Eyes Wide Open, Feet Walking: A Report

Skip Schiel

9 Sacramento Street, Cambridge MA, 02138, USA

New England Peace Pagoda (Leverett Massachusetts)

October 6, 1999
(Minimally revised: May 1, 2000)

"Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye..."
-1st Corinthians 15:51-53

The traveling is finished, the journey continues.

As most of you already know I've been traveling for the past 15 months in the United States and South Africa. The impetus for this momentous experience was the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, a living prayer-at times, a living hell-retracing the journey of slavery.

My heart-felt gratitude to so many people: friends, family, the local and wider Quaker community, funders, hosts along the way, facilitators of my photography, and Special Spirit-a bevy of muses, adversaries, qualities of light, and that Still Small Voice Inside that directed my path. I save specifics for my appendix.

The Journey Itself-Where, When & What

Like many before me traveling somewhere new, like Odysseus as he sought his way home, I searched for the truth of history-slavery and its resistance, apartheid and its end and the legacies of both in violence and poverty. The journey propelled me into a new zone of actively struggling for racial justice. For me, the Middle Passage Pilgrimage was an avenue for traversing a treacherous landscape, with others, in prayer, supported by local communities, while my subsequent volunteered photography was a method of both giving and asking: giving to communities thru my skill, and asking they reveal to me and my camera their truths.

End result? Mystery, the book of mysteries.

My journey was in four distinct segments:

1. Walking from western Massachusetts to New Orleans in five months, with some 50 people from different regions of the globe. From May 1998 until November, we walked over 2,000 miles. We prayed and vigiled at sites of suffering and resistance-auction blocks, holding pens, rebellion locations, lynching and whipping trees. We learned a hidden history, both about the trauma of slavery and about movements to alleviate the suffering and change the system. We walked parts of the Underground Railroad. In the words of the historian and theologian, Vincent Harding, from his book about resistance to slavery, There is a River. We swam in that river. And that river is named Hope and Struggle.

I learned also about my white male United States privilege, habits of the heart and mind I've accumulated that cause others to suffer. The Pilgrimage was one of the most painful experiences of my life, learning to wait, listen, acknowledge, respect and honor. Being with such a wide ethnic and cultural assortment of people-Asian, African-American, European American mostly-24 hours a day, 7 days a week, sleeping, eating, walking, and praying and learning together, taxed me severely. A living prayer, a living hell, as I titled one of my essays-included in the appendix.

In New Orleans the youngers among us, those between the ages 16 and 25 roughly, organized a concluding ceremony in a church courtyard. We formed two circles, an outer of elders, an inner of youth. One by one the younger people with us, numbering some 30% of the pilgrims, thanked those of their elders who had helped or taught or supported them. I felt gladdened that finally we were bridging one of the barriers I'd experienced while walking-between age groups.

The Pilgrimage continued thru the Caribbean and parts of West Africa, concluding in Cape Town, South Africa last June when I rejoined for portions of the last month after making a different journey of my own.

2. From New Orleans I attempted to reconnect with my childhood in Chicago. I went thru the Mississippi Delta to my first home on Chicago's South Side, once all white. Along the way, I met the first black director of a state campground in Mississippi. I photographed and prayed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. And in Chicago, I worshiped at an interracial Quaker church in the heart of the city where I've been photographing since 1990.

Ten years ago on a wintry Chicago day, I'd met Charlotte Thomas and her mother, Bernice. They'd lived in the Delta, on a cotton plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi. Over the years of our friendship, they've told me many stories-hot sun, bruised fingers, little to eat. I grew to feel that the southern region and their experience were somehow part of my life, so when I planned my Mississippi journey, I phoned Bernice. She told me where the key sites of her history were. She'd never returned but I could help her imagine a return by bringing her photographs and stories. I found the general area of her cotton plantation, the movie theater she'd attended as a girl, and the last home she and Charlotte had lived in. In addition, I stood at the actual river where the body of Emmett Till, a Chicago boy, had been thrown. He and I were the same age when he'd been murdered. He died in August 1955. That same summer our family had fled the black people buying homes in "our" neighborhood. In the Delta, then in Chicago, standing silent, offering prayer, photographing, I felt I had returned home.

