When we talk about immigration, gun violence, marginalized people groups, or any other hot topic, we often deal primarily in numbers. It’s easy to forget that behind each statistic is a person and a story. Today we chat with Paul Calhoun, a photographer passionate about restoring humanity to the issues of our day through the use of photography. What happens when we live out of curiosity, when we start really listening and paying attention to the stories all around us?
Paul Calhoun has been a photographer for 35+ years and currently works as an assistant professor of art at Concordia University Wisconsin. During his work as a community organizer in Colorado, his wife gifted him with a camera, beginning his enduring love for the art form. Today, Paul uses photography to capture untold stories of marginalized people and much of his work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally. Throughout his decades of work, he’s been supported by numerous grants including ones from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
- Embrace a spirit of curiosity about people: surround yourself with people who have different stories and experiences than you and be willing to listen.
- Once you get to know people, stereotypes and resentments disappear.
- Photography can help dispel stereotypes. Really good photographers “pay attention.”
- Images have the power to change people’s lives; Paul uses his work to promote empathy and understanding.
- Both people at the border and migrant workers are human and we’re called to embrace people in our own ways.
- From Paul on venturing into new areas and unfamiliar communities/neighborhoods: “Get out in the world—it’s not all threatening.”
- The phone often acts as a barrier/challenge to face-to-face communication.
- Direct contact with people is a “bigger life to live.”
- Understanding others ultimately helps us understand ourselves better.
- We all typically want the same things out of life: to be loved and to feel as though we belong.
A Few Mentioned Items
- To learn more about Paul Calhoun and his photography, visit his website.
- Paul’s son, Ben Calhoun, on This American Life, sharing about the supermarket incident.
- Noise rock music
- Czech beer
Do you have thoughts or personal experiences regarding photography or other art forms as a means of humanizing issues that you would like to share with us? We’d love to hear from you. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share your feedback on this episode.
Paul Calhoun: The work that I’m doing is to promote some empathy and some understanding of why these people are here. They’re not here to break laws. Although, some of them are breaking the law, some of them are undocumented people. They come here to work. When I initially started this project, which was three or four years ago, I went to the farmer. It’s a huge farm, and he employs a lot of people. I had to ask him whether I could photograph on the farm, and he said, “I want you to.” He said, “I want people to know that without these people, we don’t eat.” I think that’s pretty much true…they’re doing work that nobody else wants to do.
Angelina: Welcome back to the living uncommon podcasts, episode two of season two. What a lucky configuration.
Dan: Yeah, wow. It seems like we just started season one. Now, here we are.
Angelina: We’ve come a long way.
Dan: It’s been a journey.
Michael: That was just in 2019. It feels like it was no longer than 2019.
Angelina: So, what’s been going on?
Dan: Well, I heard Michael was gonna be doing some acupuncture.
Michael: This has been recorded before my first acupuncture experience, and I don’t know what to think.
Angelina: Are you scared? Are you excited?
Michael: Well, generally, anytime during the day I’m a little scared, I’m a little excited. So, it wasn’t too different. Somebody told me that you might be humming. Your body hums afterwards.
Dan: Is it more like a color, like an aura?
Michael: I don’t know what this all sounds… not of the Lord. It sounds like, Elijah should come and cast down these altars.
Dan: I don’t think Concordia has any classes on auras or acupuncture.
Michael: The guy seems good, third generation acupuncturist. He learned his stuff over in Hong Kong. I don’t know. Take my money. We’ll see if it helps. I got some stuff. I’m getting old, I’m 37 and I got some health issues, you know what I’m saying? I’m not a spring chicken anymore.
Angelina: I feel, at this point, you should just throw your hands up and give up. You’re getting close to 40.
Michael: You’re right, just ride it out.
Dan: I just turned 43 last week, so, thanks for that.
Michael: Are you, at the age of 43, how you thought you would be at the age of 43 as a young person?
Dan: I honestly don’t know. I didn’t really think too much about my future, which is probably why I ended up here. I wasn’t a big planner back in the old days. I do have a 401K now though. So, it makes me feel like a grown up.
Angelina: Wait, so you just got a 401k?
Dan: Well, I mean, I’ve had them on and off over the years, but it’s possible that some of my older ones from past jobs have been cashed out to help pay some bills. They recommend that you definitely should do that every chance you get. Cash them out. Don’t roll them into the new ones.
Angelina: I don’t see how that would never be any benefit to do.
Michael: What’s new with you, Angelina?
Angelina: Well, you know, I’m just getting ready to go on a camping trip in Door County. It’s my first time in Door County.
Dan: Death’s door they call it.
Angelina: Wait, for real?
Dan: Because a lot of people died there.
Angelina: Oh. I thought you’re gonna say because a lot of people go out there to retire.
Dan: No, no, no. I mean, they do, but, no.
Angelina: Well, I won’t be riding any ships.
Dan: There’s a county park called cave point.
Angelina: That’s on our list.
Dan: You definitely have to go. If the water is calm, then you have to jump. It’s a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, it’s a couple stories tall, and there’s a diving area where people jump off into the water.
Michael: Why would you do that?
Angelina: The latest update that I’ve heard is that the waters a little high. It’s a little dangerous right now.
Michael: I don’t understand this. You’re just jumping off of the cliff?
Dan: It’s jumping off a cliff.
Michael: Why would the low water be safer than high water?
Angelina: I guess it kind of steps out, so the water’s high where you might be jumping in two feet into a rock. You can’t see it.
Dan: There are steps for sure. A couple years ago, we went there, and we jumped, and my daughter and I both literally almost drowned. I wrote a nonfiction piece about it. It was a very harrowing experience. Just be careful.
Angelina: Well, now I’m scared.
Dan: You should definitely try it, but, only if the water is calm.
Angelina: Was the water calm when you guys went?
