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I remember when my son was only two years old and I was leaving for a two-month trip to Pakistan. As I was saying goodbye, I started to cry. Eli looked at me in puzzlement, not understanding why his father was crying, not understanding anything about what was happening and that I was leaving. Twelve years later now, Eli is 14 and my daughter Isabel is 11, and I still find myself needing to connect, to explain, to seek compliance or understanding from them when I leave them for my latest assignment — and more often than not, it doesn’t register with them.
Before a recent trip, I made sure to walk Isabel to school. When we got to the steps of the school, I wanted so badly for us to have a heartfelt goodbye. Instead, she ran off when she saw her friends and barely said goodbye to me. Did this mean she didn’t care? Or was she avoiding “dad’s emotional trips”? Or was she totally unaware of the moment’s importance to me because, for her, our frequent separation is standard operating procedure?
From an early time in my life of constant comings and goings, I’ve realized so much of what I’m going through, I’m going through alone, in isolation. Home has become a base for me, so when I leave it takes time to separate from it. And I never entirely do. Then, upon reentry, I reconnect with my wife and kids, yet I’m often already thinking about my next trip. This constant state of flux creates a sense of being suspended between worlds and always feeling isolated on some level from both — a suspended isolation.
On another trip, I’m flying above Pakistan, en route to Mumbai to teach another workshop, this one for Carlo Roberti who runs the Tuscany Photographic Workshops in Italy. I’m thinking about traces of the familiar. The many good luck charms that Isabel has given me over the years remain in my travel bag, a constant reminder of her warmth, love, good nature, delicious spirit.
My wife Julie rarely gives me mementos, just the constancy of her being, the comfort of knowing she is there and committed. While there is nothing tangible from her in my bag, knowing she is there keeps me going in my darkest hours. From Eli it’s a similar yet more confusing and troubled trace. His love and attention come only with cajoling. He is not forthcoming nor in need of showing me his love or affection. Without these physical and emotional gifts from my family, I’d truly be lost. I can’t imagine a wandering for love and comfort that could possibly replace the firmness of my family.
Part of my sensation of suspended isolation stems from my own personal neediness. I am way too dependent on being connected, and our current climate of digital connectivity only indulges me further. This really started with the cellphone but has accelerated with texting and the ability to have instantaneous communication from almost anywhere in the world. I am addicted. On a good day it’s a wonderful combination, where I feel productive, engaged in the world, and simultaneously connected to my family and studio. On a brooding day, I see it as a character weaknesses that keeps me from engaging deeply with my subjects.
My sense of this suspended isolation started before I even left for my recent trip to Holland and Syria. The morning of my departure it became clear I was already out of my kids’ minds. While saying goodbye, I was reminded that they are living lives entirely outside this internal drama of mine, which only reinforces my feelings of being alone, suspended between my here and there, my aloneness and our togetherness.
This feeling is a semi-permanent condition at this point. This trip has been easy in some ways and quite taxing in others. Syria makes me feel diminished and weak. I know when I get home and review the work, the story will be a success, and I will feel strong and secure. But for now, I am tired and searching for solid ground. That is home, I know. But home is fleeting for me right now. I love you, Isabel and Eli. Our lives are crazy and moving too fast. I hope you and I find a sweet eddy to chill in sometime soon.
Interestingly, the best antidote to all my inner bullshit (as my wife would not put it but clearly views it) is to just do great work. It’s amazing how much better I feel and how my feelings of isolation suddenly vanish after a great day of shooting, reporting…being engaged. When I’m in the field, my ability to find stories and my desire to report and record are what keep me going and allow me to “forget” about myself. When I already feel isolated, and I’m not finding ideas and stories — that’s when the mental games kick in and life starts to feel desperate.
I’ve observed this cycle over the years, and it’s interesting how I frequently come out of it. Just when I am so goddamn lonely, desperate, burned out and tired, hopeless and depressed — in a state where a normal person would take a mental health day or a vacation or check into the local rehab clinic — I’ll go out that day and have an amazing experience, a great shoot, a wonderful human encounter, or witness something that takes me out of myself. Suddenly I’m healed, re-energized and ready for more. It’s bizarre and runs counter to logic. But I’ve had it happen dozens of times in my career.
For now, my only way to deal with my suspended isolation is to just bull through the emotions. After an exhausting inner dialogue with myself, I pick myself up, dust myself off, and get on with things. Is there any choice? Over the years, the only thing I’ve learned to help me cope with this is that, experience shows, it’s always ok in the end. I will get through these periods of isolation, suspended between worlds. My work always turns out great, my moments of despair invariably pass, and I get home. The key is not to let the conflict in my heart and mind poison my relationships with unnecessary outbursts of anger and pain — so when I am home there is at least the opportunity for us to connect, to find the love and calmness that fills our lives with beauty and health.