Some people just have an insatiable curiosity. And some people have a deep humanism. And some people have both. Lindsey Raisa Feldman is one of those people.
This incredible woman is an anthropologist, a photographer, a firefighter, a synchronized swimmer, a traveler, a friend, a wife, a student and a detailed observer of cultures. She is also full of gratitude and inspiring in her passion for a life well and consciously lived.
We haven’t gotten to speak with academics very often here on BYOM, and Lindsey is not only an academic, but a student of life. You’ll sense that in her answers below… they are thoughtful, considered and authentic. These are the words of a woman in constant conversation with herself and the world around her. Let’s get to them…
- Age: 29
- Location: Tucson, AZ
- Education: PhD student in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Arizona
- Field of Interest: Thinking about what people do and why, writing anthropology in a way that will make people want to read it, taking pictures, eating donuts, trying never to lose my synchronized swimming skills, laying in the sunshine, traveling the world with my husband and dog.
- What’s Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? My perspective. Over the years I have actively tried to grow this – to pause, to take each experience and place myself within it, to see what is greater than me and what requires my care, to recognize my privilege and listen to what surrounds me. It’s a never-ending project.
- What Inspired You Today? My tight-knit group of loved ones. It’s only 3 pm, and so far I’ve borrowed my sister’s space heater, two friends helped me select photos for this interview, a mentor gave me advice about school, my best friend and I texted our daily I Love Yous, and my husband bought me a bag full of churros. Being human is a group effort, and I’ve got an immensely generous group.
- What Are You Currently Reading and/or Listening To? The last time I hung out with the prison wildfire crew (see the next section!), one of the guys recommended a book called A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I read it and it blew my mind. I can’t wait to see him again so we can talk about it.
- Are You Working on Any Projects That You’re Really Excited About? My big work-in-progress is my dissertation about the experiences of work for incarcerated individuals who participate in Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program. In Arizona, there are 11 wildifire crews made up of incarcerated people and correctional officers, and they fight over 100 wildfires a year across the state. I’m attempting to understand how this program is experienced, and why it is meaningful to those who do it. It’s a beast of a project combining literary ethnography and photography, and I want to do right by the people who are letting me share their stories. But every time I’m out with the fire crews chasing flames, eating Pop-Tarts on mountaintops, laughing and wiping dirt out of my hair, I think to myself: how did I get so lucky?
Questions + Answers
Your work is a collision of seemingly disparate worlds: firefighting, anthropology, the prison system and the arts. What themes have presented themselves to you, or what unexpected revelations?
I think the biggest revelation I’ve had throughout the process of mashing together (either intentionally or unintentionally) different worlds is that each of us contain multitudes.
Being categorized into one box is rarely useful – I’m an anthropologist, but not all the time! – and sometimes damaging. For example, using the word “criminal” to categorize people in prison has a dehumanizing effect. As I’ve grown and learned, I’ve become more aware of the myriad ways people define themselves in different spaces and at different times of their lives. And I’ve come to respect that in myself, too.
I’m a bit of a chameleon, in that I do a lot of different things and try not to bring any pre-imposed framework into a new situation. I, of course, have opinions and beliefs like everyone. But I like being able to give in to the moment; accessing the firefighting part of myself when I’m with firefighters, the artsy part of myself when I’m with photographers, the nerdy theory part of myself when I’m with anthropologists, and so on.
We all contain so much, we all have so much to offer. Not restricting this complexity in myself or others – opening spaces for the infinite possibility of humanness – that’s what has been revealed to me over the past few years.
You’re consciously inserting yourself into an otherwise isolated world, that of incarcerated people. On top of that, you’re a part of their firefighting squad, an undoubtedly intense (and also, isolated) experience that’s led to the formation of close friendships. It’s fascinating that, as you’ve entered a smaller subculture, you’ve widened your own perspective. What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned from working alongside these men?
This is a good question! It’s definitely true that prison is an isolated world – it’s intentional. And in my humble opinion, it’s one of the most damaging aspects of modern incarceration. But one of the meaningful things about the inmate wildfire program is that they are given some opportunity to move beyond this isolation. They get to interact a lot with the public.
Once, after wrapping up a two day wildfire, the crew put on their “dinner shirts,” which were just clean shirts with the crew logo on it, and stepped out of the trucks into the parking lot of a Golden Corral. They get to go out to eat at restaurants after wildfires, which is a huge job perk.
It was an impressive sight – 20 men walking in a single file line, all sunburnt and sooty from a wildfire, smiling and chatting, all in matching gear. When they walked inside the restaurant, the customers started to clap – they were applauding the work they had done. A little kid ran up to one of the guys and shyly said he wanted to be a firefighter. It was unbelievable, really, that 20 guys in prison got to have that moment. So the work of wildland firefighting offers some resistance to prison’s isolation, at least while they’re inside. What happens when they’re released is a different story.
But it’s also true that on fires themselves, we’re out there alone. We’ve got nothing but the stars as company.
