Faye Rapoport DesPres

Writers in the Trenches: Talking Writing and Photography with Pushcart-Nominated Essayist Jim Kennedy

Writer and Photographer Jim Kennedy

Jim Kennedy’s creative nonfiction essay “End of the Line” is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve ever had the privilege to read or teach. Published in the highly respected journal Creative Nonfiction, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and re-printed in two anthologies (one of which is Man in the Moon, Essays on Fathers & Fatherhood), the piece is an unforgettably brave exploration of one of the most painful experiences imaginable, the loss of a child. If you have an opportunity to read it, do.

Jim was born in Baltimore, MD to a father from Massachusetts who served as an FBI special agent and a mother from Des Moines who worked as a homemaker raising five children and as a part-time sales clerk. He incurred epilepsy from a fall down the stairs as a child, but thanks to the strong support of his parents didn’t let that stop him from pursuing a normal and active life. He became a Maryland Scholastic Association Champion in X-country running and will be inducted this fall into the Boys Latin High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Jim earned his B.A. in Humanities from Johns Hopkins in 1978 after winning the Mayor’s Cup as the first Baltimore finisher in the Maryland Marathon in 1976 and 1977.

“End of the Line” appears in this anthology.

Jim met his wife, poet and retired humanities chair and professor Dr. Becky Kennedy, in a writing group in 1978. He has since earned a Graduate Certificate Degree in Administration and Management from the Harvard Extension School in and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. Just this year, on Sept. 11, he retired after a 34-year career in financial analysis with the City of Boston.

Jim and Becky have shared four children and five grandchildren.

As if all of that isn’t interesting enough, Jim has recently focused his creative pursuits on photography, and his photos were exhibited in Harvard Square last year.

I asked Jim in this interview what prompted the change, and how his experiences in writing and photography compare.

FRD: Jim, when I met you, you were focused on pursuing your writing. Recently, you have put more energy into photography. Did the switch happen gradually, or did you make a conscious decision to focus your creativity in a new direction?

JK: It came as a total surprise to me that I had any natural acumen for visual composition. When we met in the summer of 2009 as two of the ten aspiring writers sitting at that long conference table with the charismatic Randall Kenan, I was in my mid-fifties and had never owned a camera. That changed soon after, when someone who to this day remains a favorite photographic subject, my granddaughter Harper, visited. During her visit, I bought my first camera.

At the Solstice MFA Program, I pursued my writing with the same vigorous determination with which it had begun in the summer of 1995, within days of losing my son Thomas in a riptide during a family vacation, when all that I could think of was that if I don’t put down in words every remembered moment with Thomas, it would be like his dying a second time.

I was very proud of the fruit of my labor at Solstice: a completed young adult novel as my thesis, a creative nonfiction piece that was accepted in a leading magazine and later included in two essay collections. However, the hint of where I was heading came with my graduate lecture: “The Crowd as a Character in Literature and Cinema.” I tilted heavily toward the visual, drawing examples from both cinema and still shots, for instance, a key photo taken by Wayne Miller in the famous collection “The Family of Man.”

During my time at Solstice, I remained working full-time, 40 hours a week, always involved in complex projects, and by the end of Solstice, I was thoroughly exhausted. On a practical level, photography was a creative fallback, less exhausting than writing. But meanwhile, I was slowly and steadily discovering within myself a passion I never knew existed.

My transition from writing to photography was also happening unconsciously along the way.  On the road, when visiting family or friends, I’d pull off their shelves the sort of books one buys in a museum gift shop. In this way, I discovered the works of August Sanders, Edward Weston, Sally Mann. Both individual photos and the body of their work shown in these volumes made a profound impression on me.

So it was not a conscious decision. It was a surprise that occurred late in life and has been fed by discovery and delight ever since.

FRD: What parallels do you see between the “training” you’ve done to learn to write well and your path to becoming a better photographer?

JK: The value of Solstice for me was the structure and discipline it imposed on my writing and on my reading critically. Without that guidance, my writing would have continued to muddle along without my having something solid to show for it.

My formal training in photography was very limited, but also was a necessary step. I took a basic digital photography course at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, without which I would never have made it to first base. I sing high praises to my two teachers in that course, Katie Tyler Guillaume and Allison Cekala: Along with racing through basics of digital photography and the dozens of variables that go into a good end result, they both gave me a sense of what it means to produce a full-blown creative thematic portfolio. For Katie, the head teacher, that was the punch line of the semester course. Allison, the T.A., was a living example, since she was just finishing her MFA thesis.

One definite parallel is that in both genres there has been no better way to spend time (outside of writing and shooting itself) than to study, for depth and variety, the body of work by many writers and photographers. To keep it simple, I can’t imagine my writing going anywhere without having discovered the lyrical intensity of Annie Dillard. I can’t imagine my photography going anywhere without being inspired by the work of a dozen or so great American and European documentary and street photographers. Dorthea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson are good examples.

FRD: You have occasionally combined the written word with photographs to create hybrid works. Tell us about that process and the results.

JK: Ideally, when suggestive narrative in a photo is my goal, that suggestion is embedded, and it’s all that’s needed, and adding words is beside the point.

Sometimes I am concerned that the photo doesn’t yield or suggest the secret that drew me to record the image. And often I can’t quite articulate it to myself, at least not immediately, so I meditate, fumble though some phrases, try to unmask its secret, and record that often-awkward attempt. It’s as if I were drawn to a sculpture and, not understanding why, I shut my eyes and touch it, touch it all over, and try to experience it as a blind person might.

Other times, there’s a story to tell about the taking of the picture itself, a first-person narration. (I share an example at the end of this interview.)

There are three examples I love of a thorough, deliberate, and enriching combining of words and photos: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee and Walker Evans; Education, Robert Coles and Nicholas Nixon; and, Mario Steigerwald, an active photographer in Munich, Germany, who always adds a single dab of poetic prose with the photos he posts daily.

FRD: Generally, are you trying to express the same message or worldview through writing and photography? If not, what is the difference in what you’re trying to say through each medium?

JK: Probably, it’s the same message. I’d like to think both are about the remarkable depth and variety of human experience, articulating a perspective that is humanistic, empathetic. But the way I achieve the message is very different.

FRD: What would you say is something very similar about your writing and your photos?

Writing, for me, is a highly personal exploration, truth telling, full of surprising discoveries along the way. “Personal” is the key word. It’s a kind of 80/20 rule: about 80% percent internal probing, and 20% the providing of objective description necessary to give context to the internal exploration.

The 80/20 rule gets reversed with photography. I love to photograph people, especially without their awareness of being photographed, whether it be in crowds, on the street, or at public events. The photos themselves are objects, captured moments, outside of myself. So 80% of what I (attempt to) do is record objectively the remarkable depth and variety of human experience. The 20% comes in the way that my personal perspective imposes itself on my selection of subject, in how I finish a photo in the virtual darkroom, and simply in the accumulated body of work in which thematic strands emerge.

FRD: What is very different about them?

There’s always a detailed accurate recording that you start with when you take a photo, no matter how much you adjust color, light and focus or target certain subjects. You are recording a moment, not shaping it molecularly, as with writing, word by word, sentence by sentence. I feel part entomologist capturing an insect in amber, part thief stealing this or that person’s (or crowd’s) moment and taking ownership of it. All with good intention: Art worth sharing, for me, happens by endlessly panning the visual stream until I find one nugget that achieves something worth sharing.

Language, on the other hand, is rich with ambivalence, ambiguity, irony and range that a writer shapes from the ground up. Writing and photography aren’t just different genres; they are different dimensions, which makes a successful combining of them an ultimate goal for me.

FRD: Thank you for this interesting perspective, Jim. Readers, Jim was kind enough to share an example of his photography/writing combinations, below:

I am waiting for a bus when I see her in the alleyway behind my bus stop. I am struck by her being bent over, stone still, and holding a wad of cash in her hand.

I approach tentatively … short steps and only a gradual raising of my voice, “Are you okay?” No reaction. I consider poking her awake but fear I will startle her and she’ll come flying at me.

Meanwhile, I look up and notice the crowd at the bus stop that I, only a minute ago, was part of: They are all observing through the chain link fence that now separates us. They are all black, and this woman and I are white. I sense their curiosity is more on me than the woman on the curb; they’re curious and almost amused that I am surprised. They must see this often in this bus station.

I assume this crowd to be mostly regular patrons of the bus station. I want to ask them what I should do, but even before I begin to speak, one woman speaks forcefully to me through the fence, only about two feet between us: “This is what you get. Methadone. Or the opioid crisis, or whatever you call it.” I get the odd feeling that she’s implying that I am to blame.

I am aware that there’s Transit police at this station and head toward the little box fortress that they never seem to come out of. I wave my hands to get the attention of the black officer inside. He opens the door a crack. “I think someone’s OD’d or passed out or something.” He nods. I say it again. Still a casual response. I try to persuade him to take a single step out the door, because this woman at the curbside is clearly in my sight line, and his too, if he only pokes his head out the door. He instead turns to look at his security screens inside. I repeat my words one more time and then return to the bus stop.

I’m back close to her. Just then the crowd I was waiting with is filing onto a bus. As I wait for the policeman I step back out of sight into a corner and take this photo. (I have been dealing with the issue of addicts coming into the building I help manage. I want to record this, as I know I will be thinking about this scene for hours to come.) She has been stone still all this time.

Finally, the police officer comes, now with sunglasses on, and a gun at his hip. He pokes her awake and gets her to stand back on her feet. She acts all grouchy and surprised and explains she’s waiting for the 66 bus, but she’s walking instead toward the street. He points her in the direction of the 66 bus stop, and she argues with him about precisely where the bus stops. He departs as a 66 bus pulls up and she gets on.

She still has that wad of cash in her hand, but as the bus pulls away she stumbles into a seat. No doubt the bus driver has recognized the situation right away, and if he tried to get her to put a few of the dollars she’s still holding into the box it would only create a scene.

The bus heads across town, across river, to Harvard Square, where the scene seems destined to be repeated.

I try to imagine what it would be like to become this woman’s counselor. How extraordinarily difficult it would be to peel away the layers of whatever drives her to this place: I imagine the layers being peeled away over a long period of time and only with excruciating difficulty. Then, a real loving person would emerge, the real her, full of the goodness we all are born with.

[I think this is going to be a contemplative Thanksgiving for me.]

November 25, 2015