With exceeding graciousness (considering the last minute nature of my email), John Torrente accepted my Couchsurfing request for the two days between my train arriving in Beijing from Hong Kong and before my flight back to Durham. As a fellow creative traveller, we spent hours exchanging stories over beautiful plates of Northern Chinese cuisine and ever-refilled glasses of wine. [Watch this video for a flavor of his storytelling.]
In 1999, John left his job in New York, bought a backpack and a camera, and set out to learn about the people of the world. Since then, he has been doing self-directed photography projects from the mountains of southern Mexico to the riverbanks of the Danube, living with and amongst the people and eventually using photography as a means of cultural exchange.
Having been a social worker on the overnight streets of Manhattan, his first quest outside the United States involved a volunteer position in Oaxaca, Mexico working with families living in the surrounding mountains. A year later, with his suburban ruse dismantled, he knew there was no going back. He traveled by bus through Central America and eventually wound up studying photography in Quito, Ecuador. He started taking portraits, printing the images and bringing them back to the people. This exchange broke down language barriers, cultural differences, economic disparities and complex social mores.
He’s done projects with the landless farmers movement in Brazil, Indian schoolchildren who lost family in the tsunami, indigenous tribes in Mexico and Peru, gypsies in Turkey and seven foot tall drunken fishermen along the Danube river in Serbia. Seven years teaching English in China and the occasional freelance project has helped finance his creative work.
As the night wore on and the wine sunk in, we opened up about the people we’d met who had changed us during our parallel nomadic backpack-centric lives. Tears welled in his eyes when he shared the story about photographing Unique in Trenton, New Jersey.
She said nothing, but was eager to be in front of the camera. Her classmates fixed her hair while she settled against the tree. As she cradled her unborn child I couldn’t help but wonder if her next seventeen years will be as difficult as her first.
John is buoyantly optimistic and always eager to expound about the his friends’ and family’s passions, strengths, and talents. However, for all his travels, for all his connections, for all his love of creating and connecting, last year he sold his camera – an epic Rolleiflex 2.8f TLR. He had run head first into a question that stops many artists in their tracks:
“But really what does photography do for the world?”
Something broke his desire to photograph — something he couldn’t put into words. As he put it, one day he just woke up and sold the camera. And that was that.
Whether he realized it or not, John answered his own existential question. Earlier in the conversation, he had been explaining the neologism of “sonder” to me:
Sonder is the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.
Photography, visual art, writing, music… these are all avenues for sonder to happen, opportunities for us to connect to strangers who are living vividly complex lives.
Sure, photographs may just be objects. But the glimpse into life that they provide is a potent sphere for enlightenment and for calling for change, if used consciously.
By this point, we’d been talking for eight hours, and it was now early morning. My eyelids were heavy, but we refused to stop talking. As a goodnight gift, he played this video for me:
Once again, sonder. Beautiful, heart-affirming, perspective-awakening sonder.