Ignorance, capitalism and catastrophic decisions
I was born in Denver, Colorado, an industrial, blue collar part of the city. My dad used to take me on walks on the train tracks where we looked for pieces of scrap metal to play with. My mother was married to a woman and they were living in an anti-war commune when she met my father, who was gay, so I grew up with two moms and two dads. I always felt as though I had a pretty standard upbringing, but I suppose others might not see it that way. I was loved though, and that is most important.
After working in 114 countries over the past 15 years, I have moved back to where I grew up. It has been a tough adjustment, but sometimes you need to be with family and repay all the things they gave you. It’s hard to come back to a place after being in many other places. In a way, it makes you feel like all of your life experiences were just a dream and you have come back to a reality that you were never terribly fond of.
At this time in history, it is quite embarrassing to be an American. I have never really considered myself an American or identified much with this country, but I am from here and can't do much to change that. The US is a big, dumb bully on the playground. It is full of sounds of fury and signifies very little at least very little to be proud of. It is a country that loves to think of itself as the best, which is a thought process based on very little fact. There are things that I do love here. I just wish we could put our power and money towards good things for others.
A lot of my motivation for photojournalism came from genuinely believing that pictures could change something, if not immediately then for the future. It brought meaning to my work and motivated me to push boundaries, both within myself and with my work.
When Trump was elected, it caused me a bit of an existential crisis. What’s the point of doing anything if people are dumb enough to make an error of this magnitude and elect a con man as president. And as if the error was not bad enough, now we choose to live with it instead of trying to make things right. How people can be this stupid and naïve? It makes me feel that my work has little meaning and even less effect.
Most of our world's problems are caused by capitalism and lack of education. We put so much money into our military budget and so little into education. It’s easier to sell people things when they don’t have critical thinking skills. We are a consumer society and not a compassionate society, and that is something that we need to change if we want to survive. We’re a society of people who don’t know how debt works or how to recognize a con man. And now we are where we are.
Education needs improvement all over the world, but in America we’re just so sure of ourselves that we feel like we know enough already. This is the most dangerous kind of thinking. The dumbest people always seem to think they are the smartest.
Most countries I go to, people say things like “we have a bad leader,” or “we have problems and we need to work toward solutions.” In America, people say, “we’re the greatest country in the world,” and “everyone should follow our lead and adopt our way of living” despite the fact that we’re behind on education, healthcare, infrastructure and innovation.
We are a country of refugees that stole land from people who were here before us. We now try to keep people out of this place. And what gives us the right to do this? To forget our history is bizarre or, perhaps more accurately, just ignorant
Educating people goes against the system, so there is no motivation to change it. In the early days of the Internet I thought, wow, what an incredible tool, now people will be able to educate themselves. But by now it’s just another form of advertising, it's a corporate tool not an educational tool. It seems that whenever we build something beautiful there is someone waiting to turn it into profit.
Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not a smart person. I am someone who has had some experiences in life. In my 20s and 30s, I would see a problem, come up with a solution and then I would work at it until it was solved. As I got older, I learned that there are a lot of things that just can’t be solved (at least at this point in time). I hope that these feelings pass and that once again I can find the inspiration to work to make the world a better place. But seeing the state of things today is just too hard. The path forward is too obscure.
Travel has taught me that there are very few things that are black and white. Nearly everything in life lies somewhere in the grey. This is the kind of realization that makes it very difficult to push forward with any confidence. You think and question and ponder but very little gets resolved.
During my travels, I have realized that for the most part, people are selfish. They have bad tempers, different views and often get into fights. We are animals and we’re nowhere near a point where we could live without conflict. It is a sad realization, and one that we should not accept, but none the less it is true. We need our schools and our families to teach empathy above all else. Real empathy requires that we walk a mile in another person’s shoes.
Empathy is not about watching an hour long documentary about hunger or conflict. This doesn’t come close to knowing what it’s like to be hungry and sick and have no resources. It doesn’t teach us what it is like to be truly scared for your life and the lives of your loved ones. We need to be closer to this kind of experience to understand it. Having said that, I’ve been in these situations and experienced them on many levels and I’m still not doing enough to help. So maybe we are doomed…and maybe we are not. They are all questions that are too big for me to answer.
When I was doing photography full-time, I really believed people need to be force-fed information. I thought that if there are people going through this kind of suffering, the least we can do is to pay attention. I still believe it, but I’m starting to wonder whether it’s better to help one person or one family at a time in a way that’s immediate and direct.
People are afraid of helping and I think a lot of it comes down to the fear that if we share, there won’t be enough left for ourselves. I never understood this hoarding culture until my friend got cancer and had to spend around half a million dollars out of her own pocket in her first year of treatment, despite having full health insurance. That proved to me, once again, that our system is truly broken.
Until that point, I never understood how you can have half a million dollars sitting in your bank and not help anyone. But now I see that in a country with corporate health insurance, money can save your life. It’s not right, but in an environment like that, it’s hard to think about others. It's human survival, something we have been programmed with throughout time.
Zoriah Miller is an award-winning photojournalist whose work has been featured in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries, museums and publications. Zoriah's clients include National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, BBC News, The United Nations, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and many others. In addition to his journalism clients his photographs also appear in Glamour, Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan, GQ, Elle and countless other top publications. With a background in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Aid, Zoriah specializes in documenting human crises in developing countries.