In this era of tremendous political and social change, two major forces are competing to shape our world. On the one hand, there is a tendency toward splintering, the basis for civil wars, ethnic nationalism, and isolationism. Every day our newspapers are filled with examples of people determined to define themselves as better than, different from, and against others.
On the other hand, there is a pull toward cohesion, multinational institutions, economic networks, security pacts, and social values of cooperation and tolerance. Here, women and men unite within and across cultures for the sake of a common good such as environmental protection, economic development, human rights, and the alleviation of poverty and sickness.
Because the United States is built on the blending of multiple cultures, we know these two forces firsthand. The cleavages within our society have a healthy aspect, allowing individuality to flourish and self-expression to be rewarded. But they also can lead to a destructive fragmentation, and a fostering of mean-spirited self-aggrandizement that pits one group against another in ruthless (and sometimes deadly) competition.
This collection of photographs is organized around the common human values that unite us across cultures. We look into the eyes of a Tamang boy on the Nepal/Tibet border, and we see the same innocence as on the fresh face of an American Boy Scout. The bonding of a parent and a child is repeated over and over, in the arms of a Balinese, Masai, Thai, or Samburu madonna. And that bonding generates an inner security that encourages the vitality that can lead a group of women across Himalayan snowfields, or a man from Arkansas to the White House.
But life isn’t defined by achievement alone. The hardship of poverty in urban America can taste as bitter as war in Central Europe. In the best of worlds, that hardship is transformed into wisdom, etched line by line in the holy book of a Lao monk, or on the face of a Masai elder. And out of that wisdom emerges the capacity for solitude, the ability to draw strength from the beauty of an Alaskan dusk, or to stand watch alone on the streets of Sana’a.
Thus, across the globe, in cultures of extraordinary difference, we witness the commonality that underlies our diversity.
That word “witness” has several meanings in English. It can be synonymous with seeing. It can refer to a person who testifies in a court of law. Or it can also have a religious connotation, as a verb meaning to attempt to convert others by describing one’s own religious experience.
I find myself moving among all of those definitions, particularly as an ambassador in the Clinton Administration. At times I simply take in the sights around me. At other times, I report on what I’ve seen. And at other times, I carry out my mission with an earnestness reminiscent of a deep religious experience.
I remember vividly one day in 1992 visiting a Masai village in Kenya. The Masai are a people whose culture is less complicated than any other I’ve ever encountered. Their huts are made of sticks and cow dung and are constructed in a circle, forming a corral for the cattle at night. Early in the morning, the cattle are driven out into the fields. Unaccustomed as I was, the smell of fresh dung was almost overwhelming.
The boys and men go out and sit with the cattle. Within the corral, the women tend to the children and make jewelry of small glass beads, seeds, and cowhide. They were anxious for me to purchase their jewelry, although they wanted to be sure the money went directly into their hands so they could buy cooking oil.
I was taken into one of the houses and offered the only piece of furniture – a three-legged milking stool. In one room there was an elevated dung bench, covered with a cowhide, for sleeping. Nearby was a small slit in the wall so that smoke from the occasional fire would have an escape. Chickens pecked at the ground around my stool.
One of the four Masai women spoke English; she was their link to cultures far away. I struck up a special relationship with her. She was delighted at how my sunglasses changed the world. Then she looked through the telephoto lens of my camera and her jaw dropped in amazement. Finally, I showed her my video camera. She watched herself replayed on the screen and squealed.
Eventually, it was time to tear myself away. I rejoined my husband and children at a tent camp from which wild game safaris in the Masai Mara were organized.
I walked up to my family as they sat around the swimming pool. They were laughing, engrossed in conversation. They waved for me to come over and asked casually how my day had been. I looked at them blankly and tried to speak, but couldn’t.
The gulf was too great. There were no words that could bridge those two worlds. But I remember the feeling. I was deeply aware that those Masai tribal members and I had almost nothing in common in terms of possessions, customs, language, myth, or history. Yet, we were still somehow united – as human beings sharing the same evolutionary process, looking at the same skies, inhabiting the same globe, and returning the same smile.
I couldn’t find the words that day. I still cannot find them. I only have pictures.
