Wed 30 Nov 2011
John Noltner and I worked together at a newspaper several years ago when we were both fresh out of college. I was a reporter, and he was a photographer, so we often ended up working together on articles.
It was immediately obvious how talented John was, so I wasn’t surprised when he left the newspaper and started his own photography business in Minneapolis. I also wasn’t surprised when he recently released his first book — A Peace of My Mind: Exploring the Meaning of Peace One Story at a Time.
John interviewed a wide range of people about their perspectives on peace — what they believe it means and how they work to incorporate it into their lives. There’s a homeless veteran. A Buddhist monk. A businessman. A potter. A college professor. A songwriter. An activist and more. Each person gets a two-page spread with a summary of their thoughts on peace, a brief biography and a luminous photo taken by John.
John joins Read, Write, Repeat today to share his story of how the book came to be.
How did you first get the idea for this project? Was it initially going to be just an art exhibit, or was a book always part of the plan?
When I began this project in 2009, I really had no idea where it would lead me. It was a conversation that I wanted to have and an idea that I wanted to explore, but really, at the time I had no idea how it would develop. The project lived at first online as a series of podcasts, then last year it was produced as a traveling exhibit. On Nov. 3 of this year it was released as a book.
Finding the subjects was a very organic process. I reached out first to people I knew, and asked who they would suggest I interview. From there, each subject suggested others to consider, and it grew out from there. With very few exceptions, everyone I invited to participate welcomed the opportunity to share their thoughts. I think there is a hunger for this kind of dialogue. And everyone that I interviewed for the project was included in the final piece.
What were your biggest learnings from listening to this wide variety of people share their thoughts on peace?
This entire process has been very encouraging for me…to spend time with such amazing people who are working toward a more peaceful world, in big and small ways, gives me hope. I’ve taken many lessons away, and there are some themes that recur. Here’s a Cliff Notes version of some of them:
• We often feel like issues of peace are so overwhelming that we cannot make an impact on them, yet we are each faced with choices every day where we have control over how we respond to people or to situations.
• Sometimes we can find peace in the places we expect it least.
• Peace takes practice, and if we find it difficult, that gives us reason to try harder.
• A position of peace is actually a position of strength and of courage.
• When we can find the good, even in our enemies, we increase the chances of a peaceful resolution.
• Fear and pride are two of the largest obstacles to peace in our lives and in the world at large.
• Working toward peace can be as grand as international mediation, or as simple as smiling at someone passing you on the street.
Were there any people whose views you didn’t agree with?
There were some thoughts that didn’t resonate with me right away, but as I listened to them, they began to make more sense. Really, that is the notion of this project … that we need to take time to listen to one another more fully, and if we can do that, our odds of working cooperatively toward some sort of common good are improved.
Our world doesn’t encourage us to slow down and take the time to listen to people. I wanted to create a space where that could happen, and art … photography … writing … can be a wonderful tool to accomplish that.
What were your goals when you took the photographs? Each person’s essence really seems to come through in them. So many people don’t enjoy having their photo taken. How did you make them comfortable enough to get
the shots you did?
I always conducted the interviews first, followed by the portrait. I work primarily as a photographer, yet for this project, a huge amount of time was devoted to the interviews with the subjects. When it came time to do the portrait, sometimes we were short on time. But because we had just come out of a very personal conversation for the interview, I think the subjects were already comfortable with me. And perhaps because there was not a lot of time for the photographs, they came off as simple and honest. Not overly produced. I think when that happens, the person’s humanity comes through.
What has the reaction been to your book so far? What’s been the most surprising response?
The book has been well received and I am excited to see what the next several months will bring. I think the most surprising response is that several colleges are considering using the book for next year’s common reading program, which would mean that all incoming freshmen for the college would read the book leading into their college experience. The notion of the book being used on a large scale like that is exciting, but I am equally encouraged by small book clubs and individuals spending time with it, and possibly considering some ideas that are new and fresh to
What are your next goals for your peace project? Do you have other future projects planned?
If the book continues to sell well, I will use the proceeds to fund the next stage of the project, which would be an international version asking the same question: “What does peace mean to you?” At this point, it seems as though I will be doing a two-week trip through Central and South America as early as January in order to do new interviews and portraits.
Where is your book available?
The book is available directly on our own website.
It is also available on Amazon.com.
And, it’s at more than a dozen retailers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Here’s a list.
The book is for adults and young adults. It can be read straight through, or picked up and opened to a random page.
But no matter how you approach it, reading it is a hopeful, heartfelt experience.