I just returned from a three-day Fulbright Enrichment Seminar in Sacramento, CA, that brought together 140 foreign Fulbright scholars from all corners of the globe to network, exchange ideas, and study the United States electoral process. I was a US Fulbright Fellow to Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia in 2009 – 2010, where I produced a collection of large-scale portrait photographs exploring the post-Soviet condition in the South Caucasus. I also taught photography and cinematography to university students throughout the region. It was a life-changing experience, a rare professional gift that allowed me to focus on an aspect of photography that I consider central to my practice. It also gave me an opportunity to hone leadership skills, build relationships with colleagues overseas, and serve my country.
The Sacramento seminar was a fantastically successful event. As one of six U.S. Fulbright alumni who were chosen to help facilitate the seminar I was excited about the chance to give back to the program, though I never expected to be quite so inspired. The foreign Fulbrighters who participated, all of whom are studying in graduate programs in the US, are some of the brightest young minds from around the world. When put together in one room they constitute great potential for progress, innovation, and international leadership. They were law students from Austria, engineers from Iraq and Nigeria, an architect from Hungary, public health specialists from Norway and New Zealand, psychologists from Russia––the list goes on and on. After hearing them debate US electoral politics, I am certain that there were multiple future heads of state among us.
One of the most salient features of the event for me was the unspoken understanding that breakthroughs happen at the intersection of disciplines, and there was a tremendous willingness among participants to think outside the box. At the seminar’s closing dinner, for example, I sat next to a cellist and a chemist, both from Germany, and the topic of conversation flowed freely across our collective areas of specialty: from the third dimension of the periodic table, to syncopation in Bach’s fugues, to the role of portraiture in cinema, to the promise and limitations of organic photovoltaic cells. What I found so exciting was that the conversation didn’t shift from topic to topic, but evolved naturally through explorations of their common ground. It would have been enough if the seminar had provided the opportunity for just one conversation of this caliber, but exchanges like these were the norm. With that level of stimulation ideas can flow at an incredible rate, building on each other with striking speed.
When you have so many different nationalities in attendance there are inevitably times where nations with historically less-than-ideal relations are placed in contact with one other. In a small group discussion that I facilitated, for example, there were Fulbrighters from both Israel and the West Bank, and from both India and Pakistan. Their differences didn’t fade away of course, but they were contextualized, for a few short days, within a calling that we all felt to a greater international cause. Here they could at least have a conversation, something that in many venues would be totally unfeasible. On the dance floor on the last night the DJ played songs from each country. “And now Turkey!” she announced. Everybody cheered. Halfway through the song she corrected herself, “Whoops, sorry, that’s actually Greece!” Everyone kept dancing.
One of the biggest challenges for me working in the film industry in Los Angeles has been finding a community that I feel I belong to, a professional family that shares my commitment to leadership, international education, and giving back. I have many strong individual relationships, but the model of connection often feels more like a wagon wheel than a cloud, and this has been an ongoing and serious challenge to my work and training as a cinematographer. A few hours into the seminar I walked into the main room filled with all of the participants and felt a warm realization wash over me: these are my people. The shared Fulbright experience is a powerful unifying force.
On the plane ride back to Los Angeles I experienced something that I hadn’t felt since I returned home after my own Fulbright overseas, a strange state where ideas were firing faster than I could write them down, but at the same time were cloaked in a kind of sadness, a feeling of loss that the intense intellectual experience of the seminar was over. The four days of the event were some of the most inspiring I have experienced in the United States. In many ways it felt like a three-day Fulbright Fellowship.
I am humbled by my Fulbright colleagues and honored to be part of their community. The question now is how to deepen these relationships, how to continue to pay forward the opportunities and community the Fulbright Program has provided. I look forward to what lies ahead.