I was on assignment for Smithsonian Magazine, shooting a story about the restoration of Versailles after storms had severely damaged many of the gardens. That was the bad news – I was going to be shooting damaged beauty. The good news was that a lot of work and money had been infused into the gardens of Versailles after they had been neglected for years – some gardens had been gated with no entry.
I consider myself as a people photographer so photographing gardens wasn’t exactly in my wheelhouse but the magazine editor must have seen something in me that I didn’t. After seeing dozens of uprooted trees, I asked the head gardener if he would pose for a portrait. He obliged and his body language said it all. He was confident – in control – and was restoring the beauty.
It’s not often that one gets to see to behind the scenes of a place but I did at Versailles that day. It will be a day I won’t forget.
Out of the blue, on a lonely stretch of road, a car slowed to a stop and the driver rolled down the window and yelled out “there are no secrets on Easter Island”. I was on assignment on the island and I was shooting a portrait of this Rapanui man in a very remote spot on the island which was is one of the most remote places in the world. It was also mysterious and a wonderful place for exploration and photography.
One night I attended an indigenous dance performance. It was exhilarating and alive with sexual energy capturing the primal spirit of the people. I knew immediately that I wanted to photograph him with the barren environment of the island in the background.
He agreed and we set up a time and place. He drove up on a scooter sans makeup and tribal dress and proceeded to strip down naked in the middle of the road using the mirror of our car to apply his makeup. The shoot was memorable and what I remember the most was the fierce wind that was blowing and the engaging spirit of this man. His eyes tell the story and secrets of this mystical island.
Gail Mooney is an award-winning photographer and storyteller.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had numerous experiences where things I’ve done in the past have resurfaced in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Last week blues musician Willie “Big Eyes” Smith passed away. He was one of the only two Delta blues musicians still living who had been part of my first short documentary The Delta Bluesmen. That same week, I had a photograph hanging in an exhibit by the Copyright Alliance, Recording Our History: Faces Behind the Camera, in the Senate building rotunda in our nation’s capitol. It was a portrait of blues drummer Sam Carr, who I had photographed and interviewed for that same project, over ten years ago.
I knew if Sam were alive he would have been humbled and honored,
as was I, to have his portrait displayed in such a historic setting. I couldn’t help but “feel” proud at that moment in time. Sure, I felt proud of myself and Sam but I also felt a sense of pride to live in a country where I could still freely walk the halls of the Senate building, past the offices of the powerful of today and the ghosts from yesterday. I didn’t expect to feel that way. I was surprised and comforted that we still have this kind of access to our representatives.
It got me thinking about the trip I took last summer with my daughter when we left the country for 99 days, shooting Opening Our Eyes. We had circled the globe and had visited countries that crossed the spectrum politically, economically and socially. Our journey truly did open our eyes and when we returned to the U.S., it was a big adjustment. What hit me most was that everyone needed to be right, especially in Washington DC. I couldn’t watch TV for months because all I saw was 500 channels of “experts” pontificating and no one was getting anywhere. Worse yet, we all suffer. I remember a time, when I was growing up during the Kennedy era and we asked what we could do for others, instead of what we could “gain” for ourselves.
It’s a year later and I still don’t watch much TV. I’ve found myself absorbed back into the “culture” of America. But as I walked through those venerable halls of the Senate building, I was reminded of my purpose. I’m a storyteller. I voice the stories of people like Sam Carr so that future generations will remember the way things used to be. History gives us perspective and we can learn from it – or not. Without perspective – we can’t remain free.