1000 Words Photo Challenge (as yet untitled)


Photo by Alicia Pilar Mogollon

It wasn’t an easy death. She didn’t get to simply fall asleep one night and not get up the next morning. She didn’t sleep much at all for the last two or three months of her life. Constant pain only partially mitigated by opioids.The wouldn’t give her enough to really take away the pain. They were afraid, they said, that she might overdose and die, accidentally or deliberately. She would have, too. Given the opportunity, she would have chosen oblivion over the torture of clinging to a razor-sharp thread of life.

Oblivion. That’s what she had expected. Just the end. No angels (or devils). No light at the end of a tunnel. No reincarnation. Just nothingness. That wasn’t what she got.

At first, she thought it was a dream. One of those vivid hallucinations that came when a stab of pain ripped the veil off of her drug-induced slumber. This was different, though. Most notably, there was no pain, a sensation, or lack thereof, so alien in recent months that she almost didn’t notice it. Then, unlike the often jumbled and disjointed dreamtime world, the place she found herself was solid and real.

She was in an auditorium at the university, where she had given her last lecture before the cancer hit her like a battle axe, cutting her from her life. She was standing just offstage, which was odd, since she remembered entering down the stairs through the class. Someone was at the podium, speaking. Wait, that was her younger healthier self. In that moment she realized she was dead. Haunting not the present, but her own past.

As soon as the realization struck, the scene around her shifted. She found herself on the slopes of Sugarloaf, standing somehow on top of 48 inches of powder, watching her 43 year old self slalom gleefully past with her children.

Flash again, this time to her grad school dissertation, given in front of a panel of professors, one of whom was her future husband.

And again, back to her first year of college, seeing herself as an innocent, the world opening up before her, so many avenues to choose from.

This couldn’t go on forever, she had to come to a place where she could find rest. This wasn’t it, though, and neither was her next stop, as an angst-ridden 15 year old with dyed black hair, black lipstick, black everything. She wished she could step in to her adolescent self’s world and tell her it was OK, that the world wasn’t an evil place.

But no, she couldn’t quite connect to that past reality. Two more shifts; her first, halting romance, when a kiss was the most magical thing she had ever experienced, then, a painful memory, the day she lost her father to a train accident as he commuted to the city.

The next jump felt different, her landing more solid. She was in a dimly lit room by the window. Her 6 year old self came in, approaching the upright piano against the wall tentatively. This was it. This was where she could stop. She slipped into the little body of her child self, settled on the edge of the piano stool, stretching for the pedals, and began to play.


“A Squabble Of Philosophers”

So says Gregory David Roberts, in his sequel to the brilliant, quasi-autobiographical “Shantaram”, entitled “The Mountain Shadow”.  I love his writing, and I share his love for India, in all its frustrating dichotomy.  I recommend both of his books, but that is not what I want to write about.


What is a philosopher?  A philosopher is someone who seeks to find order in the chaos of existence, to organize the random, to give meaning to the arbitrary.


It is inevitable that philosophers will squabble.  Philosophy is, by nature, a fiction.  A fiction that can, by virtue of its cleverness, give solace or guidance to lost souls, but a fiction nonetheless.  The more one simplifies and fictionalizes, the more variations are possible, hence the squabbling.  Metaphor is appealing because we all “get it”, but it is malleable as well.  When people begin to treat metaphor as fact, disputes are inevitable.  Squabbling philosophers can be good natured about it, because they are critical thinkers and aware of the metaphor.  Devotees and adherents to particular philosophies, particularly those which have evolved into religions, tend to take disagreement personally and often respond violently.


[Photos taken in New Delhi and Rajasthan in 2007].


Sad News And Renewed Determination

My maestra (Spanish teacher) sent me a message on Facebook Thursday.  I’m always glad to hear from Celeste.

When I told my friend Rene, who owns the Orbita Spanish School in San Pedro La Laguna on the shore of Lago Atitlan in Guatemala, that I had a photo project in mind which featured the elders of the Mayan community, he paired me with Celeste for the four hours of intensive Spanish I took every morning.  Celeste is an outgoing 20 year old who seems to know everyone in San Pedro and has a strong connection to the elder generation.

