Deborah Harse
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Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 1992
In the beginning, it was a priority to travel light on my world bicycling explorations. Curiosity was the main impetus, and I carried along only a tiny Instamatic camera for souvenir snap shots. From 1981 through 1987, I traveled back and forth from my home in New York City to Europe, North Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Working mostly as a massage therapist, I’d save money and then set off, with bike, for several months, to another part of the world.

While cycling through southeast Asia in the Spring of 1988, I received a letter from a friend to whom I had been sending my films. It said that all the pictures I’d taken for the previous four months were underexposed and out of focus. The news was heartbreaking, but I was grateful that at least I’d received it the day before flying to Singapore. There, I spent days going to the many camera shops, struggling to become an informed consumer. Finally I bought a fully manual camera and two lenses. It was very basic equipment, and therefore less likely to malfunction through the rigors of developing world bike travel. But unlike every other camera I’d had, I could not just point and shoot. I had to make my own technical decisions about the pictures, and that lead me to discover the creative possibilities. I was learning as I went along, out there alone on my bike. It was exciting. The following year, back in New York, I depleted my savings with the purchase of professional Nikon equipment that I didn’t really know how to use. But I knew I would grow into it, and that photography would be my life’s pursuit.

My bicycle then gained about thirty pounds, but the inspiration stayed the same. The years of traveling without the camera had taught me the art of adventure. By becoming comfortable with vulnerability and the unknown, I felt free to indulge my curiosity. Being a foreign woman alone on a bicycle often made people curious about me too. They always stared, usually laughed, often fed me, and sometimes invited me to visit their houses, huts, or tents. Having no itinerary or deadlines, I was able to luxuriate in spontaneity and lingering. I grew to love being exposed, accessible, and truly raw, because that was what got me in closer. From a closer perspective, I saw more familiarity than difference. When I began photographing, it was the common denominators that I wanted to document. As time, kilometers and countries passed, frontiers became harder to find and my appetite for adventure harder to satisfy. I had already experienced a wide variety of cultures, religions, languages, architecture, panoramas, etc, and so I decided to explore other political systems. From 1989 through 1992, I cycled through China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Russia and Mongolia. Socialist countries, due to their underdeveloped tourism industries, did feel more like frontiers, and gave me a renewed sense of intrigue. But even so, I was still just passing through, and transience per se was becoming unchallenging. To feel stimulated, I needed to dig in deeper.

When I first traveled to Vietnam in 1990, and Cuba in 1991, the political climate in both countries was such that many people were reluctant to associate with foreigners. Doing so might have resulted in confrontations with local authorities, and perhaps some form of punishment. Nevertheless, I met people who were willing to take that risk and offer me their friendship. I too, was taking a risk just by being an American in those countries against which the U.S. had embargoes at that time. But we chose to push the limits, and were rewarded with illuminating exchanges and connections. It was these gratifying interactions that compelled me to return through the years.

Though I did continue traveling to other places, Saigon and Havana became my focal points. With my bicycle I explored the cities in depth, and discovered wonderful, obscure places. Over time, my deepening friendships and expanding social networks allowed me access to a broad spectrum of photo opportunities. The closer I got to those people who my culture regarded as “the other,” the more apparent the sameness became. I grew to believe that the very concept of “the other” is seldom a celebration of diversity, but rather a contrived tactic to de-emphasize our shared humanity.

People of the non-industrialized world are usually thought to be impoverished, striving to survive all manner of daily hardship. But instead of duly praising their survival skills, the media often condescends to portray them only as pitiable and remote. This keeps them at a strange distance, keeps us from relating, and at worst, promotes the misconception of a faceless and dissimilar “enemy.” I prefer to convey the fortitude and compassion with which people everywhere surmount difficult conditions. The dignity and perseverance exhibited in the face of adversity are among the highest common denominators in human nature. If we are ever to evolve beyond war and conflict, we need to recognize that our similarities far outweigh our differences. I hope to leave the viewer identifying with a familiar strength, rather than pitying a distant struggle.