My book begins like this….
DATELINE: PANAMA CITY
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23
“What do Americans think about the canal?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “What do you mean you don’t know?” he asked with agitation blossoming from the face that was so friendly moments before. “I’m forty-one-years-old and I’ve never had a conversation about the canal,” I said. The face of the street barber in front of me slowly morphed from agitation to despair. This is Panama. “The Crossroads of the World,” yet nearly forgotten, rarely discussed, a footnote in the engineering books cluttering the shelves of heavy equipment makers from Europe to Asia.
Beyond the facade of a world class skyline lies the decay of what only a jungle can provide. Every moment, every breath, every backdoor business deal sucked in and out through the filter of the green blanket just over the hill. Cut it, burn it or flood it and it just keeps coming back. Who really owns Panama? La Jungla.
There is money here, lots of money. The Chavez regime of the neighboring Venezuela has assured Panama of that, but personal shoppers of the Panamanian elite still work the streets of Miami. Panama is worth a look but art comes from America.
And yet under this unique existence of global, economic and maritime positioning, the people of Panama remain. Frustrated yet resilient and proud, Panamanians look toward a future of expansion while longing for respect for their past.
I f****** love it here.
Once again the palette of Panama falls upon the world, and once again nobody seems to notice. The Panama Canal Expansion Project churns like an inland tsunami, disposing so much of our sacred Earth it will change the entire ecosystem of the region. Every single person who reads this post will be impacted by this project, and yet nobody seems to notice. We are busy. Former Panamanian President Martín Torrijos formally proposed the project on 24 April 2006, saying it would transform Panama into a First World country. We will see about that. This post isn’t a history lesson or window into the future. This post is about the past, about my time in Panama, however brief, and what it felt like to be there. I want you inside my head for no reason at all.
There were a million reasons not to go. There always are. Too little vacation time. No story. No realistic ability to accomplish anything in the allotted time. But in the end it was inevitable. Photographers do that to themselves. They make things inevitable. “Something will work out, make sense,” I told myself. After all, this is why I picked up a camera all those years ago. To explore the far reaches of the world. To walk that one extra block. To see what was around the corner and get my boots dusty or bloody. “Where are you going?” a friend asked. “Panama.” “Panama….why?” That’s why. Because I knew a total of three people who went to Panama, one was born there and said she never wanted to go back. With this kind of love, how I could I NOT go.
Customs was customs. “What is the purpose of your visit?” “Not entirely sure.” Jokes never work in customs because regulated life is crawling so, so slow and the molasses of the tropics adds to the downshift. The Tropics. The legacy of these places in the journalism and photography world is legendary. My mind flickers with Webb and his Hot Light, Half-Made Worlds.(Haiti) Luckily I have no intention of being Alex Webb, a guy I really admire, but my style isn’t his. In fact, I no longer know what my style is, and more importantly, I don’t care. You see this trip is the first unraveling of my photographic life.
Leica x 2, twenty rolls of Portra 400 and twenty rolls of TRI-X. 35mm. 50mm. Nothing else. I even debated the color. I knew I didn’t need it, but it’s a crutch…just so damn easy when the color bleeds from Panamanian society. Color is a lifeboat in a sea of chance and circumstance. Sails down, storm coming, the take dangerously thin and the color is your emergency beacon, snappy snap, a blue building, a crushed red can against the black Earth. Filler. This little photography game is an exercise in mental evasiveness. Sometimes speaking to another human being is torture. Just leave me alone and let me LOOK. I’m there, closer than I’ve ever been before, but at the same time I’m far away from it all. Mentally carrying on so many different conversations, so many potential outcomes. I find no peace in this, but I can’t stop doing it. This trip is about UNLEARNING photography. For me photography has become too polished, too hyper specialized and too saturated. Strategy and marketing have overpowered soul and much of what I see feels clinical. What I’m after is the snapshot. It sounds easy but it’s not. I think back to images my parents had from travels fifty years in the past and they resonate. On an entire trip they would make a half a roll or a roll of images total, each different, and each defining a moment, a place, or an important figure. The rest was allowed to be filled in by imagination. Now, NOTHING is left to good copy or imagination. It’s the photography full court press all the time. I find myself unable to consume it, nor do I have any interest in creating it any longer. I just want single images, a few at most, things that remind me of places, or smells or people.
Andrew and I hunt like White Sharks. He’s been here many, many times and is one of the reasons I’m here. A friend, but also a crutch, a short cut, but I have to be careful. You see at this time I was still a working photographer. Still a guy looking for a pickup game, shirts and skins of photography. Get in the game. Make a picture, promote a picture, sell a picture. Repeat. And there is no use crowding anyone. He knows, and he has his own agenda, but still it’s in and on my mind. He’s equally as F***** when it comes to the tropics, to this kind of work. Worse maybe because he’s so much closer to it all. We’ve done this long enough to know when the ingredients are right, when something you stumble into becomes a potential “best in show.” And then the great dissection begins. Nothing survives. Every single living thing gets cut up. Framed. Parted out and discarded. It’s there one second and gone the next and it’s never coming back. Get it through your skull. The shadow boxer punches himself out in the park, and minutes later he is down and stayed down.
