Photographer Jan Sturmann is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From the project ‘The Miracle Portraits: In Search of the American Dreamtime’. To see Jan’s body of work, click on any image.
“Aboriginals believe in two forms of time; two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity, the other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the “dreamtime”, more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. It was believed that some people of unusual spiritual powers had contact with the dreamtime.”
Nancy L, Dancer, San Francisco, CA
“If you practice every day until you fall asleep, then you dream you’re still dancing.”
I’m 62-years old. I have a teacher teaching me salsa. I know 84 moves. I was a dancer at Broadway and always loved to dance. But I have trouble with my feet. My feet now no more… the toes are crossing. So the teacher said, “I admire you, I’m going to teach you.” He enjoys teaching me all the salsa moves.
That’s a miracle, that people can dance, even when they are old and disabled. If you try hard you can really keep going. If you practice every day until you fall asleep, then you dream you’re still dancing.
Clarence B, Spiritual Writer & Singer, Fresno, CA
“But honestly, you live by the second.”
I was with a beautiful lady for 42-years. We loved each other. I was her junkyard dog. She ended up with cancer. She held on for a long time. Unfortunately she died before she got her cancer healed. That did break my heart. I understood because she was in so much pain. But I did what I said I would do – I would keep on singing.
I like being out here and singing about the Lord. Having cancer as I do, and now finding out I have diabetes, I don’t feel like I lost anything, because I know Jesus.
Like most people, they believe by the hour and the day and the year. But honestly, you live by the second. Everything the Lord does is by the second, because anything can happen in a second. Any miracle could come. Any good story could come. You never know when it’s coming until there it is. That’s a fact.
Anne R, Social Worker, Berkeley, CA
“As the driver slowed, I jumped out.”
My sister and I were kidnapped on the way to see the X-Men movie opening in Dar es Salaam. We’d been traveling for three weeks already through Malawi and Tanzania.
On the way to the theater we flagged down a taxi. I soon noticed that we were going in a different direction. Then the car slowed and two guys jumped into the back with us, so we were jammed in the middle. They threatened to hit me and demanded our money.
As I looked out the window and saw people going about their lives, I felt this peaceful clarity. I had been in Malawi for a year during a famine, but for the first time I understood what poverty creates for people.
Suddenly my sister pushed herself out of her seat, climbed over the driver, opened the door, and started running. As the driver slowed, I jumped out. They just drove away.
We were ten yards from a police officer. We told him what happened, but he looked at us confused. “I don’t know what you want me to do. I have no radio. I have no vehicle.” Then this guy approached us on a bicycle. The policeman stops him, jumps on the back of the bicycle, and the two of them peddle after the kidnapper’s car.
I am still anxious being in cars or taxis by myself, even in the US. But I don’t want to move through the world not trusting that people are ultimately good. There is so much worse. I’m choosing not to be taken out of my work by my own fear for something so small… It was not even a $100.
“There are two ways to live your life – one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.”– Albert Einstein
I set up an awkward old camera on a street corner and ask strangers to tell me a miracle story – some moment when the veils parted, intuition trumped logic, the worlds overlapped, and dumb luck won out.
In this age of street distractions and public isolation, where we’re all so fearful of each other, the surprise is how many people say yes, are willing to share an intimacy with a stranger.
I record their story, then duck under the black cloth and focus on their magnified eyes. As they hold perfectly still, I load the film, cock the shutter. And in that suspended moment of silence, as they look honestly into the lens, the picture occurs.
Often, in my discomfort, I rush and fumble, and try to fill the silence with small talk. I learned quickly that’s like whistling in church. People want to bring their full self to this moment, with as little distraction as possible. People want to surrender into the ceremony of the occasion.
By telling their story to someone listening deeply, then standing for an old-time portrait, this spontaneous moment between strangers meeting on an ordinary street corner transforms into a ritual of remembrance. We drop briefly into Dreamtime to witness where the mystical has left its thumbprint on the mundane.
If you had a minute to ask a stranger one question, what would you ask?
For those couple minutes I’m holding the microphone to their lips, my attention is utterly focused on what they have to say. I will question and prod them to go deeper. I don’t want vague generalities. I want specifics. Give me the details. And people are hungry for that. For someone to simply ask specific questions. And too listen and not judge. That’s all. That is why this moment holds such power. Here one human is listening deeply to another.
Maybe this is what a priest feels like in a confessional – another human, who by ceremony and ritual has become the eye and ear of God. People stand before the camera nobly – still and proud. They don’t want to be rushed, and they don’t want to be distracted by any small talk. The process is very focused, and with it, deep intention is directed into the lens. People bring too the camera their gravity, their whole being. This is no snapshot, this. No trivial thing. Here the light reflected from your face will alter silver crystals forever. The miracle story is simply the excuse – a question I can ask any stranger, and know it will likely get a thoughtful response.
They go on their way and you’re left with their reverberating story.
I pose the question loosely. I have long given up trying find answers to my narrow definition of the miraculis. –
Every face I see, I judge immediately – rich, poor, conservative, liberal, beautiful, ugly. And that’s normally it. Each stranger neatly boxed as they pass by. But when I stop and ask the question, then the box dissolves, and I’m left facing another human. Who can tell the story behind the face with out asking? When I look at strangers now, I see fewer boxes, and more potential miracle stories.