Late one afternoon, after a long day of trekking in the Ganesh Himal of Nepal, I paused on the porch of a mud hut in a village. A wide-eyed little girl came out of the house—to see this strange newcomer.
She was shy and quiet. I began to talk to her, and to sing little songs to her, as I would to my own children. I held her on my lap and played with her toes. But I couldn’t elicit much response. So eventually I went on to my camp in a nearby rice paddy.
The next morning I awoke at 6 a.m., leaned forward in my sleeping bag, unzipped my tent, and pulled back the flap. There before me sat my new little friend, wrapped in a blanket against the cold. I didn’t stand up—just leaned back and felt for my camera next to my bag, all the time maintaining eye contact and hoping she wouldn’t move away.
After all, guardian angels are rare these days.
When I was growing up, I spent my summers in Idabel, Oklahoma, with my grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins. A town of about 6,000 (counting the chickens, we said), Idabel was deeply rooted in the most conservative American social values of the 1950s. In short, social justice was not a dominant concern. All the black people lived on one side of the railroad tracks; their kids went to a separate school. I’m not sure where the Indians lived—I only got to see them in the county jail when I visited my Uncle Jimmy, who worked in the county court house. He was also the Boy Scout leader.
Thirty years later, at President Clinton’s inauguration celebration, I stood looking into a throng of kids—a cross-section of America. There were blacks from Washington’s poorest neighborhoods, Hispanics who had come from the Southwest, Asian immigrants from New York, Native Americans with characteristic braids … and right in the middle of them all—straight out of my childhood in Idabel—was this beautiful Boy Scout.
And I thought, “My … how times have changed.”
Nepalese love their children. The children are completely integrated into every moment of the day – in the fields or in the house. They are all the more precious because one in five does not survive.
During my trek in the Ganesh Himal, we were sometimes several days from the nearest clinic, in mountain villages reached only after arduous climbs. That meant parents could not bring their children to check with a doctor early into an illness. Only a severe health crisis could warrant such a journey. By then, of course, it was often too late.
One day I held in my arms a child on the edge of death. The tight bracelet around her wrist had caused an infection that had now spread through her system. She lay limp against my chest, the expression in her eyes already dead. A shot of penicillin probably would have saved this little girl’s life. Her mother begged me for help. We found some iodine and bandages – small comfort.
My life was deeply changed by that trip to Nepal. It’s one thing to gawk from a tourist bus at the trappings of another culture. It’s quite another to walk the same paths, drink from the same stream, sleep in the same fields, and swat the same bugs.
Then you discover the meaning of “the family of all humanity.”
Down by the Mekong River, a farmer carried water up the hill to his small terraced plot. It was six in the morning; and I waited in the greyness. Suddenly, the sun peaked out over the horizon, and the water pouring from the bucket turned to pure gold.
That’s how life can be—in the space of a moment, from greyness to gold.
Bill and Hillary Clinton represent much of what is best about the United States. Their compassion is mixed with a spontaneous love of life that is deeply American. In this picture, they are recognizing friends among the throngs of well-wishers the night before the January 1993 presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. That’s how the Clintons are, always seeing the individual human beings behind the big issues or grand moments.
It wasn’t until my late thirties that I began to understand the importance of taking on the challenges of nature. After my trek in Nepal, where we climbed to about 15,000 feet, I vowed I would plan every year an adventure — some experience that would take me beyond what I could imagine myself doing. In the following few years, I trained for 10 months and then ran the Venice Marathon, served as a crew member on a two-week sail around Kodiak Island in Alaska, rode horseback 45 miles in two days in the Rocky Mountains alone with my 10-year-old daughter, and shot the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Those experiences have helped to shape who I am inside, giving me confidence to meet whatever challenges lie ahead.
The Colorado River, which cut the Grand Canyon, can be quiet and kind one minute, then outrageously wild the next. After I had gone through these whitewater rapids, I climbed up on a rock to photograph the raft with our supplies coming by. I set my shutter speed at 1/1000th of a second because my hands were trembling from the adrenaline coursing through my system.
