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“There is a saying in Tibetan: Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength. No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful the experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”—Dalai Lama XIV

The images comprising Tragic Beauty encompass both the tremendous challenges people face in the course of extreme tragedy as well as the magnificent resilience of the human spirit. This exhibition is an invitation to discover tender surprises emerging from catastrophic circumstances.

When asked to curate a photography exhibit on the contradiction of moments that simultaneously hold both beauty and horror, I thought, what a perfect medium to achieve this visual impact?  After all, photography in its most basic definition is the revelation of the contrast between light and dark. Every day we all experience contrasts:  Good and Evil, Hot and Cold, Happy and Sad, Loud and Soft. Sometimes, however, these contrasts mean the difference between Life and Death.

Finding two artists with a similar approach to the subject of tragedy engendering beauty proved complex. Ultimately I found this compatibility in the images of Shannon Jensen and David Julian. Both photographers captured tragic events—one event born out of political upheaval and the other, from a natural disaster that led to sociological calamity and displacement resulting in massive ruin.   Both photographers discovered astonishing beauty in the rubble and splendor in the shards.

For her 2012 series A Long Walk, American photojournalist Shannon Jensen photographed the grueling journey of the tens of thousands of Sudanese who were forced to flee the Blue Nile State and seek refuge in the South Sudan. Men, women and children of all ages walked for months under harsh conditions to reach safety.  Jensen documented this crisis with her camera by photographing the wide and dynamic variety of their colorful, multi-textured, ill fitting and well-worn shoes. The beauty of these stand-alone images could not be any more effective in conveying the hardships the refugees had to endure.

Seattle-based photographer David Julian encapsulates the fragmented pieces of people’s lives that emerged from the cataclysm of Hurricane Katrina.  Rather than attempting to document the magnitude of this tragic event, he chose to focus on small individual losses.    His series Katrina: Taken from the Heart, constitutes an intimate and emotional glimpse of once-precious personal belongings and treasured places that now are gone or irrevocably changed. In Blue Hole, Ninth Ward a home’s blown out wall creates a window to the serene blue sky beyond. In Red Hat with Fish someone’s overturned red felt hat forms the waterless bowl for a dead fish with silver scales adrift in a sea of black, hard-caked mud—a gorgeous tableaux fashioned purely out of tragedy.

As Jensen so thoughtfully reflects, “How does one represent a journey in an image?” Tragic Beauty attempts to answer this question. Engaging the viewer with powerful and poignant imagery, the exhibition serves as a reminder of the frailty of life. People are vulnerable. Objects are ephemeral. Loveliness and joy are elusive; and in an instant, circumstances can change—both gravely, and forever.

Janet Howell
October 2014