The Miracle Portraits

A photographer asks everyday people about a special moment in their lives.

There are two ways to live your life — one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle. — Albert Einstein

 

Aboriginals believe in two forms of time; two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity, the other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the “dreamtime,” more real than reality itself …. It was believed that some people of unusual spiritual powers had contact with the dreamtime. — Quote from the film The Last Wave by Peter Weir

 

I set up an awkward old camera on a street corner and ask strangers to tell me a miracle story — some moment when the veils parted, intuition trumped logic, the worlds overlapped, and dumb luck won out.

In this age of street distractions and public isolation, where we’re all so fearful of each other, the surprise is how many people say yes, and are willing to share an intimacy with a stranger.

I record their story, then duck under the black cloth and focus on their magnified eyes. As they hold perfectly still, I load the film, cock the shutter. And in that suspended moment of silence, as they look honestly into the lens, the picture occurs.

Often in my discomfort, I rush and fumble, and try to fill the silence with small talk. This is a mistake — like whistling in church. People want to bring their full self to this moment, with as little distraction as possible. People want to surrender into the ceremony of the occasion.  

By telling their story to someone listening deeply, then standing for an old-time portrait, this spontaneous moment between strangers meeting on an ordinary street corner transforms into a ritual of remembrance. We drop briefly into dreamtime to witness where the mystical has left its thumbprint on the mundane.  

Ira Goosby

Unemployed, Oakland

I experienced it yesterday. I went to church with my family and I’ve never been emotional at church. I don’t know what happened, but I just got up and walked to the front — something I’ve never done before — and I just sat there and cried. I cried all day. I could not tell you what it was. It just happened.

The pastor called me last night, and he says, “Is anything wrong with you?” I say, “No.” But later, about 10 o’clock, I called him back and say, “That’s not true. I need somebody to talk to.” And I think that probably saved my life. Seriously, because I’m an alcoholic, and I’m a compulsive gambler, and I’m fighting with that, and I don’t think I can do it by myself. So God put a man of God in my life to tell me I’m strong enough and I can do it.

And today is a new beginning in my life.

Rebecca Ansar

Student, Oakland

I met my boyfriend a few months ago.

Before we were actually together, I was at a grocery store with a best friend and there was a coin on the ground, and I was like okay, if I pick up this coin and it has his year on it, then I’m going to marry him.

I picked it up and it had 1990 on it. So I’m going to marry him.

Paul Bradshaw

Graphic Designer, Oakland

I was born with cerebral palsy. When I was four years old I had a leg extension done, where they saw your bone in half and start spreading it every day. My leg grew three inches to help me walk a lot better than I would have without it. I was one of the first kids to get that done.

My mother kept me going in the mainstream schools instead of the disabled classes with students that expected people to give them things all the time.

I see people that have cerebral palsy and are wheelchair-bound and it makes me glad every day that I can walk and talk and do most things that are normal.

Ruben Mendez

Homeless, Oakland

I did drugs before, when I lived in Richmond. Well, I just kept on getting credit from my dealers because I thought I was getting my check soon. Then I was not sure if I was going to get my check. So they put me in a car, and they were going to kill me because I owed them money.

But the next day, thank God, the check came. I was really relieved, because they were serious about that. So after I paid them off, that was it, I changed my way of doing things. Now I drink, but I don’t touch drugs no more.

Patricia Jordan

Unemployed, Oakland

I made a mistake once and got into a man’s car. He took me underneath a freeway and told me to strip. But I prayed and asked the Lord to let me live.

He saw that I cried and somebody else stopped, and so then I should have run away. But I got back into the car and the man was nice enough to drop me off six blocks away from my father’s house.

I think that person would have hurt me very badly if I would of took all my clothes off.

Kwanda Hood & Tahji

Minister, Oakland

I was abused at eight by my mom’s boyfriend. He threatened to kill me so I didn’t say anything. But my mom was like one with him, and she started mistreating me like he mistreated me. So most of my childhood I was living in hell.

I tried to take my life one time. I looked at the bottle of pills, when I heard the Lord say, “No, put them down.” I went to my room crying, wondering why, because I’d suffered, so much, so much.