Work in America’s inner city is not mostly about preserving old buildings or regulating tourist traffic. It’s more about giving hope to people in desperate circumstances caused by poverty, drug addiction, crime, teen pregnancy, and illiteracy.
These views of my hometown, Denver, are seldom seen by tourists: a traumatized mother and son in a shelter for the homeless; three Hispanics standing defiantly in front of a community center they are renovating for their neighborhood; a Mexican immigrant working for tolerance and social justice in a Catholic church that offers services in Spanish and English; and two little feet, peeking out from a blanket at the Head Start program, which provides poor children an educational boost before they enter first grade.
This is the heart of Denver — and not just geographically.
Outside Zagreb is the refugee camp called Gaza. Here, some of Croatia’s 500,000 refugees and displaced persons are housed — families whose only fault was to live on territory someone else wanted. Their houses have been either senselessly demolished by soldiers, or occupied by people from the opposition. Many have been in the refugee camps for two years.
“May I take your picture?” I asked one beautiful woman. “No. Not here. I don’t belong here. Take my picture at home, in Slunj.”
Eventually, she allowed me to take this portrait. But I have not forgotten her words. Someday I will fulfill her wish and take her picture at home, in Slunj.
Muslim women do not appear publicly unveiled in Northern Yemen. So it’s not easy for a woman in Western clothes to go out taking pictures. I was yelled at, waved away, hit, and spat upon.
But I found great beauty all around me, not only in the people, but also in the sense of color, balance, and design of the most common urban scenes.
And so I ventured out.
In 1988, I headed out on an adventure — trekking with seven other women in Nepal for two weeks. One midday, in a remote area just a few miles from the Tibetan border, we stopped outside a small village on the porch of a Buddhist temple.
As we ate our lunches and talked among ourselves, a crowd of villagers began gathering. They stayed as long as we were there, staring at our strange light skin and hair, our foreign gear and clothes. We didn’t have words to share, just the language of our eyes.
I didn’t even stand up to take this picture — just reached over and picked up my camera and shot from where I sat on the ground.
At the Masai village on Kenya’s border with Tanzania, a group was gathered under the only shade tree in sight. I wandered over, getting in on the last few minutes of a religious service. Leading the final prayer was the matriarch of the village, a bespectacled woman of thin frame, but clearly a great power within the tribe.
She prayed on and on, imploring, declaring, coaxing, decrying. As she spoke, the villagers covered their eyes with their hands, seemingly the customary position for prayer.
In Texas, I was raised a Southern Baptist fundamentalist in a tradition in fact dominated by women (although that reality could not be admitted, for supposed theological reasons). When I was a teenager, I spent about 20 hours a week in church. Now, here I was on the other side of the world, witnessing a prayer meeting and feeling much more at home than I am at most elegant social events.
That’s the power of religious tradition.
The Grand Canyon presents a mere human being with a perspective at the same time humbling and absolving.
For my 40th birthday, seven women friends and I rafted for eight days down the Colorado River, deep inside the canyon, maneuvering through the highest whitewater rapids on the North American continent. Watches were stowed away; they seemed silly in this setting. Our days were marked simply by rushes of adrenaline, and long hours for reflection.
One day I sat on a rock, thinking about my life, my future, my limitations, my aspirations. As I stared at the giant wall ahead of me, carved out over 400 million years, an airborne feathery seed from a nearby bush crossed my line of vision… and I began laughing.
There was my life, as insignificant as that speck of fluff, against the backdrop of eternity.
In Buddhist Nepal, the people inscribe prayers on flags, then plant them in rocks. As the wind blows, their prayers are carried to the gods in heaven. Hiking in the quiet mountains, I had plenty of time to reflect — on my values, my relationships, and the condition of the world. I don’t have a prayer flag at home to carry those thoughts to God. Just my actions every day.
In 1990, I was part of a crew on a two-week sail around Kodiak Island, Alaska. The weather was often blustery and cold, the seas rough, and the experience exhilarating.
We took turns steering, as deck hands, or down in the galley. I was at the helm as we sailed past one of the most mystical sights of my life. Somehow, the water splashing up in great crashing noises seemed to be carried by the mists into the clouds. It was dusk — at 11 p.m.
The end of another long, breathtakingly wild American day.