by Keone Michaels
Sun Jun 21st, 2009 at 06:38:27 PM EST
(In Rome they are getting set to promote Father Damien to the saintly firmament. It has caused me to rummage through the artifacts of my consciousness and the more physical boxes of contact sheets and slides.)
In 1978/79 I was privileged to be asked to do a cover design for a book cover, a book featuring interviews of patients at Kalaupapa Leprosy (Hansen's disease was pc in those days) Settlement. I visited Kalaupapa and met with workers, patients and bureaucrats. The patient's stories made me cry then and when I read them today they still make me cry.
From the beginning of the project I felt like I was in a tube, a tunnel of human cruelty. The stories the patients told and the obvious still raw (excuse the pun) wounds of discrimination and cruelty convinced me from the start that I needed to use a fisheye lens to tell this story.
From the possible images, the one that the patients and the authors selected for the cover is of the "visiting room," the room which the healthy family members would sit on one side of a wide table and the patients sat on the other. I was told that originally it had a wire mesh screen running down the center of the table making touch even more difficult. When I visited the long narrow room had no screen but had separate entrances from opposing sides and ends of the building.
For Polynesians, the title of the book, "The Separating Sickness" is important. Families in Polynesian culture are close and rending them apart by disease was a wrenching, tearing pain. They called leprosy, "the separating sickness" because it tore their families apart often with enforced segregation.
The picture finally selected is an image of the room that families were forced to use to visit each other and the physical limitations were imposed to keep the people apart so they could not transmit the disease. Yet, this image was the favorite choice of our patient advisors because of the cross they could see in the reflection on the ceiling. Christianity, it turned out the survivors of Hansen's disease asserted was a major part of their lives and a major reason for their spiritual and physical survival. And Father Damien was the main symbol of that survival.
On the back cover we put a picture of Father Damien's tomb and in the process of shooting around the church I was given access to the site of his confessional (no lights allowed, so I used trusty Tri-x and hand held it) and I took a few pictures. The dark vestments hanging on a nail and the stools were just as he left them I was told then. The hole on the floor where his open wounds drained during the long confessionals was there. It was a sign of respect to leave things just like he would be back the next day.
A few weeks after I made the photo, a patient told me that a Belgian tourist group came through the church and the vestments disappeared.
In the second printing they changed my original black background I guess to soften the effect. I still like the black better. I don't know if this book is still available. It was a limited printing anyway, but perhaps the Catholic charity that funded it initially might reprint it again. If they do, don't plan on reading it without crying.
(Also published at my personal site: Http://www.johnshklov.com John Shklov 2009)
I found the latest incarnation of this book here. They used the Father Damien Grave Pictures as the cover which seems better now. The Separating Sickness
Here it is:
Also, there is a wikipedia entry on Father Damien: Wikipedia Damien article