From Chicago, I returned to Cambridge for one month. I rested and did some darkroom, slide show, and website design work, visited family and friends, and finished the first section of my essay series. I organized the next portion of my trip.

3. In the South, mostly Alabama and Georgia, from January to May, I volunteered my photography to organizations that had aided our Pilgrimage or which worked in ways parallel to one of our goals-end racism, bring justice. Trying to provide whatever types of photographs were requested, I returned to Selma, Alabama, to photograph the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee celebrating the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. I resided for 3 weeks at a Catholic church in a black neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama, making color prints of the school, community center, and African-centric church. I photographed neighborhood leaders for Savannah's Department of Community Services. And in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a black political activist, Ervin Brisbon, had toured the Pilgrimage around the black districts to show us how little has changed in the years since the Civil Rights Movement, I struggled, perhaps failing, to find a way to be photographically useful.

4. From May thru August of 1999, I continued the pro bono photography in South Africa. But first, with the 20 or so pilgrims that had completed the African section of the Middle Passage Pilgrimage, I processionally walked thru the townships of Soweto and Manenburg before we formally completed our sojourn at a ceremony in Cape Town. Here I reconciled with two African-American women, free at last from the resentment I'd been carrying for so many miles and hours.

I discovered that volunteered photography is a most effective method for diving into the complex layers of contemporary South African experience. Gaining trust, forming insight, transcending cultural shock, dealing with crime, this four-month period was arduous. I concentrated on township experience, photographing for the Quaker Peace Center in Cape Town to show their nonviolence training workshops in a wide variety of locations. In Durban and Port Elizabeth, for four environmental action organizations, I made color slides of the environmental devastation wreaked by oil refineries, toxic waste sites, medical waste incinerators, a mercury reprocessing plant, open grass land burning, and an international airport-all within a stone's throw of people's homes.

And in Middelburg, Mpumlanga, in the northeast region of the country, I photographed in rural and urban locations to provide a set of color prints for Dutch Reformed Church social workers to help generate wider support for their valiant efforts. Upon leaving they gave me a tape of Afrikaner folk music, reminding me that I'd said to them, "I need to learn more about Afrikaners."

Ultimately, I couldn't serve all the organizations requesting my services, so now with the participation of several South African photographers I met, I'm helping organize photographers to continue the project.

In both countries I occasionally offered photography workshops to help staff produce their own photographs. Specifically, workshops in making and using photos for Savannah's Department of Community Services, and the Quaker Peace Center in Cape Town. I also helped the Center organize their photo archive.


o To learn: the history of slavery, the history of apartheid (a curious parallel between the two systems and the two countries, United States and South Africa), resistance and struggle to bring justice, and where I fit in personally, as a human being and artist. A luminary much in my heart as I journeyed was the 18th century Friend, John Woolman. Living in slavery times, and not far from the then Indian-White frontier in western New Jersey, he traveled extensively both to native people and among slave-holding Friends. About his visitation to Indians, he said in his journal, "Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them...to season my mind, and to bring me into a nearer sympathy with them."

And with Friends he would gently inquire, why do you hold and trade in enslaved people? He was instrumental in bringing the Religious Society of Friends to a united pro-abolition position. He played a significant role in ending the diabolical institution. I was mindful of his life as we traveled thru his region. And I wondered, how can I enflesh John Woolman's spirit today?

