Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mark Estes, Photographer "Witnessing Suffering and Beauty"

Mark Estes

"My purpose . . . is to witness suffering and beauty."

Meet Mark Estes, a photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, California U.S.A.

Mark Estes is known for his intimate and tender portraits of people, including the Dalai Lama.

Estes also frequently focuses his camera lens on critically-ill patients in hospitals. His work shows the strength of the spirit, transcending the vulnerabilities of the physical body.

all photos courtesy of Mark Estes

Estes recently announced that he has enrolled in studies to become an interfaith minister, with the goal of working as a chaplain in hospices and hospitals to provide spiritual care for the critically ill, the dying and their families.

I was curious about what led him to change the course of his career.

What will it mean for him as an artist, and how will he integrate a life of art, creativity, spirituality and service?

Here are some highlights of our recent conversation (my questions and comments are in blue text):

Tell me, how did you get into this newfound direction?

Well, it all started about 2001. I'd been working as a photographer, and I went to see the Sebastiao Salgado photo exhibition at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. It was a black and white photo documentary series called Migrations where he had photographed people in transition, usually forced migration as a result of famine, war, economic situations.

I was so disturbed by the suffering that I saw in that photography show, that I couldn't just leave the museum and go out and have a nice Sunday afternoon lunch with my friends and forget about it.

There used to be a bumper sticker that said "Think Globally, Act Locally." I just started looking around for how I was going to take action to help relieve some suffering, and I found out about the AIDS/LifeCycle Benefit Bike Ride, 600 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles, to benefit the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

I've done that for six years now, and raised over $40K for the AIDS Foundation.

My second year [of the AIDS Ride], when I ended up in L.A. after a physically exhausting seven days, I read an article on the front page of The Los Angeles Times written by two hospice nurses [Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley]. They had written a book called Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications with the Dying, and it resonated with me . . . so I got trained as a hospice volunteer.

I worked with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photographing children in neo-natal intensive care units to assist their families with the grieving.

Last May, my father died in Texas, and I had the opportunity to be with him for the last two months of his life in hospice. And I got to see what hospice was like on the other side of the bed, so to speak, the other side of the room, being ministered to. And I knew that that was the indication for me, that I saw what ministry could be.

I'm not a religious person, and my beliefs in God are not the normal Western views of God, but it became very clear to me that as a chaplain in hospice or hospital, I could go anywhere--that a suffering person, whether Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu or Atheist, I could go there with them.

And so that's what led me to check out the Chaplaincy Institute for the Arts and Interfaith Ministries.

photo by Mark Estes

What's the definition of a chaplain, versus a minister?

A chaplain is a minister . . . who, many people think of as a minister in the military. However, it's a much wider field. The history of chaplaincy was that they were out in war zones and ministering to people out in the battlefield. So it just carried over to being out in the field of wherever people are suffering.

 Tikkun Olam, Everything is Broken, Heal the World
 painting by Mark Estes

Tikkun Olam means "repairing the world."

Tell me a little about your studies, how is that going?

That's my most recent painting. It's one of the things that I'm doing in seminary. You know, it's the Chaplaincy Institute for the Arts and Interfaith Ministries. So, we're using photography and music and dance and trance and painting, and things like that.

This was my visual performance sermon in the module on Judaism. And this expression is my interpretation of the Kabbalistic Jewish term Tikkun Olam.

Tikkun Olam means "repairing the world."

Instead of doing an oral presentation and sermon to my class and my teachers, I did a painting where I had 20 hours of preparation work, meditating on and thinking about this concept, Tikkun Olam, and then I let it go, and performed this Abstract Expressionistic painting, as my way of relating to Jews.

So many of the Abstract Expressionistic artists in the New York School back in the 50s and 60s . . . were Jews. It was one of the ways that they dealt with their own suffering, a lot of it as a result of leftover scars from the Holocaust. And so, the emotions of the paint being splattered and non-figurative, became a true expression of their souls and their hearts.

You've been at the Chaplaincy Institute for how long now?

I'm 6 months into it, and have plans to be ordained as an interfaith minister in the spring of 2013. At that point I will go on to focus on healthcare, hospice and hospital work, and I'll do a one year long residency . . . then I'll go ahead and apply for jobs at hospitals.

