George Wilson: Imagination Provokes Curiosity

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Yes, Photographs tell stories, convey emotion and make us laugh. They make us smile and sometimes, they make us cry. Photographs, moments in time, spur us into action and urge us to learn more. The photographer’s imagination in creating an image, will, hopefully, spark curiosity in the viewer. This curiosity is what makes us want to know more, understand more and receive the message more clearly. In today’s world of answers being just one mouse click away, I am seeing a generation no longer interested in visiting a library or going through the shelves at a bookstore – imagination and curiosity are receding quickly as we no longer seek to be exposed to a diversity of information other than that which can be displayed on the screens of our phones.

Curiosity is the engine that drives us to learn — it’s what drives us to keep asking questions, keep seeking answers, to keep imagining things and pushing ourselves to develop our ideas. Curiosity is what drove me to seek out the Puerto Rico Door, pictured above, metaphorically peeling back the curtains to discover its identity, origins and meaning – isn’t that what we photographers do? We strive to find our clients personality and capture it in an image. These personalities hide once the camera makes an appearance and we have to coax them back out into the open. It is what I, as a journalist, do – what is the backstory? The meaning? Photography is the tool I use to help my viewer see what I see, learn what I know and realize what I am saying – I want them to say: “what am I seeing?”, “what does this mean?” – I want them to take that intellectual journey and find the answer – the hidden truth.

I had just finished shooting on the Esplanade in front of the Castillo San Felipe del Morro or just “El Morro” as it is known to everyone (The Esplanade is a favorite place for families to picnic and fly kites). I was strolling the streets, hopping back and forth from one side to the other staying in the shade, sheltered from the strong Caribbean sun, toward my favorite lunch spot in Old San Juan – Callee Fortaleza has sidewalk seating for restaurants, music pouring out of open doors and laughter abounds everywhere. If you’ve never been to Old San Juan, it’s small, very small – only about 7 blocks square, laid out as a grid. It is known as “La Cuidad Amurallada” – the walled city. San Juan is ringed by a defensive wall 20 feet thick in places.

Damage from Hurricane Irma was still also evident and it did not take a great effort to find it, but for the most part and due to its tourist value – everything appeared to be normal. The remainder of the island, its mountains, El Yunque National Forest and remote villages remain without power and proper utilities. Recovery operations are still underway here – progressing at a snail’s pace.

Following the blue cobblestones in the streets, I turned onto Callee San José and approached the Puerto Rico Door. Known as La Puerta de la Bandera,” (Gate of the Flag) this 10 foot tall door and accompanying mural boldly asserts its presence on the side of an abandoned building dating from about 1700.

First painted by local artist Rosenda Álvarez with permission from the building’s owner, La Puerta has emerged as an emblematic fixture of Old San Juan and a symbol of Puerto Rican national identity. In 2016, the artist revisited her mural in the dark of night to paint out the colors of the Puerto Rican flag in favor of black stripes.

I set my camera bag in the doorway of a building across the street
and pondered the change of message, the imagination the artist had to create
and then modify the artwork. My own imagination and curiosity have brought me
back to the city once again – my first trip since Hurricane Irma carved a path
of merciless destruction through the Caribbean.

It was the appointment of fiscal oversight board, that urged Alvarez out into the night with her paint brush to protest alongside the dark shadow of patriotic mourning now hovering over the island. As a journalist, I am usually in the middle of an event, not on the perimeter. I hear the cries, sense the emotion and experience all of the elements. I imagine what residents feel – perhaps powerless under the auspices of the board. PROMESA, many feel, revokes the Puerto Rican people’s basic and fundamental right to democratic self-governance with a federally-appointed (not elected) oversight board for the island.

Puerto Rico remains a territory of the United States, not a state and is not allowed to restructure any of its debt under Chapter 9 the way states are allowed. This only adds salt to an open wound for many on the island.

I was
shooting black and white that day – camera set to monochrome, prime lenses
only, contrast filters in my bag. As I pondered what I knew about the door, its
change in appearance and PROMESA – I sought out the hidden meaning – was I
reading too much into it – No, art is subjective. Art is meant to move us,
stimulate both the mind and the heart. To provide answers or subtle directions
into where those answers may lay.

In my
imagination, the artist gave a subtle hint of hope – the 300 year-old exposed
brick and the images of famous Puerto Ricans on the wall were not black. The
color spoke of hope – I switched my camera to color from monochrome.

layers of this image come together perfectly and allow viewer to either enjoy
the image or seek the answers to the clues presented – the image is a singular

is about the light (that sounds so clichéd doesn’t it) – as an artist, I use
the light to expose a story, things in the light do not hide anything. We see everything
clearly and in great detail. Move that subject now into the shadows or even
more into the darkness and they begin to become cloaked in the unknown. Here
the passerby is moving rapidly against the flow of the image. Direction of the
flow of the image is generally left to right for the western audience – it is
how we read our language. Place an object at odds with that and you can stop
the flow – the viewer’s eye.? The blurring hides his face and his identity. I
didn’t need to show his face to tell a story – I want the viewer to see past
the pedestrian and see the door. Our brains tend to focus on what is bright and
what is in focus.

Many Puerto Ricans feel the black door is an act of vandalism, many want it changed back to color and many more may not understand the message of the artist. There were a few tourists on the street that day – one asked me what I was photographing. We spoke about the door and Old San Juan. He was hurrying to his next stop on a short visit – he did not even notice the blue cobblestones. La Puerta de la Bandera may not even be in his memory now.

Without imagination, we have no curiosity. Without a curiosity, the images we make and moments we collect are merely photographs of something – not about something.

A side note from Photoflex: If you have not yet read George’s first post that this follows up on, we highly encourage you to check it out:

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