Ben Namba stood in the living room of his home in the Hobson Heights section of Ventura, his gaze downward, his focus muddled. He rubbed the tip of his index finger sluggishly back and forth on the corner of a console table.
Seeing him up and out of his chair I suggested to his wife Julia that now might be a good time to try to get him to sit on the couch with her. Maybe I could get a natural looking photo of the two of them together.
“Well, that might hard to do,” Julia said. “Maybe you could try to talk to him.”
I was at Ben Namba and Julia Campbell’s home to photograph their 1929, Tudor style house for a story that was to appear in Ventana Monthly magazine, a publication for which I was formerly art director, production manager, designer, principal photographer and webmaster.
Ben, now well into his 80s and suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease spends most of his days in a comfortable sunroom, in and out of consciousness, unable to speak, seemingly unaware of his surroundings.
When I arrived Julia gave me a walking tour of the home and said I was free to photograph anywhere in the house and told me let her know if I needed anything. I said I would keep an eye on Ben and wait for an opportunity to get a shot of them together to present itself.
When I noticed Ben standing up, in his elegantly-appointed living room, I figured this was as good a time as there would be.
“Hi Ben! My name is Thom, thank you for letting come in to your home,” I said putting my hand out. Stupidly, I spoke loudly as if I thought he was deaf and not suffering from a neurodegenerative disease.
But Ben was not hard of hearing. He grabbed my hand, raised his chin and looked me in the eyes. His expression changed subtly to something slightly less empty and wooden. He didn’t grin. The corners of his mouth did not turn upward and mostly, his face held it’s perpetual frown. But his grip was firm and soft and warm and his eyes beamed something psychically, straight into my brain.
Recognizing this connection that may or may not have been common for Ben, but felt extraordinary to me, I released his hand and put both my hands on his two shoulders and looked directly into this man.
“I love your beautiful home and your art,” I said. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”
His eyes looked away for just a second but found their way back and he spoke to me, only with his eyes.
“Thank YOU, just for paying attention to me and treating me politely and talking to me instead of about me and for being a man, who shows me courtesy and respect. I’m really stuck in here, behind these eyes, and it sucks but I’m definitely, defiantly still here. I’m a proud man of Japanese heritage and I was once powerful and spirited and I traveled all over the world and made a shitload of money — and you’re welcome here.”
Even though Ben cannot speak, he said all of that to me, in a matter of a few seconds and I understood it clearly. I even felt it, like a current of electricity that flowed from his shoulders through my hands and arms and then back again.
Then, Julia, holding Ben’s hand, easily walked him the few steps to the couch where they sat next to one another while I quickly grabbed a half dozen images. By then Ben was focused on a small spot of the coffee table. The strong, proud, successful Japanese businessman had retreated back inside to the safe spot where he lives now.
I’m not sure how often that mortal soul is able to show his lionheart but I suspect it’s not very often and I felt like that moment made his day.
There is no doubt that it made mine.
This is the thing that I’ve loved the most about the career I’ve had in journalism.
I didn’t do this for 36 years because I was getting rich. I didn’t keep doing it because there was free parking or even because I got to be in the front row, for everything. And I certainly didn’t keep doing it because it felt stable and secure.
I kept doing this because of the human beings that I come in close contact with. In the past year alone, at the insignificant publications that just showed me the door, I met and photographed Don Knapp, a 100-year-old WWII veteran who landed on the beach at Normandy and drove a tank across Europe to participate in the Battle of the Bulge and lived to talk about it; Charles De Flanders, who grew up in Mississippi and didn’t learn to read until he reached his 30s and who is now a published author who holds multiple Masters degrees; and Jon Cesario, who spent 16 drug-addicted years in prison for a gang-related shooting and is now house manager at a facility in Oxnard that helps addicts from their teens to their 70s.
That says nothing about the artists, musicians, philanthropists, advocates, teachers and people in every field and of all ages.
Some of the people I’ve worked with over the years are now among my closest friends. Some of the people I’ve photographed over the years are now, close friends.
I’ve photographed the Olympics, traveled around with the Los Angeles Raiders, photographed 5 different presidents and shook a few of their hands (not all Democrats.)
I’ve been onboard a US Navy Chinook helicopter landing on the deck of the guided missile frigate Antietam in high, roiling seas, sat on the flight deck of a California Air National Guard C-130 bringing relief to earthquake ravaged areas around Watsonville.
I’ve photographed open heart surgery and natural birth.
I spent an afternoon with Beatrice Wood in her upper Ojai studio, just her and I, as she threw a pot on a wheel.
I held in my gloved hand the original 8×10 Kodachrome of Marilyn Monroe, nude on red velvet, photographed by Tom Kelly Sr. for the first issue of Playboy magazine.
This summer, I stood in the middle of the stage while the Ventura College Symphony Orchestra made the hair stand up on my neck as they rehearsed.
THEN CAME STRYCHNINE
All this came crashing down one last time on August 1 when we all learned that Southand Publishing, the diminutive parent company of the VCReporter and Ventana Monthly, among others, sold their soul to the only devil that was making an offer. Times Media Group, A company so unimaginative that they couldn’t even come up with a name that doesn’t sound like it is somehow related to the NYT or the LAT.
Steve Strickbine, a uninspired bean counter with no imagination or original ideas of his own and a glob of grease in his hair, has been swallowing up cheap, humdrum print publications across Arizona for the past few years and turning them into pedestrian robo-rags that resemble newsletters and read like yearbooks.
Now, thanks to a desperate last ditch bid to end the suffering of an ancient, injury-plagued web-offset commercial printing business in Sylmar, Strickbine’s tentacles have reached the coast.
The five newspapers and 2 monthly magazines acquired in that fire sale put TMG in a significantly more sophisticated class of publishing. Although the Southland properties were limited in what they could do on press and resources were sorely lacking, the brand and style of journalism practiced and the look and feel of the papers were, if nothing else, genuine, unique and useful to their communities and produced by humans who care and love what they do.
In less than 30 days the henchman from the desert came and turned those properties into scorched earth preparing the bloody battlefield for the arrival of the little general.
Those that remain will now continue not out of love or commitment but out of fear. They’ve seen how cold pathological liars act when tasked to do the bidding of a CPA behind a desk in a Tempe industrial park.
Strickbine was quoted in the Phoenix Business Journal as saying, “Our commitment is to community news,” he said. “It will never go out of style.”
Except it doesn’t take a genius to see through that boilerplate quote which might as well have been lifted from something Dean Singleton of Media News Group said or from Aaron Kushner, who tried and failed to make newspapers work in Los Angeles here.
The Business Journal story goes on to write, “The additions will operate similarly to how Times Media Group does business in Arizona. While it focuses on newsgathering and selling advertising, the company outsources its printing to others. Integrating those papers will take some time as the offices had a good deal of autonomy under Southland, Strickbine said.”
Goodbye autonomy, Hello yearbook robo-rag.
Some light reading: Times of San Diego,