My mom kept saying to leave, get out, find a place. But I had no first and last month’s rent. As much as she was never merciful in my life, one day she said — and I know it was the Lord — “Well, I’ll pay your first and last rent.” And that was my way out.

I used to always ask, “Why is this happening to me, Lord? Why am I here just to suffer?” So now I have two children and I treat them with much love and much care.

William Griggs

Retired Military, Oakland

I survived four back surgeries, one neck surgery, and cancer. I’ve been cancer-free for four years. So far, so good.

Whenever I get nervous I chant Buddhism — Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. That’s what brought me through everything, including my military career. I do morning and evening practice. It’s calming and peaceful.

You have to experience the chanting yourself. It’s really unusual. We chant for world peace. We chant for seven generations before us and seven generations after.

Anne Maria Rosché

Social Worker, Berkeley

My sister and I were kidnapped on the way to see the X-Men movie opening in Dar es Salaam. We’d been traveling for three weeks already through Malawi and Tanzania.

On the way to the theater we flagged down a taxi. I soon noticed that we were going in a different direction. Then the car slowed and two guys jumped into the back with us, so we were jammed in the middle. They threatened to hit me and demanded our money.

As I looked out the window and saw people going about their lives, I felt this peaceful clarity. I had been in Malawi for a year during a famine, but for the first time I understood what poverty creates for people

Suddenly my sister pushed herself out of her seat, climbed over the driver, opened the door, and started running. As the driver slowed, I jumped out. They just drove away.

We were ten yards from a police officer. We told him what happened, but he looked at us confused. “I don’t know what you want me to do. I have no radio. I have no vehicle.” Then this guy approached us on a bicycle. The policeman stops him, jumps on the back of the bicycle, and the two of them peddle after the kidnapper’s car.

I am still anxious being in cars or taxis by myself, even in the US. But I don’t want to move through the world not trusting that people are ultimately good. There is so much worse. I’m choosing not to be taken out of my work by my own fear for something so small. … It was not even a $100.

Omar Rafael

Player, Berkeley

I was on the 580 Highway to go buy some more dope when a black Honda hit the front of my car. I spiraled out of control. The Honda kept going.

All of a sudden I head a voice tell me, “Don’t worry, it will be okay.” And I felt this tremendous peace come over me. Then I looked to the right, saw this big truck come out and whack! It cracked the side of my car, and I totally spun out. The car was pretty much totaled, but it still could go. I asked God, “Please just let me make it back home.”

After that I drove over to the dope spot. The dealer was joking about my wrecked car. When I got out to pay, my wallet was gone. Somehow in the accident I lost it.

So I just drove home. No more than five minutes after I got home, the car wouldn’t start. God answered my prayers.

Samer Mosis

Musician, Berkeley

When I was about fourteen years old, I was questioning where I sat with my religion, and it was driving me crazy. I’m Egyptian, from a very religious family. But there is this distinct separation between being spiritual and being religious. I’ve always had this longing to be spiritual, but I’d not known how to approach it.

One night I was lying in bed, going through turmoil, and praying. I’d been heavily addicted to narcotics. I didn’t know what to do or who to pray to. I prayed all night asking God, “Will you help me? Will you be with me? Will you take care of me? Can I depend on you?”

Early in the morning, my phone mysteriously beeps. I got texted from an unknown number that says, “I will.” I had no idea where it came from and I couldn’t text it back. But that was my answer.

I’m not saying I haven’t messed up since. I’ve used and I’ve overdosed and I’m really trying. I’m thirty-days clean today. I’ve always been dependent on the Lord, and since that night, I know He’s there.

Jamie Pillers

Teacher, Berkeley

My wife and I got married late. We tried to have a child for some time, but we couldn’t. At a fertility conference we met people who suggested adoption. It just hit us like a lightening bolt that, of course, we should do that.

Wonderful people helped us through the process. We traveled to China with two other adopting couples. On the bus from the airport, our Chinese guide told us, “Your children are waiting for you at the hotel.”  

In the lobby, sitting on the couch, were three nannies and the three children. We had a picture of our ten-month-old daughter, so we already knew what she looked like. We didn’t grab for her. We just hung out with her and her nanny. After about fifteen minutes she just reached over and put her arms around my wife’s neck.

