Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Lumped {a breathe post}

He stood in front of me, half naked, blue jeans and a belt his only visible articles of clothing.  "My name is Tarzan," he stated.  "Or at least that's what they call me on the street."  He opened his arms wide, presenting his unshirted, long haired self while his eyebrows raised playfully, as if saying "see why?"  He did look like a modern day Tarzan! He grinned, showing a smile with missing teeth.  He was covered in tattoos, all of them with a Native American theme.

So I asked.  Each line of ink that painted his body told a story of connection to the Native American culture.  His lips elaborated on the images.  Born half Native American, he was adopted by a white family when he was three.  Then he got quiet and a huge gap in his story fell silent into an abyss with the grimace on his face.  He simply stood before me now - a man decorated with a history, but with no home.

I explained I was there as a photographer trying to tell a bit of the story of the incredibly diverse Uptown neighborhood of Denver.  The diversity includes a huge spectrum - beautiful housing and folks sleeping in doorways, those dressed in rags and those in business suits, a huge high rise financial center and the benches out front of it providing seating for the homeless, Tarzan being one of them.

I asked Tarzan if I could take his picture.  He said yes and posed for me like he ruled the jungle!  A funny thing happened next.  He thanked me for taking his picture.  Then he asked me, as part of my storytelling, to tell people that not everyone who is homeless is a drug addict.

His comment struck me and sent my brain searching for a memory from three months previous.  I was in the back of a charter bus in Palestine, heading toward Jerusalem.  Beside me sat two beautiful women - both Palestinian - fellow humans on the bus and guests at a luncheon we were headed to.  I asked them also, about the items they carried.  This time it was not ink on their skin, but ink on pieces of paper.  A story spilled out.  These lines of ink spelled out a rare permission of movement for them. They held in their hands travel papers. Though only a few short miles from Jerusalem, they were rarely allowed to travel there, and when they were, they usually had to endure long hours and dehumanizing treatment at checkpoints.  Their lives limited in movement by an occupying army.  I asked to take a picture, to which they too said yes...and asked me, as part of my storytelling to send a message.  Tell people that not everyone who is Palestinian is a terrorist.

(blurred to protect identity)

There it was again.  A protest against a thick, heavy, invisible formula.  Against a sinister systematic categorization.  Each of these humans was part of a group who gets lumped.  Lumped altogether with labels - usually derogatory - inflicted by other humans.  Lumped into a nameless, personless, featureless group whose only defining qualities are repulsive, and therefore justifiably appropriate to be dismissed and avoided.  And each of these individuals let out a desperate cry against the faceless process of lumping.  They said yes...take my picture.  See me!  They said is my story written in ink.  Hear me!  They said yes...I have a message for those who would lump me.  Just listen to me!

My heart is saddened.  We live in a world that lumps.  Our political candidates lump; our leaders lump; nations lump other nations.  We lump based on the pigment of our skin or the size of our bodies or by the homes we live in.  Even as I have compassion on the people in these "lumpy" stories, I know my propensity to lump others into boxes to avoid them or feel superior to them.  We are full of this lumping and the practice runs like wildfire among us...and it's killing us.

Oh, may we be willing to admit how "lumpy" we've become and choose to see detailed faces emerge from the lumped masses.  May we ask them to tell us a story and may listening to those stories begin to extinguish our deeply ingrained lumping processes.

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