Throughout last week, Carleton students were met with bright studio lights and a floor filled with white banners at the end of their climb up the stairs to Upper Sayles. On these banners were photographs of unfamiliar faces, followed by lengthy chunks of text underneath. However, with a closer look these banners revealed personal stories of tragedy and injustice, as well as hope and forgiveness. From May 6 to May 10, the “A Peace of My Mind” exhibition captivated and moved the Carleton community.
“A Peace of My Mind” was founded by John Noltner, an award-winning Minnesota photographer and peace activist. For the past ten years Nolter has explored the meaning of peace by profiling individuals from all over the country and sharing their responses to the question “What does peace mean to you?”
In the exhibition, each white banner showcases a portrait of a person he has interviewed alongside their personal stories and experiences surrounding peace. All of the photographs and interviews have been compiled into Nolter’s two books — the first being Minnesota-based and the second being nationwide.
The exhibition was hosted by the Office of Intercultural and International Life (OIIL). OIIL had previously brought Noltner to campus six years ago to speak about his project, but only for one evening. “John does photography for The Voice and we reunited as he did a photo shoot for our new space in Upper Sayles. I felt it was necessary to bring the exhibition back for a longer period of time and have it displayed in a more visible location,” said Brisa Zubia ’05, Director of OIIL. OIIL also organized an interactive live studio and a keynote lecture with Noltner to accompany the exhibition.
At the lecture, Noltner revealed the inspiration behind his massive project. In 2009, he began getting frustrated at the quality of the national dialogue and at all the things that asked people to look at what separated them. “When it comes to dividing people, there are all sorts of tools at your disposal, but I wondered if I could use my photography and storytelling to instead to look at what connects us,” he said. As a result of the economic recession, Noltner had fewer clients and more free time to experiment with the idea of peace. He noticed a discrepancy between people simply saying they wanted peace and their actual actions—a disconnect between what people claim they value and how they live out their day-to-day lives. From there, the question that he would end up traveling around the country asking—“What does peace mean to you?”—was formed. “It’s a question that shows what we value as a society and sparks conversation about race, gender, class, and more. It gives people the chance to express what’s on their hearts,” Noltner explained.
This all kickstarted a 40,000 mile road trip across the country over the span of three years. During his journey, Noltner traveled to places he never knew existed before and interviewed people from all different backgrounds and experiences. From speaking with Holocaust survivors to veterans to a cowboy—and also “normal, everyday” individuals who were stricken by poverty or social injustice, Noltner expressed how crucial it is to learn how to sincerely listen to people and their stories. When he encountered places of historic harm, like the spot where Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was accused of whistling at a white woman, was lynched, Noltner would find natural resources, like sticks and rocks, and form a peace sign on the ground. “It’s a small gesture of healing and a small commitment to try to not let those things happen in our world again.”
“We use these stories not to tell people the secret meaning of peace, but to encourage people to be part of the conversation,” said Noltner. As his exhibits tour the country, Nolter has set up interactive live studios alongside them, where the audience can come to share their own stories and be photographed. The responses are then compiled into a video. Last Tuesday, 53 Carleton students and staff participated in the live studio, sharing their answers to the question, “When have you been your best self?”
“OIIL wanted to offer a space where the community could reflect on other people’s lived experiences and an opportunity for the Carleton community to then self-reflect,” said Zubia. “It is such a fast-paced world that we live in, and we hope that people were able to slow down a bit and listen to others’ experiences as well as take time to see that in a vast world, there are similar experiences that bring many of us together.”
Noltner plans on expanding his project across borders and creating an international version of his books. As the exhibition came to a close, Zubia said, “I hope students gained an even deeper understanding of the world around us and the multitude of experiences that impact individuals in their lives. It is important to take the time to reflect and find comfort in our own lived experience in relation to others.”