Photographer Goes Online to Finance a Distant Artistic Calling
There are three things we can learn from Michigan photographer Michael Sarnacki. The first is that sometimes, a person's second act isn't a total departure from his or her original calling in life, but rather a chance to use those talents in a different way -- or to explore a different subject. The second is that it's possible to get that second act going while you're still engaged in the first. And finally, perhaps the most important point of all: If we're humble enough to reach out to others for help in achieving our dreams, their support can be a powerful affirmation of what we're striving to accomplish.
Over the years, 60-year-old Sarnacki has done a lot of different things with a camera, from shooting medical documentation to weddings and portraits. But when he's not at his day job, Sarnacki often is on the other side of the world, in Sri Lanka, meticulously documenting an ancient religious tradition that most Americans probably have never heard of -- the Esala Perahera, a festival honoring the founder of Buddhism, whose roots date back to the third century B.C.
Over the past 15 years, Sarnacki has made repeated trips to Sri Lanka to learn about and photograph the festival, and has dreamed of publishing a book to introduce the rest of the world to the Sri Lankan religious culture that has so fascinated him. For a long time, that seemed like an ambition as remote as the country itself. But recently, Sarnacki sought help from Kickstarter.com, the fundraising site that helps artists find donors to support their projects.
Now, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, Sarnacki has $20,000 to finance a book project.
"There's an amazing richness of Sri Lankan culture, and the people have this incredible warmth and kindness," he says. "I want more people to know about it."
It's not too hard to understand why Sarnacki fell in love with the Esala Perahera, an event that is as visually rich as it is full of spiritual meaning. Each year, for nine nights and one day, 6,000 drummers and performers, and as many as 80 costumed elephants, parade through the Sri Lankan town of Kanady, displaying a tooth that is said to be a 2,600-year-old relic of the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Guatama. Thousands of pilgrims line Kanady's streets to celebrate and catch a glimpse of the relic and the colorful, torch-lit pageantry.
Like many great artistic quests, Sarnacki's project began with a serendipitous meeting. Back in 1994, he was on a plane flying to New York, and he happened to sit next to a Catholic priest from Sri Lanka. In the course of the cross-country flight, the photographer and the clergyman hit it off. "He spoke about the country, and it sounded so exotic," Sarnacki recalls. "I'd never been to that part of the world, so he said, 'Please come and see me sometime.'"
Sarnacki put the invitation on his mental list of things that he might get around to doing someday, but he kept thinking about it. He started getting books about Sri Lanka and reading about the country, about which he knew little. In one of the books, he was fascinated by a photograph of a religious procession with an elephant. "I thought 'That's a very cool thing there,'" he recalls. Even so, he was hesitant. "Sri Lanka was in the midst of a long civil war, and I kept thinking 'Do I really want to do this? It might be dangerous.' But finally, in 1995, I just sucked it up and booked a trip and went to visit my friend."
On that trip, Sarnacki visited the festival and was taken by the impoverished nation's simple piety, fealty to tradition and resilient, indomitable spirit in the face of the war's suffering. He went back again in 1996 and 1997 to further immerse himself in the culture. With his camera, he tried to capture what he felt. "I came from that Cartier-Bresson and Garry Winnogrand-influenced school of photography," he says. "I love to shoot street scenes."
But Sarnacki also worked hard to understand what he was shooting. "I spent a lot of time doing research about Buddhism and Hinduism," he says. "Everything has significance, in terms of meaning -- the elephants, the robes, and so on. I wanted to really understand all that. There was so much to learn about," he says.
Then, in 1998, a terrorist detonated explosives in a van outside a temple in the town that hosted the festival, killing scores of people and causing extensive damage to the structure and its surroundings. When Sarnacki returned to Sri Lanka that July, everything seemed very different, with anxiety and fear replacing the joy of religious fervor. "Once, the event had been open and free. Now, it was gridlocked, with machine guns and pillboxes guarding the route, and gates everywhere. I decided not to come back for a couple of years, thinking that eventually, things would revert to the way they had been. But they never did. When I returned in 2004, if anything, it was more intense, with 5,000 police and soldiers along the route, doing body searches. So that aspect -- and the effect of the war itself -- became part of my project. I wanted to show how it had affected ordinary people."
Donors to the Kickstarter website provided not just a financial boost to Sarnacki, but also a reaffirmation of his artistic integrity and vision. The Royal Oak, Mich., photographer discovered that he had a startling array of fans and patrons -- "everyone from my high school girlfriend to college classmates, and a lot of my professional colleagues. I even got three Jesuit priests. It felt good to know that people saw me as a decent guy, and had enough faith in my work that they were willing to contribute." He was particularly inspired by one friend, who had just lost his house because of the tough economic times, but still insisted on giving $100. "He said, 'You have a chance to do something noteworthy,'" Sarnacki recalls. "That really was a moving thing."
Sarnacki said he plans to use the money to produce a photography book and a related photography exhibit, which the U.S. embassy in Sri Lanka has expressed an interest in hosting. You can learn more about Sarnacki's project at this website he's created about it.
Other Kickstarter beneficiaries have included the Millington sisters, founders of the 70s all-female hard rock band Fanny, whom I wrote about in this post a while back.
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