Doubling Down on Imagining Sustainability

This is not going to be an article on the you-know-what. I’m tired of giving that horrible thing attention. Neither is this an article about silver linings. I’m not trying to peddle some false positivity. Nope, this is back to what I care most deeply about besides my daughter, my family, my friends and my dog: art and the environment, in my case: photographing Wilder.

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For about the past half a year, I have been working on a project that I started with my girlfriend at the time. It is a study of a local park that is accessible on foot from my studio. It started with Madison, and it has continued even while we have not been able to be in contact due to the current situation.

 

The project is about a connection to a place. There is something about hiking, about the slow methodical speed of walking, that makes a great energy for making photographs. Being connected to a place also means being connected to people. Love is always at the core of any artwork I make. That is my motivation.

 

Of course, love is a complicated set of emotions and actions. There is romantic love, familial love, the love of the natural world, the love of art. Love is a drive, and attraction to an idea, thing or action. Love is at the root of philosophy: it is the love of wisdom. If you can cultivate the energy of love as a driving force, then everything you do becomes more meaningful. Coming from a place of love is seriously underrated.

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In our current culture, we have a challenge in thinking sincerely about love. We do not honor or think deeply about the most important things: truth, beauty, goodness and love among the top of the list. We are obsessed with sex, money and power above all else. What happened to the powerful influence of love as an attraction? Love that guides us to protect and build up what we need to survive is lacking in a world riddled with techno-addiction and cyber-war. Fundamental concepts like love come across as childish or naive.

 

And yet, the most enduring things are simple but powerful and we should return to them. Now is the time to start making the work that is coming from a place of love and imagining sustainable development. We are always developing, always in process, never not building, and if we can focus our energies and resist the urge to chase after our addictions, then we might just be able to present a vision to the world that will inspire us to live in a way that makes more sense.

 

What does this mean in the context of Santa Cruz? Santa Cruz is a very strange place, but not in the ways that most people think. I often find myself cringing as I overhear people talking about Santa Cruz from an outsider’s perspective. What does it even mean to be local to a place? Why does it matter? I think it comes down to a matter of respect.

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A side note: for our communications to work we need to have more than a little common understanding as to the meanings of words, but all words have multiple meanings and are interpreted differently. We know that language is a dynamic and slippery medium, so it is always worth doing the work to define terms. That might be one of the most helpful things that writing can do: help us to come up with common understandings of concepts.

 

The push for greater sustainability in our development starts with a locally based love and respect for the landscape which leads to a desire to protect. In Santa Cruz, this plays out with a hyper sharp focus in the area between ocean and land where famous surf spots attract wannabe waveriders from the CostCo riddled hinterlands. Now, it is more than fair to say that nobody can lay claim to a part of the ocean.

 

The ocean is for everyone. But, not everyone deserves it. The ocean should be for those who respect it, who love it and who protect it. These three things are way more important than your home address. Love leads to respect which in turn inspires an effort to protect. You see a lot of people who come to the ocean with a predatory and entitled attitude, looking for opportunities to score one way or another and unconcerned about their impact on the place.

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This is true for our parks, too. The pristine trails climbing through redwood forests and up long grassy meadows with the opportunity to see wildlife and all of the intricacies of light and leaves and the interactions of organisms in an ecosystem at work is beautiful and attractive for good reasons. Access to the parks for everyone tips us in the direction of an egalitarian democracy, and so of course they should remain open to the public, but again not everyone deserves them.
Every weekend and then all summer long, people come to the area as tourists and treat the place with anything but respect. Part of the character of internet culture, which is evident among other places in high relief on Twitter, is a kind of jaded gallows humor and cynical lack of response to the things that happen in the world.

 

In other words, the dominant culture of Twitter is the culture of New York. The dominant culture of Instagram is Los Angeles. Facebook is the Midwest. We have a critical world-weary sarcastic sophisticated style of interpreting the world and an exhibitionistic flamboyant hedonistic showcase of contemporary versions of primal instincts. We have the seen it all by the age of twelve.

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Both of these approaches are what they are, and one thing they are is conceptual straw men. In the context of a megalopolis the need to be heard above the continual cacophony of millions of people all trying to get the same cronut creates a tone of such hyperbole that mainstream culture, porn and the absolutely illicit all merge in one wretched shriek of madness. That’s how I see culture right now. It stinks like 8th avenue on a hot morning, like rotting food, cigarette smoke and vomit.

 

We have ulcerous stomachs and flabby arms. From the couch, we judge the world like disappointed gods condemning our own creations in some twisted self-hating turn, a demonic yoga posture. A new variation on the ouroubourous, we have eaten too much of ourselves and are now instead vomiting up our own being.

 

This is the character of internet culture, generally, but it is not the culture of Santa Cruz. I don’t know what could make one culture better than another unless it is the abundance of love, respect and conservation for the place itself. If people are actively celebrating, taking care of and protecting the place where they live, is there not something better about that then another culture lacking those important qualities?

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The only reason to judge a culture is to promote the version of culture you want to take over the world, and as maniacal as that may sound it is also simply inevitable. If you want to have a world with greater sustainability it has to be the entire world, since we are one global system with oceans and atmosphere connecting us. What Elon Musk sends into space affects all of us for good and bad.

 

In the end it is a competition of ideas. You can’t blame people for liking what they do. You have to give them something better, you have to lead by example. That is what I try to do in my photography and in my life. I chose to create my content by walking to locations and syncing my instinct for making pictures up with the landscape the lighting and the mysterious elements of unpredictable change.

Will it be enough to move the needle? Will it help to push the people of the world to reconsider what we value? Who knows, but regardless of outcome the job is still in front of us and we can choose to do the work or not with attendant consequences. If we want good outcomes, we have to do the work.

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For me, this begins with walking long distances over and over again as I collect images and make photographs. Those are two distinctly different things, as I do one casually and without much work with my phone camera while hiking and then I also have my backpack with camera equipment, and I also carry a tripod for when I want to make a photograph that requires more technique.

 

One of the most ridiculous and counterproductive feelings I can remember from before I started this project was the frantic attempt to find a good location as golden hour approached. Sometimes you could see that the sunset was going to be amazing and so you might be racing around in your car to be in the right spot. What a bunch of horseshit that is. Since I now make photographs while in the middle of a five-hour hike, I have to use a much different set of instincts to get myself into the right position to make a photograph during the best moments of light.

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In order to do that, I have to align my instincts with the landscape. This is an ancient art known by farmers and practiced by surfers. I learned it from mainly from working with Anthony Tashnick, who is the one human most keenly attuned to the ocean I have ever known. All professional surfers have this instinct. It is a prerequisite to the job, just as a fisherman has to find the fish. The surfer has to be where the waves are good. The photographer has to position themselves for the right compositions at the right times. It is all the same in some way. You have to study the patterns and intend to be in the right place at the right time. It is an exercise of using desire to change your behavior. You have to want to get the shot and then work to be there for the moment when it happens.

 

Another, less positive, way to think about it is like the instincts of an alcoholic or junky. The need for that thing is so strong that there is almost a supernatural attraction to it that creates the ability to know where it is at all times. Just like the alcoholic knows where the liquor cabinet is when they walk into a home, the surfer knows where an incoming swell is going to break, and a photographer knows how to be somewhere amazing when the light peaks.

 

I certainly am not suggesting that I have it all figured out, but I do have some things wired. I know that the more I hike the better photos I get. I know that it is a great honor to be a photographer and I respect the art and its tradition, so I feel compelled to work at being the best artist with a lens that I can be. I very much approach the task of making art with some kind of militant warrior spirit. I believe that it is as much about conquering my own fears and temptations through discipline as anything else. Working on photography is one thing: working on the person making the photographs is another altogether. Facing ourselves and being honest about what we find is an act of courage that is transformative.

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This project is an attempt to align those things, too. I want to improve in all aspects of my being, but especially as a photographer and as a person. How can you gauge your improvement? How do you know when you are getting better? It is just a feeling. It is all subjective anyways. But, you have to live with your feelings, so if you can conquer the negative self-talk then you create space for some much more interesting dialogue.

 

The best way to earn the respect of people you care about is by being respectful and that starts with how you treat yourself. Hiking for my photographs gives me a sense of achievement and a confidence that I know something fundamental about myself. My desire to keep pushing myself physically and artistically gives me a sense of self-respect. I know what my intentions are. When I feel tired or sore, it reminds me of my decision to double down on imagining sustainability and it feels great.