b h a g . n e t   visual and conceptual exchange   b h a g . n e t

bhag cover page                   Return to current word from bhag                      


August 3, 2003


by John Clay, editor-in-chief

On a Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago, I gathered my satchel and keys from my room and looked at the electric fan. Even as I looked, it stopped humming, unwound, and stood still. The power indicator light on the phone/fax was dark. There was no buzz from the refrigerator downstairs. In fact, all the sounds that normally pass for silence had stopped. I couldn't stop to take care of it though. I was due in Chinatown in an hour. I walked out and locked the door.

I was on my way to meet photojournalist Alan Chin, to talk with him about his experiences photographing conflicts around the world. The day was humid and overcast as I emerged from the subway and walked down Orchard Street, from Delancey to Canal. I waited in the bar we had agreed on, a bar in Chinatown, run by Swedes. A Chinese barbershop had been the previous tenant and, in deference to the community, the new owners kept the old name, still legible in Chinese and in English on the sidewalk awning—Good World. I listened as the bartender and waiters spoke together in words I couldn't understand, and it occurred to me that this staff of four was probably the largest crowd of Swedes I had ever seen in one place at one time. But the very sweet lady tending the bar cautioned against jumping to such a conclusion. "You may have seen Swedes before and not known it."

Meanwhile, the time of the appointment had come and gone. I drank a coffee and then called Alan's cell phone. "I'm on the steps of City Hall. Two people have been shot. Can you call me in an hour?" He was in the middle of mayhem and conflict: exactly what had drawn my attention to him in the first place when I heard him at a panel discussion earlier this year, speaking of his work. There was nothing for me to do but settle in. The sun breached the heavy clouds and flooded the street with summer light as I drew a mouthful of Bass ale. Lights on, lights out. I was seeing a light some wouldn't see again.

It is so easy to miss opportunities. Letting lights go out; too busy to keep them shining. Or sitting in darkness; too busy, too hopeless, too uncertain to reach into the light that shines so near. Or just not even realizing the light is shining on us, lighting our lives. Light reveals, lets us see and be seen, know and be known, read and be read, share our lives together.

I camped out with the Swedes and waited for my opportunity. Alan met me an hour later and we talked through session one of a two-session interview about capturing life events by capturing an impression in light, so that others around the world can see what otherwise they might never have seen or known. Alan risks his life for those impressions, for his own reasons. We all risk something, at the very least our pride, when we step into the light and let it reflect our hopes and ideas into the searching eyes of other human beings. Lights on, lights out. We won't always have the opportunity we have now. While we can, we remain in light.

© 2003 John Clay

Return to current word from bhag