Last 4th of July weekend I had the enormous pleasure of visiting Washington DC for the first time; the reason: the 31st annual conference of the National Stuttering Association (NSA).
What is the NSA? It is an organization dedicated to provide support to some of the millions of people that, like me, suffer from this thing called stuttering. If you are part of the 99% of the population that don't stutter, you might have never thought about it, so let me go into a quick explanation of what stuttering is and why is that relevant to this post about photography.
Stuttering is a neurological disorder that is characterized by disruptions in the normal flow of speech. Those disruptions, called disfluencies, can be anything from re-re-re-re-repetitions, proooooooolongation oooooof sounnnnnnnnnds, to b.............. locks. Those disfluencies can occur at any moment, during any sound, and the speaker has few ways of effectively predicting or controlling them, making every speaking situation a real challenge.
How does that affect you really depends on the person, but I ask you to imagine this for a second: how different would your life be if you could never be sure if you were going to be able to say your name when introducing yourself?
When you stutter you just never know if your voice will be there when you need it. Your voice, that thing so intricately yours, starts to feel like an enemy and If it goes unchecked, that pattern of negativity--the feeling of embarrassment, shame, fear of speaking situations--can become a burden.
Our lives are shaped by hundreds of life-altering decisions--you miss an accident by turning left when you could've turned right, you decline an invitation to a dinner, you pass on an business opportunity, you name it. Most of those moments are just too subtle for us to realize the ramifications of our actions right away, but every now and then you experience something so powerful--so disrupting-- that you know immediately that your life will never be the same after that, and my first NSA Conference was exactly that.
I was 29 and on the outside I was living an OK life, but deep down I knew things were not right: I was dissatisfied with my job, my friendships were not entirely fulfilling, I felt isolated. I wasn't living the life I wanted and I knew it was because in my mind stuttering was an obstacle that kept my dreams out of reach.
Who would hire somebody that stutters?
Until then I had never met anybody else that stuttered and that makes you feel a special kind of lonely. Being part of a 1% can be special when you have something good that nobody else has, you are part of the elite; but when being part of a 1% means having something bad that nobody else has or wants--something that you hate--it just makes you feel cursed.
Why am I the only one that talks like this!?!
It was with that mindset that I walked into my first NSA Conference and, by the end of that weekend, I knew that my life was never going to be the same.
The obstacles I imagined were not there and I had to rethink everything, I was not alone anymore, and I could not continue using my stuttering as an excuse, because they were not using it as one. Things could not go on the same way because I was not the same person anymore.
It wasn't an overnight change--bad, lifelong habits are hard to get rid of--but now I see my speech in a completely different light. It's "just" different. What that first conference and the NSA as a whole gave me was a new perspective.
Perspective to understand that having a stutter makes life difficult, but it only stops you as far as you let it stop you.
Perspective to go from feeling that stuttering was something that separated me from everybody else, to accepting stuttering as the key that opened the door to this new family of people from all over the world. My new family was united by speech, and it is indeed an elite group worth being proud of.
And more importantly, it was perspective what made me realize that stuttering, that thing that I hated all my life, was quite possibly what gave me all the tools needed to become a good photographer. Looking back I know that not being able or willing to talk as much as everybody else was what made me good at observing the world around me. Being the quiet one made me good at listening and appreciating details that others miss.Not being good at talking forced me to find other ways of communicating, and in photography and writing, I found them.
It was a long process but now I no longer resent not being as good a speaker as most of the world are because I know that my language of choice is a visual one, and with it I can be as good a storyteller as anyone.
In a way, stuttering helped me find my voice.
With that long introduction, I want to tell you a short visual story of what I saw one day in DC. I know some of you were asking for these and I apologize for the delay, I wanted to make justice to such a beautiful city.
That is my favorite quote about photography and it has never been more on my mind than on this trip. Washington DC is a city with so much history and so many times portrayed in works of art and fiction that, even though I was born in a different country and had never been there before, I have experienced it countless times thanks to hundreds of movies, books, tv shows and video games. Everything felt new, yet familiar at the same time, and I couldn't wait to absorb all of it. Or as much as I could in just one day.
My friend Ralph set the tone...
So I started with the Capitol.
It was 4th of July after all, and the patriotic sentiment was everywhere you looked.
Next stop: The National Art Gallery.
This stop wasn't really planned, but when I saw the building I knew I had to go in. There is something powerful and magical about Classical style architecture to me, it's like going back in time.
A lot has been talked about Napoleon Bonaparte and his height, but did you know that it is somehow accepted now that he wasn't short at all? He was 5'6" which might not be tall for today's standards but for a Frenchman of his time he was taller than average.
The myth about his short height probably originated by the fact that he was always surrounded by members of the Royal Guard (which were required to be taller and stronger than average), and then perpetuated by gossip from his enemies trying to discredit him.
The lesson: Don't believe everything you hear, people will always try to knock down the more successful ones... or "haters gonna hate".
And then I got to the big surprise: Vincent Van Gogh.
Ever since I was a teenager Vincent Van Gogh was my favorite painter. Reading his biography in high school was a defining moment moment for me growing up and I fell in love with the idea of becoming an artist just like him.
For him, painting was not about what you saw, but how you saw it, and I have been trying to capture that same feeling one photograph at the time.
Every green and blue brush stroke took me deeper and deeper into his world. It was both beautiful and inspiring, literally gave me goosebumps being in front of a piece of art painted 126 years ago.
There was so much more to see there, but nothing was going to top that painting, so I headed out on my way to the Lincoln Memorial.
Standing here the only thing I could think of was that this is where Forrest Gump gave his speech and reunited with Jenny. The happiest day of his life, he said.
Next stop was the Arlington National Cemetery.
After this we took a break, we had a Banquet to attend back at the hotel, but the trip was going to resume later that night to capture the city at night.
... starting with the Washington Monument.
The "light trails" were caused by a bus that passed in front of me and my camera when I was taking my photo. You have to make the most out of unplanned situations.
The National Mall at night is one of the most impressive places I've been to. No matter where you look you are surrounded by history and by beautiful works of art in the form of massive structures. Awe-inspiring.
All these places, colossal and historic, make you feel like you are inside a movie.
I saw my friend Jody sitting with his wife, Lucy, and thought about taking a photo with them, so without letting them know I set the camera on my tripod, set the timer and ran to sit with them. The conversation went like this:
"I s-s-s-s-set the timer for 8 s-s-s-s-s-econds... ugh, nevermind, it's probably over by now. I needed you to stay still."
That's why I'm the only one not moving. One of the many, unplanned comedic situations that come with stuttering.
We continued walking to the Vietnam Memorial.
The Lincoln Memorial is not only iconic and impressive, but seeing the magnitude and scale of everything can be a little bit overwhelming. Abraham Lincoln was an exceptional human and he accomplished many things in his lifetime that changed the course of humanity but, even knowing that, it was a little bit uncomfortable being at a place that definitely elevated him into the realm of Gods. I wonder how he would feel about that.
"Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity."
I am kinda sad that I couldn't get a better, stronger photo from the Martin Luther King Memorial as a whole, but there were a lot of people there.
I still left with the memories and inspiration from all his quotes.
"The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith" - Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I was hoping that Jefferson would come alive and started walking down the stairs. It didn't happen.
And we closed the night with a selfie, because apparently that's what all the kids are doing these days.
Thank you to all of the people that shared something with me that weekend, every talk and every confession meant something and I can't wait to see you guys next year in Chicago.
We are never alone.