Only here do deer not fear humans. And here, people do not fear to love people.
From that very first moment at the roundabout entering Ohio University, I’ve experienced as if I’ve known this place. Here, we worked hard, created, but every moment of my time was significant. As I met people I wanted to photograph, they taught me about this place, about their lives, and soon I’ll discover how they are all connected. So it made my life here as if I was living in the most beautiful fairytale, only, it was all real. Because of these people, I forever have a place I call my second home: Athens. It’s a place with brick roads on which city’s name is engraved, and seems whoever has lived here, wants to take one as a reminder. And I just revisited because in 2014, woman named Elise Sanford opened the door to her house, to her heart and her life, and started telling me about all the people whom I got to meet as we gathered to celebrate her life on April 14, 2018.
Someone said that Elise left magic among us, and now I see how each one of us are caught in it. That’s how I got to stay with Anne. But I didn’t know Anne from before. I knew she was the woman Elise described to me as ‘I instantly went to her, trying to make Athens Photographic Project (APP) work..I couldn’t have done it alone.” And I have a photo of Elise and Anne from one exhibition, but it wasn’t until now that I actually met this wonderful woman full of love, strength, understanding and so much more. How lucky I am to have gotten to know her! She was the one that contacted me and said that Elise is no longer with us. And among thousands of canceled flights on the day of my departure, they laughed at me at the airport, but my flight was the only one not on strike. Anne and her husband picked me up and she introduced me to her wonderful family and with all the people associated with Elise and APP.
At the Celebration of Elise’s Life, I was so honored to see photos I took of Elise. Natalie asked me to say something during the service. Natalie was Elise’s lawyer and she wears a wedding ring that belonged to Elise’s grandmother. This was my first time to speak during the service, and I told all people that I knew them through the stories Elise told me. Everyone shared a beautiful story, and it truly was an honor to be here. Then Nate finished the service speaking how Elise allowed us to grow and to mature.
Elise was one of the founders of National Alliance for Mental Health Athens (NAMI Athens), along with her husband Ed. After he passed away, she took his place on the Ohio NAMI Board, and served for 8 years. Left alone to care for her son Mike who battles schizophrenia, and disturbed by the lack of treatment in the community, Elise started a program that will forever change the lives of many, Athens Photographic Project. “Photography, because that’s what I know best,” she told me.
During the celebration of her life, I saw a woman who lived a complete and meaningful life. She brought difference in the lives of many, including mine, and there was much to celebrate, to stand and be proud of, to appreciate, recognize and to carry on by doing good. She even allowed us to celebrate all this, so how is it possible to mourn and celebrate at the same time?! During the service, it was great to hear that this in fact, was possible.
George Eberts: ‘My Astronomer’
That’s what I call him, my astronomer. I went to his department looking at photos of the faculty, and decided I wanted to photograph him. I found him in his classroom and explained what I wanted, but he looked at me and said, “Can you take my car keys, I’m trying to take students to watch the stars, but I do not trust anyone to drive my car.” So we became friends.
“Did you know Elise’s husband hired me and George many years ago in the Physics Department?” I was asked by George’s friend. Yes, in fact, he just talked about that with me. George also works at O’Bleness hospital and his boss is the beautiful woman whose children I photographed long ago because she and her husband adopted them from Russia. George is the one that told me all about the Ridges, the most famous place in Athens where psychiatric hospital was.
And this is ‘Geroge’s observatory’ where the new telescope is that he’s been talking about for years. But until few years ago, on this very place was an abandoned tuberculosis building. My first night in Athens, I lost my way in search of friends who needed a ride, and I discovered it. At the time the security watched the building. I told my classmates about it and we returned during the day, and right next to it, I discovered path to Ridges hiking place. That’s where deer stood next to me but did not run away.
My first house where I lived, 15 Maple. Sometime before the end of the semester, I left the house early and moved in with Nasiha into a totally different neighborhood. Then, end of the semester, a girl from the chemical engineering department called wanting to move in for only a month with us. The new girl said she needed peace from the house she lived in. We did not know her, and I joked how I left Maple 15 early because I needed a break. She looked at me and said that’s where she lived, and not only that, but she lived in my former room! Last semester, I moved to another house with Anesa, and on the lower floor lived Jason. I told him about the ‘random 15 Maple girl’, only to hear that’s where he grew up and asked if the cool monkey graffiti was still in the basement.
Nasiha, my Pakistani sister-roommate
The roommate I found on Craig’s list, who peeked through the door, so lazy to get up and open the door, but when she did, we looked at each other and instantly became sisters. What a great birthday gift I got. We’ve traveled the US together, it seems. We walked over 40 kilometers in New York, crossing every major bridge. We saw D.C., Florida, Kentucky, and so much in between, but my favorite story she tells me is when I was half asleep after I returned from Bosnia. I woke her up at 5 AM. I missed her so much, and I was so used to her waking up at that time to pray. So in my sleep, I woke her up several times, telling her it was time to pray. I was so persistent that roomy prayed before the time. In the morning she told me that not even her parents pushed her to pray. 🙂 She just flew from Florida to see me. That’s where I left her the last time. We looked at each other and said: “Cherry blossom trees?” Yes!
