This is Dr. Joel Rudinger. I met him on my flight from RDU to CLT. Sewn to his breast pocket was a patch that read “Alaska.” At the beginning of the flight, I asked him if he had been to Alaska. He said yes and I asked him if there was something that most people would be surprised to find out about Alaska. “It gets hot there,” he said. “Sometimes it gets up to 90.” It was the beginning of a great conversation about life, intentionality, poetry and priorities. Joel, a P.h.D. in American Folklore, is a retired professor and the Poet Laureate of Huron, Ohio. One poem he told me about was called “I Am The Hero of My Own Story.” The poem is about how looking at clouds led him to imagine stories fictional stories based on their shape.
Joel was a senior in college in 1960. When he saw a black and white photo in Time Magazine that depicted two college students hanging a dead moose carcass out of the window of Wickersham Hall, a girl’s dormitory at the University of Alaska near Fairbanks. He decided to go to Alaska. “I thought about my life and I hadn’t done anything interesting with it so I decided to go,” he said. The photo portrayed something so “bizarre” that he had to “go see that place.”
For Dr. Rudinger, Alaska represents a “start.” A start to living a life in which he was actively making decisions about how to live. He spent the next four years in Alaska. Sometimes he was employed. Sometimes he was not. Over those four years, he wrote his family frequently to report on how he was doing. And he asked his family to keep all the letters he sent. The missives included reports of both success and failure. He couldn’t appreciate the good without the bad, he said. And now, 50 years later, after returning to Alaska time and time again after that first trip, he is putting together a memoir featuring those letters and other poems he’s written.
Indeed, he is the hero of his story. I share this story with you because it speaks to the importance of taking responsibility for the narrative of your life. And maybe just as importantly, it was a photograph that helped spur Joel to action. Stories like this make me think photography can have the power to change people, but regardless if that’s still true today, Joel was the one who took action. The photo alone had no impact.
After we landed in Charlotte, I asked if I could photograph Joel with his backpack that contains patches for the trips he’s taken to Alaska throughout the years. He obliged.
I learned a lot and expanded my mind even more at #tidworkshop. There is still much thinking to be done.
One idea that came into sharper relief this weekend was the idea that photography should be a collaboration with a subject. So after I made the pictures on my phone, I showed them to Joel and asked if he thought I had portrayed him accurately. He said he accepted the way I had portrayed him. He also said that this flight was his most enjoyable ever. And finally, he noted that this whole experience, happened because I asked about a patch, he said. That response fulfilled me in a way I’m not sure I’ve felt ever before.
This photo represents my growth and expansion that took place this weekend. I try my best not to preach, but in the core of my being, I have never been more sure that a life can best be lived when you do three things: Be present (see also: genuine,authentic). Listen. And, Do what you love.
Thanks to all those from whom I had the pleasure of learning this weekend. I love all of you.
#makeportraits #iphoneonly #tidworkshop #thankyou