Dan: It was not calm. The thing is, there was a lot of people jumping. I was like, “well, we can just do it,” but my daughter was going into her freshman year of high school, she wasn’t that strong. The waves were too much. It was a bad experience.
Michael: What happened? Did you have to swim on get her?
Dan: Well, I don’t want to labor the point. It’s still kind of traumatic. I was able to climb up onto the bluff cuz there’s no way to get out once you get in there. You have to climb the bluff to get back up. I was able to get up on the bluff. She couldn’t get on. The waves just kept hitting her and knocking her back into the water. It’s very deep there. It’s probably 10 feet deep at least, and the waves were another 8 feet in some spots. She kept getting knocked back in, and I jumped in to try to help her, and eventually, we both got thrown into the bluff and landed on one of these steps, right? Then, someone lowered down and grabbed her and pulled her up. Then, I was left struggling back up the bluff.
Angelina:This does not sound fun.
Dan: Here’s the funny thing, we got it all on tape. My son was taping us with the digital camera because he wanted to tape us jumping in, but then, he caught the whole incident. I still haven’t watched it, and it’s been almost five years. It was rough. Still though, do it if the water’s calm.
Angelina: Yeah, I’m gonna have to think about that. My heart’s pounding. All right, well, with that said, we’ve got a really interesting conversation for you guys today. We sat down and talked with Paul Calhoun who is one of the professors in our art department here. He’s a photographer and has amazing stories of the people that he’s worked with, the exhibits that he’s done, and what he’s learned along the way. We’re really excited for you guys to hear it. Hopefully, you find his stories not only entertaining, but also educational. Hopefully, they inspire you.
Angelina: We’re back in the studio today, and we have a very special guest with us, Paul Calhoun. He has been a photographer for 35 plus years. He currently works as an assistant professor of art here at Concordia. He has had his work exhibited both nationally and internationally, and throughout his decades of work, he’s been supported by numerous grants, including ones from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. So, Paul, welcome to the podcast.
Paul: Good morning.
Angelina: So, why don’t we start just with you giving us your version of who you are, and how you got into photography.
Paul: That’s a long story. So, originally, I graduated from college, and actually, I majored in theology in college. I went to Carroll College in Waukesha. Towards the end of that, I realized that I did not have a calling to be a pastor, but I was still interested in doing work in communities with people. So, I took a job out in Denver, Colorado as a community organizer, which means that I was working with people who had, in my case, housing problems, meaning that they were living in substandard housing, but they had no means of doing anything about it. It was my job to find ways so they could remedy their situations. I liked working with the people. I didn’t like to work at all because it was meeting, after meeting, after meeting. We would meet one week and we would talk about what we were going to do, and the next week, we pretty much talked about the same things over, and over, again. It never seemed to feel like anything was moving forward. My wife had given me a camera, and I started going out on my lunch hours and taking pictures in Denver. I had a friend who worked as a filmmaker for ABC, and he gave me some basic instructions in photography. Then, I got some darkroom equipment, which is now archaic, and I found out that I like photography a lot more because I had the ability to accomplish things on my own, it was just up to me whether it got done or didn’t get done. Then, we left Denver. My wife and I were from Milwaukee, and we came back here. I went to photography school for about a year and a half, and then I started teaching photography at Cardinal Stritch. I taught there for three years as an adjunct. I started there with two classes, and it worked its way up to 6. It occurred to me that this, in my mind, was going nowhere. I went in, and I asked for a raise. They said no, and, so, I decided I was going to move on. There was a job in New York City that I applied for and got, as a photographer in Chinatown. We moved to New York. This was 1980. I, at the time, didn’t have a master’s degree, and so, I went to graduate school and worked full-time in Chinatown. It was a great project. It was three years, and my job was to go to Chinatown in New York and take pictures all day long.
Angelina: What was the goal?
Paul: Well, the goal of it was that, in fact, I’m gonna get into some history now. In 1882, prior to that, the Chinese had been brought here and had come here to help build a railroad, the Transcontinental Railroad. After that, there were people, and it kind of coincides with the time we’re living in now, there were people that began to resent the Chinese because they were doing work that other people didn’t want to do and managing to survive. There was an Act passed called the Asian Exclusion Act, which meant that Chinese women could not come here and be with their husbands. So, that really limited the potential for Chinese to come here. That wasn’t totally dismantled until 1963. That’s a long time. So, Chinatown’s developed into what they called, “the bachelor society.” Men would go back to China, marry, and their families would stay there, but they would work in the United States, primarily in restaurants and laundries in Chinatown. So, when I went there, most of the buildings were four or five stories tall, and you would look up in the windows and you’d see these old men. What had happened was, the Chinese Revolution in 1949, they had accumulated…the money they were making here was pretty meager, but in China, they were mostly from southern China, it was a lot of money. They built houses and raised families, and every few years, they’d go back and maybe create another child. I mean, the plan was that when they were retired, they would have retired to China, but the Revolution made that impossible. They lost everything that they had accumulated. They were, in a way, stuck here. The people that I was working with, and for, wanted to get a history of the time that they had been in the United States. That history would have died because there were no children here to pass it along. So, the historians that I was working with were going out and interviewing these older men and talking about what their life in the United States had been like. It was my job to photograph them, along with all this life that was going on in Chinatown. Even for the older men, it had changed significantly. It was the most densely populated area in New York City, so, it was really, really busy and active. After the Exclusion Act was done away with, other people began to come here, primarily from Hong Kong, but still southern China. Even the dialect that these older men spoke was called TOI sonnies, which was a dialect that was dying, and it was really important to these historians to get a sense of what life had been in the United States for Chinese people.
Dan: It’s pretty amazing to hear, and as a photographer, it sounds like your work overlaps a lot of other disciplines, right? So, a historian, you have a background in theology, and some sociology, and things like that.
