beyond my prized, pink, first camera given to me by my father at age fifteen). I had just finished my undergraduate course in art, and was struggling with which direction my heart wanted to take it. While I was fortunate enough to be in a financial position to make the investment, the final push to press “buy” was still off-putting.

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In the past, I had been told by people I was close to that I photographed “too much”, that it consumed me, and retrospectively, they were right. I stopped the pursuit of my earliest endeavours into the photographic arts for this reason, and picking it up again carried with it the fear of being chastised. But everywhere I went, my eye would reel for a camera in my hands, and ultimately, providing myself a momentary lapse in self control to snap a photo here or there was simply not working. As a young child, I had prayed for a lens in my cornea which would close the shutter when I blinked a certain way — a prayer which had turned into a lamentation at that point. I knew I could not wait another month, but the final push came from my Alcatraz photo series, however small and comparably low-resolution they may have been — for finding colour in a place I had, perhaps ignorantly, viewed as purely black and white.

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I took the guided tour. I stood inside the cells. I shuffled along the halls with tourists wandering aimlessly in every direction. I had read intensely in weeks prior of the island’s acquisition by Native activists in the late 1960s, and of its tribal significance as a place of evil and malcontented spirits prior to its acquisition for correctional purposes for the United States. History abounds from every angle over this tiny rock of land in the San Francisco harbour. The tour of the interior seemed not bleak, desolate, or illustrative of an inmate experience, but like a side show at a carnival.

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But as I walked around the grounds of Alcatraz, among the gardens which, previously maintained by inmates enabled to do so on the basis of good behaviour, were as much a testament to the island’s heritage as anything.

On the outside looking in, and in viewing the outside in portals and windows from the inside, a more authentic experience emerged — yes, life on the inside was bleak, desolate, and at many critical junctures, probably an affront to human rights.

But to portray it in this light alone — through the lens or otherwise — devalues the fact that an ‘outsider’s perspective’ is all most visitors will ever have, and lessens our ability to empathise with those who did, in fact experience life on the block — sometimes with a temptingly technicolor view of the world they were cast away from.

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My eye was drawn, increasingly, to these more colourful aspects of the Island for that reason — the rusting keyhole, the blue ocean viewed through a broken window with white sailboats drifting ever out of view, the irises lining the steep steps to an observation point, staring back at my own and imploring the pursuit of one of my most natural inclinations. It was windswept, it was heartbreaking, but it was beautiful, and it was in full colour. I bought my camera the next day, I have stopped every five minutes since to shoot, wherever I am, and I haven’t looked back since. I never will again.

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A Mother’s Word

When I was twenty one, still living with my parents, I went through a long-time-coming (and long overdue) breakup. It was the second time I had been through the same thing with the same person (shame on me, and the reason I almost never talk about it). At two in the morning, I lay crying on the bathroom floor, surrounded by mascara-covered tissues and near-four-year-old memories, thoughts of “the other woman” in my head. My Mother came downstairs, half-asleep, hair crazy, and sat beside me. She let me cry for exactly two minutes, then said, very sternly: “Caroline, that’s enough. Get up. You’re not letting him do this to you.”

The years that followed from that point saw me put my life back on the track it should have been on all along. A couple short years later, I (finally) finished my undergraduate degree and off I went, as many children eventually do. There are many more moments along the way that mark the sting of change and discomfort of successes and failures which I shared with her, more personally than anyone.

I don’t share details of my personal life often (I’m getting better at this one, much to the world’s chagrin, I’m sure), but the snapshots of intimacy between mother and daughter so often happen within microcosmic moments, and all too often in the context of a lesson.

Almost five years later, nearly two degrees and one on the way (and all the important things which aren’t that quantifiable), I’m everything I am because she always made me get back up. Even when I didn’t want to.

So, Happy [American] Mother’s Day to all of the mothers raising children to be strong, resilient, loving, and kind (and to the fathers doing the same in their place). Your work is the most important work: you have the love of the world today and its admiration always.

To my own mother, the biggest troublemaker and the strongest woman I know, I wouldn’t be a grown up if it hadn’t been for you. And being a grown up means I get to spoil you from faraway lands. Thank you for all you do for me and for all of the young lives you touch every day: for being there, at whatever hour.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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Some Good News

Excited to share some very happy news with family and friends… I have accepted a scholarship offer from the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Creative Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where I will concentrate in Nonfiction beginning in the Fall of 2017.

The opportunity to earn a terminal degree from an institution which has been a consistent advocate for women’s education is a privilege, and I am so grateful for the support I have received as I have worked towards this goal for the last three years. 

