One night six years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant atop a high rise building in Cheng Du, China. It was one of those rotating things. The room slowly revolves, revealing a 360 degree view of the city over the course of your dinner.
I remember thinking: How could I have been so ignorant?
Here was a modern city of more than 10 million people laid out before me. Yet I had never heard of the city three months earlier. Its province, Sichuan, was best known to me as the place with terrific (if a tad spicy) food — a 4,000-year history boiled down to a pint takeout container.
Today, of course, we all know about the region around Cheng Du. An earthquake provided a lesson in geography. Most of all, we have received a lesson in humanity.
The numbers simply numb: tens of thousands of people dead, more than 5 million left homeless.
Photos tell another story. I see my children when I see the face of a teenager crying while sitting in a pile of rubble that was someone’s home. I wonder whose hand it was — whose life — sticking through the ruins. I think of the wonderful people I met in Cheng Du and try to imagine what they are seeing through the lens of their own eyes.
Tragedy makes the world a small place. Photos, especially still photos, can strip away the images of our differences and show the human condition common to all of us.
I think about that when I see more everyday images in the Missourian from our town this week, such as the smiles emanating from the Missouri Theatre reopening or the intensity of a fourth-grader painting ceramic tile at Grant Elementary.
When I see the face of Clarence “Dan” White I imagine all of the stories and all of the years that went into making that face. I don’t imagine it’s been an easy life. There’s trouble in that face. Happiness, too, and determination. “If I fall,” he says, “I’m gonna get up. You can bet I’m gonna get up.”
Those are some of the words you’ll read, and just one of the faces you’ll see in the special report “Paquin Tower: 15 floors, many stories” on ColumbiaMissourian.com. The series of photo essays has been up for almost a week now, and I keep returning to it.
The images call to me. The photojournalists involved in the project showed a community. These aren’t the faces of “senior citizens.” Or “disabled.” Or any other one-dimensional description you might throw out.
The faces I see from Cheng Du aren’t of anyone I know. But they could be of everyone I love.