Navigating Trauma: A Photographic Exploration

by Kevin Kunishi

For the past two years I have been researching Peoples Temple: its history, its members, and the events that ensued. As the 40th anniversary approaches, my intention is to create a photographic body of work, a series of portraits and accompanying interviews, on the aftermath of Jonestown.

I believe that it is important to create a document, a marker in time that will contribute to the historic conversation around this phenomenon. The Jonestown story will be told for decades, perhaps centuries, to come. I want to tell it with your voice.

I have had the extreme honor of getting to know Jordan Vilchez, who has been instrumental in inspiring my ideas around this work. Jordan was generous enough to share with me a part of her story. I was struck by her honesty, her openness, her conviction, and clarity. It affected me profoundly and inspired me to look deeper into the story of Jonestown.

As I immerse myself in the history of Peoples Temple – exploring what drew people into the community, and it’s unfathomably tragic end – I wonder: how have people moved on? How does one move on? What does it take to survive such a thing? What resources do you draw from?

My life’s work has been exploring aftermath. This stems from my own loss. When I was sixteen, my parents died from separate illnesses within months of each other. It was a shock from which I continue to recover. So the question of “what happened after,” is a powerful and personal one for me.

Professionally, I have interviewed and photographed the veterans and survivors of the U.S.-backed Contra War. That work, borne out of living amongst these individuals in the mountains and coffee fields of Nicaragua, comprised my first book, Los Restos de La Revolucion (The Remnants of the Revolution). 

Much of the mainstream consciousness of Jonestown is about those who died, and all the events leading up to their tragic end. I would like to help tell the story of those who lived, of those in whom the story lives on in unique and profound ways.

With your help, I would like to explore the physical, emotional and spiritual landscape that emerges from trauma. I seek not to impose my own ideas but to bring yours to light.

The timeframe for this project is three years, completing in time for the 40th anniversary of that fateful day in Guyana. My hope is that those of you who feel called will graciously lend your voice, and contribute your unique facet to this living history.

(Kevin Kunishi is a documentary photographer based in Oakland, Califorina. His previous bodies of work have explored the aftermath of the U.S.-backed Contra war in Nicaragua, Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and – most recently – native Hawaiian communities on the islands of Oahu and Molokai. He is an adjunct professor at Sacramento State University, the Academy of Art University and The Art Institute of San Francisco. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Le Monde, and The Telegraph to name a few. More of his work can be viewed at www.kevinkunishi.com. He can be contacted at kevin@kevinkunishi.com.

Originally posted on October 28th, 2015.

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