Lighting sparks

December 1, 2017 - 12:00am -- Living City

Lighting sparks
A peace of my mind book and photo exhibit aims to help heal polarization

By Jade Giacobbe

“The world likes to ask us to focus on the things that can separate us: politics, ethnicity, religion, gender, class. What if, instead, we chose to explore the things that connect us? What if we spent our time looking for that common humanity that we all share?”

John Noltner, an award-winning photographer from Minnesota, doesn’t want to ignore differences, but rather tries to focus his visual and storytelling lens on the common goals we all share.

With his portraits showing ordinary people and telling their stories, their dreams, their desire for peace, he hopes to spark dialogue in communities across the U.S. and beyond. They have been curated into a book and exhibit called A peace of my mind.

In numbers, this project represents more than nine years of work, 46 U.S. states, 40,000 miles, 92 stories and one question: what does peace mean to you?

He has interviewed people from different backgrounds, ages, political and religious persuasions. The stories include Holocaust survivors, refugees, artists, former prisoners, teachers, immigrants, veterans and more. They share about compassion, forgiveness, and transformation.

“My goal is not to give a simple answer to the meaning of peace but to open up the possibilities and to explore other ideas about other viewpoints and other perspectives,” says Noltner.

Hunger for connections
His project began at a smaller scale in his home state of Minnesota back in 2009. Noltner was becoming frustrated with the polarized nature of the national dialogue then.

“Even at that point, I think people were hungry for conversation that would connect us to one another,” he says. It is a hunger that today’s political and racial tensions continue to cause.

The project’s original success led to a trip around the U.S., a second book and a travelling exhibit with interviews from all over the country.

On his website, Noltner shares snippets of the longer interviews on various topics: To the question of “What gives your life meaning?” one man answered: “Love and be loved. Give more than you receive. Focus on others and follow your heart.”

When asked to describe a time when they were able to find good in an adversary, a young woman said: “During Hurricane Harvey, a white couple with rebel flags surrounding their pickup truck gave me a strategy to help me not drown in the flood waters.”

Personally compelled
Noltner himself says he is changed by the stories, and sometimes in surprising ways.

For example, there’s the interview with an oil company executive during a time when Noltner and his family were going broke and the economy had quickly reduced work opportunities for freelance photographers, which eventually gave him more free time for outside projects.

“I promise you that I went into that conversation with a certain expectation of what an oil company executive would be. It was not a positive perception,” he said.

But as he began to talk to him, hear him speak about climate change, how it was a problem that would require global cooperation to face, an understanding for the desire for developing countries to improve the standard of living for their people — his perception of the man changed.

“I started seeing a complexity to him as a person that I was unwilling to acknowledge before… and I recognized my need to really examine my own biases and really be able to see the whole picture of someone else’s perspective if I were going to help be more productive in a peaceful setting.”

Religiously he comes from a Lutheran background, and he connects to stories of people of various faiths and backgrounds.

“I continue to return to Jesus’ call to love one another. I have looked for the exception, and I have looked for loopholes in Jesus’ call, and I don’t think they exist. He doesn’t say, ‘Love the ones who look like you.’ He doesn’t say, ‘Love the ones who voted the same in the last election.’ He says, ‘Love one another.’ Period.”

That is an attitude that has grown with time. “I will encounter a CEO one day and a pig farmer the next day and a motorcycle gang member the following day, and I have always found a beauty and joy in the rich variety.”

How does he get people to open up? “Honestly, my secret is just to listen. A lot of times as a society we engage in conversations with the goal of changing somebody’s mind by correcting them and telling them how they are wrong or bringing them over to our side. I don’t find that to be particularly effective listening.”

By asking “tell me more” and “What do you mean by that?” he feels he is able to set aside judgments and his own criticism and still challenge them on a particular issue in a way that clarifies it even for the interviewee.

The challenge to face bias
What keeps him going is to see how his work inspires people and communities to look at the bigger picture of how they can express kindness or patience, or how they can connect with other people, or how it challenges them to face their biases.

“Many times, we hear a few words and we jump to a conclusion which may or may not be accurate about that person,” he says. “But when we are able to hear that richer and fuller exchange, I think we comprehend a more nuanced understanding of that person’s humanity.”

He has won awards for the exhibit and book, but what Noltner values most is the way people take the message with them afterward. A church in Chicago has started a summer peace camp for children and an interfaith dialogue program. Others have begun their own photo projects to hang local stories on a wall where their community can read them. Others take courage to start the conversations that help cross the divide.

“I do see these little ripples going out. It makes me really happy,” says Noltner.

With Sarah Mundell


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