. . . My ministry, or my artistic life, (I consider the chaplaincy work to be artistic), it'll be split between working with the dying and the people who are very ill, and the creativity of art or photography, encouraging people to be as creative as possible.

 photo by Mark Estes

Your photography, is this separate from your chaplaincy, or are you trying to integrate the two?

Well, there are times where I'll be able to integrate photography and art into the chaplaincy, like this painting behind me is a sermon to illustrate a theme, but it also could be used in an art therapy way.

Many times patients in hospitals can't communicate very well, and if they're in distress I could say, "Can you draw me a picture of how you're feeling?" And also, one of the founders of the Chaplaincy Institute uses art with children to relieve pain. . . .
I consider chaplaincy to be an art as well . . . it takes creativity and spontaneity, and just like an Abstract Expressionistic painting, you can't really plan it out, you have to feel what's going on in the moment. 

And that's one of the main things I learn in chaplaincy, especially from the Zen hospice training, the Buddhist perspective, dealing with people who are dying, is, "don't try to be too helpful", and that is, don't try to put words in their mouth, or concepts that I want them to understand. Listen to what they really want, and find a way to assist them on that path so that it's 100% their agenda, and I am trying to empower them to do that, go on that path.

I just can't help but feel that this is really difficult work that you're doing. I mean, it's the most difficult transition for the person who's dying, for their family members, their friends. How do you deal with that?

Well, it's a challenging situation. I talk to more people that say, "How can you do that? How can you be around pain and suffering all the time?" and it's one of these situations that comes from a place of compassion. . . .

I do feel a calling, something inside me, and something outside of me that leads me to a place where I cannot walk away from someone who's grieving.

And that takes a lot of open-heartedness, to be able to give in those situations, and it takes a lot of emotional and spiritual maintenance and management on my part. . . .

That's why I use a community of support--fellow students, in this case, fellow ministers. I also work with a spiritual director, which could be parallel to a life coach, except focused on psychology and spiritual practice, as a way of checking in and maintaining my spiritual, emotional, mental health while I go along up to my neck in grief or sorrow or sadness.

But I'm willing to go there.

I would not feel good about my life if I got to the end of my life, and didn't pay attention to the people that were asking for help in whatever way they're asking for it.

I came up with a phrase that described my life, values and purpose, and that is "to witness suffering and beauty".
So that's how art, and hospice and hospital work all come together.


 photo by Mark Estes

So again, it all goes back to my whole theme of "witnessing suffering and beauty."

It's a life purpose, I feel like I have to do both.
I feel like I have to create beauty, and encourage creativity . . . but I also have to equally--to feel like my purpose is being fulfilled . . . be with the suffering.

And there actually is beauty in that sometimes. I've been in situations where people are dying and have died, and I do see beauty there. And I'm grateful that I can see beauty there too, as sad as it is.

I think it's very courageous work. I'm glad there are people like you who are willing to go there for other people who need that kind of support.

There are a lot of outstanding, amazing people . . . in the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep organization I volunteer and coordinate and photograph for.

People who are absolutely willing to go to the room of a child who's being taken off life support and . . . they feel and see the importance of the moment. And they just don't hesitate to go and get there and get right down with it, and be with it, because, well those parents sure have to.


Can you tell me more about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is . . . an all volunteer organization, offering [photography] services, usually through social workers and medical teams at neo-natal intensive care units or labor and delivery units at hospitals around the world.

If there is a family need, unexpected stillbirth, or a baby that is born with illness . . . and is not expected to live, we get a call at the family's request through the medical team and arrange to go there and photograph the children, most of the time it's after they've died, and we do family portraits.

The other half of the people really want the pictures done while the child is still alive, even if there are a lot of medical equipment and machinery around and attached, and it makes it quite challenging to get a good photograph. 

That's just as valuable a form of witnessing the life, no matter how short.

In addition to photographing cases in hospitals here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'm the area coordinator. When I get a call . . . I put out the word to my photographers, and do everything I can . . . to help the family.

And how long have you been involved with this?

