If the world is to be saved, it’s people like Cannon Hersey who will spearhead the effort. The grandson of writer John Hersey (of Hiroshima fame), the peripatetic Cannon has inherited his grandfather’s wanderlust and fascination with the human condition in far-flung places around the globe. At the age of 19, while still a student at Vassar College, he undertook a survey of the Tibetan Fulbright Scholarship program, working closely with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile as he interviewed program participants in the Chinese-occupied country. Since then, he’s been very active in organizing events and exhibitions promoting global community building through the arts, first by founding the Johannesburg-based nonprofit CrossPathCulture, and, more recently, by starting the independent media company Blackage Media (www.blackagemedia.com), which creates original music and television programming for BET, VH1, and the South African Broadcast Corporation.
Using his camera to capture quotidian moments in the lives of people—whether in Asia, Africa, or Hell’s Kitchen—Hersey’s striking photography often locates unexpected points of commonality, like the visual rhyme of a monk’s saffron robe with the emergency yellow of an ambulance parked at a “Free Tibet” rally at the UN. At other moments, it’s the sheer beauty of a village seen through evanescent fog, as the morning light sifts through to illuminate the scene. In recent years, he’s collaborated extensively with South African artist Samson Mnisi, with whom he shares billing in an exhibition on view at Gallery 384 in Catskill through May 5.
—Beth E. Wilson
Cannon Hersey talks about his work
Nature or nurture?
China really piqued my interest at a really young age. I think it had something to do with my grandfather being born in China, his expression of his history through the novels he wrote, something about China and his parents’ experience [as missionaries there]. I started learning Chinese at 15, and was quite committed to analyzing and looking at Asia, Asian religion, and Asian things. It was more an ambition to connect with people that took me there, to find people’s stories, and really looking at the individual depiction of society, to make some sense of spiritual concerns, humanist concerns, through the individual voice. It wasn’t just Asia, but also Africa; it was Hell’s Kitchen.
For me the process of photography has been one of taking risks, stepping outside of my comfortable environment, the environment that I know. It’s entering someone else’s life, someone else’s death, someone else’s spirituality. Walking across the line into a community that I might not have been expected to cross. A lot of my traveling through Southern Africa was really about breaking that mold of what was expected of me. My trip, hitchhiking through Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, really shocked me. It’s up to people like myself, Americans, with a larger perspective, to step outside that box and explore the Africa that’s there, as opposed to the Africa that’s in the media.... That was what I tried to do in Tibet, walking across the line into “illegal territory,” which was why I was able to see so much. It creates a feeling of connection to the privilege or the pain or the spirituality of the people there, as opposed to seeing only difference. Often the media represents differences more than similarities, because it sells. That aggression, that intensity, that violence of separation is what keeps people comfortable [in their own experience], and that’s what I’m working to undo. I’m trying to look beyond that label that’s so easy for people to attach to each other, to separate us. Really exploring that larger spirituality is not just a Tibetan thing, or a Christian or Catholic thing, or a Jewish thing. It’s something that’s in all of us.
Finding new audiences
I think that people across the board are interested in beauty and experience and pain and suffering. And art is often the best healer, the best communicator, the best way for people to understand something that is typically outside their realms of knowledge, because it’s experienced. You see, you feel, you experience. It gives you something. I think that the larger public is interested in just watching TV all the time, but I think they would be just as fascinated to see art if it were more accessible. You’re not going to learn everything on television. If you can commit your own time to go out there and explore, that’s where you find new places and new people, and a new sense of who you are.
Samson and I did a show at Lincoln Center, [in conjunction with] an African film festival. It was in this area next to Julliard where everyone comes to watch films, and the audience was a very nontraditional kind of art audience, but a very large audience. A lot of the exhibitions I’ve presented have been about large-scale public work, whether it’s outdoors in public parks in South Africa, or in the Time-Life Building in New York. They’re about embracing the public. When you can put the art into that public sphere and allow people to enjoy it, it’s a way for art to create community.
Encouraging a new audience is very important. It has to do with mass media also—part of the largest audience for my work was through the Trace magazine issue on South Africa. People still come up to me about the article. Our photo collaboration was on the inside cover, with a full page inside, and people saw that in the mass media, as opposed to just in a gallery.
Collaborating with Samson Mnisi
We really found each other through our work. Samson and I have become like family. He’s very much like a brother from another mother. A lot of that comes through—the connecting of inspiration and spirituality. He’s very much a freedom fighter and a revolutionary in his country, and I feel like I come from that stock myself. I believe in my country he believes in his country, we believe in each other. We believe in each other’s culture. The dialogue is between the still image that I’m able to capture, and his interpretation, applying African culture to it. A lot of it’s about finding that spirituality within ourselves. It’s about finding that human thread that links people who are not South African to his work. Through that spiritualism is a sense of what I hope that people find in my work as well.
He’s an incredible artist, in a very wide array of media—painting, printmaking, sculpture.
From Johannesburg to New York
The representation of South Africa is often as AIDS: disease and famine. But it’s so much more than that. As someone who’s been there 15 times over 12 years, there’s no city in the world that reminds me more of New York than Johannesburg. That’s very shocking to most people I tell. It’s incredibly beautiful, incredibly diverse, it runs 24 hours a day—just like New York.
South Africa’s been such an inspiration due to the way that they’ve dealt with real, solid issues, like identity and economic inequality, lack of home ownership. Compared to the same things here, in a lot of ways America still hasn’t begun to address them.
That sensation of looking beyond the color is something that South Africa’s done incredibly well in terms of trying to create a new future. And in America, if we could try to look beyond color in how we live our lives, we could be a better society than we are today. We’ve been a role model for so many people by exporting our culture, but we have to now reanalyze our culture and understand that it is a mishmash of all these other places, and begin to respect those other places as well. My photography’s about trying to understand the fabric of American and world culture as my culture—not in the sense of capturing to own it, but trying to capture something to propagate, contribute, to make other people more aware of those connections. The joys of life are sharing a meal, and getting to know each other, breaking bread together. But you have to get to the table, and that’s what I hope the photographs encourage people to do. It’s a chance [for people] to connect to something that seems so different from themselves, but that also embodies something in themselves.
- Hillary Harvey
- _Demonstration_, Cannon Hersey, 1998
- Hillary Harvey
- Cannon Hersey in the 384 Gallery in Catskill.