This does not signal the abandonment of the research career I began at the University of Glasgow, and certainly not a divorce from journalism. But for now I have chosen to pursue a terminal degree in writing prior to considering doctoral study or other endeavours.

The programme is, uniquely, heavily centred on using writing as a way to give back to society, and I look forward immensely to all of the learning opportunities this will afford. Further, the willingness to incorporate academic intersectionality into graduate study which Sarah Lawrence is acclaimed for in its undergraduate programme fosters a learning environment I feel my work will have a place in. I am excited to get to work in the Fall and very much appreciate the support and feedback I have received over the last two years.

On to the next adventure!

 

“Generation Gap” – A Snapshot of Grief and Remembrance in the Digital Age

We live in an age where documentation of our most painful, precious, and pernicious “life events” (Facebook pun very much intended) is a tap away. The selfie has found an interesting place in cultural context in terms of memorialization. But how is it changing the way we express grief, respect, and demonstrations of remembrance publicly?

I recently visited Westminster bridge to document Londoners (and tourists) paying their respects to the recently-fallen victims of the terror attack at Westminster which claimed the lives of three victims. While London has made quite the comeback, which I covered in a recent photoessay featured by Edge of Humanity Magazine, it has also made a vested effort in displaying its support for the fallen and for the community’s togetherness in the wake of terror.

Flowers adorn the bridge at every lamppost, notes of encouragement and solidarity, love and oneness abound. On Parliament Square, bouquets of flowers lie in pristine rows, still wrapped in cellophane, stretching the length of the green.

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As I watched the young ladies on the left snap shots of the flowers, of each other, and seemingly quip back and forth about the “where-to” next, their backs turned to the flowers with the occasional exception made for a picture of the daffodils, the comparably-late middle aged woman on the right approached.

IMG_5266 (2).jpgQuietly, no digital device in hand, she placed her hand on the bridge in silence, remaining there for minutes on end, undeterred. It was unclear on whether or not they were a party at first, but as the young ladies made their way off into the distance after their photo-lust had been sated, I watched the older woman walk to nearly each and every lamppost on the bridge, pausing before each and every one.

There she stood for minutes on end, watching nothing but the flowers, absorbed in thoughts and, presumably, in silence for the remembrance of the fallen. Her sombre expression to me implied that she felt deeply for these people, and that in her pausing, she had expressed more condolence for these people than had a thousand selfie-takers combined.

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She persisted.

Everywhere, people stop to take pictures — because it’s London, and that’s what people do here and everywhere else. Photos of the buildings, photos of each other in front of the buildings, photos of the memorials (some by professional-grade photographers and others, novices). But many of those stopping for the “selfie” in front of the pop-up memorial locations represented an indiscriminately younger demographic, leaving out no minority from its midst, with middle-aged and elderly patrons pausing alongside the rows of flowers lying like bodies, or lamppost pediments adorned with flora to hang their heads and comment on the notes and sentiments left with more depth.

This raises some interesting questions, questions which, I acknowledge, are not “new” in terms of artists’ representations of this issue, with a recent “Yolocaust” project, which photoshops devastating photographs of the holocaust into the background of selfies taken at Holocaust memorial sites garnering important media attention.

It is an acknowledged fact that taking a “selfie” at a place meant to permanently memorialise an act of terror or atrocity can be considered gauche. But what does the tendency of some members of the younger generations to do so say about our increasingly-digitised culture?

But as a temporary memorial, and at that, a memorial which holds the purpose of unifying people and bringing a shaken community together, does this site hold a different social protocol?In this case, is the fact that these impermanent places of memorialization intend to represent normalcy, in a way — an exception to the unspoken rules of digital society? Does the selfie, in this case, inspire unity and respect the fallen, providing an opportunity for solidarity and strength?

Or potentially, has a faction of digital culture approached a need for self-glorification so desperate that the need to prove their patronage to sites meant for remembrance bears with it a social standard for the “selfie”‘s inclusion? Its intent, arguably to prove the selflessness of the attendee as users of social media sites enshrine themselves and glorify their lives at an increasing rate, arguably accomplishes just the opposite by shouting into the digital void for validation of altruism in a social forum.

I feel I am yet undeserving of the titles which culturally most accurately describe my professional inclinations: “researcher”, “writer”, “photographer”, “journalist”, “artist” — I do not believe I will ever feel comfortable with these titles, and so by those standards, am a part of the crowd. But as someone who fits, at least, the intent behind each of those titles, I acknowledge it would be hypocritical of me to address the actions of others when I, too, am behind a lens (and have taken photos of myself paying respects to my family’s graves since it is somewhat of a tradition). I believe firmly, that whenever photographing or otherwise documenting a cultural happening of any variety, it is ethically important to take a photograph for face value as much as it is important to take it for the thousand words it imbues; that is to say, that we can know little context beyond what is absorbed by the photographer and writer,  and all of what we can know by making our own assumptions and seeking the answers to our own questions.

