The war photographer who reinvented himself off-the-grid

By: Andrea Kurland
Via huck | February 18th, 2017

Processing trauma

Rafal Gerszak had to witness war in order to document history, but it almost cost him his life. Out in the wild of Canada’s north, he found his way back from the brink.

Spera District, Khost Province, Afghanistan. Hot thick air, window grease, an endless brown horizon. Four Humvees filled with armoured men trail through the ridgelines, kicking up a cloak of dust that bounces in sync with the convoy. Minutes become hours in an un-air-conditioned fuzz. Sweat drips. Eyes close. Men begin to doze.

Rafal Gerszak was never more fresh faced than the day he first arrived in Afghanistan. It was 2008, Obama’s debut year, and the Canadian photographer decided to face an urge: a desire he had to better understand the contours of his Polish roots.

In 1989, Rafal was a 10-year-old child living in a refugee camp in West Germany awaiting a visa to Canada with his family. He recalls his father’s friends rushing off to witness “a historical event”, but it would be years before he connected that day with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Afghanistan, he figured, was somewhere to confront the past: the pink mist trail left in Communism’s wake, and the butterfly effect felt by his family. The war in Afghanistan – triggered in 1979 by Soviet Forces, fuelled by US-backed Islamic insurgents, and escalated by 9/11 – was a story worth documenting, thought Rafal, precisely because no one else seemed to think it was.

“I went to Afghanistan because it is so underreported,” says the 36-year-old, who hoped to embed with Polish forces for 30 days but ended up spending 12 months with a US platoon. “They approved my embed because I was basically the only journalist on the ground.”

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Rafal is sat in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and son on the corner of East Hastings and Clark Drive in Vancouver – or as he calls it, “ground zero of the opioid overdose epidemic”. It’s a gritty part of town, where history feels real.

On good days, it’s a base from which to travel to assignments. On bad ones, it’s filled with ghosts. “It could be a helicopter flying overhead,” he says. “Or when I hear the wind blow and the windows rattle. Little things like that take you back to that space where everything is black and white.”

That monochrome world, of life and death, became Rafal’s reality for the year that he spent with the 104th Air Force Division – “sleeping, eating, shitting” alongside a group of young men, equally fresh faced, and veterans who’d been in Iraq. Weeks would go by where barely anything happened. But when it did, it left more than a mark.

July 02. 2008: Three hours from the combat operating post. The radio crackles to life. A red-hot engine has brought one vehicle to a halt. Sluggish bodies and heavy heads are summoned into action. Chains connect one 4×4, now comatose, with a towing-partner. The snake of Humvees makes a U-turn and accepts its Sisyphean fate. Hot thick air, window grease, an endless brown horizon. The same muted peaks fill the same frame – then a figure breaks the rhythm. A silhouette on the ridgeline that wasn’t there before.

In March 2009, on the plane home, Rafal promised himself he’d never go back. “But two months later, I bought a one-way ticket to Kabul.” Home wasn’t as he left it; friends and family felt different. The smallest thing could trigger him into a frustrated rage. The woman in the coffee shop complaining that two-per-cent milk won’t cut it. Friends talking about the same old things they talked about before. No one seemed to get it.

“For a while I was blaming the people around me like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with everybody?’ But slowly I started realising that I needed to change things – it wasn’t everybody around me that was screwed up.”

Back in Kabul, Rafal found distraction photographing life inside and beyond the military base. Soldiers and fixers blended into one seamless band of brothers. In Afghanistan, the lines were simple. “Life at home is full of grey areas, but in a conflict zone it’s black and white,” says Rafal.

“If I’m going into a village, or covering a political event, it didn’t matter if I had showered or what kind of person I was. If I was trustworthy, they welcomed me into that situation. Back home, if I didn’t shave for a couple of days, all of a sudden I’m looked upon as that. Over there it wasn’t like that. Things seemed a lot clearer for me in a situation like that – I didn’t have to think about these little things in life that didn’t matter. That don’t matter.”

July 02. 2008: One hour from the combat operating post. Ting ting ting ting ting. Tiny rocks razor sharp cascade against the glass. The convoy has been ambushed. Those rocks turn out to be pellets of lead and rocket-propelled grenades. He grasps his camera with a hand that feels as numb as a foreign object. Time slows. Dust clears. A bullet strikes between his eyes.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental condition triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event, feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt. Rafal didn’t know any of that until he started doing a bit of reading.

