I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
On making documentary art and the imperfect pursuit of empathy.
I first became aware of Jeff Sharlet’s body of work back in 2012 when the former editor of The Paris Review said our writing about faith shared something in common. I turned to Sharlet’s work for proof of that kinship and discovered it in his books: Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (recently adapted as a documentary for Netflix) and also in Killing the Buddha, an online magazine of religion, culture, and politics that he co-founded. Beyond our mutual interest in how belief drives people, Sharlet and I are both interested in how images drive documentary storytelling. His most recent book, This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers (W. W. Norton, 2020), developed from a series of his immersive Instagram essays about people living on the margins. A prime example of the “mutant journalism” Sharlet teaches at Dartmouth, it is also arguably his most soulful work yet. In the month before the book was published, we had some back and forth about what this genre allowed him to say that journalism could not.
Emily Raboteau Which publications do you love for beautifully designed photo essays?
Jeff Sharlet My all-time favorite is the long-gone Dance Ink of the ‘90s, a large format magazine dedicated to dance, an art of which I knew almost nothing more than what I saw in Ink. Images and a design sensibility devoted to bodies in motion. Emphasis on both parts of that phrase: bodies; motion. That might seem a long way off from the mostly straight-ahead phone portraits of people who are often ill at ease with their bodies in my book, but there’s a continuity.
ER I loved Dance Ink, too. It was a performance in print. It seems to me that many of your pictures convey how bodies wear poverty. You also write in the first section of This Brilliant Darkness about the project’s origins in comic books.
JSI recognized in the Instagram grid the simplest layout for a comic: picture, words, space, repeat. It’s that space between pictures that I find so compelling. Comics artists call it the gutter—the space between panels in which we, the readers, set the story in motion. That collaboration—between myself, as author or as reader, and you, as reader or author—thrills me. These bodies of ours, they can feel awfully isolated, static. We have all, I think, felt at some point like hopeless lumps, apart from the life flowing all around us. Set bodies in motion, though, as dancers do, literally—and as storytellers do, metaphorically—and suddenly they become the means of our many little intimacies with the world.
I like a lot of what I see in California Sunday. I’m partial to VQR, especially a series I helped launch. #VQRTrueStory, in which writers take pictures, “amateurish,” often more engaging to me than what I find in more refined spaces.
ER What, if anything, is the difference between a photo essay and what you do? Are you writing photo essays or photo-driven essays? I see you doing both, perhaps, but does it matter what we call the form?
JS I’ve struggled with what to call this, too, because I don’t feel invested in that taxonomy. I don’t think I’m making photo essays. This work feels like writing has always felt. Maybe the tradition in which I work, literary journalism, creative nonfiction, whatever that’s called, makes me more comfortable with permeable borders between disciplines. The so-called “art of fact” draws on fiction, poetry, film, anthropology, sociology, history. It’s documentary art, an attempt to represent experience and perception using whatever feels necessary and available. The simplicity of the snapshot, the assertion that the subject makes in the story—an image of their body, as they present it—helped me clear away a lot of bad habits I’d fallen into, the tricks and formulas of magazine journalism, the inadvertent but false omniscience that can tempt the documentarian. I had a powerful little camera in my pocket, so pictures were available. I’d always been taking them as notes and then sifting them out of my work.
ERI did that too, with Searching for Zion—sifted out all the photos I took to record the book as I researched it. So many readers asked why I hadn’t included any pictures when I kept referencing my camera in the text, that I began to perceive the error in having left them out of the work.
ER Like you, despite the influence of writer/photographers/documentarians in the FSA tradition—Walker Evans’s signs come to mind—I didn’t think of myself as a photographer, and so hadn’t considered it a part of the writing apart from note-taking. But it’s always obvious to me as a reader, when a writer has used a camera as part of their process, even if they haven’t used the pictures. I wrote to Teju Cole immediately after reading Open City to ask him what kind of camera he used on his post 9/11 walks around New York City.
