When you travel, particularly if you take photographs and take note of the people and places you visit, it is easy to see your relationship with foreign places and people as being one where you are on the outside looking in. That is not necessarily the whole truth about the nature and consequences of the transaction.
Although I spent many weeks traveling in Central America in 1973 – and with a companion who also carried a valuable camera – there is not a single photograph of me among those remaining from the journey. (There might have been a couple taken, but my companion lost his complete film record from atop a Volkswagen Beetle during a move within a year of returning to Memphis.)
I certainly took no self-portraits, nor did I ask a local inhabitant or a fellow traveler to take a photograph of me standing before an important cultural site. (I wish I had asked.) Therefore, initially, I viewed myself as being on the outside looking in on a culture, observing differences that were supposed to be foreign to me, but never viewing myself as part of the picture.
In time, however, in a slowly revelatory way reminiscent of the movie Blowup, when I enlarged and studied the people frozen in my photographs, I began to see that my subjects were observing me, too. In fact, in a deeply reflective exercise, I saw that I was observing myself, along with my hosts, through the act of photography. Going further in this exercise, in terms of both my photographs and my notes, I came to see the trip as a flushing and fleshing out of identity – a transformative journey made by watching myself in a foreign context, where the context, even if at times a caustic compound of heat, grime, privation, isolation, exoticism, and tedium, was both a stimulate and a healing aid toward a path of personal resolution.
The details of that resolution are grainy now as then, but the process and conclusions are clearer. A photographic image of ourselves in distant places offers little insight, though it can be a pleasure and a mile post to others who know us. The impression that we project and recall, at home and abroad, in our commerce with matters foreign is the souvenir that gives and endures.
I see nothing in my old photographs that render my image as a traveler as intrusive or unwelcome, as beggarly or greedy, as uninterested or mean. By traveling, I took a part of my culture to my hosts and they pointed me home again by being themselves, uninhibited and unthreatened by my presence.
The ancient Greeks had it down to a tittle: our duty as hosts and sojourners, at home and abroad, is kindness to strangers from afar who are on the road with us. As visitors, we owe it to pay our way by sharing, demanding little, and leaving a small footprint – and by fair observation, remembrance, and gratitude.
When we notice an immigrant – if indeed we are privileged to do so – we tend to see an outsider looking in. But the immigrant is a conduit for our seeing a foreign culture, for our seeing potential for ourselves. We are then on the inside looking out along with the visitor – or we should be, if we intend to reap full advantage of our being graced by a visitor who wants to be part of us – who wants to learn and mimic our ways while among us.
The odd man out, then, is not the man who is left out of the picture. He is the man who neglects the essentials of his own survival by failing to behold the foreign, by failing to wisely seize and invest impressions of a predictably surprising world full of shooting stars and common wonders.
My photographs, journals, and musings from this travel are an open door on a perplexing, perilous, marvelous, and vulnerable world. Despite its plainness, it is a view of ceaseless bewilderment in the presence of bountiful variety and inevitable similarity.
The foreign is among us constantly. We stand unfulfilled if we do not embrace it as our own while allowing it to be foreign and itself. Foreign to none, all is foreign. Foreign to much, much is freshly familiar – the necessary spur to our ascent.