“I didn’t know if I was experiencing it, because I didn’t know what it was. There were no flashbacks, I didn’t wake up in cold sweats. It wasn’t those kinds of symptoms – just little details of my life that were affected.”

Helicopters and wind were just some of Rafal’s triggers when he returned to Canada for good. But it’s the day of the ambush – the ting of metal against glass – that’s scorched into his memory. “It was one of those days where you didn’t expect anything to happen,” he says. “You’re sort of dozing off and your whole world is flipped upside down.

A bulletproof window saved Rafal’s life, but it couldn’t block the aftershock. Back home in Vancouver, he would drive through the Rocky Mountains to visit family in Edmonton, taking in a vista that typically inspires calm or awe.

“When I first got back I used to look at the ridgelines and say, ‘Oh, that’s a good spot for them to ambush us from.’ That’s what I’d be saying to myself in my mind – and I needed that to be gone.”

Still battling with the grey areas that govern city life, feeling irritable and siloed in a crowd, in summer 2013 Rafal packed a bag, jumped in a van with his girlfriend and son and without thinking headed north.

They drove across the Arctic Circle, taking in 7,000km in two weeks, and ended up in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Since that trip, the city has become a pitstop, a base from which to organise work and the next trek into the wilderness. Rafal has been to some of the most remote corners of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, from Sixty Mile River and Ogilvie Mountains to the shores of the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyakyuk. He’s lived with an off- the-grid community for six months, and returns to Inuvik at least once a year; it’s where he adopted his first retired sled-dog and – though he’ll only admit it with a warm laugh – where ultimately he believes he was saved.

“The self-therapy was basically going out into the woods and camping in the middle of nowhere,”says Rafal.“I read that there’s more moose than people in the Yukon – there’s just over 20,000 residents in the Yukon Territory, which to me was perfect. The less people, the more nature, the better.”

Rafal only started making pictures a few trips in after noticing the rapid changes happening in Canada’s North. In the summer of 2016, the Slims River in the Yukon Territory stopped running without warning, due to the receding Kaskawulsh Glacier. Members of the Yukon Geological Survey will study the area for years to come to determine the impact on land and wildlife. In the meantime, all that Rafal can do is preserve what keeps drawing him here.

“This project is ultimately my thanks to that environment, giving me what it gave me,” he says. “In my mind it may not be here for future generations, so being able to photograph it and contribute in some way to keeping that memory alive – that was my thanks to being saved by nature. It sounds corny but it’s the truth.”

March 02. 2015: Inuvik, Northwest Territories. ‘Bird’ lands on cabin door, eyes up scraps of meat. ‘Fox’ enters ‘Den A’ for eight minutes, then emerges and heads for ‘Den B’. ‘Bird’ its towards the floor, hovering to steal a morsel. ‘Dog’ ambushes from behind.

Dawson City is a drive-through town with one good local store. Rafal headed there when he first arrived, carrying a book called The Colourful Five Per Cent. “It’s basically about all the characters that inhabit the Yukon, and I wanted to meet more,” he says. “I asked a lady if there were any old-school Yukoners living a bush life, off-the-grid. That’s how I met Corwin.”

Corwin Guimond, 66, arrived in the Yukon in 1973 to become a trapper and learn to live off the land. He lives in a hand-built cabin in the back of beyond, waking up most mornings at the crack of dawn to go salmon fishing.

The Back of Beyond, Chapter 1

“I’ve never had a relationship like that with anybody – except in Afghanistan,” says Rafal, who visits Corwin at least once a year and was on the phone to his wife just yesterday.

“He doesn’t give a shit if I shave, or if I’m muddy from a hike. If I say I’m going to help him unload his boat in the morning, I’m there. There’s no judgement between us – no strings attached. He brings me back to, I guess, a simpler time.”

For someone who once identified as a ‘city guy’, Rafal’s life has taken a surprise diversion. Despite growing up in rural Alberta, he had to go to Afghanistan to experience his first hike, and used to think “the bigger the city, the more people, the better”.