Without the model of many historic and contemporary Friends, without the substantial support thru prayer, guidance, correspondence and funding of my Quaker meeting, I'd not have journeyed.

o To be on site, physically present for history, not only to learn but to absorb spirit, that deeper layer that might be missed if relying on media to catch the sense of the story. This is a time-honored method for learning and paying homage. Pilgrims go to the Holy Land of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Mecca is the source of much insight and energy for the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who travel there yearly. Presently, one of the most popular pilgrimages is in Spain, to the alleged site of the St. James' burial. And many of us journey to our homelands, finding the trip elucidates our personal history. Here I was born, here I married, here is where I raised my children, here is my school. Hard to verbalize, but an experience many of us share.

o To give back, to volunteer my photography-in actuality, a bartering arrangement, me photographing at no fee, in exchange for food and lodging, local transport, and some help with photographic expenses-in exchange for the vital hospitality, prayers, guidance and other sustenance people gave to the Middle Passage Pilgrimage. And giving back in a more far-reaching way: to those who've been afflicted by centuries of injustice, from one who, had he lived earlier, could been a deliberate perpetrator of those injustices. May I term it "Repentance"? Making amends. Small scale reparation.

Before I began walking, while I imagined my journey, I recalled what a Japanese Buddhist monk, Brother Sasamori, had said about his motivation for organizing a pilgrimage: "On my various journeys, people have given me so much. I will give back, maybe not to the same people, but we are all one, all sacred, all striding toward peace, justice, the right treatment of the earth, and enlightenment." He expressed his deep gratitude by organizing the 1995 pilgrimage from Auschwitz to Hiroshima, an experience profoundly helpful in preparing me for the present journey.

o And a dream my partner, Louise Dunlap, had during an earlier pilgrimage I made to Iroquois country in 1995. She dreamt that the pilgrims remained at various destroyed cities, rather than swiftly passing thru. In her provocative dream, we pilgrims helped rebuild the wreckage of human-caused violence. Hearing this, to help people rebuild, I felt I could return to sites the Middle Passage Pilgrimage had visited in the South and be present in South African townships and rural locations hardest hit by apartheid. Thru my offer of photography I'd also be able to go deeper into the community's experience and history by living with them awhile. Compassion and wisdom join hands, a foundational Buddhist teaching.

Results-Photos & Writings, Lessons & Conclusions

I can't say exactly what the results are. What effect has prayer, suffering, hearing and telling stories? How measure peace and justice building? Indeed, Thomas Merton teaches us that "The artist must serenely defend his right to be completely useless."

o My photographs. I've exposed some 300 rolls of film, using approximately 11,000 separate frames. Roughly one third is black and white, I'll have to make prints. One third is color print film, commercial labs already made the prints and many of my clients have full sets. I might reprint for exhibits. And the remaining 100 rolls are color slide film, some actually being used in slide shows edited by Louise Dunlap and shown widely. I have much further editing to do.

I show the Middle Passage Pilgrimage itself, as much as possible: its dynamics and the personalities of some of the pilgrims, along with the story of walking, witnessing, suffering, arguing, and feeling joy. I make landscapes, portraits, action pictures, in southern churches, community projects, political organizations. For details please see my appendix. In the South I served six organizations, mostly in Alabama and Georgia. In South Africa, working for 16 organizations, and independently, I show a version of life not often seen in the media: people serving people, adding to the life force, not destroying it.

o My words. From the beginning of my travels I vowed to write at least one essay or letter each week. Partly to give back to my supporters and open a window onto my experience, and also to continually digest what I was experiencing before it went stale or clogged my system with overload, I've written nearly 90 essays. My Quaker community posted the first set about the Pilgrimage in the United States on its web site. I've sent out copies by e-mail to a list that now numbers over 35 people, mostly family and friends. Perhaps I write too much, perhaps few actually read what I sent them. But I tried. Now I plan to extensively revise this preliminary writing, aided by comments from people more versed in what I try to explore.

I also journaled frequently, at times using this free writing in my essays. And-thanks to faithful friends and family-I continually corresponded. I might make use of both journals and letters in public writing.