Beyond this, I feel it is most critical that, like time spent in nature, only footprints are left at a scene of still-healing pain, and that in taking an image, and so capturing it forever, sometimes unaware of the audience it will be exposed to, photographers, writers, and artists take time to pay their respects in a non-digital way. A journalist’s job is to reveal the truth. A photographer’s job is to capture a piece of time. An artist trades in feeling, and a writer, often, in pain and pleasure. Our job as human beings of this age is to approach all things asking questions, internally processing always, wondering how we can improve ourselves as members of society.

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“Love Still Lives in London” Photoessay Featured by Edge of Humanity Magazine

My recent photoessay, focusing on the rapid rebound to normalcy in London in the wake of the recent terror attack and the city’s refusal to allow hate to win, has been published by Edge of Humanity Magazine, a site featuring journalism, nonfiction writing, photography, art, music, poetry, and more.

The photographs and reflection, which focus in and around Kensington Gardens in London, aim to convey the love and gaiety in the air as life carries on here in the wake of the attack. London has not missed a beat and, importantly, refuses to allow the differences to divide the city. Rather, diversity is a cornerstone, celebrated, and culturally essential component of life here for which I am very thankful. I am hopeful that, in Edge of Humanity’s feature of this project, the inclusivity which London in many ways has embodied in the wake of this act of terror will serve as an example of what I feel to be the correct moral response to acts of hate: that is, to love.

Edge of Humanity is a wonderful publication with a diverse count of very impactful stories, and I am so grateful to have contributed again. I have been overwhelmed by the positive responses from my other recent features with the Magazine, ‘How Van Met Phyllis‘, and ‘At the Edge of the World‘, and I would like to thank all of the folks who have taken the time to view / read my work. Please browse some of the articles featured on the site — though, in the hope of providing fair warning, it will quickly become an addiction!

The Alpacalypse – “Aplacas on Campus” Charity Event at Glasgow University Sparks Hearty, Entertaining Debate (First News Article with the Glasgow Guardian)

After the Rectorial election coverage, I was keen on writing something a bit less serious. My wish was granted in a pitch from my editor which I snapped up as quickly as I could: an on-campus fundraising event which boasts anti-stress Alpacas, part of a week of such called Raising and Giving (or RAG) Week on campus at Glasgow University sparked digital controversy as a flurry of animal rights activists descended upon the event’s page, citing concerns for the animals’ welfare at being put on display in an urban environment. Read about the Alpacalypse here.

It is important to note that I am very much a proponent of enforcing and expanding animal rights, and would not take a humorous tone unless I felt it was doing no harm to the situation. It is also important to note that I am in favour of education on animals,  and feel that this event will not harm the beasts in question. The owner of the animals reached out to the organizers of the event to assuage the fears of those expressing concern: explaining how, among many other points, her Alpacas were accustomed to going into urban environments for educational events and as such, are not your garden-variety Camelid. But many students weren’t convinced, and then things got heated…

“Concerns as far-reaching as the alpacas’ distance from their native habitat in Peru to those more focused on addressing the animals’ immediate stress levels at being introduced to a heavily urban environment have been voiced, with many suggesting the exploitative nature of the event and rebuking the idea of animals being put on display for human enjoyment. Several attendees in favour of the event have returned these concerns by satirising the concerns of the minority – asking for the alpacas’ stance on fracking, demanding SRC release the wage allowances of the alpacas in question, and more. On social media, the “alpacalypse” unfolded by way of comments, hashtags, and all-out tagging war.”

In a statement for the Glasgow Guardian given by the Vice President of Student Activities, Mhari Harris also detailed the precautions taken in planning the event and reassured students that no Alpacas would be in any way harmed in the making of this charity event.

I feel it is probable that anyone looking at the breadth of my coverage for the Glasgow Guardian thus far may suggest that I have been demoted in covering this event (which, I feel, is an added, entertaining benefit to having done so): going from writing on political protests, Glaswegian culture, more reflective pieces, election coverage and more to a digital exchange belonging in many ways to the theatre of the absurd. On the contrary, this event gave me the rare opportunity to feel a connection with my physical home from abroad.