Paul: Yeah, my other major was sociology. So, I mean, my interest in photography is…when I started out, and I was living in Colorado, I mean, it’s beautiful out there. We’d go up in the mountains, and I make landscape photographs, but it really has never been my primary interest. I’m interested in people and how they live, and that’s why I like it because I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet so many different people, some great, and some not so great. All of it is an enhancement of my life. I learned from people. I mean, this weekend, I was out with migrant workers in central Wisconsin, and I was just hanging out with three little kids, they were five, six, and nine, I think. Their parents were working, and they work occasionally too. We don’t think about that, but there are children working in the fields up there. They don’t work all day, but they work quite a bit in reference to being as old as they are. During the week, they’re generally in school, but I’ve seen children out in the fields as young as three. This is not easy work. In a way, they’re proud of being able to help their parents because all of it is peace work. In other words, they get paid by what they pick there. Right now, they’re picking cucumbers, which get made into pickles, and the children are really proud, in a way, to be contributing to their parents. It’s not that they like to work, I don’t know that there’s anybody that likes the work. It’s a matter of survival.
Angelina: That’s your current project, right? Can you tell us a little bit more of your interest in the migrant workers in Wisconsin and in immigration itself?
Paul: Well, my wife is an immigrant. She came here from El Salvador when she was seven years old, and she’s Chinese. Her father had been an engineer, and he was working in El Salvador as an engineer for the government, helping them build roads. She had an older sister who was very ill, and there was not adequate medical care for her sister to survive. They worked at becoming immigrants to the United States. They had been here before. Her mother had studied at Marquette, but then, the student visa ran out, and they had to leave. So, her sister had a congenital heart problem, and you don’t see it much anymore, but they were referred to as blue babies. They actually had a blue tint to their skin. It was a hole in her heart. He worked at a big corporation that no longer exists. I think it was Allis Chalmers, which was big in Milwaukee. They came here for medical care, and her sister ultimately passed away. That’s the reason that they came here. So, my wife is an immigrant, my children are children of immigrants, and given our current situation and the current dialogue about immigrants in this country, it’s to a certain degree, personal. I think, once you begin to know people, it’s easy to have stereotypes of people when you don’t know them. Once you get to know them, that whole situation changes. It’s my feeling that one of the issues that we have, in a number of ways in this country right now, is the lack of dialogue, and the lack of meaningful dialogue, because people seem to be so resentful of one another, or aren’t willing to listen to other people. My son, who works for National Public Radio, just did a story about my wife. He and his sister, he was seven at the time she was two, and my wife was in the grocery store. My daughter was having a tantrum, and some guy came up to her, and she got a bit obnoxious. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know, but he said, “Stop it.” She started stamping her feet, and my wife turned around, and walked back, and said, “Leave her alone – she’s two, and two-year-olds have tantrums. You look to be about sixty, and you shouldn’t be.” Well, he followed them out of the grocery store, and he was screaming at her, “Go back to where she came from. You people need to go back to where you came from.” That’s part of our current dialogue. So, my son just did a radio story about remembering that and how frightening it was, and he’d never thought that he didn’t belong. He didn’t know where he would go back to. He had no clue, but he dealt with that kind of thing. My daughter, not as much, and I don’t really know why. He dealt with that prejudice through high school. It’s hard to understand because he was a nice kid. I mean, we all think that our children are nice children, but it was just because his eyes were a little different shape than somebody else’s. He looks Mexican or Puerto Rican, so when people walk up to him, they speak Spanish. He doesn’t speak any Spanish, but his wife speaks Spanish. So, she intervenes. I think that the work that I’m doing is to promote some more understanding, and some empathy, and some understanding of why these people are here. They’re not here to break laws. Although, some of them are breaking the law, some of them are undocumented people. They come here to work. When I initially started this project, which was three or four years ago, I went to the farmer. It’s a huge farm, and he employs a lot of people. I had to ask him whether I could photograph on the farm, and he said, “I want you to.” He said, “I want people to know that without these people, we don’t eat.” I think that’s pretty much true. There are over three million Mexican Americans and Mexicans working the agricultural industry in slaughterhouses, and fields, on dairy farms, in restaurants, and they’re doing work that nobody else wants to do. So, what happens if, in fact, we deport all those people? I think it’s something to contemplate. Why are they here? Why are they being employed? You can pay them less. It keeps food prices down. I don’t know if people want to pay $15 a pound for a sirloin steak. My daughter is a chef in New York, and she’s fluent in Spanish, and one of the reasons she’s a manager is because she’s fluent in Spanish. Much of the kitchen help are Spanish speaking people. What happens to the prices in restaurants when they can’t employ people and pay them less?
Dan: How do your photographs, and photography as as a medium, address some of these topics, some of these questions, that we’re talking about?
Paul: Well, I think it’s possible to make photographs of the people that I’m working with now that are stereotypical. That’s my objective to not do that. I’m showing people. I’m making a personal assessment of who they are and how I can reflect that visually. I spent a lot of time out in the fields. I try to make photographs of people that are sensitive to their situation. In other words, these people were pulling weeds this weekend, but also, to reflect that they’re really nice kids. They were enjoyable to be with. And, to a large degree, innocent. This didn’t happen this time, but there was a little girl known for about three years that she was inside a van. A lot of times, when it’s hot, children would be inside the vans, and I’ll turn on the air conditioning if they have it. She just reached out the window and gave me the peace sign, which I thought was really symbolic of what they’re wanting. They’re not here to hurt anybody, and when people refer to them as criminal, or prone to be criminals, that’s just not factual. They’re very careful about not breaking the law when they drive, etc. The crime rate for immigrants, in general, is far lower than the general population. So, to describe them that way is just not true.
Michael: So, you mentioned that you try to take photographs that break stereotypes. Does your theology inform any of that? Viewing people is beyond race, ethnicity, and getting to the heart of people created in God’s image. Is there an aspect of that in your work?
