The photographs in the exhibition Citizen’s Eye were captured by a community of individuals each with their own perspective on the world. Yet, this special collection of images reveals it is profoundly and visually evident we’re all on the same journey. We’re just taking different paths and leaving our own unique footprints behind along the way.
Where there is light there is always shadow. This is the nature of life, seen and unseen. A handful of the submissions for Citizen’s Eye seemed to illuminate this existential truth revealing a tension of duality in both black and white and color photographs. Many of these photos displayed a bold mirroring effect through reflections and silhouettes recalling ideas of “as above, so below”. I was drawn to the photos with sharp contrasts and vivid juxtapositions of energy. I feel they speak to the truth of the soul, the light and shadow in us all. If there is one thing no human will escape before we emerge from this triple pandemic it is self-reflection—the act of facing one’s inner truth: the good and the bad, the ugly and the sublimely beautiful.
Probably the hardest thing we’ve had to deal with in the past year during the pandemic is the untimely loss of our loved ones. Countless families have had to endure the unimaginable inability to say goodbye. We’ve been robbed of rituals to gather in grief and celebration of our beloveds’ homegoings. I’ve never thought about it much until now. But, when it comes to the language around one’s passing, I always preferred how the death of a living soul was spoken in terms of one’s “sunset.” This exhibition contained many sunsets imbued with both luminous serenity and dark mystique. Photos as a visual medium are not typically works we “hear”. But, there was something about the sunsets of the Citizen’s Eye that are loud with a silent stillness and that demands the respect of the dead and the living.
This word, alone—sunset—conjures the poetic, bittersweet beauty beheld in the ritual farewell of our life-giving star at the end of each day. The metaphorical sunrise and sunset that book end every individual’s journey speak to mythic elements of the human experience. I think another reason I prefer to compare one’s death to the setting of the sun is because, while no one knows for sure what waits for us beyond our last breath, we would bet our lives that the sun will most certainly rise with each new day. Our human being echoes the eternal rhythm of birth:death:rebirth and our primordial connections to the cycles of nature and time. To think that a loved one’s life may come to an end in this world, but will rise again in the next is a comfort to me worth 1000 suns.
For those of us who survived 2020 and its triple pandemic, for those who may have come so close to death but fought hard and were somehow blessed to keep it at bay, we are still here. For me, this past year felt like one long N.D.E. – Near Death Experience. Extensive research documents accounts of survivors who lived through an N.D.E. Individuals report seeing similar visions and voices, crossing thresholds and traversing tunnels of light. They often encounter family with meaningful messages that offer forgiveness and peace. In considering the perspective of the photographers of this series, whose age and demographics were unknown to me, it felt like they were all looking through the lens of the N.D.E that was a year like no other in human history. I couldn’t help but think about the visions I’d want to see at the end of my life. What images would soothe my soul and call me home in such a way I would welcome what comes next? Who would I want to greet me on my solitary path to the afterlife? While my spirit guides and ancestors are a personal matter, one of the images I’ll share that always comes to mind is the ocean.
While writing this post I had the opportunity to travel to Cape May New Jersey for a weekend getaway. It was my first escape outside of state lines since the global pandemic was declared almost a year ago. I oddly felt like a fugitive and the freedom was intoxicating and admittedly, a bit scary. It was my birthday. The beach holds a special place in my heart and seemed the perfect place to release and honor all that was lost. It also seemed a fitting place to celebrate life and the hope of that next horizon, that inevitable sunrise. In thinking about this essay and all the amazing photos from Citizen’s Eye, I knew I had to end by sharing a photo of my own. This is what I captured:
—By Li Sumpter
Li Sumpter, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and multidisciplinary artist who applies strategies of D.I.Y. media and mythic design toward building better, more resilient communities of the future. Her artistic practice—the “art of survival”—addresses threats to mind, body and spirit with a focus on the readiness and resilience of black, brown and indigenous peoples. Li’s academic research explores apocalypse myths and afrofuturist narratives driven by feminine archetypes.
Citizen’s Eye is a community art exhibition featuring more than 400 photographs of surprising encounters with nature throughout the pandemic. The exhibition is on view in our gallery and online through March 21, 2021.