She facilitated interviews with two nonagenarians and a septuagenarian, who happened to be her grandfather.  I met them, photographed them, and interviewed them, asking each to tell me a story of their youth and to impart some advice for future generations.

All three of them were kind, supportive of my project, and more than happy to talk at length about their lives.I am fortunate to have met them, and look forward to getting to know more of their generation.

Were I forced to pick a favorite, it would have to be Encarnacion Perez, the beautiful 91 year old comadrona (midwife) to thousands of mothers and babies around the lake.  She was sweet, wise, and full of advice for me.  We made plans to speak by Skype with Celeste’s help after I got back to the States.

When I got Celeste’s message: “Hola David”, I immediately shot back, asking how she was, how her school was going, and if she was still playing soccer.

She said “Encarnacion ha muerto” Encarnacion has died.

I was stunned

Encarnacion had said more than once during our conversation that I would never see her again, because she was going to die soon.

My experience is that, as a general rule, the older one gets, the more preoccupied one becomes with one’s death.  I have seen this in my grandparents and now my parents, and the first stirrings of mortality awareness are insinuating their way into my daily thoughts.

So, when Encarnacion told me she was going to die soon, I did what I always do, I said “no, no, you will be around a long time, and I will see you soon.”

I wonder if denial of others’ mortality is a self defense against awareness of one’s own.

The news of her death made me think of the inevitability of my own, but, more importantly, it brought home the urgency and seriousness of my project.

When I first visited Guatemala and Lago Atitlan in 2008, I, as a photographer, fell in love with the history-lined faces and brightly colored clothing I saw everywhere I turned.  Over several subsequent visits, I made friends, learned Spanish, and also learned some of the tragic and often violent history which had formed those lines.  My immediate instinct to photograph these interesting and colorful people evolved into a desire to document the culture of this generation while at the same time having some positive influence on the next.

My project, which I will be promoting this year, is a book, to be titled “Abuelos De Atitlan”, which means “Grandparents Of Atitlan”  It will consist of 50-100 photographs of Mayan elders, each paired with their self-told story and advice to their grandchildren, translated into English, Spanish, and Tzu-Tujil (the local Mayan dialect).

Proceeds from sales of the book will go to the participants and to local schools.  I hope, after successfully completing this book, to do the same for other indigenous communities who are slowly being assimilated and their cultures erased by globalization.  Success in San Pedro and beyond will be the most fitting of tributes to Encarnacion.


If you would like to stay apprised of progress on my project and the upcoming Kickstarter in May, please follow me here or at  Thank you for reading and sharing!


Canyon Del Oro Wash and Romero Creek, Catalina State Park – Christmas Day 2015

It was cloudy for most of the morning.  A guy I met on the trail commented that the light wasn’t very good for photos.  If you are trying to take a specific photo, you either need to have the right light or make it.  If you are just out looking for images, you can find good ones, no matter what the light is.Catalina122515-01 Catalina122515-02 Catalina122515-03 Catalina122515-04 Catalina122515-05 Catalina122515-06 Catalina122515-07walking stickCatalina122515-08babiesCatalina122515-09 Catalina122515-10 Catalina122515-11winter?Catalina122515-12 Catalina122515-13 Catalina122515-14 Catalina122515-15 Catalina122515-16 Catalina122515-17 Catalina122515-18 Catalina122515-19 Catalina122515-20 Catalina122515-21 Catalina122515-22 Catalina122515-23 Catalina122515-24 Catalina122515-25 Catalina122515-26 Catalina122515-27 Catalina122515-28 Catalina122515-30 Catalina122515-31 Catalina122515-32I didn’t see the spider when I took the shotCatalina122515-33 Catalina122515-34 Catalina122515-35 Catalina122515-29Catalina122515-36


Religion: From The Latin “Religere”, Meaning “To Tie Or Bind”


I have some prayer flags tied up outside my door.  I like the notion that each thread borne away on the wind carries with it a prayer.  It is only a notion, however.  If it actually worked, the billions of prayer flags strung across India, Tibet, Nepal, and the back yards of Western aficionados of Near Eastern spiritualism would have transformed the world by now.

