Death of the Archivist
In mid-October, a decision was made to combine the head editor and camera positions for the seminary’s magazine into one position. The head camera position I had been waiting for was, within a day, gone, and I was out of a job.
Being out of a job isn’t such a big deal at a temple: there’s always other work to be done. The preemminent reason for combining two positions into one was to allow one of those two people to enter into the pool of available labor for the rest of the temple’s numerous and arguably more pressing jobs. In my case, I stepped out of the camera position directly into the shoes of “assistant class-head (부반장).”
The last official day I was allowed to carry a camera on campus–my last official day as “the camera man”–one of my dearest sisters came to visit me. She herself graduated from a different gangwon last winter and received her bhikkuni precepts this past spring. We’ve known each other for seven years, since before we shaved our heads: that’s a long time.
The picture above was taken in our soup-making area. Ordinarily, outsiders to the seminary community, monastic or otherwise, aren’t allowed into certain areas of the temple, including the kitchen, but there are exceptions to every rule. I made coffee and some of my classmates joined us, pulling out plastic chairs to make a place in front of the hearth. Coffee, conversation, some of my closest friends in either the monastic or secular world.
I have thoughts about the downsizing of artistic work and expression in the monastic community. A visitor to the gangwon from America asked me, after hearing I shot on average about 200 frames for a working session for the seminary, why I took so many pictures and what I would do with all of them. I answered that I felt a call to witness and record our lives, “as they are,” seen from the inside and sensitive to our sometimes contradictory needs.
Losing an official position means nothing for a calling; a job is not a vocation, although I’m not trying to suggest that taking pictures is a vocation for me. I don’t think I have the skill to merit that term. Still, the arts–music, poetry, literature, visual arts, and more–used to be religion and spirituality’s province. Now they are called frills, additions, “interests.” What if they are central, incorporated, and necessary modes of spiritual communication? At the very least, what if they provide the wordless, evocative footprints by which the future will follow the past we are already becoming? The death of a community’s archivist, I suggest, is not simply an end of photo albums and “souvenir shots.”
The picture above is more than a souvenir shot for me or anyone who looks at it. Although I’m not in the picture–I never am, because I’m the photographer, an essential but invisible part of the process–these people are all lynchpins in my monastic life. That’s the personal archive, where each individual in a particular location opens an endless web of stories, associations, memories and spiritual lessons. The greater archive is the story of worlds meeting, two American sisters among their Korean community, and the mutual windows and doors into each others’ lives we have become.