A Peace of My Mind: Compassion and sincerity through words and pictures

If you were in the library midday last Wednesday, you probably noticed a gentleman with camera equipment taking photos of students, faculty and staff. That man is John Nolter, a photographer based out of Bloomington, Minnesota.

Nolter has travelled extensively as part of the project he started called “A Peace of My Mind.” For this project, he travels to various places, getting photos, quotes and interviews to add to what he calls a “shared experience” and a timely dialogue exploring the human condition. 

On Thursday evening, Nolter spoke to a group of students and faculty about the project. He presented the photos he took and the personal quotes people gave regarding a time when words changed their life.

Nolter has several reasons for starting this project.

“Part of this is that I’m curious about the world, and this is just part of my process of how to learn about it,” Nolter said. “I read a lot, and really appreciate firm knowledge and statistics, one of the richer experiences for me is being able to attach human personal experience.”

He talked about an inspiration he looked to regarding the human experience, Studs Terkel, a Chicago-based oral historian who wrote about the Great Depression in a book called “Hard Times.” Terkel had interviewed normal people, including bus drivers, farmers, baseball players, that gave the integral human experience.

“It helped give some color to it. Personal stories can illuminate some universal truths in a way that facts and statistics can’t,” Nolter said.

Nolter also touched on his journey from a “normal” photographer to working on “A Peace of My Mind.”

“I had always worked as a freelance photographer, and I always had little side projects going at any time, but just before I started doing this I started feeling a little frustrated. The assignment stuff wasn’t enough to keep me interested…I felt some sort of inner desire to do a bigger project,” Nolter said. “My phone kept ringing, so I wasn’t going to turn down paying work, but when my phone stopped ringing, it created a space where I could start this other stuff.

For a while, Nolter was able to balance his paid work with his passion project. As time went on, he became more interested in doing his interviews than paid assignments and was eventually able to turn his passion into a paid position.

“It took me a while before it became sustainable, but now for the last three years, this is all that I do,” Nolter said.

Nolter’s presentation made it clear that the message of “A Peace of My Mind” is to encourage us all to pay attention to the people around us.

“My main goal is to encourage people to see past labels. It’s to encourage people to recognize the humanity all around them, maybe especially in their adversaries, and to be willing to understand the complexities of life,” Nolter said. “I think it’s really tempting to simplify things and vilify the people we disagree with. But I think to be patient with difference, to be willing to hear other opinions, and see that whole humanity is the goal.

“I think we all have some good and some bad in us…We will acknowledge the bias in somebody else, we will acknowledge the bad behavior in somebody else, but we’re blind to see it in ourselves. There is a need for critical examination that doesn’t happen very often regardless of the issue.”

Nolter ended with reflecting on some of the personal impact the project has had on him.

“Someone asked me the other the day if this project has changed my opinion on any given issue, and I’m not sure that it has, and I’m not sure that that’s the goal of the project. But what it has done is its let me sit down with people who see the world in different ways and get to know them in a personal way and to recognize that I don’t have to hate them. That’s the goal, to recognize the humanity.

Nolter says that even thought his project is centered around peace, he isn’t sure that attaining peace is possible or the overall goal of his project. 

“We’re always going to butt heads, we are always going to have differences of opinion, but to me there are always these moments of tension: these moments of conflict. Where we can make a choice about making it better or about making it worse,” Nolter said. 

Nolter has visited 48 states, the exceptions being Alaska and Hawaii. He is currently going through the process of traveling outside the U.S. to interview and photograph people all over the world.