A documentary maker visits Fort McHenry to create a comprehensive picture of an emotional subject

Capturing present-day patriotism

March 27, 2006|By ANICA BUTLER | ANICA BUTLER,SUN REPORTER

Michael Buck -- dressed as a Navy lieutenant circa 1814 -- was ready to be photographed yesterday.

But he hadn't given much thought to what he would say for his interview on patriotism.

And to participate in a national portrait and documentary project being filmed at Fort McHenry and historic sites around the country, Buck had to not just look the part, but he had to have something meaningful to say.

Buck, a volunteer at Fort McHenry, meandered through a definition of patriotism before hitting on a concept his interviewer liked: mindfulness.

"It's how one lives life day by day. Being mindful of how one's actions benefit society," Buck said. "Putting a flag on the bumper of a car is not patriotism. Carpooling is patriotic."

When asked about his idea of home, Buck comes up with another word: presentness.

Presentness is the emotional attachment to a place, noticing your surroundings, choosing to make a location your home, he said. Choosing to belong.

"A neologism!" exclaimed photographer and filmmaker Bill Hayward, who was at Fort McHenry this weekend taking pictures for his book and documentary, Patriot Acts. Over three days, people were photographed, with art of their own making, filmed and interviewed on what it means to be a patriot today.

Buck ended up painting his new word with black paint over several pieces of paper torn from a giant roll. Hayward removed some curtains from a room at the fort and strung the letters behind Buck, in front of a wall-sized painting of the Battle of Baltimore. Buck posed with his sword.

Fort McHenry is the first of 10 stops at historic sites around the country for Hayward, whose Patriot Acts is the newest part of his American Memory Project. Over three years he's taken more than 300 of his "collaborative portraits."

A typical day of shooting means taking about four portraits, but on Friday and Saturday, Hayward and his crew took 10 each day. Yesterday they shot 12 -- the most in one day. Some people were even turned away because the fort was closing.

Hayward said he was pleasantly surprised by the turnout in Baltimore.

"I think it's the subject matter," said Anna Elman, project director. "It's really close to everyone's heart now."

Those who participated this weekend included a family with a 6-month-old, a mother and father whose son is a Marine on his way to Kuwait, a firefighter, a truck driver, volunteers and rangers from Fort McHenry, a cab driver and a woman who said she "lives for Frank Sinatra."

When the subjects arrived, they were interviewed by Elman, often on unexpected tangents, and were filmed.

"It's not about having a picture taken," Hayward said. "It's about sharing emotion and truth."

After the interview, each subject created a piece of art. The process took between 45 minutes to an hour for each person, Elman said.

The interview is an important first step.

The goal of the project, Hayward said, is to bring the concept of patriotism down to the personal level, to give voice to people's unexamined thoughts, to show commonality and to highlight a sometimes controversial issue.

"We don't know what's going to turn up. Part of the process is about people defining who they are and speaking from the heart," Hayward said.

It's about "engaging the people and giving voice to them and to the history of the country," he added.

Hayward said he hopes to have the American Memory Project on display before the 2008 election.

"Leading up to an election year, it's good to stimulate the conversation," he said.

Stimulating the conversation sometimes means steering people away from pat answers and trite quotations.

"First, people say what they think you want to hear. Then they say what they think they should say ... before they reveal a truth," Hayward said.

Elizabeth Kudirka, an 18-year-old volunteer at Fort McHenry, told Elman during her interview that she lived on her own in Ukraine when she was 14 and was dancing professionally. Elman asked Kudirka to describe the home of her dreams, to which she answered: "A place where I didn't have to conform. There would be freedom."

The college student painted the library in her dream house as a backdrop to her portrait.

After she was finished, she acknowledged that at first she was a bit surprised by the questions.

"But patriotism does involve your home. It makes sense if you think about it," she said.

Rick Wilson, 47, a Baltimore native, said that when he heard about the project, he began thinking about what he would say.

"I never thought that much about patriotism. It never crossed my mind before," he said. "It got me thinking about it."

In his interview, he ended up talking about his plot in a community garden, and he painted it for his portrait.

After meeting with and photographing so many people, Hayward said he has learned a lot.

"There's a greater commonality among people than you would think," he said. "You learn not to underestimate people."

After making it through the interview and sometimes skeptically creating art, not everyone is ready to have his or her photo taken.

"There are two things that set me off," Buck warned. "Cameras and needles."

But Hayward quickly developed a warm rapport with his subjects. He mentioned to Buck that he will be using PhotoShop later on the photos.

"Can you take the coffee stain out of my trousers?" Buck asks.

Hayward laughed. "Do you want to be a blond?"

anica.butler@baltsun.com

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