Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Life At Ground Zero

Photo Courtesy of Charlie Pahan
Current Location: Jakarta, Indonesia 6°12′45.61″S - 106°52′23.74″E

For the first time in a long time, I held a shot that I couldn’t stop rolling. Her face was full frame in my viewfinder—and for a synapse, it felt like our eyes locked as she turned and stared down my lens. I couldn’t stop recording.

Every now and then you meet people who touch you, reach deep into the depths of your heart to remind you you're still human. Sometimes, you cannot understand why. We do not share a language, have never graced the presence of each other or yet to believe in common bonds--but some how, we are connected.

In the slums of Jakarta, children toil through a landfill of shattered dreams. Picking and prying their way through hills of garbage, they look for scraps of plastic and metal, bags, bottles, paper and food to sustain their existence. It's hell on earth--a form of unsurpassed humility to the human kind. I've seen images like it on television before, but never did I imagine that one day I'd be behind the lens--focusing, tilting, panning, and zooming amidst a pile of trash and treasure. War, conflict, and tragedy--some how merely measures up to the effect that this has had on me.

I've been behind on posts lately, mainly not because I'm offline or struggling to marry images with prose, no--it's because I've yet to find that rhythm in my heart to best describe what I've witnessed. But when I awoke this morning, it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, I'm not desensitized after all. I'm still able to feel, to hurt...and to cry.

I've been following a group of volunteers from Lentera, a Christian aid group that provides medical care for the people who live in the heart of Jakarta's slum district. Their work is remarkable--reaching out to the poor, the needy and the desperate--sharing the love of God to those who need it most. I forever admire their efforts.

Standing upon a mound of garbage, I collected light by scanning with my inner peripherals, feeling that pounding rhythm in my heart--knowing that what I'm capturing speaks a thousand words. Shot after shot, I zoom in and out, close ups and wides--a marriage of light and magic. I was merely transfixed by my surroundings. Zooming in for a close up, my lens had lost focus. A hypnotic blur of light filled my screen. Turning the ring clock-wise, I brought in clear focus a set of eyes that stared directly at my lens. And that's when I stopped moving.

Through her eyes, she spoke to me.

Ahning and her husband Riahn collect garbage for a living. Making less than one dollar per day, they walk the streets of Jakarta finding things that you and I would discard on a daily basis. Without gloves or masks, they hand pick each item, looking through piles of unwanted treasure. When I asked her what her dreams were, she said she hoped for a better job, a brighter future for her family, and a healthy up-bringing of her newborn son. He laughed and smiled, clapped his hands and waved at us as we started the interview.

Through a translator, she described to us her plight, her hopes and her dreams. Fighting back tears, she spoke of her family, the love for her parents and the determination she has to move forward. Her voice cracked, her face somber. Barely looking at us, her words echoed through my headphones, telling me how lucky I am. Standing there with the camera rested on my tripod, my hands began to shake, my eyes watery and my throat caught in rapture.

As I packed my gear to leave, I gave her and Riahn fourty U.S dollars. She kissed my hands, cried, and hugged me in her arms. I can only hope it will help in one way or another. I've never felt so helpless.


The Demigoddess said...

You helped her a lot and not just because of that 40 US.

This reminded me of the movie Slumdog Millionaire and of the many people in the Philippines whose lives are like Ahning's and Rhian's.

Jay said...

That made me cry.

Is there are way I can help?

You are a very talented photographer, but an equally talented writer. I always get excited when I see that you have updated.

Stay safe.

Lucie said...

Thanks for a touching sharing, Ron. We'll do our best to help the poor community through Lentera.

Have a safe journey onwards.

nuria said...

Welcome to my hometown, Ron. Have you seen the mafia around? They do exist in between the garbage, you know. :-(
Btw, it's my best friend Manen from Lentera who gave me your link. Nice pages you have.

Hillbilly Duhn said...

Damn it. I now have tears in my coffee cup.

I admire the work that you do. That's all there is to it. You get to see what many of us take for granted each and every day. And in the end, it seems that instead of desensitizing you, you've molded yourself into a being that sees far deeper then the average person.

Dan Denardo said...

Brilliant post, Ron.

Be safe, buddy.

Erin said...

I totally identify with that special sense of connection that just sort of happens magically. It's more than just normal, human empathy. It's like you invest in another person's feelings on a higher level. I felt that way about a 7-year-old I tutored in Saginaw. I saw so many victims there, and I had kind of lumped this kid in with the others and just focused on the tutoring.

But then one day I saw him sitting on a curb in front of his house. He was petting a filthy kitten. A drug deal was going down on the corner. The kid, who eventually showed me burn marks on his back, had the loneliest expression on his face.

Suddenly, the kid's feelings were as important to me as my feelings are. I felt powerless, too.

Anonymous said...

These posts always made me feel very grounded and humble. Reminding me of how blessed I am in my existence. You have such a wonderful way of conveying the story with your images and your words, that I can almost smell the garbage.

Keep up the fantastic work Ron. We need to hear this.

Bon Don said...

My heart just dropped. You're such a good, kind and loving man! Again I'm so glad we're BBF's! Miss you Ron!

Desert Rat said...

Thank you for sharing that beautiful moment. If I don't make it in to the Army then I've always wanted to find a way to go around and build stronger houses and inspiration for people like her. Safe travels

M.Kate said...

Just to say this is a great blog and I will be linking it to mine if you dont mind and visiting often. tks for sharing.

Ron said...

Angel: I've yet to see Slumdog, but I will when I get back. I guess a lot of countries in SE Asia fits that category.

Jay: Thank you for your offer to help. It means a lot to me. I am working with the Lentera group to come up with a way to help them sustain themselves. I will keep you updated.

Lucie: I'm so blessed to have met you and the Lentera team. Please keep up the good work!

Nuria: Thank you for visiting. I hope you keep following.

Hillybilly: Thank you for our kind words. I promise to one day buy you a cup of coffee (or two) to make up for it.

Dan: Thanks dood. See you soon.

Erin: Glad you told me that story. You know, sometimes the same problems lie directly in our own backyards, yet we don't even pay attention to it. It's sad. But so true.

Carol: Thank you for your kind words, it means a lot to me.

Bon Don: Miss you to, girl! Cant wait til I send you that song...

Desert Rat: You're getting in the army? cool! You'll get to do reconstruction and serve your country...awesome! Good luck!

M Kate: Thank you for linking my blog off your site. I'll do the same to yours.

floreta said...

you have such a big heart :)

i love the way you document and capture here.

Wallywall said...

Keep doing that good work my friend! I always knew you were a softy at heart!

Be safe and take care,

See you when you get home.

Ron said...

Floreta: Thanks, Flo. It means a lot coming from you!

Wally: My heart is even softer for you sexxxy baby! (My other readers are going to think something's up now). Thanks dood...we gotta hit the gym again .... one day.

brenda said...



TheChicGeek said...

You have a wonderful blog. I'm enjoying reading about your adventures.
I love how you say "Every now and then you meet people who touch you, reach deep into the depths of your heart to remind you you're still human." That's really beautiful. It's funny how that happens in life with certain people you is so rare...but so amazingly powerful when it happens. Stay safe in your travels :)

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