GREAT BARRINGTON — Jake Borden is on the other side of the camera lens in front of a Main Street restaurant. It's where he got his first job busing tables so he could backpack across New Zealand during his gap year.
But he didn't start college right after. Instead, he began a photojournalism career to capture the atmosphere amid conflict-heavy borders around the world. This month, Borden will head to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
"Especially now, given the talks, it's important to bring awareness to that border and borders in general," he said, noting that he sometimes has crossed over into separatist regions.
His photography, he said, is a way to reach into the basic human condition that is shared by all people.
"The thesis is to show that the other is actually the same," he said. "We don't have many differences. That's mostly what I try to do in my photography and journalism."
It's a shiny late August day, and Borden, 25, sparkles when he talks about his work, and about how good we have it here. In May, he returned after spending 18 months in Beirut, which was home base for documenting the atmosphere of borders in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, as well as in refugee settlements.
"It was emotionally exhausting," he said of living in a war-ravaged country. "Living in Lebanon is exhausting in general. A lot of basic things we take for granted are everyday issues there — food, water, transportation, lack of infrastructure."
For this latest trip, he was invited by a Korea-based international environmental arts symposium called Nine Dragon Heads, founded by Korean artist Park Byoung Uk in the mid-1990s.
Gabriel Adams, an artist and owner of Avalanche Art Space in Great Barrington, works with the group and is coordinating the trip. He explained that the symposium is named after a Korean cave system where an artists' protest and performance resulted in the halting of a quartz-mining operation.
A group of 20 artists from around the world will drive 10 days to the Demilitarized Zone once they get to the Korean Peninsula, and Borden will be photographing the artists, as well as his own work about the border.
"It's about being the intermediary between a subject that needs attention and people who can do something," he said of this project, as well as his other work.
Those people who can do something, he added, include journalists, aid workers and diplomats.
"They inspire me, and I want to be back out there with them," he said.
'Piecemealing' an education
It was a National Geographic spread by Otis-based photographer John Stanmeyer that inspired Borden after he returned from his gap-year travels.
"I came back here and read about it, and found it was John, who lives in Otis," he said.
In no time, the two met and Borden began a two-year apprenticeship with Stanmeyer, traveling with him to Turkey, Indonesia and Tiblisi, Georgia.
"He's been a major influence, mentor and friend," he said.
Borden attended the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School, and then didn't take the typical path after graduation from Monument Mountain Regional High School.
"I knew I didn't want to go to college at the time," he said. But in Lebanon, he took Arabic and anthropology classes at the American University of Beirut. "I've been kind of piecemealing my education."
He pays for all this by freelancing, and with grants and awards. A grant from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation made the Beirut trip possible. When he's home, he gardens for pay.
Next up, if he can pull together money and visas, is a trip to Iraq in November about threats to communities along the Tigris River from a dam being built in Turkey.
Borden said he knows he is blessed by his own life circumstances, amid so much world sorrow. He can return home to comfort from time to time.
"I'm the lucky white dude who gets to leave," he said. "It's nice to be able to come back to the Berkshires when I need to — to gain footing."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.