ER Now I understand the photos and taking the photos to be part of the stories I wish to tell, though I sometimes have to fight with editors to allow me to include them. Tell me more about your personal choice to write with pictures.
JSSome of my all-time favorite books are combinations of pictures and words—James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Ray DeCarava’s and Langston Hughes’s Sweet Flypaper of Life, John Berger and Jean Mohr’s A Fortunate Man. And I get excited when I encounter brilliant photographers like Jim Goldberg, in Rich & Poor, Ruby LaToya Frazier, in Notion of Family, who incorporate prose into their work. They’re not “writers”; I’m not a “photographer.” But what matters more—professional titles, or the work?
ER The work. The work being true to what it needs to be so that the reader feels something.
JSI’m interested in telling true stories. At a certain point this became the most honest way for me to do so. At the end of Sweet Heaven When I Die, I attempted to account for my understanding of hope as it had been shaped by my years as a reporter:
We hope when the odds, no matter how good, are still that: odds, chance, a gamble in which the rules may change at any time, for any reason, with or without our acquiescence. We hope when we understand that circumstances are beyond our control, when will is not equal to effect, when we are not the subjects of a story but its objects.
ER I remember loving that passage. It reminds me of John Berger’s description of the Palestinean stance as expressed through everyday gestures in “Undefeated Despair.” I wonder if this is the same as or something akin to grace. Say more about hope.
JS It functioned for me as a hypothesis informing several years of subsequent reporting, in which I sought to test it by seeking out ever more painful stories. For magazines, sometimes, but, increasingly, for myself. That is, my “self” as understood through the lives of others, beginning with insomniacs like me: the night bakers at the 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts in which I sometimes wrote, the last-call drinkers, the strangers you meet after all the bars are closed; frightened people—fugitives from God, underground abortionists, men in closets within closets—and frightening people—men with guns, men with knives; the homeless, the houseless, and people who live in motels; the usual suspects, those whose lives are organized around addictions and those whose livings depend on the sale of their bodies and those simply trying to hold on to their minds. “Good people,” as my daughter, then three, declared in what sounded like her first poem, after she had looked at a copy of Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives:
and mad people
and bad people
and Jewish people
and knockabout people.
ER Beautiful. What was she channeling?
JSWe’re Jewish people, my daughter and me, in the most general or maybe the most elemental sense: Exodus people, deliverance people. I’m compelled by the contrast between those who seek salvation and those who together struggle for deliverance—life—in the here and now. It’s what’s always been at stake for me in documentary art.
ER I hear you. But even though it extends from your previous concerns, this book feels categorically and formally different from the earlier books—more expansive, and more experimental.
JS Snapshots and stories, pictures and words, were for me a way of leapfrogging backwards over what I’d written to my original love for documentary art as, essentially, a license that let me wander the world asking questions about anything. Like the angels with their notebooks in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire. Like Joe Gould, in Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret, with his An Oral History of Our Time, or Zora Neale Hurston, listening to everyday language in Mules and Men. Stories that aren’t about big events or trends or people deemed noteworthy. Stories about everything. The pictures were like pins: Here, this moment, this small moment paused out of the flow of another person’s life.
ERI’m reading Alice in Wonderland to my children right now. What you’ve just said reminded me of how bored Alice is of the book she’s reading at the outset, because it has no pictures or conversations. The text is so dry it puts her to sleep, and into her dream. It’s not only children who crave pictures and conversations in their reading material! Grown-ups do, too. How has Instagram, as a medium, influenced your critical thought and writing practice?
JS The Instagram square is a corporate one: no matter how much we might turn it to our own ends, it’s privatized space that has gained in power as public space—literal public space and the imagination it fosters. I have to give that caveat. That said, what I loved about Instagram when I started this—before their introduction of the algorithm, when the “feed” (that terrible term) was chronological, when you saw pictures as they were posted—was the cacophony of it.
ER You didn’t experience it as visual noise?
