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When a Photo Means Much More Than a Thousand Words

by Scott Hartman Nov 19, 2013

The tangled historical roots of the idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words” begin with the 6th-century BC Chinese sage Confucius and end with the 20th-century American advertising guru Frederick R. Barnard. Where the idea began is less important than that it survives.

In meditation this morning I was reminded of the moment between breaths. It is short, seldom conscious. It is in that moment that the archer releases his arrow. It is the moment when decisions are, not made, but personally ratified. It is a moment of conception.

I have been living with this photograph for 25 years. Today I took it off the wall. Held it in my hands. Closed my eyes. And listened.

I saw my father for the last time at the end of a five-day father-son trip down the Rogue River in Oregon. In a week I would be leaving for a six-month journey through Asia. He was sitting behind the wheel of my truck. He’d drive it to California for me and I’d pick it up when I got home. Looking at me from across the parking lot, he had tears running down his face, splitting around his moustache, losing themselves in his grey beard. I inhaled to capture the moment. Exhaled and he was gone.

I skipped through Asia like a stone across water:

Taipei > Singapore > Jakarta > Yogyakarta (where I called my father, asking about the earthquake and my sister Susan in San Francisco, where I said the last thing I would say to him: I love you) > Borobudur > Probolinggo > Bromo > Bali > Denpasar > Ubud > Singapore > Kuala Lumpur > Bangkok > Calcutta

With the retrospect that only 25 years can give, I skipped as if there were someplace else I had to be, as if a day mattered. I sank into Varanasi — the City of Light, the City of Death — into the chaos and catharsis that is India.

I began going to the Ganges before sunrise. Not a hint of light in the east. Stars still in the sky, the streets filled only with the sweet mist of boiling chai and acrid smoke from Manikarnika, the burning ghat, mingling under the cold hands of morning. I preferred dawn’s litany of muffled chants to the profane exclamation of sunrise. The moment the sun broke the horizon I began to walk back.

Long before I took the picture I saw it. Saw its parts spilled randomly before me: the man, the orange light from above on the river, flowing into him.

As the train jerked into motion, a voice inside me said that I was “going the wrong way.”

I reached for the camera loaded with Kodachrome 64 from around my neck. I wanted the reds and oranges, the deep blacks, no grain. As I approached I pre-set the f-stop and shutter speed. Only when everything was lined up did I focus. I exposed one frame then exhaled. As I did the saddhu turned in profile and the moment was gone.

Ten days later I began to skip again, west across the subcontinent:

Delhi > Amritsar > the Golden Temple > Wagah > Lahore > Islamabad (where a letter from my father was waiting for me. He was a man of few words, and these, rarer still: “You are a worthy citizen of the world who I am proud to know . . . I love you.”)

With my friends Joe and Maureen — teachers at the International School in Islamabad — I traveled south to Bahawalpur, hitched a ride on the back bumper of a UN Land Rover into the Thar Desert, to the oasis, fort, and mosque of Derawar. Quetta for New Year’s and an offer to drive a van back to Islamabad.

I spent the last night of my six-day drive in the town of Mianwali. The van was a metaphor-mirror of myself: front shocks gone, a four-foot dent from a run-in with a Bedford, countless police searches for drugs, the dent of an AK-47 butt pounded against the side panel; the indelible psychic contusion of the town of Sukkur, the open flames, bodies in the street (the tally would reach 247) from the train crash; and The Dream.

I don’t dream. I know, I know, we all dream, but I’m experiential; if I don’t remember it, it didn’t happen (my brother-in-law’s bachelor party being the exception, there are photos.) Before finishing the drive I wrote in my journal:

I am standing alone in a Tibetan-style guesthouse, on top of a volcanic peak; in all directions, a barren, lifeless landscape. At the base of the peak a semi-circle of chocolate-brown-river surging from left to right and disappearing around a corner. Five boats floated into view, one came to shore, the rest continued downstream.

The single occupant of that boat — a balding, middle-aged man with a close-cropped grey beard and moustache — walked up the hill, into the guesthouse and in to me.

Five days later at Rawalpindi Station, on the train again, again to Peshawar, to meet again with the man who could take me into Afghanistan. As the train jerked into motion, a voice inside me said that I was “going the wrong way.”

Back in Islamabad (Afghanistan had failed. The Russians were pulling out and Kandahar was ablaze.), my visa expired the next day. The next morning I would leave for India, off the radar again, unreachable for the next three months. The phone rang. Joe answered. It was my mother. She asked me if I was sitting down; before I could, she told me that my father had died.

In April I was rowing a raft through the Grand Canyon. Knee-deep in the river, alone and in tears, I looked across the top of my own moustache and knew that I was seeing with my father’s eyes.

Six months later I was in a simple pine cabin at 7000ft, three hours outside and above Moab, Utah. Much of the external dust had settled. I was writing about Asia, to clean up some internal dust. Reading my diary I came to the drive through Pakistan, to that forgotten Dream. I finished, sat up straight, left the cabin and walked from day into night.

The day I had The Dream is the day my father died.

Some people say this isn’t my best photograph. Perhaps. It’s not for me to say. Maybe it’s saying something that only I can hear.

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