And away we went, to start a whole new life. Our daughter is eight years old now. It’s been the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Jacoria & Malik Marzett

Musician, Berkeley

I lost my brother in ’99. He was shot coming out of a store. Someone thought he was someone else and his life was snatched from him.

I believe God gave him another chance through my son. He’s my brother reincarnated. I named him after my brother.

My son is only sixteen months but he’s very wise. Like he knows all the old songs. One of my brother’s favorite songs was by Snoop Dogg, and when Snoop Dogg comes on the radio, he just reacts a certain way. And his mannerism is just like my brother.

I watch him all the time and he gives me this feeling that I’m afraid of him.

Russell Nelson

Dead-Head, Berkeley

When I was a little kid I was not allowed to listen to music because I grew up in a Christian household in Georgia. But I would always hear this acoustic music in my head. I was probably around six when this started. It went on for a few years. I’d picture this old guy playing a guitar.

Once I got to be around thirteen, I’d go into record stores trying to search for this music, because I knew it was something really cool and something I wanted to be a part of. So I picked out albums and sneaked them around my parents. But I could never find it.

Until one day I was over at my friend’s house and I heard it! It was Jerry Garcia playing “Ripple.” That’s something that affected my life to this day. I still listen to that music every day.

Yael Meromy

Student, Berkeley

It’s a symbol in both Islam and Judaism. 

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted a specific tattoo right between my shoulder blades. It’s a tattoo of a hamsa, which is a Middle-Eastern symbol of a hand that’s supposed to guard you from the Evil Eye. I’m Israeli and it’s a symbol in both Islam and Judaism. 

Then over the summer I worked at this camp in Yosemite, and became really good friends with this girl. Midway through the summer I found out that she had the exact tattoo right between her shoulder blades.

When I have enough money I’m going to get one. I want it on my back to protect me where I can’t see.

Cracker

Traveler, Berkeley 

I was hitchhiking through Nashville, Tennessee, during this terrible blizzard. It was about 20-degrees and I was stuck next to a McDonald’s. I’d hardly eaten for five days, but they wouldn’t let me in because I had a backpack.

Over a couple hours of freezing I gave up on living. I was not going to get out of this situation. No one was going to help me. I was just going to die and I had no choice but to accept that.

And right when I closed my eyes and was in the process of letting go and dying, this guy came up, and he was like, “Are you cold, boy?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m cold, very cold.” And he was like, “I’ve got this brand new Air Force-issue flight bomber jacket. It’s all Gortex, good to zero degrees. God told me to give it to you.”

I just said, “Thank Go…” And I couldn’t speak. I was speechless for hours after that. I just had this beautiful revelation of God and everything was okay. Without that jacket I would I have died, for sure.

Fidel Farnsworth

Artist, Berkeley

In 1985 I was struck by lightning twice. The first time I was hit on my right temple. Two weeks later I was hit on the other side of the head. It happened at an outdoor concert at the University of Chicago. It did not hurt a bit. It felt like I had a vitamin pill. It just built up my life-force. 

The lightning answered a question about God’s existence and whether or not I had a purpose. From a personal standpoint the question was: “Who is my father?” You see, I grew up without a father. I’m still finding out my purpose. 

After I was struck, I was less received by my friends, so I came out to California. My life has been quite chaotic since then. It put me on a quest to find God further. And on that note, I’m actually on my way to church.

Mark Stillman

Unemployed Engineer, Hayward

I grew up and was educated in San Jose and worked for a while as an engineer. But I was missing out on some of the social skills that somebody might need to function successfully. So I became homeless for a while, living in my car and tent in Castro Valley. Now I’m moving back up and renting a room in the hotel here in Hayward.

One thing about being in America is that everybody has to make their own way. It’s an individualized society. That can have its downside. But I did get to go out there and live in a tent and learn from myself that it’s possible to live with just the basic necessities. It’s enlivening to do that on my own and feel like a mountain man, to go out and find a little place near the trees and be with the animals.

I don’t feel that I’m accomplishing tremendous things. But maybe just being an individual and a little bit independent can be good for you. So maybe that’s something I have done. It’s been mostly perseverance. I’m happy just to be alive and functioning and talking with you.

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