Then we went to Chinese to eat and read the fortune cookies, and years of coming to this place, I finally found the one that made sense.
I walked into a local church on campus in search of photographing something, and as I sat down, APP’s artist, Brandon LaBonte (1988-2014) approached me because of my camera. I was telling him I wanted to use photography in a way that it helps people. Then he told me of Elise and APP, and that’s really how it all began. I met with Nate, then when I arrived as volunteer I met Elena, who instantly said she loved me. Then we became friends. I love this girl. I found many people there: Donna, Christy, Pete, Adele..
On my first day as a volunteer teacher with APP, I found Andrea who also came to work with me. We became friends, and she took me to Aaron Carter’s concert at our campus. As I tried to take selfies, he kissed me on my cheek and said:”I just couldn’t resist it.” Andrea came to Bosnia last year, but my favorite story is when I visited Athens few years ago, and Andrea, Nasiha and I cut the line to see Bill Clinton. Then a woman yelled at me that she was there since 9 AM. I told her I came all the way from Kentucky, but she kept yelling. Then magically, a group of people who had tickets, approached us in that very moment, gave us tickets and we entered the event. Andrea is friends with our great film crew who also came to Bosnia to see me, Luke and Wenting.
When I first I arrived to Ohio University I was few days late. I came straight from Bosnia, and I showed up in my Uruguay shirt that my friend Florencia gave me when she left Kentucky. I always travel in this shirt. Up to this day, on my OU transcript it says I am from Uruguay. Even if one year during the International Day uptown, there was a Bosnian flag hung up for me. I didn’t know about the flag. I was walking with Nasiha when I saw Pete from APP, and he said he was just taking photos of the flag to send me. I looked up, saw it and I started crying from happiness.
Ohio University Viscom, Terry and Stan
Terry was the director of our program, and someone who has changed my life by accepting me here. Him and Stan both! At my first job interview here I experienced a moment that would make my life difficult for the years to come, but at the same time open my eyes to be stronger and to work on it. My speech somehow just disappeared. And I did not get the job. I couldn’t answer anything about photography. (I am picking up on my communication, no worries.) 🙂 But my last two semesters here, I worked with Terry as his assistant, and I’d remember all the material from the previous year. In general, I’d remember every detail and thing about everything and anything. Ironically though, my memory so was so great that when I defended my Master’s, I forgot to print the book for the committee. : ) But since Terry knew me enough, he showed up to my defense with my book “Photography Heals” about Athens Photographic Project. We watched video of Elise, and I haven’t shown it to anyone since. Elise didn’t get to see my Master’s Project, but she knew one day someone would ask about it. And it happened right after the service for her. She told me as I recorded her that Mike never attended the classes. “Maybe one day he will..But he helped in so many other ways.” Elise was also Terry’s graduate student and it is there she developed the idea to use photography to help people express themselves, to reveal their identity and much more.
My first day in Athens this time around, Anne dropped me off at Whit’s, my favorite cafe. There, I often sat with Marian, Tijana, Anesa, Mladjan and Sonja. One day an African-American man approached us and asked where we were from. We answered: Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Srbia, and Bosnia. Then he asked how come we all speak, laugh and understand each other. Marijan told him it was complicated, but we understand each other!
I left a coin on Whit’s cup that has been there for years. I then waited for Anne to pick me up. It was pouring rain. I hid next to the OU store, when spontaneously Nasiha came running, hiding at the same place. “It is only here, other than in Pakistan, I feel a sense of belonging,” she said. And that’s exactly why we both knew we wanted to reunite here.
The Brick, to complete my Athens life
But before I left, I had to do the one thing that many get angry at us students for: steal the brick and leave a hole on the road. Yet I didn’t want to purchase the brick, not because of the money but because I haven’t walked on it. And as you see, it made me extremely happy because this brick made me feel as if my whole Athens life will fit inside it once I take it to Bosnia with me. So, forgive me people and thank you. But see, even the fish stole not one, but three! : )Anne arrived, took me to her beautiful blue home, and did I tell you: I woke up the other day and went outside her house to take photos of the sheep, only to realize I was here before. When I first arrived to Athens it was my birthday, and I was walking to 15 Maple with hands full of groceries. I can’t remember why I didn’t have a bag, but as I passed by the Barber shop next to Salaam, The Barber as I call him, opened the door, gave me few bags and I told him he was the first person I met here, and I’d consider this as my birthday gift. Later, I did a story on him, and I had to go to Glouster to Sam’s Gym to photograph him. On my way there one day, I stopped by the beautiful blue house with sheep around. I wanted to photograph it. Anne’s husband Tom opened the door.
Anne has this big beautiful flower garden that she made, and I only found one little leaf that would describe her, my time, and all the other people I met here.