Power In Place

Executive Power VS. Super Power ???

Cartoon by Tom Toro, published In the New Yorker 2015

Cartoon by Tom Toro, published In the New Yorker 2015

Yesterday I was feeling exhilarated after watching the new Wonder Woman movie (a superb, action-packed superhero blockbuster.)  However, reality quickly set in when I read about our President's tweets attacking the accomplished savvy female TV host, Mika Brzezinski.

Trump’s vulgarity is just another unfortunate reminder that all Americans have much work to do in combating the "villainous" misogynists in our midst.  And while the Hollywood hutzpah of Wonder Woman is a refreshing change in a male-dominated genre, we all know it doesn’t take superpowers to combat sexism.  It just takes a sense of equality, human decency, and respect. 

Snowshoeing In Vermont

Returning from the snowy Rockies, I barely had time to unpack my luggage before setting out on another shoot, continuing PiP's winter-themed portraits of political women with a penchant for the colder climate.  Vermont, my adopted home state, has been blanketed in white since late November and this February was the second coldest on record.  But that didn't stop Representative Rebecca Ellis from keeping our appointment on the frozen shores of Lake Champlain.  I met Rebecca only several weeks ago at an event for Emerge Vermont, an organization committed to achieving gender parity in this state's government.  She enthusiastically agreed to pose for me and I'm so glad she did––we had a wonderful day and the photographs came out great.

The Abenaki say that, after God created the world, he turned himself into a rock in Burlington Bay.

The location was Lone Rock Point, not far from where Rebecca grew up.  She chose this setting because of its beauty and association with her past, but also because it tells a story about global warming and climate change.  When Rebecca was growing up, it was commonplace for the lake to freeze over.  Now, sadly, it is the exceptional year when she is able to enjoy snowshoeing along its shores.  In her political life, she is a passionate advocate for environmental issues, promoting policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as legislation that helps Vermonters adapt to an uncertain climate.  Being passionate about nature and the environment myself, I respect and admire Rebecca for all her hard work in this very sensitive area.

Native Vermonters are known for their resilience and resourcefulness, which might explain why Rebecca's mother, Nancy (age 81), acted as my photo assistant!  Yes, that's her, carrying my ladder.  I was amazed how mother and daughter barely seemed to notice the cold on this extremely frigid morning, chatting and full of lighthearted spirit as they walked along.  As I began to photograph, my fingers would freeze in a matter of minutes and I would have to warm them in my gloves before continuing with the shoot.  I felt like I was on a National Geographic assignment!  Ok, it wasn't like tracking the snow leopard in the Himalayas, but it was pretty darn cold.

The longer I live in Vermont, the more I grow into its unique and precious landscape, cherishing the values that are so deep-rooted here––the respect for nature, the respect for small-scale enterprise and sustainability, a love of community and an inborn desire to lend a helping hand to your neighbor.  And I'm grateful to know that Representative Ellis is working to preserve all these things through her tireless efforts in the Vermont legislature.

Representative Rebecca Ellis, Vermont Legislature, Vice Chair, House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Representative Rebecca Ellis, Vermont Legislature, Vice Chair, House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Gaining Altitude: PiP Goes to Denver

PiP stepped into the heart of winter this past week, meeting the spirited women of the Centennial State.  I arrived in Denver, Colorado with a positive feeling, knowing that this physically beautiful place was also the first US state to give women the right to vote in 1893, twenty-seven years prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited state or federal sex-based restrictions on voting.  Since that time, over 250 women have served in the Colorado General Assembly and the state also now leads the nation with the highest percentage of women (41%) in our state legislature.

My first portrait subject, Former Representative Amy Stephens, was suggested to me by Meg Froelich.  Meg is currently working on a kindred project entitled Strong Sisters: Elected Women in Colorado, a compilation of oral histories from past and current female elected officials.  I met Amy Stephens at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.  

The setting immediately struck me with its grandeur and unique beauty, a place of sweeping views and distinctive rock formations.  I learned that this spectacular location once inspired a woman named Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 to write a pastoral poem, later known as America the Beautiful, upon which the patriotic song was based.  And I could see where she found her inspiration for such laudatory words.

Amy is a wonderfully vivacious woman, full of energy, life, and passion.  She has served as a charismatic conservative leader in the state for many years, and continues to be very active in politics.  When asked about the significance of this place, Amy said: "When I have had a life transition or a big decision to make, where better to hear and pray than Garden of the Gods!  If not here, then nowhere.  I am never disappointed."

I noticed that Amy carried a book with her, part journal, part compendium of ideas, and I imagined her jotting down her inspirations amid this timeless landscape, full of patience and blue skies that stretch on forever.  On the cover of the book is advice I'd like to broadcast to every woman with even the faintest inclination of considering a future in the governance of our country.

Be bold, Take risks, Live life freely, Lead by example, Trust your gut, Say what you feel, Mean what you say, Express gratitude, Believe in your power, Exceed your expectations.

Onward to Pueblo where I met State Representative Clarice Navarro, currently serving her second term in the Colorado State Legislature.  Clarice brought along a very professional entourage with her: Jace, her husband, acted as consummate stylist and wardrobe consultant, while adorable Jorji, her daughter, managed morale by jumping into the shot to lighten things up and break the ice, which was pretty much all around us for as far as the eye can see.  Clarice chose a vantage high above the town of Pueblo (which lies in her district), looking down upon the vast reservoir there.  As we got down to business, I quickly caught on to her gamesome spirit, loving her willingness to try different outfits and alternate setups.  I particularly liked her leopard print shawl, seen above!

Towards the end of the shoot, friends of Clarice and Jace just happened to come upon us.  One of them was wearing a large white stetson and on a whim I commandeered the hat and used it as a prop.  That shot, as it turns out, was the magic one (look for it on my Portraits Page in the coming weeks).  That's one of the things I really love about this art form––it's a marriage of technical skill and creative vision, but it's also dependent on spontaneity and caprice.  More often than not, it's these playful last-minute shots that win the day. 

On the following afternoon, the mood was of an altogether different sort as I met Rhonda Fields.  Her story is an extremely difficult one, a story of terrible tragedy giving rise to hope and a chance of rejuvenation.  Rhonda is a State Representative from Aurora whose son, along with his fiancée, were murdered in 2005 in connection to upcoming witness testimony in a murder trial.  It was only after her son's death that Rhonda considered a role in government, and now she is a prominent advocate for crime victims, working hard to make change in a community that faces many challenges.

Her creation, the Dayton Street Opportunity Center in urban Aurora, is a multi-faceted support facility offering a wide range of social services and help for those in need.  Rhonda's surviving child, daughter Maisha Pollard, is the center's executive director, and clearly the effort is a family commitment with deep-rooted personal motivations.  Gang violence needs to be addressed at the street level, with practical community support systems and dedicated people who understand the economic and emotional trials of broken families and broken lives.  Rhonda, through her center, and perhaps retrospectively through her own tragedy, is holding out a hand to those in need.  I was truly touched by the strength and hope personified by this woman's example to triumph over adversity.  The ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held on March 7th and PiP sends a hearty congratulations to Rhonda for this momentous achievement.

Happy Presidents Day!

Forty-three years ago, Ms. Magazine published their inaugural issue with this cover of Wonder Woman marching through Washington, DC with a mission to reverse the gender bias of US politics.  To paraphrase Linda Carter, who portrayed the superhero on TV from 1975-1979, we may have come a long way, baby, but our fight for equality is far from over.

As we celebrate those illustrious figures who have held the highest office in the nation's government, let's reflect on the gender imbalance of the presidency throughout US history.  Not a single female president in 226 years in our fair land.  But it's not a magic lasso that's going to get a woman into the oval office.

What we need is a concerted effort to reverse the socio-cultural structures that keep women from achieving great things in politics.  And one of the main ways we can do this is through images and role models.

There is a very good reason why the iconic presence of Wonder Woman has permeated our collective imagination.  The phenomenon explicitly demonstrates the POWER OF IMAGES.  Especially in this visually-driven age, it is more important than ever to reach young women by holding up a mirror that reflects their gender in empowered roles.  This is the driving force behind PiP.  Reaching young women through images.

Political Books

Today is Congressman Steve Israel's book launch for his fictional novel, The Global War On Morris.  (The jacket cover photo of him is by yours truly).  The Congressman and I go way back and I attribute my success as a political photographer in large part to him.  When I graduated from college without surefooted direction, he was the first person that hired me to shoot his fundraisers.

At the time, he was a Huntington Town Councilman and now he is a prominent member of Congress with leadership roles.  I like to think that everything comes full circle and here we are today, working together again.  When I conceived of PiP, Steve was the first person I approached.  He thought it was a great idea, and subsequently his support has been unflagging.  Steve has helped to secure sign-ons to the project, and he invited me to DCCC women's luncheon where I got to pitch my idea directly to electives.

On the train ride down to NYC, I read Kirsten Gillibrand's Off The Side Lines––a must-read for anyone interested in women and politics.   It is filled with inspirational stories and motivating anecdotes for women who desire to participate in the political process.  

Senator Gillibrand is also someone I met early on in my career.  I remember her from my days as Hillary Clinton's senate campaign photographer in 2000.  Kirsten was spearheading a fundraising group of young female professionals for Hillary.  When reading the section that describes her first foray into politics, it transported me back to those days.  In retrospect, it still amazes me that I was part of that historical moment in US politics.  At the time, I didn't realize what a momentous achievement it was (and still is) for a woman to be elected to the Senate.  Like many young people, I had no idea that women in politics were so underrepresented.  My earlier complacency grew into indignation, and here I am, launching PiP to do my part.

Decisions are being made everyday in Washington, and if you are not part of those decisions, you might not like what they decide, and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

Kirsten writes about a speech she heard by Hillary Clinton: "Decisions are being made everyday in Washington, and if you are not part of those decisions, you might not like what they decide, and you'll have no one to blame but yourself."  These words had a big impact on Kirsten and were the clarion call for her to serve in politics.  Personally, when I was younger, I believed so-called ‘woman’s lib’ had made great strides since my parents generation.  But now I believe change is happening too slowly and I am dumbstruck by the astounding fact that if we continue at the present rate, we will only be able to achieve gender parity in US politics in 500 years.  Achievers like Kirsten Gillibrand are the trailblazers pointing the way to reversing this dismal destiny.

When I feel daunted by the ambition and scope of my project, I conjure an adage from Off the Side LinesConfidence is infectious and builds momentum.  The roadmap to success requires hard work, positive thinking, and undaunted persistence.  And of course, we are beholden to the kindness of strangers and friends alike.  As I showcase female politicians and their remarkable stories, I know I’m adding a powerful reflector in a visual culture.  Sooner or later, if I hit my mark, the images and what they stand for will help to influence the next generation of women politicians.  Onward and upward!

Reflections on 2014

As PIP reflects on the past year and looks forward to 2015, we'd like to share some of our amazing experiences and thoughts.

It's been quite a year.  In January 2014, this project was in its infancy.  It was just an idea, bolstered by the enthusiastic support of those around me.  In late January, I headed down to Miami to photograph my first subject, Barbara Muhammad Scharief, the mayor of Broward county.  I was nervous, for this was my first portrait attempt and the success or failure of the project seemed to rest on the outcome of this initial shoot.

During a flight connection on my way to Miami, I ran into Congressman Steve Israel.  He is my hometown Congressman and the first politician I ran the project by.  His enthusiasm convinced me that my idea was worth pursuing.  Accompanying him was Congresswoman Nita Lowery and I also shared the outline of the project with her.  She immediately signed on and was delighted by the possibilities.  Okay, I thought to myself, how fortuitous!  Maybe this is an auspicious omen.  However, it was when I was seated behind Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz on my next leg to Florida that I really knew my stars were aligning.  She too agreed to sit for a future portrait.

The location Barbara Scharief chose was outside a diner where her father used to sell clothing to passersby.  It was also where he was shot and killed by a 15-year-old robber when Barbara was just a young girl.  In Barbara's own words, "the place reminds me of a time when life was good and my family was whole... I can visualize my father standing there selling clothes and giving out food to the needy people in that area.  He would say to me 'whenever you get to the point in your life when you can give something back, you should.'  This is the reason I am in politics now, so it's only fitting that this be the place we memorialize."

Because of the profound meaning and emotion of Barbara's chosen location, I wanted to capture her portrait with the sensitivity it deserved.  The diner (Jumbo's) was a slice of old Miami, circa 1960s, a throwback with  colors to match.  Actually, it's famous for being the first white-owned restaurant in Miami to break the color barrier by serving and employing African Americans.  On the day of the portrait, it was bathed in morning sunshine.  Folks outside the diner spoke to me about the significance of Jumbo's as a neighborhood hub with a comforting atmosphere and the best soul food around.