Paul: I think we live in God’s image. Part of the role, as a teacher, and as a photographer, is to get people to, and to get myself, to recognize that and be appreciative of it. You don’t always see that. A lot of things we take for granted. I mean, we go through our days, and we’re talking in our heads, to people, etc. I think, the key to really good photography, and the photographer’s that I really admire, are people that pay attention and are grateful for the life that they have, to realize what’s being given to them, and that they have the opportunity to relate. I’m going down to the border, and I’m not sure when. I was gonna go in December, but I have to have surgery. At any rate, I believe in the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In fact, if somebody came to my house when I was a parent and took my children away, how would that feel? I mean, you would be panicked, and frightened, and not knowing where they were going to. I mean, I can’t imagine anything more dehumanizing. I don’t know that I could bring myself to do that kind of thing. I’m sure I couldn’t. I think that regardless if people are breaking the laws or not, I think there are things that we have to consider in terms of our own ethics and behavior in reference to that. We have cities and states in a nation that develop laws. Are there not bigger things to think about? Immigration policy in this country certainly needs to be reformed, but a lot of the people who come in from Mexico are recruited, and recruited because they’re cheap and they’re willing to do the work. It’s an issue that really needs to be studied because immigration is a two-way street. It was 20 or 25 years ago, I did some work on the border in Tijuana. At that time, that’s after NAFTA was passed, north american free trade agreements. There were a lot of American corporations that had facilities on the border. In Tijuana, the average wage was 88 cents an hour. The reason for those companies to be there was because there was cheap labor, and there were also less strict environmental laws. It’s interesting because Tijuana boarders San Diego. You can go to San Diego, which is just an opulent, beautiful city, right? In 20 minutes on a trolley, you can be in Tijuana and be in a Shantytown where people are living in cardboard box houses. There was a little village that I spent some time in, and at that time, the Mexicans had a homesteading law. It was a little settlement of about 300 people, the houses were made out of cardboard. If you lived in a place for three years and developed it, in other words, got a government together, they had a structure, there where people working at some point in time at a corporation from the United States had built a facility right next to them. What they were doing in that facility was disposing of car batteries. They were burning them. There was all this lead leaching into the ground, and it made it impossible. They had to leave there because they were having children being born with birth defects. I mean, lead is not good for us. That’s pretty clear. So, at that point, these people have been displaced from central Mexico because they had been displaced from farms that had been their families for a long time, and they’d moved up to the border. Where’s the next place for them to go? Obviously, it’s the United States. I went and stood at the border, and there used to be this big, corrugated wall. There was a wall, but people could climb up the wall. There was a ravine on the Mexican side, and people would stay in there for days, and then there would be an accumulation of people. It was a numbers game, and you could walk around this corrugated wall. If you walked out far enough, you didn’t have to climb it. The game was, you’d get 20 or 30 people, almost all young men, and they would run in. There wasn’t sufficient Border Patrol to arrest all of them, so they would get in. As you drive up to the highway to San Diego, like we have these deer crossing signs on Wisconsin highways so you don’t hit the deer, there’s literally one on the highway to San Diego that’s a fleeing family. It’s a mother and father with a fleeing child behind them. They’re holding a child’s hand. I mean, that’s my take on the border. Somehow, we’ve got to figure out a way to acknowledge the fact that these workers are essential in this country, that people want to employ them. In the fields, you have no choice but to work on it. There is nothing that I can see that’s gratifying about this work, it’s drudgery, it’s on your hands and knees, or stooping all day long for long, long days.
Angelina: You shared a story of how these farmers, they would post the jobs in their community, and no one wants these jobs, so, I think, when you talk about how cheap the labor is and how cheap it makes our food, and we like that, but then there’s all this discourse going on about vilifying the immigrant, but yet, we’re reaping the reward for it. If we lose the cheap food…a lot of people don’t understand what happens if the immigrant goes away.
Paul: It’s exactly that. On this farm, there are four young men from that community working. They have the better jobs. They drive the trucks. One is a senior in high school. One is a college student. Then, there are some younger kids. They drive trucks, and they load trucks, which is not necessarily easy work, but it’s not on your hands and knees in the fields. Those are the only people. It’s within the last two years that they’ve been working that those are the only people, other than the owners of the farm, the three brothers, and they work hard too. They’ve built a 80 acre farm, and it’s really like the Ponderosa. I don’t know if you know what the Ponderosa was, but there was a television show when I was a kid called Bonanza. Ponderosa was this huge ranch. So, they’ve done well, but they also treat the people that they work with, I’m talking specifically the migrant workers, fairly well. They like them. As bosses, generally speaking, the migrant workers tend to like the owners of the farm. One of the things about migrant work is that the average life expectancy for a migrant workers is 48 years old. Think about that. I think the average life expectancy for the American male is about 78, somewhere in there. Part of it is stress. Part of it is pesticides. Part of it is just a difficulty of the work. Part of it is that they don’t have access to healthcare, they don’t get health insurance, and they’re reticent to go to the doctor because it’s money.
Dan: Paul, are you doing this in conjunction with an organization or a group? You talked about your work in Chinatown…
Paul: The plan is that I’m going to put this work together with the work that I do at the border, and I’m working with a group of people at Rutgers University. The director of the project in New York Chinatown is now the director of the price Institute at Rutgers University. We’ve been in touch, and he’s going to put together an exhibit in New York. What I don’t want is, I don’t want a traditional gallery exhibit. In other words, it’s a very selective audience of people that generally come to our galleries. I won’t do it unless these pictures… they’re going to be very large, and they’re going to be in the windows. I’m not certain of it, but I think at NYU. So, it’s in the heart of the city. I mean, they’re gonna face the street. I want people to interact with those images, outside of the world of art, and recognition. Hopefully, my photographs are compelling enough for them to pay attention to these people for who they are. Perhaps, who knows what the power of an image is? There have been images in my life that have really changed my life, but hopefully, it provokes people to have a sense of migrant workers and that people at the borders are human beings. It seems like a pretty basic thing to say, but it’s really true. They’re not tainted. They’re not evil. They’re not here, generally, to take anything from anyone. At the border, there’s certainly a lot of drugs. Certainly, a lot of drugs are coming into the United States. Why are they coming here? I mean, we’re the ones that want them, apparently. I don’t, personally. We live in a society that’s really a high-stress society, and people medicate themselves, or they recreate with these drugs.
