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Category: Trinidad Society 02 Jul 06

 

I received an e-mail from a photojournalist whom I knew from my post student days in London. He has a cool name. Zed Nelson. I knew him as Zik.

 

I remembered I was enthralled by his unstoppable ambition, his seemingly insatiable need to witness, record and mirror everything quirky about human nature through his lens.

 

I didn’t know it then but I now think perhaps it was his way of understanding the world. If you capture human beings in black and white and colour, doing strange things and hold the image up against the light, then maybe it will go some way in unravelling the mystery of why they do what they do.

 

Now here he was, 18 years later writing to me asking for a stamp of Wendy Fitzwilliam.

 

I did what you do with people you have known in the past. Googled him. I learned he was now an award-winning journalist who worked with Time Magazine. He had published a book, Gun Nation, to wide acclaim and awards.

 

One review read: “This hard-hitting visual essay, shot throughout the United States over a three-year period, shows how deeply guns are ingrained in the American way of life. Haunting photographs of ordinary people living ordinary lives reveal a world where firearms have become as American as apple pie, where Magnums and Uzis replace pitchforks and bibles as national symbols of freedom; here large sectors of society are as naked without their weapons as they’d be without their cars.”

 

We all edit our lives in some way. We all have blind spots. We don’t see ourselves clearly. But artists force us to. And as a photojournalist Zed forced Americans to acknowledge that the menace of a gun had penetrated the American dream.

 

He wrote: “I really want to photograph the stamp for my Beauty Project about cultural obsession with youth and beauty. Is it easy to find this stamp, as mentioned in the extract below?”

 

Isolated Statement

 

The “extract” read like this:

 

“The 1998 winner of Miss Universe was Wendy Fitzwilliam, a law student from Trinidad and Tobago, and has become a national heroine. She appears on postage stamps and has a street, a city park, and a hospital wing after her, this in a country whose most famous writer, the Nobel Prize winner Sir VS Naipaul, (has) been accorded no such honour.”

 

This bald detached description of us was startling.

 

It made me feel as if we Trinidadians and what we represent are simply one of Zeds “subjects,” worthy of mention because we are just that, strange.

 

But that isolated statement hit me hard because it didn’t pretend to have any deep understanding of our steaming complex society, didn’t have an agenda, but was the simple truth as the world saw us.

 

And that truth was sad.

 

Wendy is great. Wendy is a strong professional role model. Wendy is a beauty queen with fantastic genetics. If she were a hunch-backed she wouldn’t have been famous for her law degree or her strength of character. We like her because she’s beautiful.

 

But you can’t compare what you absorb from a book, with what you absorb from a photo of a beauty queen. You can’t compare Nobel Laureates Derek Walcott and Sir Vidia Naipaul, and CLR James, Sam Selvon, Earl Lovelace, with Miss Trinidad and Tobago, Miss World or Miss Universe.

 

Because great writers force us confront ourselves, to expand our minds, to discover endless worlds in a way a bikini never can. They allow us, as do photographers, to see ourselves as we really are, to discover our commonality with people in continents everywhere from a slum in Calcutta to a sleek street in Belgium. Books reflect our particular beauty, menace and horror.

 

I fear that microscopic gaze on us. Fear that it will find us vacuous, lightweight, and illiterate, because that is not what we are at all. Not at all.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur