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Interview with Alison Wright on Learning to Breathe

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I’m very into photographing people, endangered people and cultures around the world. - Alison Wright

From Ben Cable

August 27th - In a book lined office in back of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe Arizona, Cable Muse Network (CMN) interviews photojournalist Alison Wright. Alison is the author of three books of photography, her photos and stories have appeared in magazines including National Geographic publications, Outside, Smithsonian, Time, Islands, O: The Oprah Magazine, Yoga Journal, and The New York Times. She is a recipient of the Dorothea Lange Award in Documentary Photography, the North America Travel Journalism Award, has twice been the winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award.

Alison Write with Cable Muse Network
Alison Wright

Alison:  I am very spontaneous, not the dating kind of person. If someone asks, “Do you want to go for Margaritas? Yeah! Let’s go to Mexico!”, “What to go for Thai food? Yeah, let’s go to Thailand.” And I think it’s sort of unnerving but I’m on the road constantly. I’m very very dedicated to my work. I really love what I do and I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager so I’m still sort of directed with it.

CMN:  As a teenager, how did this come out? Is this a product of your father, your mother or is this something…

 

Alison:  I’m going to address this in my slideshow. My mother was a flight attendant for Pan Am so I think I gained my wonder lust in utero [laughter].  I did. I really started traveling early and she was, I had a special bassinette on the plane. I remember sitting on the laps of pilots. She taught me when my father was in Belgium so we traveled all the time before we immigrated to the states, we were back and forth. I got my first little camera when I was ten and I was just really hooked. I was very very shy and I felt like it was bringing me out of my shell as a way to meet people and it was fun. I had an amazing English teacher and he really took me under his wing and showed me how to use my first SLR, like a real camera. I was doing the high school year book, the school newspaper and he told me, “You know, you can make a living at doing this.” From the first time I heard “photo journalist” then that’s what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be. I wanted to make books and work with National Geographic and you know was very extremely focused. I feel like I’m married to it. If you read the book, as you see, it’s really for richer for poorer, for better for worse, in sickness and health, allot of sickness.

CMN: You went through traumatic experiences.

Alison:  Yes, very much so. I think living in a very adverse situation, where you really never know what’s going on, there’s a little bit of a survivor situation. Every time I go to a new country, I don’t speak the language, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m figuring out very quickly. I think being in a situation helps me immensely in surviving. Because, suddenly, I was put in a situation that’s literally life or death and I was thinking very methodically.

CMN:  In your book, Learning to Breathe, you write about a boy who sewed you up with a needle and thread after a logging truck struck the bus you were riding. It severed the bus in half. Where did this boy come from?

Learning to Breathe


Alison:  The accident happened in a very very remote area on a jungle road in Laos. There were allot of guerrilla insurgents…allot of fighting going on at the time, so nobody would stop their car. It took an hour before they could even stop a car to take us to a clinic which was an hour away. There’s really is no health care at all, in Laos. This clinic was basically a storage shed with some cows grazing just outside. So this young man, I didn’t even find out until years later that he wasn’t a doctor, he wasn’t even a nurse, he was just some kid who sewed up my arm. He saw that it was just bleeding profusely and that I wasn’t going to live much longer.

CMN: What was his motivation, caring?

Alison:  Caring. What struck me so much was that when I did go back, I went back to this place years later. The out pouring of love from that small rural community touched my heart so deeply. They are the ones that sparked me to start this fund, called the Faces of Hope Fund. It’s helping to provide medical care. This is the most exciting part of the book for me. Yeah, it’s great to do a book and you hope that it will touch and inspire people, but, it’s like my other work, I mean to make social conscientiousness a target for me my entire life. Now I’m really getting the opportunity to walk my talk. Now I can actually get some money, show up in places and give them something there. That has huge power and meaning for me, but, to go back, this is something from my heart. To go back to this place where they really have nothing, they have nothing. No clean needles or anesthesia or even the bed. They just made a plank of wood for me to die on. You know, I want delivery beds for these women. Some will or could do so much for these countries. I’m really excited to go back and I’m teaming with this non profit, Doctor to Doctor. I have a whole team of doctors going with me in November. We’re going to this clinic we’re bringing them medical supplies, we’re sending whatever medical equipment they need and it’ll be an ongoing project.

CMN:  Where can readers get more information on this?

Alison:  On my website, AlisonWright.com, and there’s a whole section called Faces of Hope Fund. The mission is really to help provide medical and education to children in Afghanistan and Asia, the places where I work and this is the first project that I’ll be doing, because I really see this going on forever.

CMN:  This must have been building. You have been doing this for a very long time. You’ve seen many travesties.

Alison Wright at Changing Hands Bookstore

Alison:  Yeah, I have seen terrible things in my life and I gave a talk once at the Telluride Film Festival and I was speaking about how I was covering the tsunami and how touched I was when I was giving to people, folding money and giving it to them. This film director was so touched by what I had said that he handed me a check for 10 thousand dollars and said, “I know you’ll get out there and help people with this.” And I did, it was so heady, you know, because I don’t make that much money, what I’m doing. If you can touch people who want to help like that, that’s where I was like… oh my gosh, if I can start a fund and actually do something, that to me is what this whole process is about. Just the spirit of giving, once you say this, people walk away thinking: yeah, what can I do to help? I’m really here because of the kindness of strangers; it’s all about giving back. You know, buy the book, just of the souvenir of the story. It’s not about the book; it’s about a much bigger universal connection. That is what all of my work has been about, whether it’s writing or photography …

CMN:  It shows in your photos; such as the little girl with her traditional headgear. How do you get that kind of moment?

