Here is a quick look back on a few of my favorite images, thoughts and experiences from 2011.  This is part 1 from before I went to Africa.  I wasn’t doing much photography in the spring, and this post doesn’t include the many, many personal experiences with friends and family that were totally seminal to my work and my life.  That would make it a much, much longer post.  I have a vast and almost inexpressible gratitude for the support of my community of friends and my family.

This has been a bit of a crazy year, and it looking back over my images I realized how transformative it was for me. You’ll see the transformation from here to the end of the year, so here we go, starting in January…

I write poetry. I started several years back as a way to understand things in my life that needed words. I usually only share my poetry with a few close friends, but I’m going to include some in this post that are relevant to this year.  My poetry is pretty romantic and tends to be filled with night imagery. I love the night. Bear with me or skip past them, but they do say something about this last year.  In December my friend and fellow poet Paul had requested a poem about the eclipse that was happening on the winter solstice.  I didn’t finish it until the first of the year.  When I wrote it I didn’t realize that it would foreshadow the coming year a bit, since I would find myself seeing some of the vast range of the human condition as I started out on the ENEMIES Project.  Here it is…

solstice eclipse

Minute by minute, under the gaze of the waning moon, the dark burn of winter has turned and is falling away. Last year the night sky was shattered, and now the solstice moon is hiding, eclipsing in silence behind a thick ceiling of gently-lit clouds. In the distance a siren is wailing, but I hear only the dropping of minutes into an empty bowl. And now even that has stopped as the earth swings on her pendulum back toward another season of seasons and I hold on to keep from falling away into space where the broken pieces of older nights drift out beyond the pull of gravity. I see you moon, behind the clouds, I see you. I know you have hidden behind the earth this night for a moment of reprieve from the glaring gaze of the sun. The siren has faded, and the long night, once split and broken, is whole again. I know you are here even though you are shy and hiding. Somewhere tonight lovers are laying under you, and other poets, better than I, are writing words about you. Somewhere tonight people are killing others under your gaze and you hide from it all eclipsing behind clouds on this longest night. Perhaps if I had to watch both the lovers and the killers, the sated and the starving, I would hide as well. You don’t know that the night was broken and you don’t care that I will run through your touch once more, or that sometime again I will swim naked through a sparkling sea under your silken gaze. Now that this longest night has passed and you have hidden, I will still wonder about you when I am gazing across meadows of dancing fireflies, And you will caress me again without knowing.

Midway through January I was driving back to Austin from Salt Lake City when I passed this refinery.  The previous summer of 2010 I was photographing National Forest Roadless Areas that had been leased for oil, gas and coal – it was my last major work for my ROADLESS project.  On the way back to Austin I photographed a few refineries that I happened to pass by. I stopped to photograph them, because of the connection to the Roadless work.  The first refinery I photographed ended up in a show in California called Earth Through a Lens. I called this first image “Dante’s Refinery” – it is chilling and surreal – worth a look, but this one below was in New Mexico.  I saw it from the road, and when I drove up I noticed that it had been built around this little cemetery.  Also a completely surreal scene.

In a way, these refinery photographs were fitting images for the new year transition – they are refining the leftovers of old lives to power new ones, and I was just about to embark on a new project that would take my work into a totally different direction. Until last year, a great deal of my photography had been natural history.  It was an amalgam of my training in the arts and my work in the sciences. But several things were changing. I needed to get back to an art that was more purely expressive, and I had become obsessed with understanding how people step back from truly dark places. So while I was driving back to Austin I was making calls and starting to strategize for the ENEMIES project. The ENEMIES project was to be that first stepping stone towards moving my art.

The last couple months of 2010 I was a visiting artist at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana.  I worked on a few projects at the Bray including photographing the resident artists and their work. This all started out by photographing my friend Kevin who was a resident artist there.

Kevin Snipes at the Archie Bray Foundation

While at the Bray I also created a set of mixed media works that I called Fall of Man. These were a set of installations of ceramic torsos that I sculpted and then photographed inside an old abandoned brick factory while projecting images onto them.  I did these photographs the day before I left the Bray and only finished working on them when I returned to Austin.

Fall of Man #1, Archie Bray Foundation

It was at the Bray that I decided that I really needed to pursue my desire to push my work beyond photography, incorporate more media, and allow myself more expression.  In the past I’ve worked in glass, ceramics, drawing, sculpture and printing, and I wasn’t happy that my works had fossilized into one media. My time at the Bray was the start of this, and I spent hours sketching and sculpting. Towards the end of the year I became obsessed with the ideas behind the ENEMIES Project – conflict, peace, hate, forgiveness.  Right away I realized that  ENEMIES would have to be transitional – it would have several layers, a layer that is mostly documentary, and layers that get progressively more expressive, further from the lens, and more about my vision and experience.  It seemed to me that this might also be an interesting way to present art anyway – so that the pieces also show the process.  The photographs would be raw material – paint that I would go out and gather.

So back to 2011, as I was driving through New Mexico on my way back to Austin I got a call from the President of the US Institute of Peace. I had sent him an email message at the very beginning of the year. He was calling because he liked the idea of ENEMIES and encouraged me to seek collaborations with the Institute. Just after that call I got to Chaco Canyon. This felt like a major life step, so I climbed the cliffs above the ancient dwellings there and made this balance.  It was a small one, but it was my first balance of the year ( more balances here if you’re curious). Balances are a meditation for me and with this balance it felt like I was somehow making a connection with the past before I stepped off into the future. This was the day that really felt like my new years day.

Chaco Canyon balance

Back in Austin I spent most of my time trying to organize logistics for ENEMIES – figuring out how I could make it work and where I should go first.  This meant an immense amount of time on the phone and the computer, and very little time taking photographs or creating art.  Logistics take ages.

In the spring I started hanging out with some very fun new friends including Jean Krejca, a well-known caver. Jean took a few of us up in these hilarious little machines called “powered parachutes” (I’d call them flying mopeds). Too fun. This is still one of my favorite images from the year.  It made me want to start hang-gliding again.

Flying mopeds

Throughout this time I was on the phone a lot trying to do logistics for my trip to Africa.  I had decided that I would start ENEMIES in East Africa, because I had been invited to go to South Sudan with the US Institute of Peace.  At that time South Sudan wasn’t even a country yet – it would become one on July 9.  It seemed totally appropriate to start ENEMIES in the newest country in the world. A country that had endured forty years of civil war.

Just before I left for Africa I finished a music video project that I had shot at the end of 2010 in Helena, Montana for my friend Ryan Rebo. This video was shown in the Holter Art Museum in Helena, Montana this summer.  Here it is below.  Click on the little symbol in the bottom right corner to make it larger or go and see it here on youtube. It’s called the Lonely Scientist.

This is a bit of a snapshot picture, but I love it.  Barton Springs is one of the things that has kept me in Austin. I spent a lot of the spring and early summer there. I often went there at the end of the day and sat by the pool as the sun set.   It is a place of community and healing for me.  This photograph was from the night before I left for Africa to start the ENEMIES project.  I met there with a few of my closest friends to say goodbye.

Barton Springs, Austin, TX

That day a friend from my community at the springs gave me an idea and a piece of string, which I soaked in the pool right where you see this picture, cut in half and tied half to my ankle and half to one of the trees next to the pool. This was my connection to home when I left for the ENEMIES project in Africa.

Next stop, Africa…

My foot with my tie to home, and the foot of a Samburu man in northern Kenya.