Three magazines and one newspaper, listed in my appendix, have published some of my pictures and words, and I've had several small informal shows of a series of photos made while walking with the Middle Passage Pilgrimage. Several people from my Friends Meeting at Cambridge, using my e-mailed words and pictures, produced a small booklet that they sold at a regional gathering last summer. In addition, the Birmingham (Alabama) Civil Rights Institute has expressed strong interest in organizing, hosting, and circulating a solo photo show concentrating on the Pilgrimage in the South. They might also help organize and tour a group multi-media exhibit about the entire Pilgrimage.

o What I learned, the links I made and what I can eventually share. For example, in South Africa, with the help of the international community, thousands of people ended apartheid-without the violence expected. This is a miracle and I felt honored to be a small part of this ongoing process. In the U.S. South, people are in the midst of a painful process acknowledging the history of slavery and memorializing the Civil Rights Movement. I've been forced to face my own skin color privilege, and learn how to transform privilege from affliction to socially useful tool. And I've come to a stronger and clearer belief in the power of pilgrimage, especially when it walks and prays-pilgrimage is one answer to the "Era of Declined Law," as foreseen by Buddha.

o Two conclusions, which should be tested: first, we in the U.S. need something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, so that we can look honestly at our history of slavery, genocide and militarism, and begin to redress long-held grievances. In South Africa, many question the reconciliation part of the process, asking, were our peoples ever conciliated, united? I'd raise the same question for the U.S. and suggest we name our commission, the Truth and Reparations Commission, and explore the notion of making amends that include money.

Second, in this country, many people are in political struggle, but the movement is not united. Martin Luther King, Jr, in his last years, began depicting the larger web of oppression-the triplet of racism, militarism and materialism. I believe he was assassinated for this awareness and for mass actions like the Poor People's Campaign. So I suggest we find something akin to the unified field theory of physics, that would weave together all the political and social strands of the problems facing the planet's people. This wider perspective could help inspire a coherent and more powerful struggle encompassing racism, poverty, militarism, and other forms of injustice.

o Links between organizations in the North and South, such as anti-racist and faith-based organizations. In South Africa I am trying to bring Friends (Quakers) together from the two countries, especially younger Friends, and I've agreed to be the main contact in the U.S. for a South African Friends initiative to write the history of Friends worldwide who had aided the struggle against apartheid. One bonus of my Cape Town experience was living with Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and her family. Recently appointed as deputy minister of defense, a minister in parliament from KwaZulu Natal, herself Zulu, and a Quaker, I shouted her good news to Friends' organizations publications in the States. One is now planning a feature about her.

Gandhi invented nonviolent political change in South Africa, living there for 22 years. He inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. Pilgrims together-and I separately-often prayed and witnessed at sites important to both men. So another link I have tried to forge is between the two prophets.

In addition, since the number of organizations in South Africa requesting my photographic services grew too large, I've spoken with several South African photographers about them taking over my contacts and continuing the service. One, Cedric Nunn, director of the Market Photographic Workshop in Johannesburg, is very interested in this initiative. He's also asked me to find black U.S. publishers who would invite South African photography students to intern with them.

Recently from South Africa I received a packet of publications using some of my photographs. Rensche du Toit, the supervisor of social workers of the Dutch Reformed Church in Middelburg, kindly sent me about five examples of how she and her organization have been assisted by my photos. I was thrilled, humbled, so grateful to all who've helped me make this small contribution. I seek no greater recognition.

Financial Details

At this point I can only estimate and summarize my income and expenses. Thru the largess of friends and Quakers, I raised nearly $10,000. My usual expenses like housing and food were virtually nil, since basic survival needs were mostly covered. To date, I've spent about $6,000, with $4,000 remaining, dedicated to photographic expenses I'm incurring now. Of the $6,000 spent, roughly $2,500 was for photographic materials and equipment, $500 for clothing, medicine, and official documents in preparation for the trip, $1,000 for sustenance when not hosted, at least $1,000 for transport, leaving $1,000 for personal expenses. A generous Friend gave me a free air ticket round trip to South Africa, worth a minimum of $1,000. I make this estimate without sorting thru records, so the actual figures might be different.

Next Steps

I intend to make exhibits and slide shows, also publish, mostly in magazines, but possibly a book. Pilgrimage organizers are planning a commemorative volume that might include some of my material. I'll continue exploring how to design and utilize web sites, feeling electronic dissemination of art is a worthy pursuit. While inquiring about venues, I'll dedicate at least three years to printing black and white photos, editing slide shows, rewriting my essays, preparing exhibits and publications, and searching for ways to meld earning money with finishing this project. I intend to concentrate as much as possible on youth audiences.

As part of my next phase I'll have to raise some $5,000 to complete the project. As well as earn my day to day living by teaching and doing commercial photography. I'm confident that I'll be able to devote considerable energy to this next phase, and not have to return to part-time jobs as has happened in the past.


My experience is like what I understand happens to e-mail after it's sent but before it's received: It swirls thru the home computer, the server, hovering in a mail queue until its recipient opens the mail. The message then lands in a definite region of the server's hard-drive and is transferred to the recipient's computer and can be read. Without the photography and writing, my experience would swirl madly and incessantly around my brain, perhaps accomplishing little. Having some skill and much enthusiasm for photography, less skill but endless enthusiasm for writing-and seemingly a compulsion to tell my story, to make exhibits, give presentations, publish-I choose these media to collect, assimilate, transform and portray my experience into something lucid and intelligible.

Primo Levi, author of Survival at Auschwitz, writes that a recurring nightmare many prisoners had was finding themselves free, home, with family and dear friends, and yet no one wanted to hear their stories. I've had similar dreams and thoughts. Perhaps this goads me to continue my attempts to portray my experience on pilgrimage, walking the talk, slavery and beyond.

I end with a litany: places. And a question: what is the where of place?

Boston-Newport, Rhode Island-New Haven, Connecticut-New York City-
Newark, New Jersey-Camden, New Jersey-Philadelphia-Baltimore-
Washington, DC-Annapolis, Maryland-Fredricksburg, Virginia-Richmond, Virginia-Norfolk, Virginia-Raleigh, North Carolina-Greensboro, North Carolina-Charlotte, North Carolina-Columbia, South Carolina-Charleston,
South Carolina-St. Helena Island, South Carolina-Savannah, Georgia-Atlanta-
Anniston, Alabama-Birmingham-Montgomery-Selma-Meridian, Mississippi-
Hattiesburg, Mississippi-New Orleans-Baton Rouge, Louisiana-Natchez, Mississippi-Jackson, Mississippi-Clarksdale, Mississippi-Memphis, Tennessee-Carbondale, Illinois-Chicago-Cambridge, Massachusetts

And in South Africa:

Johannesburg-Soweto-Alexandra-Evaton-Pietermaritzburg-Durban-Transkei-Port St. Johns-Umtata-Tsitsikama-Port Elizabeth-Aloes community-Cape Town-Manenburg-Elsies River-Khayelitsha-Crossroads-Guguletu-Hawston-
Bloemfontein-Pretoria-Middelburg-Northern Province-Oukasie-Hillbrow

All places I've been, all sites of tears, prayers, lessons, photographs, words, and what I hope will be teachings, inspirations, evocations, paths.

"As you come to know the seriousness of our situation-the war, the racism, the poverty of the world-you come to realize it is not going to be changed just by words or demonstrations.

"It's a question of risking your life, it's a question of living your life in dramatically different ways."
-Dorothy Day

APPENDIX (please inquire if interested)

1. Organizations Photographed for in the South

2. Organizations Photographed for in South Africa (and Lesotho)

3. Publications & Exhibits, Actual & Potential

4. Sample photos

5. Sample essays:

A Living Prayer or A Living Hell? (Essay #13, September 22/25, 1998, Atlanta/Carrolton, Georgia) and Gandhi in South Africa-Then & Now, Part 1 (Essay #68, June 30, 1999 Johannesburg South Africa)

6. Walking the Talk: Slavery and Beyond-
A proposal for a solo photo show at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

7. The Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage-proposal for a multi-media, group exhibit at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

8. Agreement between photographic client and Skip Schiel

9. A Photography Workshop in Three Sessions

10. Sharing the Craft: A proposal for South African photographers
to aid community based South African organizations

11. A letter soliciting help writing the history of Friends
participation in bringing justice

12 Acknowledgments & Thank You

13. A story from a South African friend

14. Flyer from Middle Passage Pilgrimage

15. Reading & Movie List for the Middle Passage Pilgrimage

16. Reading & Movie List for South Africa

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