When we talk about beauty our minds naturally go to what is traditionally seen as beautiful. Seldom is it something that represents anguish, suffering or pain. In the book On Beauty and Being Just, it suggests that beauty leads us to justice. I have to ask: What kind of beauty? What kind of justice?
What I understand from the book is that seeing beauty will lead us to want to preserve that beauty. Which might work for nature, but not as much for humans. For example, if we see a field filled with wildflowers and mountains standing majestically in the background, we may be moved to want to preserve it from being developed into a shopping mall. However, what does the image of a super model – who is indeed beautiful – move us to?
The writer also said the motivation for pursuing justice or goodness is because we want to be counted among the good and just. Is this true? Couldn't people be drawn to issues of social justice out of compassion or out of an encounter with the tragic beauty of harsh realities?
I think we know deep down that certain basic rights should be for all people, but we are really good at isolating ourselves so that we don't have to face it, and in turn, we wouldn't have to address it.
It is possible to remove reminders of the suffering around us and cloister ourselves in a sterile environment. It is safe to be disconnected.
Cameron, a student who traveled to Tanzania with me, provides another example. After spending a day visiting the homes of people who are suffering from AIDS, one of which was a fifteen year old girl, who died that same day, Cameron said, “I can tell you all the facts about HIV and AIDS because we learned them in school. But, after today, I can now say I know about AIDS and I will never be the same.” It was in facing what our society considers ugly, that this young man was moved to compassion and change…to justice.
I believe art tells a story. Sometimes it is a collection of art that tells a story. I’m offering a series of photos to express how my encounter with the ugly but beautiful changed my life and moved me toward justice.
These are a couple of pictures I took of the children near Kambala in Tanzania.
In the picture above the children are happy and healthy. Obviously poor as you can see they live in a mud hut, but living a good life in the Massai culture. The dirt is light in color and free of debris. The children are wearing both traditional and Western clothing.
In this picture, the soil is darker and there is cow dung all over the ground - which accounts for the rich soil. These children are dressed in rags and there is something about their body posture that is very different from the picture on the above.
I have this thing about taking pictures of feet. When I get home and go back over my photos, I am always amazed at the stories they tell. Here are the feet from the same places as the pictures above. The picture below is of the very same girls in the first photo above. Their feet are dusty for sure, but still clean.
These feet are not the feet of the boys above, but from others at the same location. They are very dirty and crusted with manure. If I were going to plant a garden I would want this rich dark soil, but if this was my living space – where I hung out and had my meals – then I definitely would choose the lighter cleaner soil.
As I look at their faces, I am struck by the difference in attitude and health. The girls have sparkling eyes and smiles that suggest to me a sense of hope.
The young man has a look in his eyes that reflects his life; sickness, poverty, hunger, struggle and hopelessness.
The family with the girls in the first photo live without running water or electricity, but they have a great life. It was the young man and his family that moved me. His suffering, and the pleading look in his eyes, spoke to my heart. This combined with many experiences while I was in Tanzania changed my DNA. I see people on the street here in the US differently. Like Robert who sells me my Real Change paper every week and Toni who is trying to leave the stripper world and move into main stream society. I am now acutely aware that our system is difficult to manage if you have fallen from its grace.
I feel called to advocate for change, get to know those who are struggling and be present in ways that serve the immediate need. Beauty, as in the pleading eyes of this young man, moved me to justice. For me this is true of nature as well. If I see that field of wildflowers with mountains standing majestically in the background, I am inspired, at peace, but not as moved to justice as when I see a polluted river or lake. I don’t know if that says something about me or about the subject of beauty and justice. Probably both.
When I think of these posts - Beauty Through My Lens Part I & Part II - it strikes me that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. I capture beauty through the lens of my camera, but I reflect on that same image through the lens of my experience. So, maybe we can still say that beauty leads us to justice. It did through my lens.