As for what I’ve learned working on the fireline with the guys? Oh boy. So many dirty jokes, haha! Also how to stay alive while fighting a fire, which I suppose is pretty important. I’ve learned a lot about their lives, and about aspects of prison that are a bit more emotional and hard than I’d expect to learn if I just sent them a survey or interviewed them on the yard. Maybe they were comfortable sharing that stuff with me because of how intimate the job of firefighting is, like you mentioned – we’re out there alone in the wilderness, sweating and bleeding together, with a lot of time to talk. Based on what they’ve shared with me, I’ve learned how hard it is to be vulnerable and what a brave act that is.
This is true for a lot of us. If we’ve been hurt, it’s really hard to let those walls down.
Some of the guys still haven’t gotten there, nor do I expect them to. But for the dudes who have shared very raw parts of themselves with me, I am immensely humbled. They have taught me how to be a more compassionate person. They’ve also taught me that simply listening to someone’s story is the most important thing you can do.
As an anthropologist studying people and also working alongside them, is it difficult to walk the line between friend and observer? Between colleague and scientist?
Oh yes, these lines are thin and wavering – but I don’t actually see it as a difficulty or a problem. There’s an age-old debate in anthropology about how “objective” or “scientific” or “removed” we should be when we do our projects. It’s an important thing to consider – at what point does it become impossible to think about a situation analytically, if you’ve become so close to it? But ultimately, I come down on the side that says it’s impossible to be objective. Anthropologists write (mostly) about humans, and last time I checked I’m human too (maybe I’m getting close to 90% coffee…thanks grad school!). So how can I not come to care for certain people I work with? Doing fieldwork shapes researchers in big ways, and we shouldn’t just pretend that doesn’t happen.
A rare, shameless selfie to let you know that ya girl just passed the pack test (45 pound vest, 3 miles, in 42:37 minutes) and became an honest to goodness wildland firefighter. I weight trained for a month and then trained twice a day for two weeks wearing that damn vest. I'm proud of myself. This is really, actually happening. [photo from last week after walking up and down hills for an hour 😼]
For example, one of the guys who got out of prison five months ago just got hired on to fight wildfires full-time with a federal agency. This is a huge feat and is very rare – a lot of agencies don’t hire people with felonies, or they’re put way low on the hire list…a pretty ironic aspect of this whole thing that I won’t get into here. He called me to tell me the news, and we went out and got dinner to celebrate. I guess I could’ve just said congrats over the phone and written down what he said in a notebook. But I mean…it was awesome and we were both happy, so we ate sandwiches together, you know?
I think that if I write about my project from a place of real emotional investment, it’ll only be that much stronger. It’s also why I want to write a dissertation and then turn it into a publicly accessible book. My dissertation will act as my academic statement about prison labor, and the book will act more as an emotionally driven piece.
I also tend to separate my interviews with the guys into “official anthropology time” and more informal chatting time. I recently interviewed a guy who had been in prison for 8 years, and on the fire crew for nearly 4 years. He was getting released from prison a few weeks after the interview, so it was the last time I would see him in that context. We had spent a lot of time together over the past year – he was the one who took care of me on my first wildfire and always had his eye towards me to make sure I was OK. We had a really good interview, which I recorded and took notes on. Then I closed my book and turned off the recorder, and we just talked. He was flying to a different state right when he left prison, so I spent some time explaining what airport security is like nowadays. His reaction was interesting, let me tell you! But it was nice to just sit back and chat with him, not for any purpose, just to be.
I wouldn’t give up that comfortable friendliness for anything. There is a limit for me though, as an anthropologist doing fieldwork in prison. I’ve become close with many guys on the crew, and in the situation above, it would have felt natural to give him a big hug good luck and goodbye when I left that day. But because he’s in prison, I can’t hug him. Those are the rules. So, you know, moments like that shock you right back into the mindframe of anthropology – I’m close to them, but in ways that are dictated by the Department of Corrections. And when I start thinking deeply about this reality…that’s when I go home and channel whatever I’m feeling into words.
The photographic aspect of your work is particularly compelling. Do you have a favorite photographer or photograph, and why?
Photography is a special hobby of mine that lets me tap into the more creative part of myself. Even though pictures make up an important part of my project, and even though I pick up some photo gigs like weddings and parties to supplement my income, I am in no way a professional. Actually, I was just looking at some of the past Muse’s photographic work and was like – DANG, now those are some talented ladies!
I am always ready to admit that I have a lot more to learn when it comes to composition, editing, all that stuff. The one thing I know I can do well, though, which serves my purposes for my project, is capturing candid moments. I tend to get really good shots, and I think that has to do with the fact that I’m trained to be an engaged observer of what’s going on around me. So even if they’re not the best technical photos in the world, I think they go a long way in helping tell the story.
I’m self-taught on the camera. When I got my first SLR, one of those fancy professional cameras, my first model was my cat, Mittens. If there were an America’s Next Top Model for cats, she would totally win. She would sit still and pose as I learned all about lighting and angles and whatnot. Kind of embarrassing, but hey, we work with what we have.