When Barbara arrived, she stepped out her vehicle picture perfect.  Her make-up was flawless.  I kept thinking what a poised and stunning woman she is.  I brought along a rose to be used as a prop to signify the memory of her slain father.  As I concentrated on the task at hand, we didn't speak much, but afterwards she treated me to breakfast and the conversation flowed.  We spoke at length about her rise in politics and her determination through the tough races.  When I left Barbara, I felt the first solid affirmation of my project in her dauntless spirit and generous heart.  What a great beginning!

I first met Rosie Mendez in 2009.  All politicians need photos for their campaign and she hired me.  Back then she struck me as the real deal––a strong woman passionately fighting for her constituents.  I remember how many volunteers came out to help during the shoot, people that she aided in housing issues, affordable health care, etc.  So I was particularly excited to include her in PIP.

Rosie chose the Williamsburg Houses, a New York City housing development, as her place of special meaning.  This was where she grew up as a first generation American.  For her, the Williamsburg Houses were a safe and clean place for a child to thrive, as opposed to the tenement buildings where many of her school friends lived.  She remembered how those friends would come over to her place for study sessions because it was warm and free of roaches and rats.  This made a lasting impression on Rosie and she never forgot how lucky she was to have a clean home with hot running water.

As a child, the paddleball courts across the street beckoned to Rosie.  Ever since she saw Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, she wanted to play tennis but there weren't any nearby courts.  Paddleball seemed like the next best alternative.  So that's where we began setting up Rosie's portrait.  Her brother arrived in his Mets T-shirt (Rosie was wearing her Yankees jersey), and I could feel the sporting spirit between them, revived from their childhood matches on the court.

I was forewarned that their paddleball skills were not as honed as in their younger years and I might want to watch out as I jockeyed for a good photograph in their line of fire.  Art, however, takes precedence over prudence and as they began whacking the ball around, I got hit six or seven times.  Anything for a good shot!

In Rosie's own words: "The thing about sports in general is that they teach you the importance of having a competitive edge.  But I try not to go overboard either.  The point is to work hard but have fun while you're doing it.  Paddleball is actually a good lesson in strategy––where to place the ball, how to make your opponents run so that they get tired.  You want to dominate the middle of the court, if you can.  And if your opponent gets the center, you try to lure him to the margins.  These are helpful lessons, especially in politics."  Well, Rosie definitely plays an ambitious game, but at the end of a sweltering summer day, she still had an unconditional hug for me.  

I learned about former Mayor Elizabeth Wilson while on assignment in Decatur, Georgia.  I was intrigued by this 'local legend' who had played a pivotal role in the desegregation of Decatur public schools and libraries during the 1960s.  When Elizabeth accepted our invitation to pose for PIP, I knew I was about to photograph a Civil Rights icon.

On the day of the shoot, it was raining heavily (one of those drenching Southern downpours).  Mayor Wilson welcomed me into her home and we leisurely spent the afternoon together chatting about her life and accomplishments.  At age 83, she has achieved a great deal.  Born in rural Georgia, her parents instilled in her the importance of education.Even though she had to walk 5 miles to school as the white children jeered at her from the bus, she graduated from high school.  Her love of learning continued as a nanny.  As she watched over her charges while they studied their lessons, Elizabeth absorbed the knowledge along with them.  Later on, as a young mother, she helped desegregate Decatur's library by walking in and signing up for a library card.  This simple act of defiance was highly courageous with the height of Civil Rights violence raging across the country.

It wasn't the library, however, that Elizabeth chose for her portrait––it was her kitchen table.  Throughout the afternoon it became clear to me that her family is her most important accomplishment.  All her achievements in the social and political realm were done so that they might inhabit a more just and equitable world.  This great principled matriarch is first and foremost a proud and loving mother and grandmother.  She eagerly shared family photos and regaled me with stories, like the one about her son who was one of the first African American children to be integrated into the Decatur public school system.  Or how proud she is of her daughter who received a Ph.D.  And it was at their dining room table where the whole family would gather, enjoying her famous fried chicken, which she whipped up for me and which, I have to say, lives up to the legend as the best-tasting fried chicken in the South.  

Leaving her house, I felt blessed that I had opportunity to sit down and connect face to face, enjoying Elizabeth's kindness and hospitality over a leisurely afternoon as the rain fell in buckets outside.  I was inspired by her.  Women like Elizabeth are exactly why I conceived of PIP, to spread the stories of these remarkable trailblazers so that the following generation will have role models to look up to and emulate.  Gender parity in politics is on its way!