American Stories: An American lens

in Community/Featured/Headline

With Independence Day occurring at a tumultuous time marked by a global pandemic and a national crisis over racial injustice, Climate gave local contributors carte blanche to write their perspectives on what makes America special. We will be publishing our contributors’ American Stories now through July 4. Keep an eye out for these unique and personal pieces.

My years as a photographer have taken me to locations nationally and internationally. Assignments to Cuba, Israel, Northern Ireland, Jamaica and Mexico were a few that exposed me to great diversity — and conflicts. Outside the warm safe bubble I had grown up in, I discovered a fascinating world of cultural differences that forced me to reevaluate my view of the world.

Each situation taught a respect for the passions, traditions and customs of others. Being seen as a foreigner taught me what it was to be an American. Whether wandering the streets of Havana, Ocho Rios or Belfast, I was aware that I was conspicuous — a foreigner.

But I’ve had to learn on assignments in America that I’m operating on someone else’s turf too. At times I can feel like a foreigner in my own country.

We take pride in America being a melting pot, a welcoming home for people from all over the world. Our diversity makes us stronger. But taking someone’s picture is very personal, and sometimes I have to remind myself that everyone doesn’t necessarily operate on the same cultural page, even in Redwood City.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Little Havana, Florida, where I was photographing and interviewing Cuban Americans and expatriates. From Bay of Pigs veterans, still dreaming for the violent overthrow of the Castro regime, to idealistic university students, political asylum seekers and “Pedro Pans” (adults who were born in Cuba but brought to the U.S. as children), passions ran hot. To lose sight of that and appear anything but neutral was dangerous.

Didn’t matter if I was in Alaska, Montana, Wisconsin, New York or Tennessee; I was often seen as an outsider, ignorant of local convention and, if not respectful, prone to social missteps.

I can’t help but think my wanderings helped me view others here at home differently as I take photographs. Critical thinking and conflict resolution have become subjects worth being mindful of.

Bottom line: I discovered I didn’t know what it means to be an American until I left my country. Or gain appreciation of it until I photographed the world beyond our shores.

Mark Twain put it best when he said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

Jim Kirkland is the Creative Director of Climate Magazine with 40 years experience as a photographer.


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