National Public Radio Book Review
Michael Katakis and Kris Hardin
Photographs and Words
The British Library
UK Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: September 15, 2011
192 Pages ; £25
We can live more than one life in our single lifetime. We define our lives and ourselves by memories of the words and images of what we have personally experienced. But great art and great writing can help us create memories in words and images of events and lives that we could never experience. In the sense that all literature shows us what we have not seen, it is all travel literature. "Here is where I have been, and here is an image of what I have seen," we are told.
When we see powerful images and read great prose, we can create memories, and it is as if we have seen these places and done these things. There is no limit to our personal world. Writers and artists bring the world to us, bring history to us, and having lived around the world and through history, there is a chance, just a tiny chance, that we might make better decisions in the lives we are gifted to live.
The challenge for readers is, then, to find those who can work in both images and words effectively. Michael Katakis and his wife, Kris Hardin, are experienced travelers and writers, and Michael is a gifted photographer. 'Photographs and Words' is stunning exploration of our world on a personal level with deep political and societal implications. This is world history lived and explored on a personal level, so that readers experience the effects of great events as if they are there, on those hot, dusty plains, in those lush forests, the clattering coffee shops or the austere temples. You will know the people you meet here in words and in images as if you sat down with them to have a cup of tea. These lives will become your life. You'll join Walt Whitman. You'll contain multitudes.
There are five major sections in 'Photographs and Words' that take readers deep into parts of our world and history, small and large. "A Time and A Place Before War" explores Sierra Leone in the late 1980's, shortly before the civil war began to tear it into pieces. Here we see and live life in an African nation from the ground up. We meet the characters and people. Black and white photographs that have an almost atavistic, primitive power accompany gorgeously evoked short journal entries. There is much joy to be seen here, and the poignant reminder that it is gone, all gone, is all the more powerful. The experience here is direct. Katakis and Hardin trade off written entries, and while each speaks in a distinctive voice, there is a palpable connection between them.
The title of Kris Hardin's opening essay for "The Vietnam Veterans Memorial," "Ghosts in the Wall," gives readers an idea of a very different approach for this segment of the book. Here we will directly experience those who confront the wall and the wall itself. Some who come here are loved ones left behind, while others are survivors of the war itself. This section, then, speaks to the effect of the book itself, showing how the experience of the wall can bring the Vietnam War into the lives of those who were never there. Readers cannot help but find themselves taken on an electric journey through all levels, from the words and photographs on the page all the way into the deaths of those whose names fill the wall.
"Artifacts" is another telling title, in which art and facts, artfully combined, offer more than either might alone. Here we are given a few brief journeys around the world, from Istanbul, Turkey to Rapallo, Italy. Letters and journals and images entangle and immerse readers in the joys and troubles of this diverse world. There are no single themes here; the unifying vision is of variety.
"Troubled Land: 12 Days Across America" chronicles a journey across America in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. At the tenth anniversary of this tragedy, Katakis offers a sweet, somber and subtly disturbing vision of a broken nation. None of the images here are the iconic photos of the events or the aftermath. Instead, Katakis gives us the edges of the aftermath. Mostly empty pews, men and women in a South Dakota restaurant. Katakis' keen vision and his sharp troubled writing offer a perception free of ideology. He is a traveler in the foreign land that his nation has become.
For all the diversity of their travels, through time and around the globe, Katakis does manage to find "My True North," that is, Kris Hardin, his wife. It's a brief homecoming, but no less evocative that the sum of the entirety of what has preceded it. The entries and photographs speak of the love that has united the couple and the book itself, and of the personal nature of all experience, no matter how far the traveler roams.
A book such as 'Photographs and Words' needs more than good source material, and the British Library delivers. In terms of words, John Falconer of the British Library and Michael Palin deliver a Foreword and an Introduction respectively that quite effectively set the stage for what's to come. The large 8 1/2" by 11" format gives both the text and the photos plenty of room to breathe. The printing and production values of the book in terms of binding and the reproduction of the magnificent photographs are all top-notch. The book is big enough to be both heavy and light. Pick it up and you feel like you have a book that is all the words "British Library" imply; heavy-duty, beautifully crafted, impeccably designed. Once you get inside, what you find is that they have used the space to give the reader space, to truly get inside the photographs and words. It's an easy book to read and immerse yourself in.
The nature of this book is unlike any other I've read, with the exception of Katakis' previous book, 'Traveler.' It is not straightforward autobiography, nor is it travel writing. The combination of photographs and words is ineluctably poignant. Katakis (for the most part) shoots black and white film, which he develops himself. This explains the painterly quality to the photographs. By virtue of their being done in black and white, however, he does something that painters and color photographers cannot do. Without the color, we have the essence; the soul of the image, imprinting itself alongside words crafted often at the time the image was taken. There's an intimacy between the husband and wife, the photographs and words, that engages readers on an almost physical level. We can indeed contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman suggested. We can live more than one life in our single lifetime. And perhaps, having done so, upon returning to our own lives, we'll know that our personal histories are part of a larger history. We might even think about what we are going to do next, and after that.