Connecticut communities are absurd, quirky, and often very strange places to live, and having grown up in one for the entirety of the first two decades of my life and more, I have been trained to recognise Connecticut-brand-absurdity like a pro.  This event, while of course important to cover in its own right, fit that bill precisely.

I’ve been away from home in some incarnation for what feels like a very long time, and am glad to have had the opportunity to highlight a bit of an absurdist controversy in the wake of a contentious election season. Read up on other insights into life in Glasgow on the Glasgow Guardian’s website and support student journalism.

A Controversial Candidate: Interview with Prof. Jordan B. Peterson, Contentious Nominee for Rector (Glasgow Guardian)

The recent nomination of Milo Yiannopolous and Professor Jordan Peterson for the position of Rector has sparked enormous controversy in Glasgow. I recently interviewed Professor J.B. Peterson on behalf of The Glasgow Guardian, the University’s student newspaper, to discuss student concerns and learn more about his aims. To read that interview, please click here. The candidate, who would uptake the position currently held by Edward Snowden, is responsible for voicing the concerns of University of Glasgow students at the front lines of bureaucratic engagement. But Peterson’s past assertions that he would not support the use of gender-neutral pronouns unless asked in the “right way” has caused an uproar, with cries of transphobia echoing in many corners of campus, and a petition which has garnered over 3,500 signatures calling for the revocation of Yiannopolous’ and Peterson’s names from consideration has made the rounds on social media in recent days. Critically, Peterson’s view as it stands is in opposition to Appendix E of the University’s Equality and Diversity Policy’s Manual (see section E4.6, specifically).

In the interview, Peterson took up verbal arms in defence of his opinions and made every effort alongside this to point out his positive impacts on the community in question. He indicated a vested interest in applying these ideologies to help the LGBTQ+ community, but his views are contradictory to those held within that community and by many in his field. At one juncture in the interview, I addressed the fact that the University of Glasgow’s Psychology Society — a group of students, both undergraduate and postgraduate — had publicly decried his nomination in a statement on social media. He refuted my use of the word “peers”, explaining that, as students, they were not yet his peers and stated that he did not appreciate the insinuation that he had been brought before a jury of his peers and judged.

But at the University of Glasgow, the first thing I learned (even before coming to campus or accepting my unconditional offer) was that postgraduate students and their Professors are frequently on first-name basis. When I interviewed informally with Professor Mary Ellis Gibson, who has since left the University for greener pastures, she indicated this and explained that productive conversations are encouraged on the basis of even ground in this regard — a sentiment which has been echoed by every faculty member I have interacted with thus far in my experience at this institution.

Similar takedowns of my questions on the basis of semantics were something of a tennis match to watch, and as a fan of writing, I enjoyed the attention given to deconstructing my questions. But more oft than not, this deconstruction purely deflected attention from his eventual replies, and critically, Peterson missed the mark — it wasn’t my personal bias he was noting. It was the bias of the student body in its entirety —

I will admit the bias in my heart but believe that, as a writer and student journalist, I asked the questions which were most commonly voiced within the student body as this is my responsibility to that student body in this role, and my editors can attest to this shared goal at The Glasgow Guardian.

I will not apologise for the directness of my questions on those terms and offer Prof. Peterson a strong digital handshake for the opportunity to expand my breadth of knowledge. While Peterson certainly reacted with expected vitriol to my questions, I wish to express on this more personal plain that I am grateful for his concession to participate in the interview, as it was an excellent learning opportunity for me and is appreciated by the student body.

However, I believe after interviewing him that there are irreconcilable differences between his personal and academic ideologies and University of Glasgow culture and policy which would prevent him from effectively representing student interests.

In the wake of this interview, I would like to publicly go on record in support of my LGBTQ+ family, friends, peers, and mentors: of your happiness, your rights, and your ability to live your life — and study — in whichever way you choose. Many of you have touched my life in more ways than I can detail, and no one should have the ability to dictate the ways you peacefully express your identity — particularly in an academic context.

The University of Glasgow has long been a progressive hub for ideas, interactions, and conversations which otherwise would be difficult to have. I appreciate that I am challenged daily at this school in all the ways an education should challenge me — through exposure to new ideas, ideas which make me uncomfortable, ideas which I agree or disagree with. But there is a fundamental difference between challenging ideologies and engaging with differing opinions and a clear and admitted opposition with University policy which would, effectively, stand in the way of the candidate-in-question’s ability to represent one of the student body’s most critical minorities.

For my lovely editors, Selena Jackson with Kate Snowdon’s interview with Milo Yiannopolous, please click here. Be aware, of course, that that interview contains content some may find offensive.