Michael: Why is it so hard for people see immigrants as human beings? What, do you think, is in the way? How is it clear to you and then so difficult for someone else?
Paul: That’s a big question because there’s different research out there that tells us that we attempt to congregate, and interrelate, with people who were like us. I don’t have the answer. I don’t think I do that. I think I gravitate to people that are different because I’m curious, because I like them. My children are mixed race. Am I going to discriminate against my kids? The irony of my wife’s story is that she’s come here, and her family has been extraordinarily successful, there are doctors in her family, they’re engineers, there are business people, and they contribute. They contribute to this society in important ways. Some guy chased her out of a grocery store and told her to go back to where she came from. At some point, we have to get beyond that. I’ve just read a book, and in the book, somebody had mentioned Nelson Mandela, who, for me, is one of the heroes of the 20th century. It was just a quote from him, and it was something to the effect that if you see and expect the best out of people, generally, they deliver. That was his attitude. He spent, I think, 28 years incarcerated and came out and did his best to unify a country that, obviously, was just wracked with bitterness. I think, we’re all called on to do that in our own ways because this country is, in fact, changing, and the majority of the population in a relatively short amount of time is not going to be white. We better come to terms with it in a better way than toting guns and going into a Walmart. I mean, we have to. How can a country survive that way?
Angelina: You’ve done some work with guns in particular. Can you share a little bit about that project?
Paul: My son was in eighth grade, and he was a small kid. He came home from school one day, he went a good school in Central City in Milwaukee. I was working on something in and he said to me, “Hey, Dad. Somebody shot a tour bus today.” I wasn’t really listening, and then, you know, after 20 seconds or so I said, “What?” In fact, somebody had walked out on their front porch with a 38 and just shot at their school bus. I called the principal to ask why the principal had not called every parent about this incident. It’s still a mystery to me, but at that time in Milwaukee, and it’s still true, this is a pretty violent city. I don’t know what the frequency is now, but six months ago, the homicide rate here was higher than Chicago, not in terms of numbers but in terms of percentages. Then, it was really quite bad. I just decided that I would do a project. I went on, and I started photographing people had been shot, people who had shot people, doctors, lawyers, anybody that was involved in this issue. It became a large project. At that time, there was nobody else to interview. I got that job too. So, my idea was, I just wanted to know what was going on, in a personal sense, from the people who had… for instance, one of the people, and perhaps the most interesting story, was a young man, I think I can say his name, Jeremy Armstrong, who had been headed to be valedictorian of his class at Messmer High School. His father was a roofer and had fallen off a roof and hurt his back, started with vicodin, moved on to different drugs, became a crackhead, and spent everything. This kid was in a house with no heat, and he was studying by the light of a Coleman lantern. He was 15. At 15, we’re all not that bright. He’d got it in his head that if he could rob the drug dealer, he could get the lights turned on. He got a gun, and he went to rob the drug dealer. The drug dealer laughed at him, and slapped him, and he pointed the gun. He turned his head, and he shot. As he was shooting, the drug dealer was reaching for the gun. The bullet went in under his arm and through his heart. It killed him. He became the first juvenile in Wisconsin at that time, you had to be waved back to juvenile court. They refused to wave him back, so he was convicted of a second degree intentional homicide. When I saw him, he was almost 16. He was in prison in Green Bay. He looked like a baby, but he had made up his mind that he was gonna find a way to go to college. He became a plumber’s assistant, and that was his plan. When he got out of prison, and he planned on getting out, he said, “Nobody asks questions of the plumber. They just want their drains cleared, or the toilet to work, etc.” I interviewed him, and it was really a compelling story. There are tapes of him at court, and he sounds like a little boy in court. I didn’t really come into contact with him much, but he got in touch with me and asked if I would write a letter in support of his parole. I mean, during his time in prison, he had become..I think there were about 20 people in the country that were Braille translators, which is an occupation I think that’s going away. He was a Braille translator. It was real specialized. I wrote a letter, and then I didn’t hear anything. I was teaching at another University, and I was telling this story, and they said, “Oh, you mean Mr. Armstrong?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “He was my high school English teacher.” So, he got out, worked as a plumber, got his college degree, and now, he’s an English teacher at Messmer High School in Milwaukee. It’s an amazing story. We had him over for dinner two or three summers ago. He’s got a life. He’s made it. That’s unusual. I mean, it’d be worth a tour for anyone to walk through a prison. It’s another world. His first day in prison, before you go to wherever you’re going to be sent to, they have a training system to teach you how to be a prisoner. They told him that he could not take any abuse from anyone. The first day he was in prison, he was in the cafeteria, and he was little and young, and somebody called him a name. It was in his head that he couldn’t take abuse from any anyone, so he smacked the guy across the face with his lunch tray, and they put him in solitary confinement for 73 days. That’s a long time. At that time, you could choose it to be daylight, or it could be light or dark. You had to choose one or the other. He chose darkness, for whatever reason. There were two things he told me that I really found compelling. One is that he used to lay by the door, a little break underneath the door, and he would wait for somebody to walk by to be sure that there was still somebody else alive. The other thing he said that he used to go to what had been a window, and it was a little crack, and he could look out. Some nights, he could see a star, and that was enough for him to think that God was still with him. He also prayed every night for the man that he’d shot, both asking for forgiveness and praying for the man’s soul. This is a unique human being. He did a terrible thing, right? People at that time, there were lots of gangs in Milwaukee, there was the Latin Kings, I’m not sure of how that is right now, and they were a problem. They were a big problem. They were pretty powerful. The majority of people who had been shot and had done the shootings, it was over tiny, tiny things. It was over a little bit of money, it was over a girlfriend, it was over a dispute that had gotten out of control. None of it was bank robberies, or making big cash. The majority of the people that were in that realm were poor and were coming from a difficult family situation. There was one, I can tell another story about a man who was in prison. He was a white supremacist. He was a neo-nazi. He had swastikas tattooed on his chest and on his back. He was a nasty man and hurt people significantly in prison. I got to know him quite well too, and we really got to talk about how he got to be who he was. His father had been extraordinarily abusive, and he had ended up in the Milwaukee social service system at nine years old. He was one of the few kids, white kids, in that system. He was picked on, taken advantage of, so, he had developed all this bitterness. He was already filled with rage. I mean, the things that his father had done to him, they’re unspeakable. There’s a reason. He wasn’t threatening to me. We sat and talked for a long, long time. He was a scary human being. I mean, you see a guy TC OB were just initials on his arm, TC OB. I asked him what it meant, and he said, “taking care of business.”