Alison:   I’m in a business of making good pictures so you don’t always get that just walking down a road and the bright sun in the middle of Africa. I do work with the people. To me, that’s the whole fun of it. It’s the whole interaction, again, I’m not speaking the language; there are a whole lot of things going on. I think that it’s what your feeling, the intent in your heart, it’s about making a picture, it’s not about taking a picture. That’s really important, I think that people… you know, you have to really understand what it is that your motivation is. I think that once people feel that, it’s a really beautiful thing.

CMN:  Have you ever withheld an image that you would not publish?

Alison:  Absolutely.

CMN:  What would spark your decision not to?

Alison:  Respect, I think that people feel that, that I have a respect. There are images that are so horrific, you can’t even imagine that they’re out there. That’s not what bothers me so much, it’s more like, like ‘for instance’, I’m very good friends with Richard Gere. I’ve been in situations with him and I’ve never published a picture of him. It’s between friends and I think it would be wrong.

CMN:  How did you and Richard Gere meet?

Alison:  Gosh, we met years and years ago, in India. I’ve know him for about 15 years. He’s a very devout Buddhist. We got to be friends in India. Richard Gere paid for and organized a visit of the Dalai Lama to visit in N.Y./Central Park. I’ve spent many years photographing the Dalai Lama.. You know, I think that’s where photography can be abusive, that whole paparazzi, “I’m going to take you”.

CMN:  Richard Gere gave your book a wonderful endorsement:

"Alison Wright is a wonder. I've known her for years as an extraordinary photographer and a serious meditator, and I thought I knew her story well. I knew nothing. I didn't know what a profound writer she also is. Her life is one of a true pilgrim and a seeker of truth. It is a life of exploration, devotion and transformation by fire. There is muscle and tears here, and the fierce flame of inspiration. She's the real deal." - Richard Gere

CMN:  I’m looking forward to reading Learning to Breathe. You have a remarkable story. What do you want your readers to take away from it?

 

Sonia and Marty listen to Alison's presentation
Mother Sonia (center) and friend Marty (right)

Alison:  It’s a multi-layered book. There’re things that I had to really think about. What was the intent of writing my book. People were asking me to write this book for a long time since I’ve written some outside articles. I got many emails from people that really touched me, but the physical healing for me took so long. It’s been 20 surgeries and many years of recovering, just getting to work again, so the physical healing and the guilty emotional healing and then I really had to think about a very introspective, what was my intent and what did I want to say with this book. I thought it was very important for people to understand the healing process. I can see that it was really helping people from the letters I was getting, and that’s very important to me. But, even my closest friends didn’t understand the sort of spiritual journey that I’ve gone on as well. I felt that I had some things that I wanted to say about that that were not getting any sort of high testosterone like, “oh my god, I survived this accident” and that’s important to me. The book is really about overcoming fear. If anybody walks away with anything about this book, you don’t have to be lying and dying in disarray on the side of a road in Laos to overcome fear. Whether it’s getting out of a bad marriage or getting out of a job you don’t like or whether is just traveling. I can not believe how many people live in fear. It’s really about looking in yourself to find your own inner strength because that’s where it is. It’s really within your self. That’s what’s drawn me to the philosophy of Buddhism because it is about looking within your self and introspection and my meditation practices certainly helped me a lot. It’s helped me make better pictures. I think people are afraid to stop still for a second to find that stillness in their heart, really, that’s where the answers are. We’ve got so much to learn from people from around the world and it’s embracing that. I really believe that’s what helped me to survive something like this. I’m certainly not like some huge person, I mean, I can’t even give blood. I can’t stand the sight of blood and a needle, so is not like, “oh, no problem here.” I’ve had major injuries. I broke my back, my pelvis, all my ribs, my arm was completely shattered, my lungs collapsed, my diaphragm, I couldn’t get a breath, that was the most frightening, not being able to breathe. That’s where my meditation really helped me. It really helped calm me and I thought, okay, just be calm. It just reached a point where, when I became clear that I was not going to get out of this situation alive, it brought me an amazing peace. It brought me this… if fear doesn’t put into words without sounding so new age, this light, enveloped by this light and I just felt held. I was really okay by the fact that I was going to die alone in this rural jungle in Laos and I never knew that about myself. I was really okay with it and it was a beautiful thing. I felt like I needed to let my family know that I didn’t die alone and in fear so I wrote them a note. I told them where I was and what happened.

Sonia with daughter Alison Wright
Sonia with daughter Alison Wright

At the conclusion of the interview, we are joined by Alison’s mother Sonia. It is evident where much of Alison’s strengths come from. Alison lives in San Francisco; she has a brother in Denver and Sonia lives in Phoenix.

Cable Muse Network correspondent, Marcial McCarthy contributed to this article.

Related Links

Alisonwright.com

Doctor To Doctor

Changing Hands Bookstore

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