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Faces of the world

For the past 35 years, Ashland photographer and writer Susan Caperna Lloyd has captured the passions, rituals and political strivings of common folk around the world, and she is now being honored by the sale of her life’s work to the Library of Congress.

The awe-inspiring life archive covers her adventures among anti-nuke protesters in England, Zapatista survivors of the Mexican Revolution, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Basque sheepherders in Nevada, Holy Week rituals in Italy and the Philippines, and now she’s documenting coronavirus locally and the Black Lives Matter March on Washington in late August.

It’s a monster job, combing through her life’s work, taking a year-and-a-half to sort, identify and write captions for 5,000 photos, mounting prints from original negatives and digital files for the library’s American Folklife Center.

“It’s a huge honor to be asked for my entire archive,” she says, “and it’s a fabulous opportunity to preserve my work in perpetuity for researchers all over the world.”

Lloyd adopted Ashland as her base in 1979, after earning her Master of Fine Arts degree at University of Oregon. While raising two children with her husband, Tom, she has supported her work with many foundation grants and magazine assignments, including National Geographic.

Sorting through a “best of” box of prints that landed her the Library of Congress deal, Lloyd pulls out stunning black-and-white images, all shot wide-angle, and all focused on human faces that, with elegance and simplicity, beckon you into stories and folkways barely imaginable in tame, mechanized modern America.

In an annual puja (festival), shouting, chanting, bare-chested Hindi pilgrims carry statues of the ancient creator-destroyer goddess Kali to the Ganges in India for sacred immersion.

Similarly, amid Flamenco dancing in the streets, the Roma (Gypsies) in France carry their Patron Saint Sara la Kali to the Mediterranean, as she is guarded by fierce Roma horsemen.

An elderly Mexican man poses with a portrait of his hero Emiliano Zapata, whom he fought beside in the 1910-20 revolution, reclaiming land stolen by hacienda owners.

Many photos are straight-on portraits, taken in their natural setting, such as the rugged and now-elderly children of Zapata — as well as Mexicans painted up for the Day of the Dead.

Echoing ancient rites of spring planting and fertility, as well as the crucifixion, the folk of Sicily make amazing photo subjects as they suffer through Good Friday rituals of fasting, lamentation, purification, inflicting bloody stigmata on themselves — and banishing evil with scapegoating.

One gripping shot shows Mary in a ritual of bloody combat with Roman soldiers, crying out for her lost son.

“These powerful rituals are disappearing in the modern world. Family, tradition and community are super-important. ... It’s about the courage to step up and say ‘no’ to being disenfranchised.”

Lloyd is the daughter of Italian immigrants who started at the bottom of the ladder here, “and that’s where I get my identification with the common folk.”

Asked to describe the common thread that runs through her work, she wrote, “People want community and belonging, and it’s a common grief springing up among small groups of people fighting to bring change or keep tradition and community intact.

“They share and value common burdens within the world culture, suppressed and ignored. Many of my documented folk care about the land, our Earth, the water ... Zapata who fought to regain Mexico’s lands; immigrants who pray to a Tijuana folk saint before trying to cross into the U.S.; maligned Roma who carry their folk saint to the water for healing and power; Indian Hindus who entreat Kali to release them from anger — hers and theirs — and return her to the water (shakti — a feminine power) every year in an unending cycle; Ashland anti-nuclear protesters who fight to avoid nuclear holocaust and the decimation of the Earth.”

In mid-August Lloyd will say goodbye to all that and, as a fine arts shipper pulls up to her door, they will load her 35mm slides and negatives, five documentary films, 20 radio-TV interviews of her, all ephemera binders, portfolios, notebooks and manuscripts — then get back to work, at the Aug. 28 Black Lives Matter march.

Todd Harvey, folklife specialist with the American Folk Life Center, said Lloyd’s work belongs in the Library of Congress as it has “national importance” and “because of the collection’s breadth across many cultures and documenting many traditions. ... Susan’s combination of artistry and ethnographic sensibility makes the collection special.”

The Library of Congress in Washington, with 170 million items, includes 14 million photographs and is the largest library in the world. With a smile and an Italianesque waving of arms, Lloyd says, “They are all about paper, and I am giving them plenty of it — and they are all about preserving stuff into perpetuity.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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Flamenco guitarist plays and sings as he accompanies Saint Sara la Kali into the Mediterranean Sea during her annual festival in Saintes Maries de la Mer France.