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The Picture that Started it All...

I have been writing a lot of letters to Joe McNally as of late. He told me to keep in touch so that is what I have been doing. I know he is busy and he hasn’t written me back, now worries I am still going to write to him. Eventually with enough luck, he’ll write me one day without the words “stop send me emails.”

But for now I am sharing modified versions of the letters that I sent him. Here is the latest:

The Picture that Started it all…..

We all have one, that picture that made us know that we wanted to be photographers. The one that caused us to want to cross over to the dark side of exposure, aperture, and an uncertain future.

The other day while I was looking through my older pictures that I still have I found that one picture.

That picture for me was taken in the summer of 2005 while I was on a history department sponsored AIAD (Advanced Individual Academic Development), in association with the Auschwitz Jewish Foundation to Poland to study the Holocaust. That AIAD would change my life in more ways than I had initially thought.

As the price of admission, everyone that went on the trip had to produce a report, a paper, or something to show what they gained during the experience. I chose to do a photo essay, because to me the most powerful way of convoying my feelings was through the click of the shutter. I had bought a Canon 20D for the trip just because I wanted a good camera to remember the travels, and by choosing a photo essay it also gave me an excuse to really use it. I snapped pictures of everything just trying to find what was really hitting me. While we were in Auschwitz, I found two places that really struck me down to my soul.

The first place was where the shoes that the Nazis had taken from people entering the camp were displayed. There were big shoes, little shoes, and everything in between. I knew that every pair belonged to a son, a daughter, a husband, a mother. I made some pictures.

The next spot was in the back of Auschwitz. It was the initial place where all prisoners were taken and where they were stripped of everything that they had brought with them. The floor was a dark, almost mirror like glass (they did that to keep people from walking on the original ground to preserve the site.) The twists and turns of the hallways eventually led to that last room. In that room there was a collage of photos taken from people’s luggage as they entered the camp. The walls stood above our heads and as I recall there were several of them. The pictures that were on that wall were family pictures, portraits of loved ones, and snapshots of people’s lives. You could look into their eyes. That made it real to me, seeing the faces associated with Auschwitz. There was a bench to the rear of the room where I sat and took in the scene.

I knew that this was a picture that would convey the whole story for me. I just didn’t know how to get it and put it into context. It just so happened that a man from our group, Marc, stood alone in front of the wall, he embodied the experience. He was so small in comparison to the wall that laid before him and the reflection in the glass, spoke to the reflection and contemplation that was going on in Marc’s head.

I took several pictures that minute before he moved, and I dare say that if I had even remotely known what I was doing with the camera I would have messed up that picture. It was divine intervention that one of them came out. This was the end result.


Once everyone sat down and began to make their projects, everyone wanted to see my pictures. The picture of the photo wall at Auschwitz really just took everyone back to the moment where they stood on that hallowed ground, and brought back all of the emotions that went with it. It was the picture that everyone wanted.

Making the photo essay took a very very long time. It was a much more involved process than I had thought, and I did not complete it until after I got home and was able to print all of the pictures off and place them in the order that I wanted to them.

In the end, though, I really felt like an asshole because I did not feel anything during the trip. Many members of my group cried quite a bit with some of the sites that they saw, and I took pictures of them. There were times when I felt a knot in my stomach, but I never felt like I was going to cry, or really let the emotions take control. I almost felt as though I hid behind the camera in order to shield myself. But in staying behind the lens I was able to capture the emotions for everyone who hadn’t been there to see it for themselves, and even today people see that photo and they are able to feel the power of that place.

That to me is a testament to the power of photography, being able to evoke such emotion and burn an image into the back of a person’s mind.

Those two pictures I took ended up getting a 1st and 2nd place in the All Army Photography Contest that year, the first time I entered.

From then on I carried my cameras with me everywhere there was no stopping me, much to the chagrin of my friends. I knew what I wanted to be.

One day I will be a photographer, but until then I am a dreamer.

All the best,

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