JS I remember the moment I began looking at Instagram as a creative space. I was scrolling through my “feed,” the photojournalists and fine art photographers I’d followed and the selfies and the cat pics and all the fat babies of friends and family. There was a man struggling through a flood in India, a dinner party in San Francisco, a basket of eggs on a friend’s farm; a group of kids yo-yoing in China; a boy, maybe fourteen, holding the head of a dead buck, his first kill; a selfie of a bald woman, an acquaintance with cancer; a soldier squeezed down beneath a bullet-riddled wall in Ukraine; a cat considering a fish market in Chinatown; a well-poured pint; an elegantly-swirled cappuccino; a friend’s great-grandmother, young and elemental, twirling an evening gown one night long ago; a wavy cascade of impossible pink hair, seen through a subway window.
What I held in my hand, I realized—the Instagram account in my phone—was the greatest book never written: Joe Gould’s An Oral History of Our Time, as described by the literary journalist Joseph Mitchell, only written not in prose but in pictures. Birth, death, cats, food, style, grief, games, cats, cars, trucks, disasters, drunkenness, crushes, cats, age, marriage, divorce, cats, lust, greed, love, architecture, jokes, cats, etc.
ER So many cats on Instagram …
JS It was great not despite the endless ordinariness but because of it, all of it set in motion, one frame to the next. My sense of movement was restored; the powerful little camera in my hand, powerful because it was so small—so ordinary—was my license to wander. To tell the stories I wanted to tell without concern for hooks, pegs, or nutshell paragraphs. To tell the stories I wanted to tell even as the people who told them to me had, after a fashion, their say as well. In the words I quote, but also in the image: their faces transcend my description. Not through formal portraiture, but through the fundamental visual vernacular of photography, the snapshot.
ERYour subtitle is “A Book of Strangers” but your previous idea was to call it, “A Memoir of Other People’s Lives.” I love that as a description of what you’ve done. It also reminds me of Jamaica Kincaid’s clever title for her beautiful novel, Autobiography of My Mother, which features a striking photograph on its cover. It also reminds me of Emmanuel Carrere’s Lives Other Than My Own. Let’s talk a little bit about this construction, this strategy—the ethics of it. Why do you choose to write about yourself through the stories of others? Is it a deflection or a deeper way in, or both?
JSEvery true story is in part a self-portrait, isn’t it? By way of the frame that the author—or the photographer—has chosen. We see the subject of a photograph; and if we think about it, we’re drawn to imagine the position of the photographer, the choices they’ve made. This is true, too, in prose, though I think we’re conditioned to think otherwise, which I suspect is more a matter of manners than anything particularly profound. I’ve been writing about other people for nearly thirty years, and I always understood what I was doing—whether I was using third person or first or some combination—as self-evidently also autobiographical. In the literal sense that all these stories of other people, these are how I’ve spent my days—collecting these stories, listening to these stories, being present for these events and revelations. And in the sense that these are the stories I’ve sought out and chosen to tell. My subjectivity is always at least implicit.
It’s always bothered me when in the literary world some people draw what I see as a very dull and conservative distinction between memoir—coded as art—and journalism, usually viewed as secondary, as if it’s just a transcription.
ERI’ve felt the reverse in my career. That memoir is coded as navel-gazing, ruled by feeling, and journalism is coded as serious, fact based. What are the pitfalls of self-consciously empathetic artistic practice? How do we guard against the savior complex and “giving voice to the voiceless” or humanizing faceless masses when every already human has a face and a voice?
JSEmpathy is far too often conflated with sympathy, and just as often faulted for its failures—when part of what makes empathy so important is the recognition that this attempt to feel what other another feels will always fail. We try; we fail; we take stock of the failures, we pay attention to the gaps as well as the points of connection; we try again. Empathy to me is at the root of documentary art, another endeavor that by definition must fail, that is interesting to me only inasmuch as it acknowledges that failure and keeps trying anyway. We can never fully, accurately, represent anything. We can only approximate, guess, correct. I can’t really feel what you feel, but I might get close, and then learn more, and get closer.