Please continue to support student journalism efforts across the world — these are the voices of tomorrow’s free press, and we require both criticism and praise from which to learn about ourselves, our demographic, and our world.

Skeletons in the Closet: Necropolis Vandalism – New Glasgow Guardian Article Out Now

A few weeks ago, I reflected on historic and contemporary vandalism and disrespect to Glasgow’s famous Necropolis — one of the city’s most iconic, haunting examples of Victorian-era culture and the palace of the dead — considering how it has changed and commenting on its cultural significance. Passing over the “Bridge of Sighs”, it truly can be a respite from the otherwise-hectic liveliness of the city… but that place of respite is contingent as much upon those who maintain the sacred space as those who pass through it. That reflection has now been released with The Glasgow Guardian’s website, and is available to read here.

“In our contemporary political climate, and throughout history, the defacing of individual graves, historic monuments, and even entire cemeteries, is a well-documented tool of socio-cultural expression: and for what it’s worth, many would argue that vandals cannot injure the pride of the dead. But pride in Scotland is a special, undying beast, and as many other nations would agree, scrawling “fuck” onto a centuries-old gravestone does little to inspire political or religious reformation. What makes these less-specific acts an underreported phenomena is not their innocuous nature, nor their lack of frequency, but their target location and the shame attached to them: no one remembers old so-and-so – but attack the grave of someone notable and the press falls to pieces, reporting the disgrace of a crime which, in truth, exhibited symptoms in cases prior, warning of the storm to come borne of an issue which is both difficult to address tactically and culturally. The longer these minimal crimes go undiscussed, the more mischief-makers will take up arms and spray paint cans to insight a public reaction.”

A house for the dead of any magnitude should be regarded, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or spiritual considerations, as a place of quiet reflection and peaceful consideration for the beliefs of others. The intent behind my publication of this piece is to draw attention to this in the hope of advocating for a respectful approach to visitation and patronage of the site — and perhaps to instigate higher efforts from Glasgow’s City Council in the prevention of more subtle, but equally disrespectful acts of vandalism. At the end of the day, a grave is no more a chalkboard than it is a garbage can.

As both fodder for written reflection and photographic documentation to accompany and illustrate it, my camera is my weapon of choice in the documentation not, in this instance, of the vandalism itself (though this is a topic I hope to revisit through both writing and photography), but the emotional significance of the Necropolis, both culturally and spiritually. By capturing the beauty of the place, rather than giving audience to vandals who would otherwise disrespect its unique grace, there is hope that more patrons of the site will regard it with higher reverence and uphold greater grace than those who would willingly (or passively) desecrate it in any respect.

If you’ve a few minutes, take a glance at some of the other material produced by student journalists at The Glasgow Guardian and support student journalism.

“At the Edge of the World”: First Publication with Edge of Humanity Magazine

This is not a drill: I am thrilled to share news of the publication of two pieces of my work by @Edge of Humanity Magazine, a website specialising in photoessay, documentary photography, investigative cultural journalism, and memoir. This marks my first piece of published work outside of collegiate opportunity.

I could not be more honoured to be featured amongst the other artists and writers who contribute to Edge of Humanity, many of whom travel all over the world seeking out adventure, reflecting on photographic perspectives, all while bringing light to important cultural issues. I have been enamored of this publication for some time, which brings this milestone particular significance.

This piece, which I wrote and photographed in the Spring of 2016 while living and working in Northern California, is a journalistic photoessay which aims to document and discuss the often very visual dissimilarity between one of California’s most affluent University towns and the outlying farmland communities which support California’s economy — including the huge and internationally-critical agricultural industry — often, at the educational expense of those communities.

I send big thanks to Edge of Humanity, everyone who has encouraged me, taken the time to read my work, challenged me, and learned with me as I have grown over the last two years. I am incredibly grateful ❤

A New Page for ‘The Ruby Slipper Project’

In late 2015, I began an investigative photoessay memoir project which aims to explore the stories told in my family from one generation to the next. Until I feel it is finished, I will be traveling across the world, seeking out an immersive experience of my family’s most poignant, funny, heartbreaking, weird, and beautiful stories with the hope of inspiring others to do the same. The more frequently we do so with eyes open, rooted in an emotionally-sound connection, the more prone we are as individuals and as a society to cultural acceptance — something which cannot be undervalued in the current politico-social climate. And the shoes… well, there’s a story for that, too.

The new page will serve as a cohesively-flowing home for the project in its entirety, and new installments will still appear on my blog as usual. If you would like to follow my journey and work in its entirety, please follow my blog.  Learn more about me or drop me a line here.