Healing Landscape: A Damaged World in Transition by joSon

Formerly a Buddhist monk, joSon is a fine art photographer with a focus on nature and the environment. He began his photography career at Tahoe Community College and today he is based between San Francisco and South Lake Tahoe. His work has appeared in numerous magazines including Scientific American, Outside, Conde Nast Traveler, Geo, Vogue, and his clients have ranged from Samsung, United Nations, Time Warner, BMW, Random House, HSBC, Coppertone to Claritin. He has won awards from Communication Arts, Graphis and American Photography.

"Healing Landscape: A Damaged World in Transition" © joSon

I press my face against the cold plastic window of the plane, peering through the clouds and San Francisco fog, trying to get in position to see the bizarre unearthly landscape unfolding thousands of feet beneath me as we descended to San Francisco International Airport. This airborne ritual is now an integral part of my return to the city I have now called home over the last two decades.

"Healing Landscape: A Damaged World in Transition" © joSon

The San Francisco Bay Area Salt Ponds are bizarrely beautiful. I was inspired to create this body of work, capturing their unearthly visual appearance and complex history. I wanted to document the razor-sharp lines and neon-hued colors of  the Bay’s remaining Salt Ponds as they change throughout the seasons — and by exposure to heat from the sun — revealing far more than just an algae-tinted saline swirl of vivid colors framed by man-made mud dikes.  

"Healing Landscape: A Damaged World in Transition" © joSon

My Buddhist upbringing taught me not to dwell on the past; that is not something we can change or have control over. Yet when I dug deeper behind the visually stunning and captivating colors and shapes of the salt ponds, I inevitably learned of their dark past—a past scarred by both ecological and cultural disasters. So how do we react when something that has such great beauty is born out of a sinister history?

"Healing Landscape: A Damaged World in Transition" © joSon

Long before the Gold Rush, the marshlands that the salt ponds destroyed were once home to a stunning array of wildlife and plants. Bizarrely, salt from these very ponds was even used to manufacture napalm during the 1960s. Searing memories of the effects of that horrific chemical in Vietnam — where I once spent my youth as a novice monk and caregiver — came rushing back. Reconciling the striking beauty of the current salt ponds with that history surfaces deep questions about how cultures and religions adapt and move on from the past. As humans, we often destroy and rebuild and forget over time.  So should we take comfort in the future revival of this sanctuary for wildlife? Or should we simply enjoy this current display of amazing colors and shapes for what it is?

"Healing Landscape: A Damaged World in Transition" © joSon

What inspired me to spend an entire year dangling from a helicopter in frigid weather to make these images? In the end it was not just the searing colors and swirling patterns of the salt ponds themselves: it was watching the wildlife and waterfowl return to the area over the years, once again thriving in this land in transition — from canvasbacks, ruddy ducks, and scaups to dabbling ducks and buffleheads. Their return has a special resonance for me: as a Buddhist, the concept of rebirth defines how we grow and redefine ourselves by simultaneously shedding and embracing our painful past. Above all, the idea that an entire landscape can so suddenly be reborn in just one lifetime fills me with hope. What is there at any given moment will not be there soon after: that is why this ‘damaged’ landscape is now gradually being returned to nature as a wildlife sanctuary. So the airborne ritual that I look forward to on my return trips home also acts as a healing reminder of the worlds I have left behind.

"Healing Landscape: A Damaged World in Transition" © joSon

“In my photographs, I see myself as having two obligations: One to myself and my audience - to share with people the moments that I experience in nature that are breathtaking and often challenging to see, hoping to inspire them to go out and experience nature for themselves. And second to Nature herself: to motivate people to want to protect the land and creatures that share our planet.”

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joSon Portrait by Holger Keifel

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