I love the use of “true” as a verb, the way you true a bicycle wheel, constantly adjusting this spoke or that one in an attempt to make it roll in a straight line. I’m interested in empathy as a means of truing perception, with the understanding that it’s a process you’re never done with.
ER“Truing perception.” I like that. It makes me think of focusing a lens.
Walk us through your relationship with Mike at Dunkin’ Donuts.
JS I asked to talk to him; he agreed. I asked if I could take his photograph. He agreed. I didn’t yet know the shape of the story, but I told him I was a journalist, that I was writing a story. I tried to show him this picture, but he wasn’t interested. Sometimes in the book you hear people talking about their own pictures. But I don’t make the assumption that everybody cares. Mary Mazur, in many ways the heroine of the book, didn’t.
ER Mary’s story unfolds in a section toward the end of the book called, “A Resourceful Woman,” which ran previously as “an Instagram essay” on Longreads. It’s clear that you love her, and also that she’s in trouble. What would you say to critics who might accuse you of taking advantage of a mentally ill, disabled woman by shooting her in her wheelchair in a flophouse, wearing a plastic bag for pants and toting a houseplant around as if it’s her friend?
JS I took hundreds of photos of her, with her permission. I said I was going to try to tell a story with pictures and words. Fine, fine, she said, now listen. Ethics, to me, are guidelines. I more or less follow the same ethics I have as a journalist over twenty seven years. The real work is empathy. Mary wanted me to listen, to try to understand what it felt like to be her. She knew I wouldn’t; she wanted me to try harder, to listen more, to listen better, to look and to try to see. That’s what I wanted, too: to hear, to see, to feel as much as I could of another person’s life alongside mine. That’s what bound us together for a time.
ER Let’s talk about what a stranger is. Let’s get scriptural about that, please. Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:19, Exodus 23:9, and of course, Galatians 5:14. Which of these, or other passages, hold meaning for you? You say that acknowledging one’s own estrangement can be a solace. Say more about identifying as a stranger being a pathway into community rather than alienation.
JSI was trying to explain the book to my friend Betsy Wildman, who works in publishing, and she asked, “A book of strangers?” Then she took away the question: A Book of Strangers. That word, stranger, speaks to isolation both secular and spiritual. A book of strangers, about a society of strangers, about a fragmented world. But then there’s biblical echo—I think it’s there even if you can’t quote scripture. It’s this sense that the stranger presents us with a fundamental choice, of fear—build a wall—or vulnerability as moral choice and even as a survival strategy. It’s constant in scripture. Abraham, after Sarah dies, far from home, says, “I am a stranger and sojourner with you; give me possession of a burying place with you, that I might bury my dead.” He’s asking them to share in his grief, to bury his dead with theirs. Deep intimacy. And in Exodus, the reminders that one mustn’t oppress the stranger but welcome them, for you, too, have been a stranger.
ER That’s my favorite one.
JS That’s Leviticus, too, “love him as thyself,” and Deuteronomy. And in Psalms, David sings to his God, basically, hear me, listen to my cries, precisely because I’m a stranger. There’s a phrase I love in Leslie Jamison’s recent book The Recovering, in which she’s writing about addiction and support groups and creativity, and she speaks of “the saving alchemy of community.” The alchemy—it saved me—is that old, old idea, biblical if you care about such sources but common far beyond scripture, that one’s greatest claim to intimacy, to solidarity, is as a stranger—one who asks to be seen.
ER I see this at play in your extended portrait of Charly Keunang, (a homeless man from Cameroon murdered by cops in Los Angeles) which appeared previously in GQ as, “On Skid Row, the End of a Black Life that Mattered,” which you chose to tell, partly, in the second person. It felt to me like your project was to resurrect a life from anonymity by making his fuller biography visible to a readership that might have seen him as a stranger, estranged, drug-addicted, someone to pass by on the street without looking at, and you did it by interviewing the people who knew and loved him.
