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Lisl Dennis Squint statement

BEFORE THE DAYS of Google Earth, I pinpointed my upcoming travel destinations on an elephant World Atlas spread wide on my father’s lap as he waited for my mother to dress for a dinner party. Squinting at the longitude and latitude of remote intersections of my photo assignments and personal travel adventures, he’d sit in a shabby-chic arm chair accompanied by a crackling fire, stiff scotch, and overstuffed sparking pipe. Ruddy country complexioned and silver haired, James Suydam Jones featured burn holes in his bespoke bottle-green velvet smoking jacket. Medium blue grosgrain lapels and trim were the signature colors of his pack of hounds the Tewksbury Foot Bassets.

The hounds sounded throughout New Jersey hills and dales partitioned by mossy stone walls and post-and-rails upgraded from zig-zag fences of George Washington’s Revolutionary forays. Shaded rivers and riffling streams meandered through the fertile countryside. Cows, sheep, and horses animated spacious fields.

After a sloppy day in the field, my father – Pops as we called him – showered, toweled-off alfresco in front of the living room fire. He dusted baby powder on his privates. Snowy fallout drifted onto his J.S.J. velvet evening slippers. Well-read: General Joseph Stilwell’s story “The Burma Road” was one of his favorite reads. Natty in cuffed flannels and red farmer’s handkerchief crammed into his breast pocket, Jimmy made damn sure I knew where the Burma Road was long before I’d been there – to Myanmar that is. Constructed in 1938 during World War 11, the twenty-four bends snaking atop a ridge line and through remote villages was a materiel route from the Burmese border to Kunming, China, capitol of Hunnan Province.

Given my itineraries, Jimmy tracked my far-flung exotic adventures. The era of globalization was a multi-decade safe2 enough-space for expansive travels often on my own. Big Apple chutzpah, a pinch of perspicacity, and a dash of daring were all useful – especially in India. After his death, I took J.S.J.’s cremates in a Kodachrome film canister to the Ganges. I transferred them into an elephant embossed water vessel for a ceremonial puja.

exotic bird elephant vase-2

AT VARANASI, a mulligatawny of ingredients was required. The puja was facilitated by jungly opportunistic priests issuing perfunctory chants. They dabbed a red third-eye on my forehead and launched me and my envesseled father onto a boat on the Ganges. Priests lobbed coconuts upon my father’s water-borne ashes amidst bathing pilgrims bobbing in-and-out of the filthy holy water. A vibrant kingfisher sat sentinel in the evening light on the prow as backlit butter votives floated downstream with dad’s ashes on their way to the Bay of Bengal. A squint was needed as tears welled up. Jimmy was a Raj scholar: I knew he was on his homecoming stream.

A squint has its uses in today’s shambolic world. Beyond all imagining: wars and rumors of war; climate catastrophes; famines, floods, fires; black holes, fake news; twisters and conflagrations; regressive cultural conspiracies; civil rights abuses, shape-shifting, pandemics; and performative shenanigans on a worldwide scale. When not wincing at the daily news, I find a squint helps. (Recently, someone castigated me for reading The New York Times.) So does maintaining engaged creativity in one’s image making shored up by right intention and salubrious spiritual perspectives. In photographic parlance, to squint is akin to an SLR camera lens with its F-ratio stopped down to achieve maximum depth-offield. With greater clarity near-and-far, a squint helps me achieve optical intimacy in world view. To squint between the storylines of awareness, one can glimpse the truly beautiful. Could be a striated crepuscule out a plane window or a warm childhood memory. Squinting at patches of my photographic past, I am grateful for the world-wind of my travels. By the time I was thirty, I’d been to over thirty countries on assignments including the entire Caribbean. On these and decades of ensuing global travels, I witnessed both the shadow-side of cultures and abundant beauty. I love the world 5 derived from an expanded sense- of-place and deepening sense-ofsoul. Theologian Saint Augustine believed that “Love is the beauty of the soul.”

AS A TWENTY-YEAR OLD rookie, I became the first woman on the Boston Globe photo staff. I early learned a principle of photojournalism: shoot three optical relationships. When engaging in a dynamic photo encounter, first, take the overall or establishing shots contextualizing where you are. Second, move in for medium exposures that engage you more directly with the unfolding story. Third, move in closer – perhaps with a wide-angle lens. Immerse yourself in optical intimacy. Don’t stand back: move in. Optical intimacy makes you more vulnerable to your subjects and circumstances. It’s a practice – a more visceral engagement. This strategy allows for honest connections and enables greater impact in images. Telephoto lenses keep you at a remove, like testosterone shots of bagging an eight-point buck over yonder.

Humanities educator and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams astonishes in her book, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World” (Pantheon, Random House.) Her interwoven narratives of creating mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, and the relocation of prairie dog communities by developers in Utah makes for a riveting squint read. In Morocco, I too, became enamored by mosaics.

Mosaic Video

Due to their behavioral plasticity, doesn’t take prairie dogs long to hole up in a new open lot. Challenging human coordinates, Tempest Williams affirms, “…living in the twenty-first century… We have no compass to reorient ourselves.” Seeking guidance from her inner GPS, she confesses, “I am looking for a way to vocalize, 6 perform, act out, and address the commonly felt crises of my time… These are spiritual exercises.” Tempest Williams laments “the dismemberment of territory.” So do I. Heartbreaking: reduced to rubble, devastated Ukraine brings to mind the ongoing desecration of classical civilizations. Ancient cultures mere historical footnotes: onetime popular destinations and natural attractions many of which I have visited. Far away exotic places became central to my unfolding career as a travel and decorative arts photographer. Years of field experience developed my Moral Imagination: the proprioceptive capacity to maintain peaceable equipoise in the quotidian mix of cultural life. And to absorb infusions of diverse spiritual practices, indigenous creative expressions and local ceremonial remembrances, and historical detritus that defies imagination.

Berlin Wall

Remembering the protruding rebar remains of the Berlin wall – like a modernist art installation was one such vision. The infrastructure of tortured ribs and riddled cement are memorials to Holocaust atrocities. Today’s craven Russian attack on Ukraine imprints horrific images of felled infrastructure. In Santa Fe, on a soft Sunday morning, I slid through a fence at a construction site near my home. As I approached my photo intention – like an art installation – a mountain of scrambled scrap metal startled sheltered birds. They exploded out from under. I was disoriented for a moment – squinting in the dust.

CULTIVATING MORAL IMAGINATION is key to orienting oneself in the world. It’s the signature work of John Paul Lederach, an American philosopher of international peacebuilding. I discovered his teaching at Santa Fe’s Upaya Zen Center. Developing Moral Imagination with a personal perspective engenders Right View as the Buddhists frame it. A visual artist can become an agent for peacebuilding. It’s about seeing things clearly. Right View is an integral part of the Eightfold Path. The basis of all Buddhist practice Right View, is about clarity. It’s not an abstract theory.

Lederach asserts, “The hardest challenge of peacebuilding is to see the essence. If you do nothing else, take time to get a picture, an image.” Impressions are core expressions of the Moral Imagination. Lederach has his teams write haiku because “a haiku must capture in a few words the complex fullness of a moment, a setting, or an experience.” Upaya Chaplain Carol Loftus Carrington views the practice of haiku “as embracing complexity through simplicity. Haiku suggests that intuition and lived experience are intricately connected.”

An occasional succinct photograph is adjacent to a haiku: an image of simplicity in the chaos of quotidian life. Peacebuiding as a photographer working in the diversity of cultures is a skill developed out of expansive lived experience. It’s about how we roll. I had one such experience – again in 10 India – at the Maha Kumbh Mela. The celebration is an overwhelming gathering of humanity – not for the homophobic. Millions of Indian pilgrims of all sects attend. The masses include tourists and journalists absorbed in the hordes. Speak about squinting in the dust.

In 2019, I attended the Maha Kumbh Mela, mother-of-allfestivals at Allahabad south of Benares. Dating from 644BC, Maha Kumbh Mela occurs every twelve years to commemorate the war for the Kumbh, the sacred pitcher, between gods and demons.

At the sangham, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythological Saraswati rivers, tribes convene to ablute in the holy waters. Most striking are the jungly buck-naked Naga Sadhus down from the Himalayas for their ceremonial dip, who run naked en masse into the swift currents. The naked dark-skinned bodies covered with ash, the Naga Sadhus eschew clothing as a symbol of renunciation. Everything swinging: prayer beads, dread locks, and massive marigold leis.

Staying at the Cox & Kings tented media camp above the mela fray, I sat at a long table for dinner with Sir Richard Attenborough and his film crew. At the crack of dawn, the Naga Sadhu’s gathered for their ablutions. I vectored in the wake of the BBC headed to the sangam. It was madness: think millions – not good for claustrophobes.

Considering multiple possibilities at the sangham, I worked my way to the fencing right up front. I saw a better angle to video from the opposite side of the path the sadhus would run down. I wended my way to the other side and tucked in next to a classic old Hindu man. Topped with a dirty-white meringue turban, his vast Gandhi-style khadi shawl flapped in the breeze.

As the Naga Sadhus readied for their bathing bid, foreign photographers began shooting frantically with telephoto lenses from the river-slope behind me. A spiritual event, photography was discouraged of the naked shivering sadhus. Press photos taken at the sangham of female bathers in revealing wet clingy saris became a kerfuffle in international news. The 2019 Khumba Mela garnered unparalleled global TV coverage. Hindus around the world took offense. Police showered rocks at photographers and smashed brand name cameras to the ground. Discreetly, I stationed myself amidst pilgrims along a fence line. Down slope, novitiate photojournalists and naive tourists slipped in poop, not knowing that riversides are often plain air loos in third world and developing countries.