Whenever something like a hurricane, earthquake, or terrorist attack happens, the internet is flooded with exhortations to pray, and I am sure millions do just that.  If it actually worked, we would no longer have hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks.  It helps people a lot more if you go to where they are and do something directly for them, or, if you cant do that, give money to an organization that will.

Prayer just makes you feel better about yourself after you don’t do anything at all to help.  I think this is why the Tibetan prayer flags appeal to me.  Unlike “praying for the victims” of whatever disaster, prayer flags are abstracted and undirected.  They are a general wish of well-being upon the earth, which one can then go out and work concretely towards making a reality.

When I was in Guatemala last month, I befriended an aging Canadian expat.  He was a writer, so we talked a bit about writing.  At the beginning of my trip, I was thinking about retiring to Lago Atitlan, so we discussed his experience.  He had a lot of complaints about the place and the people.  He spoke very little Spanish, and I was studying the language, so we talked about that.  The day after the Canadian elections, I brought up the new, Liberal prime minister.  He was not a fan.  Surprised, because I tend to assume people think like me, I said something about how Trudeau was planning to withdraw all Canada’s fighter jets from Syria.  He said he thought this was a bad idea.  I asked him how it helped Canada to have a couple of fighters supporting our war in the Middle East.  My point was that the only militaries big enough to do anything about ISL were those of the US and Russia.  He responded by saying it was the first time in a long time that the US and Russia had agreed on anything.  Incredulous, I pointed out that Russia’s first air strikes were against people we support, and benefited Assad, whom we do not.

That was when he said: “I would like to see Islam wiped out.”

This man, who lives in a community of people who, just two decades ago, were victims of an attempted genocide, was calling for the extermination of 1.5 billion people.

I suppose I could say that his wish has no more power than the millions of prayers sent into the ether in support of whatever good cause, but then I think of the root of religion; “religere, to tie or to bind”.  Millions of people like this man bound together their evil wishes once before, and we had a holocaust.  Maybe the only inoculation against the binding together of evil prayers is the binding together of even more good ones.

Prayer doesn’t solve the world’s problems.  It won’t cure your grandmother’s cancer, and it won’t make the Cubs win the World Series.  It might, however, make a critical mass of good will that can help push aside the darkness, one windborne thread at a time.


A Purpose, A Project, And A Plea


Encarnacion Perez Gonzalez is 91 years old and comadrona (midwife) to thousands of children around Lago Atitlan, among them my friend Rene’s son and daughter.  There is a larger than life mural of her adorning a wall near the muelle Santiago.


These are some of the 190 sea turtle hatchlings released by a man named Jorge at the tortugario in Sipacate.  He has worked there for sixteen years, guarding millions of turtle eggs and shepherding the babies to the sea.

My friends Jen and her brother Doug worked for many years as EMTs.  I once asked Jen how many lives she had saved.  “More than I can count”, was her reply.

One of the most important things I took from my marriage was an appreciation for those who devote their lives to helping others.  Jane was and is a stellar example of this.  As a young woman she worked in AIDS hospice, then went to work at the VA, and now works at the University of Arizona Center On Aging.  She volunteered helping to create self-sufficient clinics in Honduras, which in part brought me here to Guatemala. All along she has given freely of her time to mentor young people seeking a similar life.

As an artist, especially one whose work was, for years, non-objective painting, my ability to use my work to help others was limited.  Of course I see the value of art to the world.  Those who spend their lives creating instead of just consuming perform a vital service to humanity.  Still, I felt the need to help individuals more directly, more concretely.  My only option as a painter was to donate one of my pieces to a silent auction for some charity or other.  Unfortunately, such events are attended largely not by those who wish to support the cause, but rather by those seeking cheap art. It is common for a piece of fine art at one of these auctions to sell for less than the cost of materials.

My transition, over the past decade, from abstract painter to photographer has afforded me an opportunity.  Because photography documents events and tells stories, I am able to communicate in ways that I couldn’t with my painting.  I can also use my art to benefit others directly and indirectly.

