When I was a boy, my Father told me stories. His eyes lit up with an unmistakable passion for history, for other ways of seeing the world. His words conveyed an excitement that transported me from now into then, bringing it to life. Above all, he invoked the experience of human beings who had once lived. He cared deeply for these people from a distant time, wondered what they felt, what they suffered and feared, who they loved, what they dreamed. He gave me a vivid, immediate sense of what their day-to-day lives must have been like. In my mind's eye, my life's time converged with theirs, within the story's altered time, becoming something else.
Among my Father's gifts to me was that of a burning curiosity to experience firsthand what life was like in other worlds, in this and other times. The beckoning distance set me off on years of travels when other paths might have seemed far more prudent. My young man's yearning to experience a sense of the world, and, in the words of Herman Hesse, "to merge my own insignificant life into the infinite and the eternal," had the effect of opening a door which can never be closed.
In my journeys, even in the most remote areas, in virtually every culture of the world, I found a consistent kindness and hospitality toward the wanderer who came with open hands and open mind, a common set of patterns of human engagement. As I spent more time in the world's many traditions, their elements begin to merge into one another. Within the many unique ways of coping with life on this Earth, fundamental patterns clearly shone through. There emerged the underlying rhythms of the land, of human interaction, of the cycles of nature, of life and death. The joy of a newborn child; the labor of subsistence; the basic needs of food, warmth and shelter, for protection of family. The tenderness of love; the laughter and comfort of friendship; the satisfaction of achievement; the outrage of injustice; the pain of loss; the consolation of belief and the wisdom of acceptance. The incredible power inherent in the will to live, despite heavy odds. At times it seemed that I was traveling in a capsule, insulated from what was around me by a cultural and economic shell that seemed impenetrable. At other times, I experienced such a keen compassion and synchronicity with these people, some of whom were struggling to survive, that I saw myself in them. It seemed as if humanity was drawn together by a magnetic force, at once extraordinary and familiar.
I see the world in still images: frozen moments of suspended time. In a photograph one can seek out an expression that can stand for all expressions, a moment that can signify all time. The photographs in this book bear witness that these people have lived upon this Earth, if only for a brief moment in this passing show.
What meaning can this momentary life have, when time is measured geologically? By definition, it is a heartbeat: a look, a fleeting state of grace. These fragments, these shards of existence can only have significance if they are meant to represent something else: tears for all tears, an experience for all experience. The cry that says we lived once, that we were here. That our lives will not be a story untold. That we touched others who lived on after us. That we added some small thread to the texture of this world.
What is a life? What do we leave behind, that can't be worn down by wind, or time, or fire? It is the trace we leave on memory.