Afghanistan taught him how to survive in the wild. The memories he shares with soldiers-turned-friends of long arduous hikes through the Hindu Kush mountains are cherished, but not always warm.

“Going out hiking again and experiencing nice things instead helped me reclaim nature as a positive experience.”

Rafal splits his time between his place in Vancouver and off-the-grid cabins, where he can go for weeks without seeing another person. He usually heads up after summer ends (“It’s like a bad Armageddon movie, with all these RVs heading south and I’m the only one heading north”) and starts to unwind as soon as he’s out of range (“I’d be happy if they turned o all social media; sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era”). Assignments still bring him back to the city – and sometimes they bring up old ghosts.

Recently, Rafal covered the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat disaster near Bella Bella, British Columbia. The boat, owned by Texas- based Kirby Corporation, ran aground on 13 October near the Great Bear Rainforest carrying 223,831 litres of diesel fuel. “To give focus to a story like that means the world to me now,” says Rafal. “But still, I was scared shitless on the plane back.”

A newfound fear of flying is another hangover from Afghanistan, but even local stories can summon up demons. A couple of weeks ago, Rafal joined local firefighters on a ridealong. “And it took me back right to those same situations,” he says.

“You’re in the truck and the radio is going. For three or four days after that, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. But knowing I can get back to being better, it’s easier. I don’t need months or years to get back to a peaceful moment. It just takes a few days of working through it – usually out in nature.”

In the Yukon, with friends like Corwin as his guide, Rafal has found release. But the North hasn’t become a place to escape. If anything, it’s more like a trusted old friend forcing him to face things head on. There is comfort in this new familiar world.

“You know, rules in regular society are very flexible,” says Rafal. “Things change so often, even laws. But in nature, if you put yourself in a certain situation you can die – and these rules have been in place for thousands of years. That started bringing me peace. It wasn’t just in war that things are black and white – in a peaceful life that can also be true.”

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You will never wake up late after watching this

By: Get Better Together
Via YouTube | November 13, 2016

Waking up early in winters seems like an impossible task for most of us and despite knowing that it is crucial for us to wake up early, which is a time very important to be utilized for many important things such as exercise, day planning or simply for active & healthy lifestyle however we still fail to get out of bed early.
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Waking up early not only has health benefits but it gives you an edge over your competitors, while they are sleeping you are doing something to get better. All successful people who have become the eyes of the world are early risers. I have also been victim of not being able to wake up in the morning especially in winters, but I got really fed up of waking up late and literally hated the feeling of over-sleeping. Then I decided to research and cultivated the habit of waking up early. In this video I have shared the steps that have worked wonders for me and now I don’t even need an alarm clock to wake up early, which is why I am sharing these steps with all of you on this great platform called “you tube”. My purpose is to spread the message to everyone out there and even if one person found it relevant and benefited from it then that is going to be fulfilling for me. If you like this video then please subscribe to my channel and share the video to your friends and family.

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¿Por qué leer a Nietzsche como un filósofo pesimista cuando enseña sobre todo a amar la vida?

 

Autor: Pijama Surf
Vía Pijama Surf | Enero 1, 2016

En medio de las lecturas e interpretaciones que ha tenido a lo largo de la historia, la obra de Nietzsche guarda un intenso llamado para amar la propia existencia en todas sus aristas posibles.

Usualmente, en la historia de las ideas es común que autor y obra se confundan, que la biografía se inmiscuya en la impresión que podemos tener del trabajo realizado y entonces tengamos también una idea equivocada de ambos, vida y corpus.

Entre los varios ejemplos que podrían citarse al respecto, quizá uno de los más conocidos y asequibles para varios sea el de Friedrich Nietzsche, filósofo a quien encontramos bajo diversos avatares a lo largo de la historia según la lectura que se dio a su legado. Así, por ejemplo, lo mismo lo hallamos como un melómano entusiasta que como un implacable detractor de la Imúsica, como una suerte de ideólogo avant la lettre del régimen nazi, como heredero del pesimismo de Schopenhauer y también como el nihilista absoluto que, por eso mismo, inspiró en parte la idea del absurdo de la existencia de Camus, etcétera.

