Catching Up - My Day With Theo & Andrea

Ok, wow, I haven't updated this in almost exactly a year. Lots and lots to catch up on...where to start, where to start....

I had one hell of an impromptu adventure last October. So it's a Saturday morning, I'm sitting in my living room, eating breakfast and watching tv. My phone rings, it's an unknown number. I never pick up unknown numbers. But, just a few days prior, I had given my number to a coworker to hang out, so for once, I picked up.

Wasn't a coworker, it was my former professor, Andrea Modica, asking if I would be willing to drive her up to New England in 2 hours to assist on an assignment for the New York Times. I was speechless and not really sure what to say, considering this was this last phone call in the world I was expecting to get in my pajamas as I was eating pancakes. Having just received the assignment an hour before, she explained that we would be photographing a journalist who was just 5 weeks earlier released from two years of captivity in Syria.

Needless to say, two hours later, my bags were packed, and shortly we were on the road deep into New England. 

My Captivity

Theo Padnos, American Journalist, on Being Kidnapped, Tortured and Released in Syria

In the early morning hours of July 3, one of the two top commanders of Al Qaeda in Syria summoned me from my jail cell. For nearly two years, he had kept me locked in a series of prisons. That night, I was driven from a converted schoolroom outside the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, where I was being held, to an intersection of desert paths five minutes away. When I arrived, the commander got out of his Land Cruiser. Standing in the darkness amid a circle of men trapped in Kalashnikovs, he smiled. "Do you know who I am?" he asked. 

“Certainly,” I said. I knew him because he visited me in my cell once, about eight months earlier, and lectured me about the West’s crimes against Islam. Mostly, however, I knew him by reputation. As a high commander of the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, he controlled the group’s cash and determined which buildings were blown up and which checkpoints attacked. He also decided which prisoners were executed and which were released.

He wanted to make sure I knew his name. I did, and I repeated it for him: Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. “You are our Man of Learning,” I added, using the term — sheikhna — that his soldiers used to refer to him.

“Good,” he said. “You know that ISIS has us surrounded?”

I did not know this.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Not to worry. They won’t get me. They won’t get you. Everywhere I go, you go. Understand?” I nodded.

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Shortly after one thirty in the morning, we arrived at the house where Theo had been living with his mother in the weeks since his release. We were deep in the mountains, zero cell reception. Theo's wonderful mother was more than gracious enough to allow us to spend the night in the house because it turns out we traveled there in the peak of leaf season, and every hotel in the state was booked. Leaf season. It's a thing.

We awoke to a beautiful frost on the grounds around the house, which were extensive and picturesque, completely surrounded by mountains bursting with every color you can possibly associate with those weeks when all traces of summer are gone, yet its still a few precious weeks until winter truly sets in. In other words, my most favorite time of the year. There was a great feeling of warm, enveloping security, despite the frost, yet also a freedom and liberty that can only be found in the escapes from city and industry. All in all, I couldn't have pictured a more perfect place for someone to rest and recover after the unfathomable experience Theo went through. How diametrically opposed this Rockwellian picture of serenity must have been from his torture and captivity in a war-torn desert for twenty-two months. Being in those mountains for just 24 hours, I began to understand how he was able to run around barefoot, kicking a soccer ball, almost childlike, seemingly without a care in the world. Completely surrounded by nature's last explosion of color and life before it settles in for the winter, and the coming spring as the seasons recycle round and round, this was sheer joy in the simple act of enjoying freedom and life. 

Spending the day with Theo was an unbelievable experience. Even more so was being able to watch Andrea, a master photojournalist, a former professor, and a friend, at work. Andrea works with a large format camera, 8x10. That is a massive, hulking beast of a camera, most publicly known for Civil War battlefield photos. The depth of clarity, and the amount of control over the image is to this day still unachievable by digital. She wields it with precision and purpose. 

Here are some photos I quickly snapped when I wasn't busy with assisting duties: