Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Annaberg Encounter

   I have always defined "Thin Places" as a site where the material world and the spiritual world co-exist and it is possible to move more easily between the two. I have always thought of them as peaceful, quiet places. Not so!  I found a thin place on St. John that stunned me...so much so that I has inspired to create images in a radically, for me at least, new way.  That place is the Annaberg Sugar Mill.

   It was my first full day on St. John and I went by myself to the sugar mill site. Since I was alone I decided to sit and do my visual listening exercise. It was a beautiful location  high on a cliff over looking the sea and the ruins were well maintained and extensive. The sensation of the place was, however, foreboding and uncomfortable. The sun was shinning in a bright blue sky with soft white clouds but I didn't get the sensation of peace...just suffering and oppression.

   As a walked around later, trying to photograph the buildings, I knew that I had to find a different way to translate the landscape. Warm, soft color wouldn't do nor would my typical black and white style. I sat down and wrote, extensively, in my journal.  I knew that I would need to reflect for some time before I would know what I needed to do with this place.  These images are a rather unusual combination of solarized and infra-red processing.  It got me the effect I wanted to convey the emotion of the place. I'm not sure I'll use it again but isn't it wonderful that digital processing allows such experimentation!

   This is why I think photography, especially digital photography, is such a valuable way to enhance your contemplative practice.  It can make concrete your feelings and emotions in unexpected ways.  It also gives you an artifact to stimulate new thinking and reflection.  Later on, you have a visual record of the experience that transcends and illuminates the words in your journal. Some people bring back pretty postcards from their travels to new places...I try to bring back evidence of deeply moving encounters as well.

   When I got back to my friends house and told them of my experience at Annaberg, they told me some of the history of the place.  All the sugar mills on the island employed slave labor but the slaves at Annaberg sometimes committed suicide by leaping to their deaths from the cliffs rather than endure further torture by the slave owners. This was a unique and horrible attribute of the place. That must have been the energy I felt while I was there. I visited other sugar mill ruins on St. John during my week there. They all had a sadness about them but none had the profound affect Annaberg had on me. This was a totally new kind of thin place for me. Before I left Annaberg I spent some time sitting with my back to ruins and looking out to the sea.  I needed to try and clear my mind from what I had just experienced and, thankfully, I did. I felt an up swelling of  peace as I gazed out over the turquoise sea.  If we want to embrace the good in the world, we have to be willing to look at the bad. Taoism teaches that in even the deepest black there is a spot of light.  THAT was the message I took away from Annaberg that day. I think I will amend my definition of thin places by including an old Apache proverb:

"Wisdom sits in places."

      Thin Places are sites that prompt reflection and will always affect a person on a deeply personal level if you allow yourself to fully engage in it.  Sometimes the affect is peaceful and uplifting and sometimes it's immensely sad. In all thin places, you'll walk away a different person than you walked in as. For that reason, as a contemplative photographer, I will continue to seek them out wherever I travel.


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