Reflections on vulnerability, connection and art in a time of crisis: With gratitude to my friends

A few thoughts from Judith Thompson, Director of the Harold Feinstein Photography Trust during the Covid 19 crisis. 

A TRANSCRIPT:  Hi. I’m Judith Thompson, Director of the Harold Feinstein Photography Trust and Harold was my husband of 27 years.   And I decided to come out from behind the computer and show my face,  and this takes some courage since I’m a pretty camera shy person,  which was a conundrum being married to a photographer! But, I’m reaching out across cyberspace to connect with my face and voice from inside my home to inside your home during this unprecedented time on this planet in the year 2020.

I was inspired to do this when I got news from a good friend and photography dealer in Paris who is in a serious battle with Covid 19.  And while I feel blessed to personally know only one person, I realize that behind the litany of rising deaths we see each day in our newspapers is an individual who is a friend, parent, child or sibling to others. The economic safety net, which for so many was already very thin, or non-existent has just evaporated for many. We’ve never been here before. Suffering is widespread.  So, it’s good to pause and take in the scope of this. 

So too is the will to connect and the deep inner resourcing of wisdom and insight that is bubbling up and being shared by so many at this time.

Some words that have resonated with me recently came from an opinion piece from the New York Times by journalist Jon Moallem entitled: This is how you live when the world falls apart. It’s about the human response to the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. In it he says:

Thrown all together, in one unrelenting present, we are made to recognize in one another what we deny most vehemently about ourselves: In the end, it’s our vulnerability that connects us.”  Jon Mooallem.

 Sometimes we hear the word “vulnerable” and we imagine only weakness. In our culture being vulnerable is something to guard against. But when we “vehemently deny our vulnerability” as he suggests, we don’t become stronger;  rather we become further and further removed from the connective tissue of our common humanity – our real moral and spiritual safety net.  And it’s there that we find our most profound joy in being alive.

Before I began the beautiful job of consolidating Harold’s legacy, I worked for many decades in the field of social healing with those from war zones who were willing to puncture the protective membrane their wounds had created and begin to share their stories– reaching across the abyss of personal tragedy and historic enmity and building a community mid-wifed by mutual vulnerability and compassion. Essentially finding much of their healing in opening to “the other” and dissolving the delusion of separation.

When I met Harold, I was engaged in a project called Children of War, which did precisely this kind of work with young people from war zones. He brought his camera and his appreciative eye into our circle to take portraits some of these young people. He then put them together in this collage, which, on more than a few occasions he stated was his favorite of his own artistic creations. Of course, it did not go into his portfolio and has never been viewed by art dealers. But I’m sharing it is one representation of the irrepressible resilience of the human spirit, which was to a large extent liberated by a willingness to fine strength in vulnerability, or as Hemingway said becoming strong in the broken places. So I look often to these faces for inspiration the world seems to be unravelling. And I feel gratitude.

So, it’s to gratitude that I want to return now. And I wish to express particular gratitude those I have come to know more recently through the art world, which is certainly a new family for me. I became a shepherd and a champion of my husband’s work out of my deep devotion to him and because his imagery and his teaching is so nourishing and aligned to what has been my own life path. In the process I have met so many people who have guided me, supported me and partnered with me.

I have had the good fortune to work with art dealers, curators, filmmakers, publishers, and printers of the highest intergity, creativity and imagination; with studio managers and interns who have steadied the ship during difficult times and steered it in the right direction; to those like me who are striving to honor the contributions of a great artist and are passing on their wisdom to others; and to the many photographers I have come to know and respect through Harold’s own circle of students and colleagues … and beyond.

Frederich Nietzsche said: “We have art in order not to die from reality.” In our current reality, those words ring out. And yet, I would prefer to reformulate the phrase: “We have art in order to inspire our imaginations”. It is art that helps us make meaning and create narratives of resilience, and resistance to the prevailing fear mongering being fostered by too many people with a bully pulpit.

We need visionary art that can tap into universal truths, lift our spirits, and claim the higher ground.  And truly we are all Artists. One of my favorite quotes from Harold’s teaching tapes echos this when he says:

“If you think of any great poem that has moved you, any piece of music that has stirred your heart, any wonderful painting or photograph, there’s one word behind it. And that word is YES. The word NO has never produced anything.. Art is an affirmation. It is an act. And that first YES begins it. ”

And from this position we are all capable of being artists when we allow that which captures our imagination and stirs our souls to become an action in this world. And to some it may sound naive, but in my experience, its the antidote to fear… It may take some courage, but it’s contagious…so spread it around please!  Just like the people in Italy who are singing from their balconies.  What a gift!

Thanks for listening. Carry one!  Stay safe. Stay vulnerable.  Make art with your life. Stay inspired by the human spirit.