How the Light Gets In

This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers BY JEFF SHARLET. NEW YORK: W. W. NORTON & COMPANY. $20.

The cover of This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers

DAVID O’NEILL: Your new volume of photos and writing, This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers (Norton, $25), is bookended by two medical emergencies. It begins with your father having a heart attack—you started taking these pictures shortly afterward—and, two years later, as you were finishing up the project, you had a heart attack, too. You write about this in the first pages. I can’t help but see what follows as being about mortality, solitude, and a reckoning with “darkness.” But the book is not morbid—it’s about that darkness, but also connection, empathy, and the vividness of any particular moment. How did you get started?

JEFF SHARLET: I was burnt out on writing a certain kind of essay, so I started looking for the more immediate stories that you found in talking to everyday people, where there’s no peg, no hook, no trend. It started to feel pretty deliberate early on, this memoir of other people’s lives, in which I was able to recognize something that was happening in my own.

Part of the burnout was fatigue with a journalistic narrative that had sustained you, but you didn’t quite believe in it anymore . . .

Right, that kind of story where you go and immerse yourself in another place, and usually you’re trying to answer the glossy-magazine question: “Why is this important?” We don’t trust the importance of the everyday. We think we know the everyday, and, in fact, it’s astonishing and horrifying and beautiful. Like so many long-form journalists, I began with writers like Joan Didion and Joseph Mitchell and James Agee. You think of Agee, who could get a hundred pages out of describing the floorboards in a shack of an Alabama tenant farm. There’s something important there that I’d gotten away from.

So you’re in a Dunkin’ Donuts working toward a magazine deadline, and you started looking at #nightshift on Instagram.

I’d put in a hashtag and find oceans of experience. It reminds me of a phrase from Leslie Jamison’s book The Recovering: the “alchemy of community.” That term, alchemy, means magic, dubious magic—we’re not sure this is going to work. And here was this community on my phone. I thought, “This is the most astonishing document I’ve ever seen.”

How did you make the jump from browsing hashtags to taking portraits?

If you’ve been in a Dunkin’ Donuts, you know the uniform, right? My first subject, Mike, is instead wearing a T-shirt with a very baroque drawing of a skull. It’s his last night on the job and he doesn’t give a fuck anymore. So we get to talking and I ask him if I can take a picture. I post it on Instagram, not really thinking about it, and write a little bit about our conversation: a man on the last night of the night shift, and a little tear tattoo beneath his eye, which is for his child, who died young. Suddenly, now I’m talking to the rest of the clerks.

I want to take a step back and ask about the book as a whole. It could have felt haphazard, but it doesn’t. It’s a real mix: your Instagram portraits and essays; some of your longer pieces from magazines, like the story of Charly, a Cameroonian man who was killed by police on Skid Row in Los Angeles, and dispatches from Russia and Uganda (among other places); and writing about your family. How’d you make it hang together?

Part of the work of revision is recognizing what story you’re trying to tell. At the beginning of the book, there were all these images of people who are trying to hold on to their children, who have lost their children, like Mike with the tear tattoo. And, at the same time, I’m losing my father and I’m also kind of cracking up myself. I’m worried about losing my own children—not to death or custody, but I’m feeling less and less present. There are ways in which the book, I realized later, was like a slow-motion suicide note. So, in the process of constructing it, I’m thinking, What story have I been living these last few years?

With a book made up of pieces like this, one of the great pleasures is that you can keep shuffling the deck. That’s what I did, right up until the heart attack. Then I spent another two years essentially rewriting the book. There was a sense that publication was just like, OK, time to say stop.

The section about Charly stands out. An abbreviated version appeared as an essay in GQ and so it’s more like your other published work: There’s deep reporting, and you carefully place the killing in the context of American police violence. Can you talk a bit about Charly’s story?

Charly Keunang was an unarmed black homeless man who was held down by a group of LAPD officers and shot six times. The police were saying he had no family, we know nothing about him. I said to my editor, “Why don’t you let me go to Skid Row, and, because we can’t know his story, I’ll take pictures and make portraits and construct it.” When I got there, of course, I realized the police narrative was complete bunk. He had a family, he had people who knew him, you could know a lot about him. So it became a magazine story, although one that’s maybe at odds with some of the usual conventions.

At odds how?