I currently have two projects underway.  One is a series called Artists Of Tucson, In which I am attempting to document as many of Tucson’s creators as possible, working in their studios, with their art around them.  I hope to bring this to the Tucson Weekly as a feature, and to publish a book, something of a catalog, in celebration of those who spend their lives making the world a more beautiful and thought-provoking place.

My second project involves the Mayan elders living around Lago Atitlan.  The photos above and below are the first of what I hope will be many, documenting this vibrant culture and lending a voice to those who have lived through both revolution and civil war to carry on ancient traditions.  Sometime in the coming year, I will initiate a Kickstarter campaign to publish a book containing portraits of these remarkable people, and, from their mouths, their personal stories and advice to future generations.  All copies of the book funded by the Kickstarter will be donated to the community here to sell for the benefit of those who need it.  If I am successful in this effort, my dream is to take the idea to other places where ancient cultures are in danger of being absorbed into the mainstream and forgotten.

I hope, when the time comes, that you will support and help publicize this project so that, one day, if I am asked “How many people have you helped?”, I will be able to respond as my friend did: “More than I can count.”


Agapito Rodriguez Rocche, 90 years old


Picking At The Heart Of My World


An amiable if somewhat pungent Swiss hippie was sitting in the coffee shop as I wandered up.  I am fairly sure we had spoken earlier in my visit here, but he didn’t remember me.  He had a number of items arrayed on the table in front of him, apparently for sale, although he denied as much.  There were a few 3″ x 3″ cards emblazoned with computer generated mandalas, some brightly colored pens, and several smooth, jet black stones, some flat, some cut into pyramids.  He told me they were 2 billion year old Shungite from Russia.  My response was: “What a coincidence, I have a 2 billion year old rock around my neck”.  I showed it to him, my piece of river-polished Vishnu Schist which I brought myself from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, masterfully set in sterling silver by my friend Joseph Black Coyote in Tucson.  I was told, when I rafted the Grand Canyon, that Vishnu Schist is the oldest exposed rock on the planet, only seen there and in China, where it has since been submerged by the Three Gorges Dam.  I can only assume this Russian rock comes from a mine, although if you follow the link above, you will find speculation that it is from outer space.  He told me of various mystical powers attributed to Shungite.  I half listened, knowing mine to be more powerful because of the connection I have to its source.

I was fortunate in the late eighties and early nineties to have the experience of rafting through the Grand Canyon several times.  I had a friend who worked as a boatman for one of the handful of companies licensed to operate commercial trips on the Colorado River.  He ran the large, motorized pontoon rafts, rather than the smaller, oar powered boats.  A typical trip consisted of two rafts, 30 passengers, and four crew; two boatmen and two swampers.  A swamper was responsible for tying up the boats, unloading the passengers’ gear, setting up the kitchen, helping to prepare food, cleaning up, and then reloading everything, in addition to pumping up the air filled boat when it began to go soft.  One swamper was the employee of the rafting company, the other (me) a volunteer, working for passage.  Possibly more important than the duties enumerated above, we were also guides, on a journey often as much spiritual as physical.

That first trip, I was more passenger than guide.  It was a truly transformative experience for me.  I don’t have the words to adequately express it.  Suffice to say that, whenever I speak of it (even now), tears well up in my eyes, and, whenever I drive past Lee’s Ferry (where river trips launch), I go down and stand in the frigid water and cry.  I am not the only one so moved my the experience.  I watched and guided over two hundred people in the course of my time in the canyon.  None were untouched.  An Englishman on that first trip told me that, although he had traveled the world, no experience could compare to a Grand Canyon river trip.  It was his third.  I was consumed by the wonder of the canyon, so I took him at his word, even though, at that point in my life, my travels as an adult consisted only of a couple trips to Canada and a handful to northern Mexico.

Now, a quarter century later, I too have traveled the globe, from Vietnam to India, from Jordan to Peru.  I have driven from Arizona to Guatemala and back, seen Angkor Wat, Tikal, Petra, and Machu Picchu, but, as the Englishman said, nothing can compare to descending through time in the depths of the Grand Canyon on the back of the Colorado.

