My neighbor Bill Oakes passed away on August 1st, 2012. Bill and his wife Mitzi Oakes, were welcome and open neighbors for the year I lived across from them in South Burlington. Their house, white ranch style built on a hill looking out over the highway to Mount Mansfield. The driveway always contained two trucks and a snowmobile, all three constantly under the wrench. The backyard was a museum of snowmobiles, 30 at Bill’s last count, of almost every brand and every year snowmobiles have existed.
Bill and Mitzi are also known as Mr. and Mrs. VAST after founding the organization, the Vermont Association of Snow Travellers, which today maintains, administers and regulates snowmobiling in Vermont, the industry is estimated to bring up to 5 million dollars every winter to small communities and business throughout Vermont.
Besides being Mr.VAST, Bill has had a long, full life, born to farmers in upstate New York, before being drafted for the Korean war and returning to marry Mitzi and eventually moving to Vermont to be the General Manager of the then newly built UVM Gutterson Field House. Bill and Mitzi would remain in Vermont to raise three children, see Bill Leave UVM to work in the refrigeration business only to leave to start his own business. During his time installing heating and refrigeration systems he built Ben & Jerry’s first refrigeration system for their first shop.
His accomplishments are not the things that stand out in my memory, the short time in which I knew him, his presences is what stays, what can be recalled. A shorter man by most standards, but his ability to fill the space around him, quick to smile and laugh he was not a man to curse or talk ill of others, Bill was a simple man with a large heart. My first memory of Bill, he had his shovel in hand, standing next to an excavator moving rocks the size of fists, bill in synch with excavator and the excavator in synch with Bill. Bill ceded nothing to the metal behemoth, any work a machine could do Bill could and would do it, maybe not as fast but by gosh it would get done.
At 81 he and Mitzi would be finishing up shoveling and digging out their car in 4 feet of snow at 7 a.m. As my roommates an I were rushing to throw on our snow gear to go out and lend a hand, guilty at our inability or our failure to help our neighbors. They appreciated our too late attempts, but were just as happy to do the shoveling themselves, Bill and Mitzi both come from a generation that could still out work any twenty-something today.
Unfortunately in the last few years before Bill passed away, he began to lose his past, friends, loved ones, home, his memories and familiarities. He was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I was fortunate to meet Bill before the disease really could affect him noticeably. When I met Bill I immediately wanted to start taking pictures of him, so I began looking into VAST so I could do a piece on snowmobiling and Bill. After driving over 1000 miles around Vermont chasing Snowmobiling I realized the real story and my interest was completely in Bill. Around this time I found out that Bill was suffering from dementia and began to notice gaps in our conversations.
This changed the story, from Bill and what he built, to Bill what he built and what he’d begun to lose. Just before I leaving the country for a Fellowship, Bill was admitted in an adult care program that he went to daily after he became too much for Mitzi to handle on her own. I was able to have a day to visit and photograph Bill at PACEVT (Program of the all-inclusive Care for the Elderly). From excercise, cooking class, lunch and activities I followed Bill and his group around, Bill swinging between quite acceptance, to remembrances of times and places past and the hardest, confusion of where he was and what he was doing in this place coupled with the need to be heading someplace. Bill was placed with a smaller group of clients that need more individual and specialized care because of his tendency to wander and his impulses to leave and fix.
The day was difficult, it was the first time I had been around Bill at that stage for such a long period of time, the realization and the impact of the disease on him finally sunk in for me. He would remember me occasionally for who I was, a neighbor, a photographer interested in snowmobiling and VAST, a young man about to travel abroad. At other times I was another friendly face to talk with, to question about why I was taking pictures, to related stories of when he had bought his first Kodak in Germany on his way back from the Korean war. occasionally Bill would remember me as his assistant, we had to get going and get some work done or else “by golly we’re going to be in a bind” tomorrow with one person from Bill’s past or another.
I left Bill helping to prepare banana bread with his group, this would be the last time I would get a chance to talk with Bill. That afternoon as I drove away from PACEVT I struggled to picture the man I had first met two years ago and was left sad and grateful I had met such a man as Bill Oakes.
By the time I returned back to the states after 6-months away, I discovered Bill had been put into a full-time care facility, and Mitzi was living by herself. A week after I returned I received a call from a friend who still lived next to the Oakes to tell me Mitzi had fallen and hurt herself and that Bill was no longer living at home. I called Mitzi up, talked and made a plan to drive up from NH in two weeks to visit. A week later, another friend called to break the news that Bill had passed away. “Bill Oakes?” I said, “wow, Bill Oakes? Bill Oakes wow, wow? Bill Oakes?”