Como se ve, la obra de Nietzsche ha admitido varias lecturas, muchas de ellas cercanas al denominador común de la exaltación del sufrimiento y el dolor como constantes de esta vida y, por otro lado, la voluntad de poder como antídoto contra dicha regla, conceptos que de suyo poseen una carga negativa contra la cual es difícil ir durante un primer acercamiento. ¿Quién quiere aceptar que la existencia es esencialmente dolorosa? ¿Quién podría tomar de buen modo a un sujeto que sólo en el ejercicio del poder ha encontrado la forma de sobreponerse a ese destino? ¿No suenan ambas cosas un tanto radicales, en el extremo del pesar o en el extremo de la voluntad egoísta?

Aun con estar más o menos extendida, esa puede considerarse una lectura sumamente sesgada. Nietzsche habló de poder, es cierto, pero no en la manera en que podríamos identificarlo desde un punto de vista totalitario e instrumental. La idea de poder del filósofo era a un tiempo más elevada y más profunda: en uno de los videos de difusión de sus ideas que reseñamos este año se explica cómo la voluntad de poder es la forma en que podemos salir del laberinto del eterno retorno y así devenir Superhombres:

Desde otra perspectiva, esa tesis podría compararse con el esfuerzo por salir de la repetición que se busca en el psicoanálisis o, con más ambición aún, con la epifanía de romper con la dialéctica del amo y el esclavo. En todos los casos, incluido el cese del eterno retorno pregonado por Nietzsche, la recompensa última de poner nuestra voluntad en ello es el encuentro con la libertad auténtica, liberados de la fatalidad, de la repetición, del mundo del Amo, volcados de lleno sobre nuestro propio destino.

Esa es quizá una de las lecturas más ricas que podemos hacer de Nietzsche. Mirando desde otra perspectiva su pesimismo y su nihilismo, menos como una declaración de derrota que (mejor) como el antecedente necesario para celebrar la riqueza de la vida. En el sitio Brain Pickings, Maria Popova recupera un par de fragmentos de la obra nietzscheana que nos alientan a aceptar y entender el fracaso antes que querer huir de él; el primero de estos, el número 905 de La voluntad de poder, dice:

Aquellos hombres que en definitiva me interesan son a los que les deseo sufrimientos, abandono, enfermedad, malos tratos, desprecio: yo deseo, además, que no desconozcan el profundo desprecio de sí mismos, el martirio de la desconfianza de sí mismos, la miseria del vencido; y no tengo compasión de ellos, porque les deseo lo que revela el valor de un hombre: ¡que uno mismo perdura!

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Aquí podemos emparentar a Nietzsche con la filosofía estoica y su mirada cruda sobre las cosas del mundo, en especial el dolor y el sufrimiento. Como el alemán, los estoicos también creían que éstos eran parte natural de la existencia y que por ello mismo había que experimentarlos del mismo modo como aceptamos la felicidad o la alegría; por definición el dolor y el sufrimiento son más pesarosos, pero al final son también los que fortalecen nuestro espíritu y, al menos en teoría, nos hacen más sabios y más justos, templan nuestro carácter como la espada en la forja, situándonos en el camino de la “plenitud del ser” (eudaimonia) y de aquello que de verdad queremos para nuestra vida. En una de sus Epístolas morales a Lucilio, la número XVIII, Séneca aconsejó dedicar algunos días a vivir con lo mínimo posible, comer apenas lo necesario y tomar “un vestido áspero y rugoso”, y pasado un tiempo decir: “¿Es esto lo que temía?” (hoc est quod timebatur?), esto es, reconocer no sólo que para vivir basta lo esencial, sino también que a pesar de la adversidad la existencia continúa y que, quizá, así es mejor; por eso Nietzsche, al final del fragmento citado, celebra esa perseverancia de la voluntad en medio de la adversidad propia de la existencia: conocerla, padecerla y abrazarla como parte de nuestra vida para entender todos los aspectos de ésta, para entender a cabalidad lo mismo el disfrute que el dolor, el placer y el sufrimiento, y los matices entre ambos. Escribe el filósofo, en el parágrafo 12 de La gaya ciencia:

¿Tenemos que aceptar que la finalidad de la ciencia sea procurar al hombre el mayor número de placeres posible y el menor desencanto posible? Pero, ¿cómo hacerlo, si el placer y el desencanto se encuentran tan unidos que quien quisiera tener el mayor número de placeres posible debe sufrir, al menos, la misma cantidad de desencanto; que quien quisiera aprender a “dar saltos de alegría” debe prepararse para “estar triste hasta la muerte”? Tal vez así suceda. Al menos eso creían los estoicos, consecuentes en la medida en que deseaban el menor placer posible para conseguir de la vida el menor desencanto que se pueda (la sentencia que tenían constantemente en la boca, “el virtuoso es el más feliz”, podía servir tanto de enseñanza de escuela dirigida a la gran masa, como de casuística sutil para los refinados).

