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With the click of his camera, John Noltner wants to take more than just a picture of someone. He wants to tell their stories and amplify their voices.
“We can talk about heavy, emotional issues in a civil and productive way,” Noltner said. “If we take the time to listen carefully, challenge our own expectations, open ourselves to new possibilities and are willing to stay at the table.”
John Noltner, who spent 30 years working as a freelance photographer for national magazines, this week brought his nonprofit organization A Peace of My Mind to Syracuse University, where it will be on display at the Schine Student Center. He started the project, which uses photography and stories to encourage people to talk about difficult but meaningful issues, in 2009 and has made it his main focus ever since.
“I’ve been frustrated with the quality of our national dialogue and all the things that are asking us to look at what divides us,” Noltner said. “I was curious if there was something I could do with my skills, photography and storytelling to remind people of what connects us.”
This is Noltner’s second visit to Syracuse, his first in 2018. Two years ago, Noltner and his wife sold their home in Bloomington, Minnesota to travel. Since then the two have been living on the road and working on A Peace of My Mind.
A Wisconsin native, he visits many different colleges, conferences, community centers and places of faith to share his project. In addition to the exhibition in Schine, he also facilitated an interactive studio in Hendricks Chapel.
The project includes images and stories of people Noltner has met in all walks of life – from pig farmers to CEOs to musicians. It also offers podcasts, four traveling exhibitions, three books, workshops and on-site studios.
“My goal is to make sure everyone is invited to the table and that we can see the beauty and wisdom that is all around us,” Noltner said.
Brian Konkol, the dean of Hendricks Chapel, invited Noltner to the campus to spark a discussion about community and inclusivity. The two previously worked together in programming in Minnesota.
“He is a courageous truth seeker, gentle listener, and innovative storyteller,” said Konkol. “In a world filled with both kindness and cruelty, he provides a mirror to see the world as it is and also a lens to envision what the world may become.”
Noltner said he hopes his project and presentation can help unite the SU campus by showing people how alike they really are.
“People have been coming at the question from all directions, and each of the answers is beautiful on its own,” Noltner said. “But when you weave them together, it becomes this beautiful fabric that shows how we understand community.”
Surya Vaidy, a senior at SU who minors in photography, helped Noltner set up his photo exhibit and recruited members of the SU community to participate in the interactive studio. He said he greatly admires Noltner’s project and the deep context he brings to the photograph.
“Sometimes we’re just faces in a crowd, but sometimes we have the grace to meet people who tell us their stories,” Vaidy said. “John is like the middleman who tells you a little bit more about them so they’re not just a face in the street.”
Vaidy, who is in his senior year at SU, often reflects on the importance of community here on campus. He said Noltner’s project helped him see that.
“The university always talks about the ‘orange community,’ but what does that mean?” Vaidy said, “John’s project is one of the many waves that are making us more aware of each other here.”
Surya Vaidy is a staff photographer at Daily Orange. He has no influence on the editorial content of the culture section.
Published October 12, 2022 at 9:41 p.m