While globe-trotting photographer Alison Wright billed herself as “the warm-up band for Sam Donaldson” and begged the audience not to boo her off stage with shouts of “Sam! Sam! Sam!,” the retired ABC newsman had a whole other take on the evening.
Wright and Donaldson were co-headliners before a packed Literary Society house in the HRM Ballroom in San Miguel de Allende on Wednesday, Jan. 29.
When Donaldson stood up to speak, he was clearly awed by the sometimes harrowing tales and stunning photographs presented by Wright, a featured National Geographic photographer.
“I’ve always believed that you don’t follow dogs or children onstage,” intoned Donaldson, “to which I’ll add, ‘Don’t follow Alison Wright!’ “
Donaldson looked at a rather startled Wright and with that broad Texas grin, he added, “You were magnificent!”
The audience completely agreed.
In his own modest way, Donaldson offered to cut his own speech short. “My notes, he said, flapping a few pages around, “I can’t read them anyway.”
Naturally, his offer was met with vociferous protest.
Donaldson learned his Washington DC lessons well.
His speech, titled “Rambling Through Washington: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” lived up to the hype.
One of his first anecdotes was endearing to this crowd, many of whom came out for a Vicente Fox speech last year.
Shortly after Fox was first elected president of Mexico, Donaldson was sitting in the courtyard of the family’s casa with Fox’s 80-year-old mother.
“Will your son make a good president?” Donaldson asked.
The elderly woman replied as only a good Mexican mother can, “I will wait one year to find out.”
Donaldson is a mix of self-deprecation, bottomless archive, and rambling good old boy.
“I have thoughts on everything,” he said while scanning his notes. “The less I know, the longer I can extemporize.”
But he knows a lot.
Take Nancy Pelosi, the bane of Donald Trump and chief architect of House Democratic leadership.
Donaldson doesn’t just see her as more than a woman who has fallen into a position of power and wields it with assurance. No, he goes back to memories of her father, the powerful Democratic mayor of Baltimore Big Tommy D’alesandro. Pelosi was chewing on political gamesmanship with her first set of teeth.
He presented a more nuanced Pelosi who was personally against impeachment “until recently” because she could not see the upside for Democrats. “In the Senate, this will be framed as a victory for Republicans,” observed Donaldson.
Donaldson laments the old days of horse-trading politics — the days before ideologues and extremists ruled politics — back when “everyone got a little something. They worked together and the system worked.”
It was that air of cooperation that enabled seven Republicans to side with Democrats on the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon. “People in those days started out supporting party but eventually voted their conscience.
Lyndon Johnson was a master of the real art of the deal, he recalled. The Civil Rights Act moved ahead, in part, because Senator Everet Dirkson cut a deal with LBJ. Ronald Reagan got his budget passed, in part, Louisiana politicians badly needed funding for a barge canal to Shreveport that promised lots of jobs during the time of recession.
Donaldson piled on anecdote after anecdote, building a picture of a Washington we’d barely recognize today.
Jimmy Carter, he said, was one tough hombre “who inherited a lot of bad luck.” Ronald Reagan was “amiable but not a dunce,” as many suspected. He said Reagan “could pass a polygraph test on anything, because he believed it.”
When President Bill Clinton faced impeachment, the erudite pol from West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, saw no point in convicting him. Byrd knew Clinton’s popularity was at an all-time high during the impeachment process.
Said Byrd to Donaldson: “Who is kidding whom? Of course he committed perjury, but the people like him.”
In those days, says Donaldson, “there was no tribalism. There was partisanship but the facts are, it worked.”
Donaldson was asked what question he would like to ask Donald Trump if given the chance today.
He looked like he had a bad taste in his mouth: “What question matters now?” he retorted.”He would lie anyway.”
The audience fully agreed, if roaring applause is a good measure.
Donaldson did interview Trump back in 1991 when he was a mostly failed businessman with an effective public relations front. Back then, says Donaldson, “He could answer questions without wandering into irrelevance.
“Ask any question, you’ll get a lie.”
He feels the same way about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “He lies, he lies. I’m sorry.”
But not all is bleak. Without a whole lot of supporting evidence, Donaldson firmly stated, “I believe the system is going to work this time. They are crooked and are all going to jail.”
Alison Wright got in the last question of the night: “If you could interview anyone today, who would it be?”
Donaldson’s reply was quick: “It would be you, Alison!”
It is easy to see why.
Alison Wright has had enough adventures — including a few near-fatal ones — for several lifetimes and feature-length movies.
She has photographed in 150 countries, published 10 books of photography and a memoir of recovery from a near-fatal bus crash, and has founded her own non-profit called “Faces of Hope” (facesofhope.org) to help women in developing countries.
Wright was born to wander — and record the people she encounters.
“Finding this passion in a world of chaos, it’s a blessing,” she said.
She came by her wanderlust “in utero” — her mother was a flight attendant for Pan Am Airways since before she was born.
Wright’s first camera was a simple point and shoot that she received as a 10-year-old.
“It changed my life,” she says.
Wow, did it.
While her parents assumed she was on a post-college “pedestrian” backpack trip around Europe, Wright was actually hopping around Northern Africa and the Mid-East countries, shooting photographs in the midst of extreme poverty and combat.
She ultimately landed in San Diego where she immersed herself in border life. Her work got her a job as a staff photographer with the San Diego Union and Tribune — the two major newspapers in the region, jointly owned by the Copley Family.
I also worked there at the same time., as a writer and editor.