Antes que a una especie de balance teleológico, una idea de “karma” o de desendeudamiento de la culpa por las obras malas a través de las obras buenas (según lo explica Byung-Chul Han en La agonía del Eros), Nietzsche refuerza aquí la idea del temple de la voluntad en el sufrimiento para la mejor apreciación del disfrute.

El filósofo, en ese sentido, no es ajeno a la idea de fatalidad, pero quizá no en el sentido en que usualmente la entendemos, como algo inevitable y casi siempre pesaroso, sino más bien como aquello que por formar parte del mundo (el odio, el amor, el dolor, la felicidad), vamos a experimentar siquiera una vez en la vida, necesariamente. En otro texto exploramos la noción de amor fati (“amor al destino”), que Nietzsche expuso en un par de fragmentos de La gaya ciencia y de Ecce homo; en la sección 10 de esta última obra encontramos:

Mi fórmula para expresar la grandeza en el hombre es amor fati [amor al destino]: el no querer que nada sea distinto ni en el pasado ni en el futuro ni por toda la eternidad. No sólo soportar lo necesario, y aún menos disimularlo ―todo idealismo es mendacidad frente a lo necesario― sino amarlo.

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Y ese es el puente que nos permite unir la fatalidad de la vida en el mundo con el amor que podemos dedicarle no a la fatalidad, sino a nuestra propia vida. Mejor que aborrecer nuestra suerte, maldecir nuestro destino, rehuir al dolor y querer alejarnos del sufrimiento, Nietzsche nos enseña a amar la vida, nuestra vida, que en sí misma no podemos cambiar, porque ya es nuestra y es a la que damos cuerpo e historia con nuestros actos cotidianos pero que, en otro sentido, sí podemos transformar en función del lugar desde donde nos coloquemos con respecto a ella. Si somos capaces de amar aun (en) el infortunio, ¿qué no será cuando la felicidad se instale con plenitud en nuestra vida?

Para terminar, cerramos con este fragmento inquietantemente reflexivo de La gaya ciencia, subtitulado “La carga más pesada” (341):

¿Qué dirías si un día o una noche se introdujera furtivamente un demonio en tu más honda soledad y te dijera: “Esta vida, tal como la vives ahora y como la has vivido, deberás vivirla una e innumerables veces más; y no habrá nada nuevo en ella, sino que habrán de volver a ti cada dolor y cada placer, cada pensamiento y cada gemido, todo lo que hay en la vida de inefablemente pequeño y de grande, todo en el mismo orden e idéntica sucesión, aun esa araña, y ese claro de luna entre los árboles, y ese instante y yo mismo. Al eterno reloj de arena de la existencia se lo da vuelta una y otra vez y a ti con él, ¡grano de polvo del polvo!”? ¿No te tirarías al suelo rechinando los dientes y maldiciendo al demonio que así te hablara? ¿O vivirías un formidable instante en el que serías capaz de responder: “Tú eres un dios; nunca había oído cosas más divinas”? Si te dominara este pensamiento, te transformaría, convirtiéndote en otro diferente al que eres, hasta quizás torturándote. ¡La pregunta hecha en relación con todo y con cada cosa: “¿quieres que se repita esto una e innumerables veces más?” pesaría sobre tu obrar como la carga más pesada! ¿De cuánta benevolencia hacia ti y hacia la vida habrías de dar muestra para no desear nada más que confirmar y sancionar esto de una forma definitiva y eterna?

Y tú, ¿cómo responderías? ¿Quisieras vivir una y otra vez este instante? ¿O esa pregunta te empujará a darle otro sentido a tu existencia de manera tal que, si la idea del eterno retorno es cierta, querrás vivir una y otra vez todos los instantes de aquélla?

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