I volunteered on six trips, worked as a paid swamper on one, went as a passenger on my eighth, and then volunteered one more time.  On that last trip I found a small, polished piece of Vishnu Schist in the inner gorge, and brought it out.  It took me a decade to find the right person to set it for me.  Joseph Black Coyote does not take commissions, but he too felt the power of this stone and graciously consented to fashion the silver pendant which I now wear day and night.

This is why I was not impressed by the “2 billion year old Russian rocks”.   I have no connection to them.  The one I wear touches my soul because of what it represents, the memories it invokes, and the way  I acquired it.  I have been thinking recently about taking my Social Security early and retiring to Lago Atitlan, but, since arriving on this trip, I have begun to question that.  Maybe the dream of moving here is like the Russian rocks, an illusion, when I already have the real thing in the place where I have set down roots, and where I found my Vishnu Schist: Arizona.


Juego De Palabras Y Juego De Politicos


I love a good pun, and it makes me especially happy to find one in another language.  On the right in this photo is a sign prohibiting the throwing of trash, with  the threat of a $70 fine.  The signmaker made an error, however, which my Spanish speaking friends who also read the language will see immediately.  “Botar” means to throw, and is pronounced the same way as “votar”, which means to vote.  So the sign actually says “It is prohibited to vote for trash”.  To the left is a promotion for one of Guatemala’s many political parties, this one called “Convergencia”.  The convergence of these two signs is most amusing to me.

Elections are in process in Guatemala.  The former president and vice president having been thrown in jail on corruption charges.  The two candidates who garnered the most votes in the first round of voting will square off on the 26th of this month.  They are Sandra Torres Casanova, wife of a former president, and Jimmy Morales, a wealthy entertainer with no political ties.  Sound eerily familiar?  In another disconcerting reflection of American politics, both are apparently on a first name basis with their supporters.

Jimmy Morales has come on the scene recently and upset the normal progression of Guatemalan politics.  Typically, when a president has finished his term of office, whomever came in second to him succeeds him.  To the consternation of those who supported Lider candidate Manuel Baldizon Mendez, he was upset, creating this contest between an outsider and a former first lady, who would become the first female president of Guatemala.

As my friends will attest, I am overly interested in politics.  One thing I have noted during my travels in Central America is the fear of dictatorship amongst the nascent democracies of the region, and the subsequent distortion of their constitutions.  The president here in Guatemala is limited to a single term, as is the case in El Salvador and Honduras.  I am opposed to term limits of any sort.  I believe they are a restriction of the electorate’s right to vote for whomever they please.  Term limits in the United States insert artificial and often dramatic upheavals into a system which the framers of our constitution wisely designed to inhibit drastic change in favor of stability.

Central American countries have taken this to the extreme.  Limiting the presidency to a single term removes all consequences for not delivering on one’s promises, and all incentive to act for the benefit of voters.  To make matters worse, here in Guatemala, when the presidency changes hands, so do the governorships of all the departments (states) who are appointed by the president, and all the positions within the departments, who are appointed by the new governor.  There is a complete transfer of power, top to bottom.  Hence, any projects initiated but not completed by a former president are abandoned and replaced according to the priorities and political allegiances of the new leaders.  There is no continuity, no consistent bureaucracy to maintain progress.

No party in Guatemala has ever won the presidency twice, and many of the parties in each election are newly formed, including, this time, that of Jimmy Morales, who is favored to win election.

As an aside, one aspect of Jimmy Morales’ platform is to reclaim Belize as a part of Guatemala, which makes about as much sense as building a wall between the US and Mexico, but is equally effective at energizing a certain demographic.

I believe change is good.  I voted for it in 2008.  I also recognize the importance of stability in government institutions and the right of the electorate to decide what change happens and when.  Term limits create artificial instability and restrict the rights of the voters.  Any restrictions should be on the ability of elected representatives to use their position to gain advantage in elections or to solidify their power.  No restriction should be placed on one’s right to vote as one chooses.

Whomever is elected at the end of the month in Guatemala will have four years to do as they please, and, if history is any lesson, to enrich themselves and their friends.  If they had to stand for re-election, Guatemala would be a very different place.