Bill Oakes is VAST.
I’m honored to be included on Reportage by Getty Images Emerging Talent Roster, along with so many amazing young photographers. To see my work on Reportage by Getty Images website click here.
While visiting friends in Senapati District of Manipur, India I decided to attend morning service at the local American Baptist church. This was my first time witnessing how Baptists worship and my first time seeing any Christian community in India. As I was raised a Catholic, it was a very different experience to see how they pray, the entire congregation of 300-400 people praying out loud (also the fact that there were so many people in one church at the same time was quite impressive). No matter the faith, or cause, I find it incredibly powerful when so many people in one space direct their energy and thoughts toward one common intention.
Holy shmookes! So I’ve been busy, real busy, I received a grant through the Integrated Arts Academy in the Old North End to teach a handful of 5th graders how to take pictures of their school, family, and the O.N.E, all to be displayed in their school along with portraits (taken by yours truly) of my students family, very excited. Along the same teaching vain I’m volunteering with Spectrum Youth & Family at their drop in center for homeless and at-risk youth getting their darkroom up and running so we can hold classes.
On top of these fun activities I’m still working on a few projects, the O.N.E, ‘Co-habitating’, Vermont Association of Snow Travelers and a few more that are still brewing. I’m starting to shoot film along side digital and decided it was time to share some of my work. I haven’t had a working light meter for years as all of my film cameras har broken in one way or another. Below you’ll find two galleries, the first is film I shot with my grandfathers Agfa, a Camera produced in the 50’s, and an old Konica donated to me by Ryan Mercer, editor of the Burlington Free Press, the second gallery features photos I shot with an old Pentax K1000. Mostly black and white Kodak 400TX there are a few color shoots I took with some Fujicolor film. Enjoy! Oh wait! Quick shout out to Lezot Camera in Burlington for a great job developing the negatives, scanning the film, and for numerous repairs they have done quickly and precisely for me over the past couple years, truly a great shop that deserves your support.
Sunday, the Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Burlington, Vt. to begin Burlington’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations. I heard Rev. Sharpton’s story on The Moth podcast earlier this week and was prompted to pick up a ticket to see such a prolific and renowned orator speak in my city. After reading some of the hubbub about his upcoming travels on the Burlington Free Press website, I decided to bring my camera along to the speech to get some pictures of peoples reactions to Rev. Sharpton’s speech as well as to get a shot of the Reverend in the Old North End to add to my ever expanding portfolio of the O.N.E, its residents and events.
Unfortunately, I arrived mid-way through the Rev. Sharpton’s speech, which resulted in me not getting a chance to shoot more then 10 minutes of him giving the speech; which wasn’t a big deal since my goal was the 20-30 seconds it would take him to walk from the churches backdoor to his waiting car. I was happy with the shot I choose for the Sharpton/O.N.E. pictorial (above image) but wish I had positioned myself on the other side of the grey car (you can see in the right corner of the pic) so I could have gotten the top of Church Street in the picture. This is one of the greatest challenges in photography, most particularly photojournalism: Where do I put myself?
The question is simple enough but what you have to realize is that your primary task is to analyze what the story is about. This is what my photo is supposed to tell (from a basic reporting aspect: “Rev. Sharpton, MLK day, Burlington, Old North End and perhaps the person who helped bring Rev. Sharpton to Burlington, Pat Brown”.
So these are the elements that need to be shown or represented somehow by my photo but MLK day is more difficult to represent unless there are pamphlets or posters of some sort to actually display that it is in fact Martin Luther King day.
Second step: Take note of the environment that surrounds you. I like to focus on the high points, low points and barriers. Examples being the balcony, floor or the bottom of stairs, and pews.
The third step is to evaluate your light sources in relation to your subject. High windows, the setting sun, pools of light, shadows and of course, Sharpton.
This brings us to the fourth and final step (this may be the most difficult part): Reading peoples minds…before they do. When you were younger, at some major event like a sports game or concert and your guardian, just moments till the game has finished, is putting on their jacket and telling you its time to leave… Well its like that older person in your life trying to beat the traffic, seeing in their minds eye what the parking lot is going to look like in ten minutes… only this time its with only one or a handful of people.
Example: Before the Reverend is even finished with his speech, I am preparing for my great escape toward the backdoor before Al gets there. Why do I do this? Because I know he’s not sticking around to shake hands or sign autographs, but instead making a bee-line for the airport.
The process of photojournalism requires an understanding of human beings; how they move and how they think. I hope this has been somewhat informative. Stay warm! (or cool)