Angelina: You mention a little bit about just how you’re curious about people’s stories, and that’s kind of what draws you towards, a lot of times, seeing both sides of whatever you’re photographing. For someone who might be listening who feels more of a sense of fear in engaging with people who are different from them, what would you say to people to encourage them to have more curiosity about people?
Paul: I think it’s a big issue. We’re in a digital world, right? The iPhone, I mean, how many times do we see people walking down the hallways at Concordia with the face on the phone, relating to people that are maybe hundreds of miles away, or thousands of miles away? I think, it’s generally a problem. I mean, it’s something that we need to think about more thoroughly. I mean, it’s great that we can communicate with people now beyond Skype or texting people in other parts of the world. I mean, I love it. At the same time, I’ve seen people in very close physical proximity to other people. I’ve had it in classrooms where students never know each other, and it’s something that I’ve observed. I think the iPhone is 2007, that people tend to live differently and communicate differently. I think, for me, it’s uncomfortable, right? It’s uncomfortable when I was with my son, and he’s got his phone in his face, he’s a busy guy. He communicates with a lot of different people. Sometimes, you just say, “Can you put it down for a while?” I think it’s a challenge for all of us to communicate with one another. I go out there, and I do things that maybe other people wouldn’t do because I like it. I think it’s a bigger life to live, and a more gratifying life to live. I’m kind of nosy. I want to know what people’s stories are to understand. I think, at understanding other people, you begin to understand yourself more thoroughly.
Angelina: There’s a lot of humility that goes along with that too of realizing, “I don’t know hardly anything about this person. Why not humble myself and take the time to learn their story before I assume..”
Paul: …before I judge them. I don’t know that we have that much business judging people anyway. I think I talked to you before about this, is that I think we’ve all had the experience that we felt slighted by someone. You think of what you would have said, you think of what you will say to him, and then, somehow, you run into them, and it goes through your head, and you think to yourself, ‘what was that all really about? This person is not so bad.’ I mean, boy, this is a whole other discussion. You look at the senator, the House of Representatives, and there’s really bitterness there. They have a job to do, and it’s just so filled with rancor, and people who won’t cooperate with one another just for the sake of not cooperating. I think it hurts us, and I think that we can expect, I expect better of myself, and I think, people ought to expect better of themselves.
Angelina: I want you to share one more story before we finish up here. You did some work in the Republic of Georgia, and you shared a story of one night when you were sitting with some people, and you were trying to tell them of something you experienced.
Paul: Well, I have done a lot of work with young people in Milwaukee Public Schools. I did a project at a School of Milwaukee North Division High School, which, traditionally, is one of the worst high schools in the city. The theory behind what I was doing, I got a small grant, and the theory was that young people who were having trouble with math and science might somehow develop a better understanding through photography. The idea was a good one, and a total failure, because they were basically 15, 16, 17 years old, and I was trying to teach them fractions over, and over, and over again. Fractions were not a concept that they had internalized, or understood. I got out a dollar bill, it’s four quarters, but the basic problem was that they were bright kids, but they were not educated kids. They had gone through this system, and they, for the most part, couldn’t read. I just decided this is a waste of time. We went out, and we took pictures in the neighborhood, and they were great. They were so good. We showed those pictures at City Hall, and we showed them at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. I’m not exaggerating. They were really good pictures. One of the things about living in the central cities is, you live in the ghetto, and it’s enclosed. Its conflict has kinship to the iPhone. A lot of the young people I’m working with didn’t know too much about other parts of the city. They just didn’t go there. I got online, and I asked if there were people in the world who were interested in doing cultural exchanges with students in Milwaukee. I got a lot of responses from all over the place. There was a facility in the Republic of Georgia, which is a tiny, tiny, it’s got fewer people than Wisconsin. It’s on the Black Sea. It’s beautiful. They had a program there, and at the time, they had just broken away from the former Soviet Union. They had been a central hub of manufacturing. So, if they had made manufactured fighter jets, I mean, locomotives, and all of that went away. They were impoverished. There were a lot of kids living on the street. This facility was taking in kids who were living on the street, giving a place to live. They had an art program, and a dance program, and those kids were so lucky because they literally were kids fending for themselves in the city, or in state-run orphanages, which were a nightmare. I wrote to them, and they said, “Come,” and I had an exhibit of my work there. I had my students work there. I stayed at the facility with the kids, and there were workers there, people who were teachers, and caretakers, and whatnot, and they spoke very little English. I didn’t speak much Russian, but we would talk to each other, and I hesitate to say, but we drank beer too. Czech beer. I was telling them about grade school, I went to grade school in the 50s, and we used to do a monthly drill called duck-and-cover. That meant, you would go down to the basement of the school, and you go next to the wall, and you would sit down, and you would put your hands over your head, and put your head between your knees, and that was supposed to protect us in case the Soviet Union chose to attack us with nuclear weapons. I don’t think the methodology was well thought out, but, I was trying to explain it to them. It took a while, and they didn’t understand. I just showed them how it went, and they went, “Oh, we did the same thing, because we were told that there was an evil empire on the other side of the world that was going to attack us,” meaning the United States. There’s a whole level that most people, in my experience, want pretty much the same thing. They want to be loved, they want to feel some security and safety, and they want to feel a sense of belonging. There’s a whole nother level of those who are making decisions that maybe could make better decisions if they were in touch with the people who just want their homes and security, to be loved. The people I was talking to were the same as I was. I think I already understood that, but it was an important lesson to be reinforced. They aren’t our enemy. I mean, when I talk about the migrant workers and their sense of generosity, both with one another and with me, I can be out in the field. Sometimes, I’m out there all day long. I go out there when they start, and I quit when they quit. There comes a time when lunchtime, and inevitably wherever I’m located in that particular field, that people who are close to me offer to feed me. They don’t know me well. They know I take pictures, and they know I give them back pictures, but the sense of generosity for people who are that economically challenged, I find remarkable. I’m grateful for. I’m grateful that there are people like that in the world.