Billie K, San Francisco, CA
“Just yesterday I’ve been given a gift of a new apartment.”
I’ve been homeless for quite some time in San Francisco. Just yesterday I’ve been given a gift of a new apartment down south of Market Street area. It’s very affordable and reasonable. It’s a second start to my life. So I’m very grateful right now. It happened through the miraculous social services here in San Francisco. There’re some great people working for the homeless. And I just got lucky.
Rebecca H & Juan R, Pastors, Fresno, CA
“I looked down at myself, with the doctors talking to me.”
When I was about 7 years old, my heart completely stopped. I died on the operating table. I looked down at myself, with the doctors talking to me. They said, “Come back.” And I heard my mom praying for me. I could not stand to watch my mom cry, so I came back.
Recently, when I went to my doctor’s appointment, they told me my pacemaker was going out. So I went to the hospital. I was supposed to have my surgery at 3 pm; I had it at 1:30. And my pacemaker totally went out when they barely unhooked it. So I’m still alive and God bless us all.
Twelve years ago I had an accident. I almost died, was almost crippled for life. I could not walk and talk. But I heard God’s voice touching me, saying, “Yes you can.” And when I opened up the verse of the bible – Psalm 37, v1-9 – a light came through me and it said, “Go and walk again,” and I did. By the word of God, I’m still walking, talking and alive and that’s my miracle, because God has put me here for a reason, for my kids.
They call me Papa Pastor and she is Mama Pastor.
Patricia J, Unemployed, Oakland, CA
“He took me underneath a freeway and told me to strip.”
I made a mistake once and got into a man’s car. He took me underneath a freeway and told me to strip. But I prayed and asked the Lord to let me live.
He saw that I cried and somebody else stopped, and so then I should have run away. But I got back into the car and the man was nice enough to drop me off six blocks away from my father’s house.
I think that person would have hurt me very badly if I would of took all my clothes off.
Sandra V, Minister & Dog Groomer, Reno, NV
“It was pretty much dead.”
About six years ago I was thinking that it was time to get my mother a new dog. My girlfriend’s Schnauzer was having a litter of puppies. But the one that I wanted got stuck in the mother’s canal. It was pretty much dead. So they rushed it to the vet to give it CPR and the puppy came back to life.
I would hand-feed it every four hours for two weeks because the mother was not able to nurse. And then I started thinking, “What if my mom does not want a dog?”
So I brought the dog over inside my shirt to my mom. When I took the puppy out, it toddled over to her and snuggled right up next to my mom’s heart. He’s been there ever since. The dog’s name is Preacher and he comes to work at the wedding chapel every day.
Alan T, Musician, Ojai, CA
In the late 60s during the Vietnam War, I was drafted. So I went down for my army physicals, which took all day. We were all walking around in our shoes and underwear with our folders.
During the afternoon I got assigned to go to a particular room where a man sat behind the desk. He began asking questions about my life – what I liked to do, what my hobbies were, etc. After a while I realized I’d been with him for almost an hour and that there are 2000 other guys here today too – there was something up with this.
At the end of our conversation he asked me, “So what do you think about going into the army?” And I thought I’ve got to answer this question just right. I said, “I would really rather not go. But I suppose that’s what we are all here for.” He said, “Some people really benefit from the military, and the military really benefits from them. Others are not made for the military, and I don’t think you would get much out of the military either.” He then stood up and reached across the desk and shook my hand and said, “I wish you good luck with whatever you do.” And he signed my folder and that was the end of it.
Trevor W, Lobby Attendant, Reno, NV (featured portrait)
“Our father stole a car.”
When I was three-years-old my mother passed away from a brain tumor. My father remarried. But whilst he was away in the service, they got a divorce. The wife had to do something with us, so she put us with a couple in Shingle Springs, California. These people were so special. I was five, my brother was eight.
After my father got out of the service, he came and took my brother and I away on this wild goose chase. He was married again and we moved to Roseburg, Oregon. We lived there for about six months until he lost the house he’d built in a poker game. The next day we were on the move again.
We got down to Redding, California, when the car broke down. Our father stole a car that looked exactly like one we were in, and took off down the road. But within twenty minutes the police pulled him over. He went to jail. My brother and I were put into a detention home. His parents came and took us back to the couple in Shingle Springs.
When he got out of jail, he wanted to get one of us – he wanted me and not my brother. But there was no way in the world that this couple would ever let that happen again. They got a protective order so he could never get us again. They eventually adopted us. And I’ve had just a fantastic life after that. I credit my adopted parents with everything.
Seeking Miracle Stories for a Photo Book
Do you have a miracle story you are willing to share – a moment when the worlds overlapped, you felt the gods whisper to you, had an angel dance on each shoulder and witnessed your life utterly change? If so, please reply with a brief description of your experience and a picture of yourself – just a boring old snapshot is fine. I’d then meet at a place of your convenience, interview you and take your portrait. The whole thing should take no more than 15 minutes. Of course I’d send you a copy of the picture.
Please reply to email@example.com
All images and text © Jan Sturmann
By Jan Sturmann