I sidled up to the old Hindu man. He was in a ganja trance oblivious to me. His shawl flared over my video camera as I tucked under the fabric to protect myself from projectiles. Excited Naga Sadhus launched toward the water. I got off a couple minutes of video, then wiggled out-from-under and off scene. Squinting, my eyes blurred with dust, I wended my way back over a wobbly pontoon bridge across the holy river and ducked into the Hare Khrishna camp for lunch. Sitting on a long plank in silence, hundreds of pilgrims were doled a nourishing slop – often known as Buddha Bowl.

I passed a blasted sadhu who displayed his curled index finger nail grown grossly all his life. Another glassy-eyed guy stretched his penis long enough to wrap it around his neck like a boa. Not possible? That’s a squint for you!

Cognitive scientist Mark Johnson says, “Moral Imagination involves the envisioning of the full range of possibilities in a given situation. To solve ethical challenges, acting morally requires more than just strength of character.” The mela required social savvy, perspicacity, proprioception, vulnerability, photo skills – and stamina. A love and respect for humanity in all its manifestations. The mela inspired my Moral Imagination. The morass of humanity taught me lessons about peace, chaos, and beauty. It was a mashup. To be a solo photo pilgrim at the mela was an awesome undertaking.

American naturalist author Annie Dillard posited in “Pilgrim on Tinker Creek, “The least you can do is be there.”

With a squint, one can perceive beauty almost anywhere. Early in the Ukraine war, I stared glassy eyed at ghastly images on TV. Once, I spotted military vehicles rolling on a street in Kyiv. They were topped with bundles of white-fringed red roses. A fleeting display of beauty, rivetingly unexpected amidst the atrocities of war. Where the tanks headed for a mass burial site, the annual ceremony on the Maidan, Independence Square, or to a funeral ceremony?

There is, indeed, an annual Ukrainian Dutch Tulip Festival to honor the friendship between two countries. A florist in the Netherlands created a yellow-and-blue tulip to mirror the colors of the Ukrainian flag. It’s a white tulip with a split stem, one side dipped in each color. Several times, I’ve been on assignment in the Netherlands to photograph ravishing tulip fields and the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Talk about beauty. Might have guessed: veering on the abstract, my close-up and macro shots are my favorites. As a child, I poked my nose into my favorite flower in our garden: white peonies, fashionably fringed with pink. Given my childlike abstract imaginal mind, the fluffy efflorescent petals reminded me of a chicken’s bottom.

Once I asked Santa Fe artist Forest Moses, a Buddhist, “As you develop your spiritual practice, does your work become more abstract?” The unequivocal answer, “Yes.” For me, as I tired of capturing subject matter in the tradition travel manner, my work became increasingly abstract, as well. The intersection of form and color became more seductive to my eye than recording shots of tourist destinations. Images of ethnicity were no longer central to my cultural capture. Photo colonialism was no longer “on” for me.

floral arrangements

LATE FOR A DINNER PARTY, J.S.J. settles in fireside as he and I thumb The World Atlas. My mother Elizabeth Macy Jones was always stylishly turned out: better late than never. Focused on beauty, she taught me to cup my hand and squint to view more distinctly a butterfly on a rose blossom across the lawn. A free-form flower arranger, we had blousy floral arrangements of daffodils, forsythia, peonies, wisteria, iris and counterbalanced grasses on every available surface – all worthy of Impressionist paintings. Soulful scents wafted ambient throughout the house.

Whether photographing hell or horticulture, I find a sense-ofsoul and increasing felt-connection with photo subjects the closer I allow myself to be. Practicing optical intimacy: I agree with Terry Tempest Williams, “These are spiritual exercises.”

The question is, What can we learn about ourselves through the practice of photography – whether with a high-end SLR, video or the latest smart phone? Is a photograph – any photo – really a selfportrait? Master photographers throughout the history of lens-based image making thought so. But we may have to squint to view a soul-sense of connection. See between the lines until the aperture of my mind’s eye opens wide. Keep on seeing reality – including beauty – up close and personal. Don’t let fear control distance to experience – even if you have to squint, even wince.

I winced when paging through The New Yorker Portfolio “A Harrowed Land” by renown American photojournalist James Nachtwey. (The New Yorker, May 9, 2022). Most of the appalling images had his signature perspective: low, close up, and wideangle. It’s a Nachtwey style. Right view: capturing subjects as they are – not using a lens as shield.

Nachtwey is a photojournalist, a war photographer. He has been awarded the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal five times and two World Press Photo awards. His mentor, celebrated war photojournalist Robert Capa affirmed, “If your pictures aren’t strong enough, you’re not close enough.”

Lmotionally demanding: go for optical intimacy – even if you must wince or squint at horrific scenes. Remaining a daily news feed squinter at images from the ongoing war in Ukraine, each image is a split screen for me. I witness the horror – and the beauty of red tulips whizzing past atop a tank.

My emotional metronome pulses an arc from shock to heartbreak. Striving to maintain an upbeat tempo, my refrain is, “Creativity is the Best Revenge.”