I've been involved for 3 1/2 years. . . . It continues to be an affirmation that it is a great way for me to use my photography and my compassion skills at the same time.

As a photographer, you're always . . . trying to show the spirit of the person in your portraiture work. What are the similarities of working with people as a photographer, and working with them as a minister?

Many years ago, I came across a book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. It's a 12-step model for artists creating from a spiritual perspective.

As a result of that, I began a daily practice called "The Artist's Prayer". Every morning, I do a prayer, and it starts off: "May the creative power of the universe flow through me." And I feel like, when I ask to be the most spiritually-inspired or directed artist, I include being a minister . . . in that creative practice.

One of the things that happens when I am creating a portrait of someone [is] they may never have met me, and part of my job, and part of my talent, is to be able to create an instant sense of familiarity.

How can I relate to them, within 30 seconds of meeting them, that's going to be able to put them at ease, have them feel confident in my skills of creating a portrait, and to be able to talk to them, and put them in the best light possible?

I don't make pictures of people, I make pictures with people. I'm not a picture-taker, I'm a picture-maker-with these people, and it's a two-way street. And it's a collaboration.

The same thing is true when I walk into a hospital room. In 30 seconds, I get to create an instant sense of familiarity, I get to walk into the most intimate moments in people's lives, I get to establish a trust and a rapport, so that they will collaborate with me.

So that's one of the biggest similarities to me, is that it also takes creativity, thinking on your feet, seeing something, hearing something, feeling something in the person's body language, in their eyes, in the way they communicate, in the way they behave.

Being able to go where the emotion and the collaboration leads you is as important in portrait photography as it is in working with people in the hospital, or in the hospice, or on the street.

 The Dalai Lama
photo by Mark Estes

I consider my black and white portrait of the Dalai Lama
to be the best portrait I've ever done.

I know that you've had some very well known portrait subjects, and there is one that I'm very curious about, and that is the Dalai Lama. Anything you'd like to share about photographing the Dalai Lama?

I think his description of himself as "a simple monk" is probably pretty true. That's the way he acts.

I got a chance to do one of the most powerful photographs of him in a very non-typical pose for him. Usually he's smiling very big, but . . . he was hearing people talk about the homeless on the streets of San Francisco, and he was very concerned.

I've had a chance to photograph him three times, the last three visits to the San Francisco area.

I've seen him consistently teach and give attention to people, whether they're the people walking by in the audience, or if he's in a special small meeting with Mark Zuckerberg or . . . famous doctors or celebrities.

He's also very silly! And he likes to play and laugh, and make funny gestures, and so it's always a lot of fun, you never know what's going to happen. And he's never pretentious.

 photo by Mark Estes

Is moving forward in this new direction changing the way you do photography?

Yes, my intention all along is to still remain a professional photographer. 

However . . . I'm looking to change my business model where I am finding the people who appreciate high quality photography. . . . It could be private commissions for people who want portraits. . . . It could be advertising agencies . . . looking for something that is real, more personal; and it could be fine art.

I'm looking at doing some sculptural photography, and things that move, and are 3-dimensional, with photography as well. Also, I'm looking at doing moving portraits, that is, video still-lifes. A contradiction in terms.

What's a video still life?

Do you remember ever seeing a movie called Koyaanisqatsi? It was a movie that was a documentary in time lapse photography.

Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word that means "life out of balance" and the film through time lapse photography showed beautiful nature scenes all through the world, with a soundtrack by Philip Glass, then it slowly moved into decay and deterioration of urban cities.

Many times, they would focus in on a person, and you wouldn't really know if it was a still life photograph of the person, or if it was a real life shot of the person until you saw in slow motion that their eyes blinked very slowly or their head moved or you saw their breathing, the rise and fall of the chest.

My idea is to do portraits, 20-second long portraits, where I use video, and come up with a very slow moving [image] so it's somewhere in the middle ground between still life and moving.

All photos used in this article are courtesy of Mark Estes.

LINKS  Learn more about Mark Estes' program at Chaplaincy Institute for the Arts and Interfaith Ministries. Mark is raising funds for his education by selling limited edition prints of his beautiful photographs.