I went online and took as many free courses on photography as I could. I still do that when I have the time. And then, over the past decade, I’ve just taken about ten billion pictures, trying new techniques and learning by failing over and over again. So, I care a lot about the spirit of the photo. And therefore I think my favorite photographers are the ones whose photos look like they’re candid or have some rawness to them. I’m a sucker for photo projects that craft a narrative, that tell us some sort of story. Some of the recent photographic projects I’ve seen that have moved me are by Andres Vargas, Thilde Jensen, and David Waldorf.
Above, you mentioned that “being human is a group effort.” This belief may have been inspired or reinforced through different experiences of teamwork, like synchronized swimming, firefighting with prisoners, and the broader study of anthropology and the human condition. Do you have a particular memory that either instilled this belief in you? Or rather, where this belief resonated most strongly?
My belief in the power of a group or community started when I was a synchronized swimmer. I did that sport for 11 years, traveling all over the country to compete. There was the same small group of girls who stayed on the team for close to a decade, so we became much more than teammates. Anyone who’s ever been on a team knows what that feels like.
Synchro is interesting, though, in just how physically close we actually got. When you’re swimming your routine, your body is almost always enmeshed in someone else’s. You are standing on someone, being stood on, your legs are wrapped around one another, you make these insanely intricate patterns by folding yourself into someone else. Sometimes this closeness is painful; your legs and arms are working overtime to stay afloat, so you’re gonna get kicked or scratched or bruised because of how close you are.
In retrospect, I recognize how important that physical intimacy was in shaping emotional intimacy, and vice versa. I’m writing about this with the prison fire crews, too. On wildfires they depend on each other, literally, to stay alive. Their bodies work together, get broken and rebuilt stronger together.
The sense that you’re just one person doing it alone breaks down, emotional boundaries become more flexible, the self blends into the group.
It’s important to the crews, and it has been important in my own life too. Synchro gave me a lot, including one of the most important people in my life. My best friend on the team is still just that – not a day goes by that I don’t talk with her.
But if I had to pick out one memory when I most vividly realized how important community or a group of friends really is, it would be when I moved to New York City. I moved there when I was 18 to go to college. Before I left, I thought Tucson (my hometown) was the lamest place ever. I was definitely that angsty teen who hated everything about home. I got to NYC and tried to dive into city life and ivy league school life, but sometime in my 2nd semester, I started having really bad anxiety. I would walk around the city and vaguely sense all these people around me, but I felt really lonely. I was lucky to have made really good friends in college, but when I stepped outside their supportive presence, it all fell apart. Everyone I saw was bundled up, looking down at their feet, walking as fast as possible to get to wherever they were going, not paying attention to anyone else. People would walk past those who were homeless and not even acknowledge them; they would literally step over them on the street.
When I came back to Tucson for my first summer break, I wanted to do something easy and fun, so I got a job making sandwiches at a small market in downtown Tucson. This dude, who worked at the market making pizza, asked me on a date. I fell in love immediately. I loved him, and I also loved what surrounded him.
His friends were kind and caring; they had this real sense of kinship that I recognized in my own friendships. And I saw a different part of Tucson – this deeply lovely, slow-paced, warm and generous town that embraced you for who you were. That summer changed my life.
I went back to NYC for another year, but made the decision to drop out of school for a bit, move back home, and start a new life that wasn’t defined by what was on my resume or who I was better than. I gave myself room to learn who I was, and what was important to me. I realized that placing a high value on love and support and community wasn’t silly, it was necessary for me to thrive. And I’m happy to report this decision was the right one. My friendships – both from synchro and from college – are seismically important in my everyday life and fill me up in immeasurable ways. And that dude making pizza – 11 years later, we’re married, have a dog and a cat and a beautiful sunny house with a big garden, and we still revel in our tight-knit community here in Tucson.
It took time and work and some sacrifice, but I knew that if I trusted myself, it would all be worth it. And it was. Life is pretty dang good.
Who Inspires You?
I wish I could just list all of my friends here, because they inspire me every day. But I’ll pick a few:
- My best friend Fiume has the most inspirational quality I can think of: always wanting to learn and grow. Recently she quit a steady job so she could go back to school to pursue what she loves, which I thought was really brave. She’s also just a really good person with a strong moral compass, and having that presence in my life for over 20 years has been a blessing. You can follow her new adventures on instagram @fiumeirene.
- I recently did a synchronized swimming performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, put on by a former swimmer and now badass academic Yassi Jahanmir. She decided to write her dissertation on synchro, and is coming up with some amazing ideas about gender and sport. I’m inspired by her for a few reasons – first, she incorporates feminism into her academic work in ways I admire and hope to do as well. Also, we both are doing projects some might consider a little too “edgy” to be “truly academic,” but she has embraced it and fought for her work to be heard.
- My older sister Blair has inspired me since before I even had real memories. She never doubted me, which is a remarkable act of care. When I dropped out of school, traveled all over the world, made mistakes and made a fool of myself, she was always there to remind me that who I am is good enough. Over the past few years we’ve had a rough go of it with our family, but we’ve remained as close as ever. I’m inspired by her love for others and her acceptance of people just as they are.