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Book - Sin Sombras

Sin Sombras / Without Shadows: A Search for the Meaning of Life, if There Is One, in the California Desert in Photographs and Stories (Hardcover)

by James Barbee (Author), Jack Leustig (Foreword)

Photo / Essay Book
197 pages
11 x 13.25 inches
Publication Date 2018

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The intent of Sin Sombras/Without Shadows, a book by photographer/author/physician James Barbee, is perhaps best summarized by the subtitle: A search for the meaning of life, if there is one, in the California desert.What better place to look for something you may have lost than a land where there are no shadows, no place to hide? The photographs were all taken in the roughly 100-mile stretch of desert between El Centro and Barstow, California – one of the driest places on earth. In a landscape that looks like the surface of Mars, we see the hardy, sometimes eccentric people who live there and the world they have created. The eight fictional stories (including the Introduction) are inspired by the photographs, and are intended to develop universal themes hinted at in the photographs, including topics such as longing, mistakes, the power of luck in our lives, and even death. Although the photographs were taken in the desert, the book is not strictly about the desert. It is about the hardships all people face in life, whether by virtue of environment, illness, or fortune, and humanity’s strength and resilience in the face of such hardships, as well as the humor, beauty and awe to be found everywhere one looks, even in adversity.

The book includes a foreword by Jack Leustig who has worked in the film industry and collaborated on many major films. In 1996, he was honored with the National Endowment for the Arts Award for the Advancement of Learning Through Broadcasting.

Sin Sombras/Without Shadows was nominated for the prestigious Aperture First Photobook of the Year award. It was also listed as a suggested book on the [City] Book Review website, under the category “Finding Your Inner Calm.”

A second book to be published in 2020 will serve as a companion to Sin Sombras/Without Shadows, tentatively titled Sombras/Shadows. This body of photographs and accompanying fiction will be from the Lower Mississippi River Valley from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans.

Author's Note

I have been a practicing physician with a specialty in psychiatry for many years. People don’t come to see a psychiatrist because life is wonderful and they’re feeling just fine and dandy—no sir, they come to me because something is wrong, often dreadfully wrong. Some patients can identify a cause for their psychic pain, like an unfaithful spouse, a nasty boss, or a dying parent. Those are typically the lucky ones, because for others their situation is more disorienting and therefore frightening. Their troubles just seem to have come out of nowhere. Whichever group they are in, almost all of my patients sooner or later get around to that age-old question “Why me?” And with it there is inevitably a second question, “Can I handle this?” For an unfortunate few, that last question evolves into “Can I survive this?” Some don’t.

My role in all of this is to help them “fix” the problem, whatever it is—a level of responsibility that I find hard to live with at times. My professional existence is the human experience, as if set raging on steroids. It is a daily immersion in both the pain and wonder of human life. “Pain” because there is suffering…so much suffering. “Wonder” because my patients often display great dignity and resilience in the face of that suffering. It is that wonder that makes this all bearable and even inspiring, both for me and them.

In addition to my work as a physician, I have had my own life from which to draw lessons. Based on my experience, I have learned that sooner or later everyone experiences both joy and tragedy. I would argue that neither can be experienced in the most profound way without the other. That some of the worst things that happen to us are completely unforeseen, or occur on days that until that moment, our biggest problem was wondering if the teacher would buy the old the-dog-ate-my-homework routine…then, snap! Event…and life is forever changed.

We all pretty much know these are the rules we must live by. What do I have to offer to this awareness? It is the combination of the experiences of my patients as well as my own, and the training I have had as a psychiatrist that have hopefully taught me a thing or two about what it means to be human. And by the way, true confessions time…I’m not some youthful prodigy. I’m old–old enough to have had the time to think about it all. A lot.

Sin Sombras is the fruit of these many years of reflection, made real. The images are taken from the Southern California Desert in a landscape that looks more like Mars than anything that should be found on Earth. As there is almost no rain, there is little or no vegetation, no clutter. On most days the air there is so clear that one’s vision is only limited by the curve of our little planet (the awareness of earth’s diminutive size is only one of the revelations to be had here). Combine that visual clarity with a landscape mostly free of any obstruction due to the eternal drought that prevails, and it becomes much easier to see naked, unadorned Truth. It is a good place to examine oneself and the other people who have opted to live here.

And speaking of those people, very few folks would choose to make a go of spending a life in such a hostile place. I wonder…were they born here and know nothing else? Were they flawed in some way that made it impossible for them to thrive in the “real” world? Or are they wise, perhaps holy people, searching for answers? Or are they just plain crazy? (As am I?)

So, this is not a book of pretty pictures taken in the desert. This is a book of pictures taken in a fierce, radical place (about as bad as it gets anywhere on the planet) depicting the people who live there and the world they have created for themselves. And in this place I see a metaphor for the world inhabited by many of my patients. Their “desert” is an internal one, a place created by their minds, which is unlike that to be found in Sin Sombras, which after all, is an external reality that can be touched, seen and walked through by others (although I am certain there are those who live here in both an external and internal desert—gotta’ be a nasty combination).

But why the stories? It is often said that one picture is worth a thousand words, but there are pictures where not even a thousand words will do, or for that matter, any number of words, no matter how skillfully chosen. And yet words have their own unique power to communicate, and thus the book not only has photographs from this region, but stories inspired by it as well. The stories are really more like “storays”–a hybrid of fictional story and essay, much like a fable, with varying balances of each form from one to the next. They are set in the places shown in the images and often involve fantasies I have woven around the people in these photographs. But in truth much of the content of the “storays” is derived from lessons learned not here in the desert, but through the years of my own life and from those taught to me by my patients. Let me hasten to add here that none of the pieces are written with a specific person in mind, for to the extent they are successful, their themes and characters are universal. Each is intended to explore a specific topic such as longing, remorse, death or awe. And then there’s that big one lurking beneath it all: just who/where is God in all of this, if such an entity exists at all?

It is my hope that those who take the time to examine this book will be left with a sense of joy! That may seem to be a ridiculous claim coming from a psychiatrist who sees suffering patients and then goes out into the middle of, where else, a hellhole of a desert to take pictures. Yet in both of these worlds I see a crystallization of the universe in which we all live, brutally stripped to its basics. And there I find small, quiet nuggets of brave gold–human resilience, even nobility.
It’s a tall order to think about such things. I feel great humility at this point in my life, a point which I hope will be evident to anyone who examines the book, despite the fact that some may see the very act of publishing a book as an act of hubris. To this point, I do not see Sin Sombras so much as a book of answers, but a book of questions. I believe there is considerable comfort to be found in knowing that we are not alone. We are all asking the same questions.

~ James G. Barbee

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