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Translating Kalema - Images that Speak a Thousand Words

By P.K. McCary


As a little girl, I learned that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I learned wrong. Words are indeed powerful. As a wordsmith, I know what we say and how we say it can change how you feel about yourself or another. Words can be as sharp as a knife and heavy as a brick. Words can and often do hurt. Yet, if words can hurt, they can also inspire. The adage that a picture is worth a thousand words compels me and led to the notion of an interfaith photography competition.

In the summer of 2010, a young Middle Eastern man and an older African American woman met and got to know one another at a United Religions Initiative gathering in Jordan, one of many URI events to bring together “people of diverse religions, spiritual expressions and indigenous traditions” from around the world. Morad and I represent that diversity. Meeting, we began a journey that has enriched us both and been a gift to others. This competition was not as much about finding the ‘best’ photos as it was about collaboration, partnering, thinking outside the box about how we see and connect with one another, whatever our differences.

First Prize: Friendship by Sudipto Das, India

First Prize: Friendship by Sudipto Das, India

For more than a year, assisted by more than 12,000 Skype messages, we designed a photographic competition to honor interfaith peace work. The idea came from a game Morad played as a child. I Spy With My Little Eye is a game about observing the world around you. I Spy became A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words.

We sought partners for the project, but it was an uphill climb. The big issue? “What constitutes an interfaith picture?” We had no easy answer but remained committed. We had planned a Spring 2011 launch. But in early January we heard about the initial World Interfaith Harmony Week, created by Jordan’s King Abdullah and unanimously adopted by the United Nations. Morad felt it was a sign to launch the competition the first week of February, during the UN initiative, and he wanted to change the name of the competition to “1000 Kalema.”

Kalema is the Arabic word for “word.” The name honors Jordan, where the Harmony Week started, and we thought it might generate interest. It did. 1000Kalema.org was officially born on February 7, 2011, with a call to the world to share their photographs of the places and events, the moments of inspiration and times of hope, that make interfaith work so compelling. Facebook followed.

Second Prize: Cultural Treasures by Houssein Kazma, Lebanon

Second Prize: Cultural Treasures by Houssein Kazma, Lebanon

But by mid-March, the competition stalled. Only a dozen submissions had come in. We found little interest even among interfaith activists. Is it possible to photograph “interfaith”? Maybe not, but we kept asking the question. One thing we did affirm, however, is that Interfaith is about action. Interfaith is about being and sharing. Our original idea that a picture is worth a thousand words helped us think of the many ways interfaith can be explored, which led us to certain themes: Faith, Respect and Service; Answering the Call; Respecting and Protecting Our Earth; Dialogues and Conversations; Sacred Spaces, Ceremony and Celebrations; Transforming Acts of Violence and Conflict; People, Places and Cultures; and Moments of Inspiration, Poignancy, or Epiphany.

Facebook turned out to be a powerful medium for getting the word out. We saw how this competition could provide narratives of the voiceless as well as create opportunities for dialogue and understanding. We could not tell a person what to photograph. Instead we asked people to open their eyes to all of the possibilities surrounding them. We asked individuals from different cultures, faith and spiritual traditions, to share their view of the world and each other.

Third Prize: Belfast Wall by Leigh Lilly, United States of America

Third Prize: Belfast Wall by Leigh Lilly, United States of America

This development led to a decision to find judges from different cultures, faith and spiritual traditions, taking the decision out of our hands and challenging our own views of what constituted an interfaith picture. The competition was extended through September 21st, the International Day of Peace.

By May, 2011, we were receiving a dozen submissions a month. By mid-September we had nearly 170 pictures. On September 25th the photographs were given to the judges. Collectively they found 31 photographs that spoke to them based on the interfaith themes we’d developed. The three that won awards were a surprise to everyone – we all had our favorites. Yet, what spoke to the judges most seemed to be the theme of people, places and cultures. This competition is about people. That is what constitutes interfaith for these artists.

In the right hands, a camera becomes a tool for inspiration and change. Photographs have influenced history. The power of a particular photograph may depend on the viewer, but photographs that have the greatest impact tug on our collective and individual consciousness. In other words, when a photograph brings about understanding across cultural, racial or even religious biases, it becomes a tool for peacemaking, a resource for those of us from different faith and spiritual traditions working together. Pictures can bear witness to those moments of inspiration, poignancy, or epiphany—those ah hah moments.

No single definition captures interfaith. But I believe we can agree that interfaith folk seek to bring peace, justice and healing to the world. 1000 Kalema offers those who do believe in peace a chance to capture their inspiration and share it with the world. To share your view of the world through a camera lens provides us all a chance for discovery. And what will be discovered? Take a look! The competition is over, but the conversations are just beginning.

For more information on how your group or organization can sponsor an exhibit, email us at office@1000kalema.org.