Ashland, Oregon is home to about 20,000 people and a gazillion cafes. In a city where fast food giants such as McDonald’s and Dairy Queen fail to thrive, coffee shops and wireless internet cafes rule.
There are coffee houses with names like the Beanery, the Roasting Company, the Upper Room, the Bean Scene, and Bloomsbury. Ashland also has three drive-through coffee kiosks and two Starbucks. The coffee culture here speaks for the type of place Ashland is, but there is also something more than just the need for caffeine. The cafes are meeting places – sanctuaries of a sort.
I met Pema in a coffee house.
Last weekend, I stood in line behind an interesting man with Sanskrit letters on his felt hat. The letters were carefully painted in gold and seemed to glow in the morning light against the brown felt. I learned that the hand-painted characters were drawn to bring good luck.
Pema was born in Tibet, but fled the country in the 1970s during a time of great upheaval. For Pema, Tibet is alive in his dreams and paintings.
After living for many years in India, Pema came to the United States and has lived a simple life, getting by on his painting.
As we talked, I increasingly was interested in making Pema's portrait. The light was gentle and quiet. However, making pictures of people that you don't know very well can make you feel a little uncomfortable.
The rapport between the person behind the lens and the person in front of lens is always so critical -- as critical as correct exposure and composition. There is also a sense of expectation on both sides of the camera, and this can cause some tension.
Pema said that people in the United States take themselves too seriously. He believes that since people feel so much pressure to succeed in life they often lose the sense of creating things simply for the sake of creating them. Creation is at the core of the human experience. From Pema 's perspective there seems to be little separation between art and life, because living is artful -- life is art.
If anything, making Pema's picture reminds me not to take myself all that seriously from now on.