Neither Alison nor I recall meeting back then, but she has strong memories of our mutual friend and San Miguel resident, the photographer Jerry Rife.
Jerry, recalls Alison, took her under his wing and mentored her on the ways of newspaper photography and deadline shooting.
Bit it was a short-lived experience.
A UNICEF program offered her an assignment in Nepal, and Wright jumped at the opportunity. Suddenly she was learning how to shoot with color film.
That three-week assignment turned into a five-year stay, and a growing fascination with Tibet.
“I discovered there was more of the Tibetian culture outside of the country than in. There were 57 Tibetian settlements in Nepal and India,” she said.
Wright was witnessing first-hand the wiping out of a culture — 6,500 monasteries destroyed, a Tibetian nomadic culture that was being steadily erased. And she made it her life’s work to preserve these — and many other — endangered cultures on film.
She became a ”visual anthropologist.”
Her curiosity and compassion moved her to ask, “How does a culture survive without a country?” She uses her camera to seek the answers and they become her books, like “The Spirit of Tibet” and her latest, “Human Tribe.”
During those early days, while visiting all of these Tibetian settlements, Wright met the Dalai Lama It was a time before he became a pop-cultural sensation and a globe-trotting icon of the oppressed.
“We clicked,” she recalls. The meeting launched a lifelong friendship.
Her book, “A Simple Monk” is an in-depth and compassionate study of the spiritual leader. And to this day, his advice — “Good intentions are important in all that you do.” — informs her life and work.
The Dalai Lama wrote the introduction to Wright’s harrowing memoir, “Learning to Breathe: One Woman’s Journey of Spirit and Survival”
On a trip into the jungles of Laos, Wright was aboard a bus that was struck by a lumber truck. The impact came right where she was seated and ripped the bus in half. Two men pulled Wright from the burning bus and she woke up on the side of the road.
Her back was broken, so was her pelvis, and one arm was nearly torn off. And she was miles from civilization.
Wright talks about the “Golden Hour” — the brief interval after a tragedy when a person is on the cusp of living or dying. She wrote letters to her family, certain that she was “not getting out of this alive.”
Wright was carried to a nearby village where a young man with needle and thread re-attached her arm. The villagers had tended to her as best they could and the “golden hour” passed. She was still alive, albeit broken and in pain.
It was many days before a man with a pickup truck arrived and carried her back to the city.
After multiple surgeries in Thailand and many more in San Francisco, the prognosis was bleak: You will never walk again.
Wright told her doctors she planned on walking to the top of Kilimanjaro in one year.
It took her two. But she did it.
She credits her deep meditative practice — one breath at a time — with helping her find her way back.
Since then, Wright’s passion has been photographing the world’s endangered cultures.
And once again becoming endangered herself.
In Mongolia, she was slammed to the ground by a stampeding horse.
Her thoughts on the way down? “This light is so good, I have to keep shooting.”
Which she did, gaining a unique perspective on the Mongolian horsemen who surrounded her.
By then, Wright had learned to bring her own medical supplies, including surgical needle and thread, which were put to use sewing up her face, where the horse’s hoof had crushed her Nikon into her cheek.
Oddly, a similar accident with a horse occurred again in Mongolia years later, inspiring Wright to anoint herself the “Master of Disaster.”
Setting disasters aside, Wright’s photography is transcendent. As she talked, an extraordinary array of images flowed past on the big screen behind her.
One, of a young child in colorful native dress, made the cover a National Geographic coffee table book celebrating 125 years of brilliant photography. The cover.
The faces are unforgettable –trusting, curious, suspicious, reserved, open, rarely hostile. Each invites scrutiny, introspection, a serious re-evaluation of our own assumptions. How does Alison Wright get so many people all over the world to open up, to trust her with their images?
“I don’t speak the language,” she acknowledges. “So it comes from speaking from the heart.” She speaks with her subjects with her eyes, a touch, a smile, a gesture — and a surprisingly warm connection is made. It is visible everywhere in her photography.
You can see samples of her prodigious body of work at her website, alisonwright.com.
Currently, Wright is working on a collection of images of women at work, from all over the world.
The commonality she has found, all over the globe: Women are “all doing it so that their kids will have better lives.”
I for one, can not wait for that book to arrive.
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Alison Wright will lead a photo and writing day trip to Mineral de Pozos on Monday, Feb. 3, from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The tour is co-lead by Maia Williams, co-director of the international San Miguel Writer’s Conference and Literary Festival.
The two will use the rich and scenic beauty of the centuries-old silver-mining town as an inspirational backdrop for exploring the writing and photography skills of the participants.
The trip is limited to 10 participants. The $3,500 pesos fee includes round-trip transportation, lunch, and instruction. Reserve a spot at email@example.com.
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This past Christmas, I bought three copies of Alison Wright’s “Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit.” I gave a copy each to the families of my three sons. They and their wives each have a young son.
In my dreams, my grandsons each find this book someday — in a bookshelf, on a table, in a closet — and begin poring over the pages. I imagine the same wanderlust that Alison inherited from her mother enveloping each of my grandsons.
Just as Edward Steichen’s “The Family of Man,” in all its black and white splendor, did for my generation.
Alison Wright’s books are amazing passports to worlds that few of us ever imagine, much less get to see. We may get the images from time to time on television, but Alison’s pictures offer up the hearts and souls.
What better way for a young child to discover that there is so much more out there, just waiting to be discovered and re-discovered, over and over?
The greatest gift to a child, or an adult, from Alison’s pictures, is the gift of curiosity.