It’s a little unwieldy, not as easily digested, for better or worse. Maybe if I had held a neater magazine format, it would have helped bring justice for Charly.

Or maybe this book is an argument for the opposite. We need unwieldy stories.

That’s James Agee’s premise. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men begins like my book. He was a Fortune magazine writer, and he just can’t do it anymore. He decides to try to tell that story in its fullness—I will not clip people up. I think that in Charly’s story and the one about LGBT people in Russia, there’s always a desire for good heroes. But Charly just wasn’t a good magazine hero. It’s easy to feel sorry for the poor when they’re all saints. But what about solidarity when you recognize the varieties of impoverishment?

I agree with you, the premise of the book is a little bit opposite, but not in the sense that the mighty journalist shall shine a spotlight on these abject situations and achieve reforms. The change comes from the alchemy of community, from recognizing the suffering all around you and within you.

Your pictures of Mary Mazur—a sixty-one-year-old woman who also doesn’t fit neatly into any narrative—are my favorite. They’re emblematic of a big theme here: connection and solitude, and the push and pull between them. She’s looking at you, a little expectantly, through a crack in the door. A lot of your subjects are quite isolated—by poverty, by addiction, by bad jobs, by structural injustice—and they show some wariness toward you. At the same time, I sensed a real fellowship between you and Mary.

I heard you say “connection and solitude.” If you just change the and, I think you get it even more precisely: connection in solitude. That was true with Mary. I saw the deep intelligence of her. Suddenly, we have this connection, and together we can reflect on this life and what it means.

She said something great: “It’s my brain; I’ll do what I want with it.”

Yes, I think that’s really difficult for people to understand. But the idea can also be easily abused. It’s not hard to find right-wingers who say, “Why do we need social services? Homeless people prefer to sleep on the street.” Versus what Mary is saying: She’s got an aesthetic life as rich and complicated as anybody else, and that’s part of her survival. I mean, she’s the whole deal. She’s this brilliant darkness.

And the form—snapshots in an Instagram essay—helped convey that.

Yeah, I love the snapshot as visual vernacular, as a somewhat democratic photographic tradition. Rather than wielding the authority of the “expert” photographer, I’m just saying, “I saw this. Let’s look at it together.” Mary asks me to take a picture of Beauty, her fish. I could write about it, but if I’m describing Beauty in text alone, I have more authority. The snapshot is more like: “Hey look, a fish!” Mary wanted that photograph.

That’s the most important point. In photography, we talk about the “decisive moment.” And it makes the photographer like God, because only he knows the right moment to take the picture and capture a luminous truth. You’re ceding that control, saying, “I’m not going for the decisive moment. I’m going for Mary’s moment.”

You’re right, it’s Mary’s moment. Also, I think this book is about how we survive. That is not a decisive moment, that’s an ongoing moment of being.

I’ll ask about one more line. You write, “We are our own, and we also belong to others.” That sentiment offers a sharp contrast to everything else in the media, in public life. How does that idea shape your work, for example, when you’re reporting from a Trump rally?

Well, I certainly encounter a lot of profound ugliness, but, for people who believe in Trump, these rallies are joyous events. And that’s complicated. For most of my career, I’ve been writing about “bad men.” No sympathy for the devil, but yes, empathy for the devil, otherwise you’re in trouble. I don’t think community is easy. I don’t think empathy is always kind. My best guess, the hope of this book, is that empathy is what allows you to endure and survive—or might allow you to endure and survive, no guarantee.

I think of the book as continuous with another one I wrote, Sweet Heaven When I Die, in which there’s an essay about the life of Cornel West. I found his idea of hope to be so moving. Hope, in the deepest sense, is rooted in despair. It’s when there is no worldly reason to think that things are going to be all right.

I’ll go ahead and be sentimental. There are beautiful people in this book. You said you liked that picture of Mary peeking through the door—that picture shows you how hard this is. She’s been hurt by a lot of people. And, by God, she still opens the door.

Just a little bit though . . .

Yeah, there’s no pretense here, like, “Sure, I’ll open the door, because we are the family of man.” No, it’s like, “I know what you are, I know what I am, I know that I have been hurt and I’ve hurt people, and we hurt one another.” Well . . . maybe, let’s talk. Then you have a story.

David O’Neill is a writer and an editor of Bookforum. He coedited Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz (Semiotext(e), 2018).