Award-winning photographer and peace activist John Noltner embarked on a 40,000 mile road trip in 2009 to photograph the U.S to promote dialogue, resolve conflict and catalyze social change, which he recapped to students on Wednesday evening.
Two days prior to the event, Noltner was set up in Carl Becker House, inviting passersby to respond — in 25 words or less — to a prompt asking students and staff what kind of world they would like to live in. Noltner then took a headshot of participants and exhibited their responses, next to their respective authors, in Alice Cook House on Thursday.
In an attempt to “rediscover humanity in an increasingly polarized world,” Noltner told listeners at Cook House that he sought to document the stories of individuals across the 48 contiguous states and share their insights publicly on his website, in two award-winning books and in art exhibits across the country.
Noltner said when the challenges of the world seem daunting, it is important to recognize the positive side of humanity in order to lay down the framework for instituting progress and finding solutions. He also emphasized that, while it is easy to promote peace, it is far more challenging to implement it.
“I don’t have a secret answer to peace, which is to say that we all struggle,” Noltner said. “But just because we know that we are going to struggle does not mean that we should stop trying.”
Because this project has required him to document the stories of individuals across the nation, he emphasized the importance of listening –– not solely to respond but rather to hear and understand.
“I have found that when you sit with someone and you say ‘I hear you, I see you and you’ve got worth,’ that it [creates] an incredibly powerful platform,” Noltner said. “People will share remarkably personal and deep things in that short space.”
While searching for these stories, Noltner spent around half a day with each individual to get a fuller picture of a day in their lives.
He explained that many of the individuals he has interviewed have never had the opportunity to articulate their personal beliefs on peace, humanity, race, and conflicts before so, when they did, they were able to understand themselves better.
“My goal is not to present someone’s story through my eyes,” Noltner said. “My goal is to amplify their voice.”
Noltner told the story of an anonymous woman who, after a year, summoned the strength to share a personal story in a venue of 300 people.
The following morning, the woman told him that dozens of individuals approached her to share similar experiences, opening up conversations that never would have happened previously.
“So often in our lives, we protect ourselves and we are unwilling to be vulnerable,” Noltner said. “But, when we do, there is a richness that comes through that we deny ourselves when we put up those walls.”
Noltner closed by referencing a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., which he said was one of his favorite sayings: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“I would encourage you tonight to take one of the stories that you heard and carry it with you as you go out into the world,” Noltner said. “As it turns out, you and I are the love, and you and I are the light, and we have got a lot of work to do.”