With the end of any year comes a time for reflection. That was never more true for me in 2023. It has been an unprecedented year of opportunities and adventures, along with the corresponding sacrifices.

A senior photojournalist for Milwaukee Independent, I visited five countries in the combined span of two months, and produced a full year’s worth of journalism in that short time. It was a time of inspiration, and exposure to unparalleled trauma.

Aside from the physical toll of travel, wounds, and injuries along the way, the emotional tax also came at a steep price.

After each assignment I wrote about the experience, detailing events as a professional photojournalist, but also in personal terms. To be in a war zone or conflict area on a Thursday, then back in Milwaukee on a Friday – in time for a summer festival, was a lot to process.

> READ: Medical Mission to Jordan: Traveling from Milwaukee to document the conditions of displaced Syrians

> READ: Déjà vu of Photojournalism: Forced progress, brutal invasion, mother nature, and the detritus of life

> READ: Return to Ukraine: A trauma loop of travel from Milwaukee to a country still at war a year later

Thankfully, growing up in a military family, having lived overseas for a good part of my early life, developing skills to adapt to new cultures, and working through the previous culture shock of returning to America made my adjustments easier.

But it was impossible to emerge unscathed from all the transitions that 2023 required me to navigate.

The term “uncanny valley” was first coined in 1970 by Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The term describes the “eerie sensation” people feel when they encounter a robot with human-like characteristics.

While these synthetic beings looked remarkably close to real people, our brains still registered something off about their artificial appearance. In essence, they looked so perfectly human they appeared to be fake.

I thought about this concept, when applied to American society – based on my exposure from living in Milwaukee. I have met many people who looked normal, but shattered that perception as soon as they opened their mouths.

It would be like a scene from the 1975 satirical feminist horror film, “The Stepford Wives.” However, instead of being programmed for subservience, there was a blind allegiance to a toxic ideology. Or, just a complete detachment from reality due to social privilege.

The disconnect came in part from political views, but also what I can only describe as trends in American society. The pandemic did not leave me a Howard Hughes-level germophobe. But it did exhaust me to the selfishness of so many Americans – a generation prepared for social anarchy with stockpiles of toilet paper, but with the inability to go without a haircut or be served at a restaurant for a couple of weeks.

To be sure, three years of COVID-19 are a blur in my memory, but I have not forgotten that experience. I do not share the complete amnesia that segments of our society embrace, in their rush to return to their pre-pandemic perception of normal.

When everyone transitioned from lockdown back into a COVID-free routine, I transitioned off the charts into unexplored territory – with war and disaster.

It has left me feeling that what others perceive as normal was an “uncanny valley,” where nothing matches what I thought America would be when I became an adult, raised on the family stories of the Great Depression and World War II.

Maybe some of my feelings are the natural progression of getting older, and how I experience the generation gap. But also because of my work, I do not have the privilege to tune out the world and escape from the harsh glare of truth. I see policies enacted by lawmakers and then their results later on the streets. A cause-and-effect that may take a great length of time, but I have been a witness to that connection when others have remained willfully blind.

2024 is an election year, and that always brings challenges to navigate. This cycle will be even more so due to our Democracy being threatened like never before. And I cannot escape my front-row seat to many of the things that will take place in Milwaukee. Nor their connections at national and even international levels.

I am not Cassandra, cursed by the Greek gods to utter true prophecies but never to be believed. I cannot see the future and have a limited ability to affect any meaningful change. On January 1, 2021, I could not predict that five days later on January 6 the Confederate flag would be waved in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol, as insurrectionists tried to assist Trump’s coup d’état to overthrow the new legally elected government.

But I understand the trajectory of the past, and possible events that could unfold over the next year. Even that basic insight sure feels like a curse.

An assignment to Gaza and a third assignment to Ukraine for Milwaukee Independent will be on my journalism bingo card for 2024. More than anything, I would rather be in Japan than Milwaukee during the RNC. I am sure many MAGA Republicans would happily say that if I did not love America, then I could leave it.

Well, against my better judgment, I do still love America – mostly because I happen to care about Americans. So I have to stay here and work towards justice, even when our society feels like an uncanny valley of fakeness.

I have told stories from Milwaukee for a decade. 2022 and 2023 saw me tell those Milwaukee stories from very distant locations. But as 2024 begins, I will continue to be a witness and document what I see in images. In a society where so many are eager to keep their eyes closed, I must keep mine open.

© Art

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