Angelina: Paul, thank you so much for being here and for sharing some of your stories. Before you go, are there any resources that you would recommend to photographers who are wanting to get into similar or work, or even just people who are trying to expand their knowledge of others who are different than them?
Paul: Take my class. Get out in the world. I mean, it’s not all threatening. It’s just not. You know, we all hesitate with new situations. It’s been my experience, at least, that I might have gone some places that a lot of people wouldn’t go, and that nobody’s ever hurt me. I’ve often thought that either it was really crazy, or really tough.
Dan: I think it’s the mustache.
Paul: Oh, you think that’s it? I think, in spite of our tendencies to sit in our rooms, or stay at home, or be on the Internet, I mean, there’s a whole bunch of Engineers out there who know how to manipulate our dopamine to make the internet compelling, right? I fight with that. I get bored on the internet after a while. There’s just not that much new. If my experience has been gratifying for me, potentially, it can be gratifying for other people.
Angelina: Awesome. Well, thank you, again.
Dan: All right, we’re back. That was a good conversation with Paul Calhoun. He had a lot of stories. I like when our guests have a lot to say.
Angelina: I like it when people don’t just try to say their point, but they have experiences to back it up, or they’ve experienced this and learned it through something, rather than, ‘this is what I believe about this thing.’ I thought it was really neat that he had stories that really showcased a lot of what he believes.
Michael: You didn’t hear it on that podcast, but you can tell he’s really curious about people. Afterwards, he was just asking us a bunch of questions, and hanging out, and drinking coffee, and he’s into people.
Dan: It makes me wish we all had some Czech beer, and we could sit around and talk to him. When he said that, I was thinking, ‘what does Czech beer taste like?’ I’ll have to look into that, do some independent research.
Angelina: Maybe we’ll start bringing beer in when we record. I feel like that would be really a good way to proceed.
Michael: That’d be good. Let’s do it on work time, especially.
Angelina: I think at that whole idea of being curious about people, it was a good reminder, especially for people who are different than you, or who have a different experience than you have had, to be curious about their stories, and not going and thinking, ‘I know everything about you,’ or, ‘I’ve read about this, so I know who you are and know what your experience has been like,’ but just being curious.
Dan: One of the things that he said that that I noted was, he said, “Good photographers pay attention.” That was a really great way to describe good photography because as an art form, obviously, you know, you can do Polaroids, or you can do abstract, or surreal snapshots. The kind of photography that he does a lot more is human centered, and it’s more portrait, maybe not so formal, or so posed. You can tell he pays attention just by the people that are in his photos. He captures that humanity. I think it’s a really important thing to capture through photography.
Angelina: I think, one thing, which I don’t have a ton of photographer friends, or haven’t really been around that a ton, but I was really surprised at how long his projects take. His exhibits that he does typically take years to build up, or even just with his most recent one that he’s been photographing these migrant workers for over three years. It’s crazy to me because I’m sure that his work will show a progression of those same people throughout the years.
Dan: He didn’t really talk about the funding model, but I assume that because he said he gets grants from a lot of places, he said he had gotten endowment from the arts. I think about how a painter wouldn’t work on a single piece for three years, probably. It’s interesting. I would love to be able to see that project at NYU.
Michael: I think, you know, it makes kind of that project, in his experience, really true, and felt really rich, and deep. With his family being immigrants, and that awful example he shared about the incident in the supermarket with his child, it gives a sense of closeness to this work. If you didn’t have that, he could be just documenting these people. He looks at it through the eyes of somebody who felt bits and pieces of what other people are feeling too. It’s kind of a shared experience, which I thought was interesting.
Dan: We’ll link to that piece in the show notes. It’s like a six minute piece on This American Life. It was really excellent.
Michael: One of the things that I think he did, he attributed something to an important issue that’s happening right now. At Concordia, and really, any Institute of higher education, and just as Christians, in general, we should be contributing. Just being there and trying to show people as God sees them, and remind people of that. I really admired what he was doing along those lines as well.
Dan: You know, there’s a term in missional theology called “being incarnational.” So, usually, it’s being with people. That’s the important part versus doing for people, or doing to people, you know, working, for example, doing work in the inner city. I work with a non-profit that works specifically with people. We don’t want to impose our ideas on what they need on them, right? We want them to tell us what they need, and then, how can we help you, and work with you, to accomplish that? That proximity is super important for artists, but also, just for all of us as Christians, especially as we’re trying to be with people in the world, not to just hold people at arm’s length and expect to do for or to people, but to actually be with people in the same way that God is with us versus the Incarnation. Incarnation obviously is a picture of God being with us, not just doing something for us, or doing something to us. That stood out a lot in his work, as someone who’s willing to be with people, he spends the entire day, or the entire weekend, in the fields with these migrant workers, which can’t be easy, especially in the heat of summer. It’s got to be dirty, and it’s got to be hard work, but I appreciate that about his work.
Michael: As we talked to Paul, the thought about art and politics came up for me. It adds a layer of complication with being a Christian as well, and how that all interacts, but, his art, I think, is coming from a very pure place. I would even surmise from our interaction with him that it’s even a theological place. It also has heavy political implications as well. What do you guys think about art and politics? Can art not be political? Is that even a possibility?
Dan: I don’t know. We always go back to the question of, “What is art?” “How do you define it?” I always define it as self-expression. So, whatever the purpose of that self-expression is, generally, I would defer to the artist. Then, if they say, “Oh, yeah, I’m doing this to make a political point, make x or y,” certainly, to me, that’s the first layer. Then, another layer towards the bottom is, what is the viewer? What does a viewer take away from it? I would think that yes, art is almost always political, or, at the very least, expressing something very personal from someone.
Michael: We’re all embodied, and we’re all embodied in a form of a government, right? We’re subjected to some sort of a political system, and art is an expression of our embodied experience in a lot of ways. I think it’d be hard to not be political. I think, in a lot of ways.
Dan: Angelina. Any thoughts?
Angelina: I don’t know if every piece of art has to be political. I think, what you were saying, it obviously says something. Even as a writer, whenever I write something, there’s an intention behind it. It’s not always political for me. Sometimes, it’s to share an experience that I’ve had, or to give other people hope in their experience. There’s some art that I appreciate that is kind of like that. It doesn’t necessarily have political implications. It might have theological implications.
Michael: I think it comes down to the point where you’re saying that I don’t know if this was political. It seemed maybe there’s theological aspects to it, or not, and to the political, everything is political, right? There’s the level of engagement that the subject has with it. If you have a worldview that is excessively political, which actually, I wouldn’t say as myself, so, I don’t know why I think it’s political. You’re gonna view things and take it in more that way. Take a look at Paul’s art, right? You can take a look at the studies he’s done on Wisconsin migrant workers, and it doesn’t take a creative genius to hear how you can make that political, right? Your documenting migrant workers at a time where that’s a controversial political opinion. You put that up in an exhibit, and people get the political context immediately. I don’t think that they did a theological context, unless they came in, and you had a theological perspective and were looking at it from that angle. There could be other cultural perspectives that you could put on as well. There’s multiple layers, like I said, it’s kind of a silly question. There’s a bit of it that’s dependent upon the person viewing the art.
Dan: I think about when pop culture figures get in trouble for saying something political. We have the whole, “shut up and dribble” thing. When someone like LeBron James makes a comment that’s explicitly political, then people get mad at him and tell him, “Do your job. You’re a basketball player.” When a singer, or something like that, says something from the stage… I’m sure we’ve all been to shows where they’ll say something explicitly political and half the audience is cheering them and half the audience’s is like, “Just shut up and sing the songs. I’m not here to hear your political opinion.” I think that’s interesting. I appreciate the fact that this seems, to me, to be explicitly political. I think Paul is, like you said, Michael, it’s his personal experience with his family. The way he seems to really care about this topic, it’s really coming through in his work. I think there is that is a little more abstract, and it’s harder to pull meaning out of it.
Michael: Experimental art is some of the most political art.
Dan: You have to have it explained to you, sometimes.
Michael: Even the effect of it is supposed to be transformationally political. I used to play noise music, right? That was art. We weren’t a political noise band.
Dan: We will link to this in the comments.
Michael: It was abstract music. It was art. It was abstract sounds. I wasn’t trying to make it political, but it seemed like everytime we played with a band that was like that, it was a political statement. Those bands will be making a statement; vote, and anarchy as a political system, or reimagining of social norms, or social constructs through the music. Just by virtue of it breaking conventional musical constructs. I don’t know what I’m talking about right now.
Dan: The kind of art I always think about, because I have an acquaintance of mine, it was a surrealist. He does collages, and he also does a lot of surrealist writing. Angelina, I think you’d appreciate it. I mean, literally, hundreds of pages of writing that has no explicit meaning.
Michael: Why are you assuming I wouldn’t appreciate this?
Dan: Because Angelina’s a writer. I mean, by trade, and probably by artistic temperament. He would say that there is truly no meaning to it, and I just don’t buy it. I think, as long as a human is creating something, there’s some theological aesthetic, or there’s some meaning that is being put into that work. The only thing that I can think of that maybe doesn’t have any meaning is, you know when someone takes a canvas and puts it in front of an elephant, and then they step on it and move their trunk around on it, you know, and then, they hold it up and, “Oh, that’s an elephant doing the thing.” That maybe doesn’t have any meaning.
Michael: It’s all about how you think meaning is constructed. Looking at it, and giving meaning to it, and your own psychological issues, with what you have many, Dan,
Dan: We’ll be talking about that in a couple of weeks.
Michael: You’ll see a splatter painting done by an elephant. They’re just throwing things. Your brain is going to try to put meaning to it. Brains are meaning machines. They try to create meaning. That’s the purpose of them in a lot of ways.
Dan: Again, because I privilege authorial intent, the elephant doesn’t have any intent. It doesn’t even know what it’s doing. It’s just walking around and doing stuff, moving it’s trunk around.
Michael: Do you know an elephant’s intent as much as you, I mean…
Angelina: Let’s not go down this rabbit hole. We’ve already been there once.
Michael: Thus concludes excerpts from first year philosophy class, first year art criticism class.
Dan: Here’s the thing about elephants…
Angelina: Let us know what you guys thought about the episode. Have you had a similar experience with photography, or art, or how are you approaching your art? Let us know. You can connect with us on social media. We’re on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Or, you can email us. We have email addresses on our website, which is livinguncommonpodcast.com. We would love to hear from you. Otherwise, we’ll be back in two weeks with another new episode.
Dan: Thanks, everyone.
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