We navigate debris, but human and artificial. There is something SO NICE about NOT working for anyone. Freedom. Complete and total freedom, but it comes with a cost. If you are the keeping score type then each and everyday is reduced to staring down at your exposed film. We both have clear bags, and each night, sometimes together and sometimes alone, this becomes our conversation. “Puro f***** oro,” we say to each other. “Pure Gold,” an ironic twist of a description in these parts. We find a restaurant we like, a place robbed at gunpoint during dinner a few months before, and we go every single night. Beer, steamed fish, rice, beer. At night we retreat to a high-rise in downtown Panama City where you look out a vertigo window at other, taller high-rises and I wonder why there are here. Who built them? With what money? Art projects and other high-profile architectural offerings dot the horizon, but in some ways feel entirely out of place. And out there on the horizon, stacked like dominos are the oil powered steel beasts. The reason why this place exists. Syringes filled with cargo, making the world go around. The ships. Comical in their size, filled with the best and the worst the world has to offer. Panama, ultimately, is a short cut.
The days are about making a plan, scouting, traffic and oppressive heat. Everything is wet. Changing rolls means holding the upside down Leica away from my body so the falling drops of sweat do not corrode the inner workings. Film left in pockets also feels wet when retrieved. We never escape the eyes of the jungle. The jungle here is always watching. Always. Sit in downtown watching banking officials make their short dashes between air conditioned towers and when I peer down, peaking through the cracks of the poorly formed sidewalk I see the jungle peaking back at me. Under me, next to me, sometimes over me and always in my dreams. We take a small boat upriver, and the jungle invades the waterway, flowing downstream in massive bundles, clogging the moving arteries like plaque. The boat slows, the motor is lifted and the hull slams into and over a sunken log used to keep the flowing jungle at bay. But it only works so well, and then the jungle laughs and comes over, under and around. By the end of the day there are cracks in my drenched, canvas boots and massive salt circles on the back of my shirt. Humans are the weak point here. Fragile and skittish.
The guide book says “If you go to “X” city the odds are good you will be kidnapped.” “Do NOT get out of your car.” We skirt the edges of town on our way north to find a more rural experience, rehashing and reliving a conversation from the previous night about a serial killer working the back country of Panama who killed a friend of friend. Simple decisions. Life and death. All running parallel. I think of another friend, someone I’m closer with, who was also nearly killed by a homicidal freak who liked to drug then burn his victims. It doesn’t seem that strange anymore, almost predictable in some ways. It’s not but it FEELS that way. It’s a distraction, something to pass the time on the road. The bus ahead of us has a Rambo mural on the back. Guns blazing. Diablas Rojas. Metallic machismo.
Green. Green and brown. Green and gray. Flickering color and rubble, distorted through rain covered windows. The rise and fall of a small engine. Water seen through blurred gaps in the jungle. And then the canal appears. It looks like it should look. It looks like it’s supposed to look. Like a knife wound through what once was. Brown. Covered in oil. Filled with things. There is something both magical and tragic about this thing, this cut in the continent. Many died to make it, and many will die in the future either expanding it, protecting it or attempting to take it over. We made it and now we live with the results. The Devil called “progress” has many faces.
Every thought begins with walking. There is no other way for people like me, like Andrew. We can’t make what we make from the safety of the room, or a hotel or anywhere else for that matter. We need the street. Walking, talking, watching, waiting and then pouncing on things that last for fractions of a second. What do I really see? How much have I learned to ignore? The deprogramming takes four days. Four days to forget everything I know in the world and just be. Be and see. I press and wind, press and wind, almost without feeling, until that moment comes and goes. That moment that leaves a mental residue, or scar. I know it’s there. I know I have it and my fingers drum the smooth sides of the film can in my pocket. I check it from time to time, making sure it’s still there, still safe because I know I NEED it. What’s on it is really the only thing that makes me worth the air I’m breathing. It’s my job I tell myself, to be here and to do this these silly things. Does any of it really matter? Something I’ve asked myself a thousand times over hoping the answer I convince myself is the truth actually is.
At times of weakness I allow outside thoughts to enter my brain. If I allow the crack to open too far death will become me, at least in the creative sense. I can’t be half-photographic. It’s all in, visual pink slips on the table and offered up for all to see. As a witness, or a storytelling, I am undressing a bit more each and every time I press the shutter, put pen to paper or slow and close my eyes to hear something the world has offered up just for me. I give myself up and in to what I know I can’t control. The word “soul” is tossed around in the world like confetti but it’s ever so hard to actually find. Even harder to capture or control. This is well worn territory, this land, this place, and I have to pay respects to those who came before. This is a “me” world now, but I fight to keep this really out. I am bloodied by it. I know it’s not about me. Not at all. Regardless of the game I must play for attention. Fool me once…fool me twice.
There are times I feel I can never go back. How does one become normal again? How does one forget these things are out there. There is always another bend in the river. A bridge to flow under or a fateful step to take. If not now then when? In a driving rain I hide in the shelter of a small building, massive, tropical drops obscure my view, turning the horizon into a fun house mirror. I am silent. Alone and not wanting to be anywhere else in the world. I watch the distance muffled beasts sit silently waiting their turn to pass. If I could disappear I would. I would turn and walk away. I would never look back.