I don’t know where I saw it first. Facebook or Instagram or maybe it was in a newspaper, but I saw a boat run aground at Oregon Inlet. I knew it had to be photographed. This is how I know there is, however small, something of a true photographer in me: I didn’t see the boat in the picture, I saw the boat as I would photograph it. For an artist, once a vision like that has been captured in the mind, it must be coerced into this world. And in this way, an artist and a disciple of a religious tradition are much the same. The vision is an epiphany, something transcendent grasped in the mind demanding investigation, like a moth singed by the flicker of a candle returning again and again until it is consumed with light. God’s imagination and the muse’s provocations speak with the same charge, the same voice. It is a mystical experience every bit as dramatic and miraculous as a vision from Patmos or by the river Chebar, where the heavens were opened, and Ezekiel saw visions of God.
Angela and I hopped in the car on a Saturday morning and started the long ride up to the Outer Banks. When we arrived, the wind was blowing hard with forty-mile-per-hour gust. It was cold. I hiked out to the boat. Lines of sand blowing inches above the ground filled my footprints as soon as they were made. The boat started as a speck in the distance cloaked with sea mist. The sea-level hike took on an ambiance much like what I would expect when climbing Everest.
No one was at the boat except a man holding his hat the way you stand before a gravestone. I didn’t pay him much attention outside of noticing his long hair blowing towards the sun with sand clumps accreting at his feet. Why would I pay attention to him? There’s a scallop boat feet from the shore being frisked by the wind and waves. But now that I think back on it, I wonder if I didn’t miss the real drama. Was he the captain of the boat? The owner? Maybe he was a crewmate who now didn’t have a way to make money. Perhaps he had nothing to do with this boat named Ocean Pursuit, but the vision of the boat run aground stirred unkempt memories.
Before I was finished photographing the boat, freezing cold or not, I ended up standing in knee deep water, moving this way and that, trying to get my tripod to stick to the ground. I knew I was getting the shots I wanted. Some would be great, and others were going to be okay, and still others were getting destroyed by waves moving the camera. When I was done, I turned back to the shore and saw the man walking off towards the darkening skies.
In this way the boat became a metaphor for hidden suffering. Someone’s life had crashed on the beach. But whose? And why? The boat rocking up and down, the skeletal remains, livelihoods skewed. The cross and wreath along the side of road, someone had fallen into ashes. The political signs hedonically littered, the ambition of tribes, the fear of others.
What are the symbols of suffering you have in your life? The ones that are open and out there for everyone to see? Where has your boat run aground? Do you still stand on the shore, with your hat in hand, and mourn the lost? Have you turned away, walked on so the past is behind you?
I am very pleased with how these images turned out. And I still maintain that this project came to me from where the mind enjoys a dual residency. But for as beautiful as the images are, they are a reminder of the one not seen, the man behind me who walked away. The beautiful images are of someone else’s suffering.