Where have all the heros gone? When I think back to my carefree days of childhood, I always had heros. The dictionary definition of a hero is “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. It was naively easy to revere a famous astronaut, athlete or other celebrity as a child because you hadn’t had to deal with the world as an adult. And then, insidiously, the wisdom that comes with age starts to have its effect. You gradually become harder to impress, and you start to see you childhood heros for what they are: talented men and women who were in the right place at the right time.
Now, as I’ve pushed past 40 years old, it has become near impossible for me to assign the label “hero” to anyone. This is mostly because I’ve learned the world is a lot more about infinite shades of gray, rather than the crisp black & white view that hero worship tends to require. But it is also because my definition of a hero has evolved. Courage and noble qualities are still important, and all too lacking in our modern world, but a hero is someone who also makes a difference. And not just for today, but for tomorrow, or century from now. And to make it doubly tough, I think any living hero should be the kind of person you’d want to have a beer with.
When I hold up my yardstick to the currently living field of contenders, almost none measure up. The vast majority of modern athletes will be long forgotten in a decade and have no effect on the world. Sports isn’t about heros, it is about business. Astronauts are still cool, and most would probably be fun to have a beer with, but they’re just scientists doing their jobs. And modern “celebrities” fare even worse against the yardstick.
So who are the modern heros? Living men and women with courage, compassion, integrity and conviction, who are making a difference in the history books. And of course, they must still be down-to-earth enough that you’d slam back a pint with them any day. If we look back at the 20th century, I would put Teddy Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi on this list, but they don’t count for a modern hero survey since they would be hard to have a beer with.
I actually had to wrack my brain for quite a while to even come up with few names that might pass the hero test. And as that list evolved, I also added another quality to my heros: the quest for truth. I couldn’t admire anyone as a hero who wasn’t willing to pursue the truth, regardless of whether it was the popular or politically correct thing to do.
I ended up with only two names: Sebastião Salgado and Reza Deghati. Both are names most people have probably never heard of, but have probably seen their work. They are two of the top photojournalists in the world.
So how do I arrive at a pair of photojournalists for heros? If you take a look at the pictures either has produced, their courage and conviction are clear. Pick up one of their photo books some day and read the prose. You’ll understand their integrity and quest for the truth. And their work is timeless. Generations will stare in awe at their chronicle of cultures and human experience that most spoiled westerners want to conveniently forget exists.
So we’ve got the personality traits, the quest for truth and the making a difference part. Now what about the beer factor? I haven’t read anything about Sebastiao that would suggest I wouldn’t want to have a beer with him. As for Reza, I met him and his wife at a book signing in Paris in 2006. His humility and kindness were staggering. He actually spent 10 minutes talking with every person who’s book he signed.
These are the kind of people the world needs more of. I proudly claim both as my heros. Now who are yours?