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Photography by Thomas R. Oates
“There are some places where the pulse beats stronger.”
For 12 years, Thomas Oates traveled regularly to the Middle East, invited by professors and business executives interested in setting up educational exchanges. But Oates is a professional photographer as well as an academic. “I went early and stayed late, used hand-held cameras, Hasselblads and Leicas, so I wouldn’t intrude,” he says. “The colors are fabulous; there are blues and reds that simply don’t exist often in western landscapes. The architecture is ancient and complex: GrecoRoman, Nabatean, Mamluk. The people are not as we stereotype them, full of passion and murderous intent. They are just like us, trying desperately to raise their families and have a future. But they are tied to place in a way that for me is hard to appreciate.
“In Nabalus, in the West Bank, a friend there took me to his office and said, ‘Open the door in the corner.’ There were stairs going down at least four flights, and when I got to the bottom, I was in a tunnel built by Roman slaves, through which flows the spring water that basically drives the city. When the second Intifada happened in Nabalus, the Israelis couldn’t figure out how the Palestinians would be out in the street throwing Molotov cocktails and then disappear. They used those Roman tunnels. Architecture, politics, history, day to day life—it’s all tied together in the Middle East, with an intensity you don’t find here.”
Oates recently retired as dean of faculty at Urbana University in Ohio and moved back to St. Louis. On October 8, an exhibit of his photographs—“Steps Through Time: Journeys in the Middle East”—opens on the campus of his alma mater, Saint Louis University (Pius XII Library, second floor). Instead of the usual, tired wine-and-cheese reception, there’s a colloquium that afternoon from 2 to 4 p.m.; also a video giving background to the exhibit.
Suspended from chains, the images will be grouped in five panels: Portraits, caught in decisive moments. Gatherings in public spaces. Borders, some charged with politican tension, others liminal. Heritage—ancient, layered, and complex. And Sacred Places, of all kinds.
The exhibit is Oates’ attempt to record culture in the Middle East without prejudice or polemic. But it’s also a signpost to SLU’s Walter J. Ong Center for Language, Culture, and Media Studies.
Oates studied under Ong, an internationally respected Jesuit scholar, and read all his books, from The Presence of the Word to Technologizing the Word. So did James Scott, professor of English and film studies and a fellow of the center. Scott regularly reminds print-centered colleagues that Ong embraced new technologies without hesitation; his interest was not in resisting change, but in understanding the evolution of consciousness. And with the shifts from oral to written to electronic culture, consciousness changes.
“To be able to read in the 21st century, you need to be able to read images and sounds as well as texts,” Scott emphasizes. “And not read images in a conventional, literal way—‘This is a cow’—but in a more nuanced way, associating the images with text.”
That kind of sophisticated, layered understanding works beautifully in a digital world. Yet when I ask Oates if he can email me a few of his images, he shakes his head and drives me over to Allied Photocolor, the lab that’s printing them.
“I don’t want you to see them digitally,” he admits. “I want you to see them physically.”
Images and text enrich each other… Presence enriches everything.
Click here for a full gallery of images.