JS Charly is the heart of the book. One day I was looking on Facebook, when through some mysterious algorithm I saw a post shared by a friend of a friend of a friend, a video that had just been posted an hour or so before: A bystander phone video of the LAPD killing of Charly. There was no news, no context, just this video. I shared it with a class I teach called “Raising the Dead,” on how we might experiment with narrative forms to resurrect vanished lives. They said, “The police murdered that man.” That’s what they saw. Then they asked, “Who was he?” I didn’t have an answer. The police didn’t want us to—the official story became that nobody really knew his real name, that he was a drug addict, a former felon, that he had no family. What they were really saying, that thing authority so often says, was “Nothing to see here.” But of course there was.
I originally went thinking I’d represent his life through the lives of his neighbors on the street, through the kind of portraits and stories that make up most of the book. But literally within minutes of my arrival I saw how much the official story was obscuring. He had a name, he had a history. He had a family, his sister, Line, and his mother, Heleine, his brother-in-law and his niece: A family that had immigrated from Cameroon to look for him after he had been swallowed up by an American prison. They looked, and not long before he was killed, they found him. He spoke to them every day. At first there was only a mugshot of Charly, presented to the public under the wrong name. Then there were friends and family with pictures: Charly as a boy, Charly as a soccer player, Charly as a college student, Charly as a reader, a student of Shakespeare. And yes we see the end, we see the killing, the contact shot, the gun pressed against bone—and we see the lie of the police, that Charly’s hand was not on any gun when they shot him—but right before that we see the man. He’s not a stranger anymore. He’s saying—his last words—“Let me express myself.” Hear me. See me. I’m no more nor less of a stranger than you, who are looking.
ER I felt strongly that it was a book about mortality—I was about to say, “coming to grips with it” but that feels wrong. It’s about living in the shadow of death and an awakening to death’s shadow, a chapter of your life bookended by your heart attack and your father’s death. Tell us about the use of shadow in your pictures. And also how these brushes with death opened your aperture.
JS By the time I wrote what I thought would be the last sentence of the book, minutes before my first heart attack began, I’d come to think of the book as a kind of slow-motion suicide note. I started telling these stories because my life was falling apart, largely, I think, because I’d lost the ability to contain all the stories I’d collected, the lives I’d been given the privilege of seeing, and I’d become overwhelmed, unable to sleep or unwilling to, lest I revisit my nightmare revisions of what I’d seen. The only way I knew how to save myself was through more stories. I do think the book saved my life. I wrote what I thought was the last sentence and then I had a heart attack.
ER Jesus. What poetic irony.
JSWithin minutes, it began. My recovery involved all the usual changes, healthy living, more sleep, etc., but for me it also meant rewriting this book from the beginning, telling the story not in terms of despair but instead the measured hope and alchemy that emerges from despair. I wish I could say I was a good enough photographer—or writer—to use shadow, but I’m not. The shadow is just there. It’s not wicked, it’s not sinister, but it’s there, and when you have a dead wall in your heart, it’s always within you—when you learn to live with the phantom pain that shoots down your left arm every so often, wondering whether it’s an echo or the next wave or the last one. You get used to it, most of the time, but I’ll tell you, every now and then I’ll feel the exact pattern of pain that would have killed me were it not for the intervention of strangers, and even though I know it’s probably just a ghost, my eyes do open wide. That, I guess, is the aperture, through which I’ve learned to see some of the darkness. It’s there; it hurts; and if you let it, it can be beautiful, as revealing of life as the light.
Emily Raboteau is the author, most recently, of Searching for Zion (Grove/Atlantic), winner of the American Book Award. A professor of creative writing at the City College of New York, she’s compiling a book of personal-political photo essays mapping public art, public space, climate change, and parenthood in NYC, entitled: CAUTION.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee