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The Narrative Of Images: National Geographic Photographer's Work Displayed at Berkshire Museum

An exhibit at the Berkshire Museum is showcasing the work of a photojournalist whose collections of images from nearly 100 countries have been displayed in museums around the world, including at the Louvre in Paris. An opening reception is set for Friday at 5:30.John Stanmeyer has traveled the world telling stories of people and places captured through the lens of his camera. Having previously worked for Time magazine, Stanmeyer has been with National Geographic since 2004 snapping images of Syrian refugees, children evading kidnappers in Uganda and rituals detailing the spiritual connections some Indonesians have to mountains and water.

“I don’t know what the image is until I’ve found the narrative,” Stanmeyer said. “Then when I find the narrative I find the image and the image becomes, to the best of my human ability, the narrative of the story I’m telling.”

Fifteen pictures telling those stories are part of the Powered Narratives exhibit on display at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. One image, called ‘Night Commuters,’ shows young boys illuminated by car headlights making an all-too-familiar walk in Uganda to evade capture by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

“Every evening to protect their children parents would send their children from refugee camps to walk a few kilometers to live communally so that their cumulative numbers in an NGO [non-governmental organization] capacity, one place was called Noah’s Ark,” he explained. “Thousands of children every night would walk to one of these places Noah’s Ark in order to seek sanctuary and safety.”

Two pictures over, an image depicts a mass of people covering their faces as dirt and debris swirl around in a dust tornado. But, like most of Stanmeyer’s images, there is more than meets the eye. He wasn’t there for the storm, but to see the Turkish military snip a border fence to allow thousands of Syrian refugees into Turkey.

“I’m not a dust devil or tornado hunter,” Stanmeyer said. “I’m a street photographer, a documentarian and a humanist, what am I doing in the forces of nature? The forces of nature come to all of us. In this case it came to me in the context of a very weighted, heavy social issue. All of those pieces combined and it’s completely out of my control. It’s just bearing witness to reality.”

A few of the pictures on display shine a light on labor industries not often thought about in the Western world. From a boy pulling a cart filled with a mountain of spices, to sex workers in China illuminated by red neon lights, to men in Indonesia climbing into the bowels of the earth.

“There are a few hundred men who work one of the most difficult and back-breaking labors of going into an active volcano and collecting rock-sized levels of sulfur that get used for myriad of things including matchsticks,” he explained. “Trying to put a face and an understanding of when you light that match to start your fire or roast marshmallows how do you get matches? Where do they come from? They don’t just magically appear.”  

Stanmeyer, who runs a gallery in West Stockbridge, almost always photographs a scene with a human element, often times in dire conditions.

“There’s been many times I haven’t been able to take a picture,” Stanmeyer said. “I can’t tell what they are off the top of my head. I don’t mind talking about, but I don’t like to personally dwell on it. I don’t think I shove it out of my consciousness.”

One of the most striking photos shows Balinese Hindus on a shoreline performing what some Westerners might relate to a baptism or similar practice. Part of these melastis involves going into a spiritual trance in which a person takes a dagger-like object and puts it to their chest.

“Pushing with all their might, bare-chested, rolling in the sand on top of the dagger and it doesn’t go into their body,” Stanmeyer described. “How that happens? I honestly do not know. But they believe that the spirits that are taking place or interacting in the water, mountains and volcanoes are protecting them in this incredibly unique state of heightened spirituality.”

The museum’s Maria Mingalone curated the exhibit.

“The visual is so engaging and it pulls you in,” Mingalone said. “Then you’re hooked and you learn the history and story behind the image. It’s this incredible way that you can be moved and journey to all of these far-flung places across the world.”

The images will be on display through November 8th.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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