Imagine a place where people come together to tell true stories about the most important things in life. Imagine a place where a photo, a word, or a single sound can stir the core of your soul.
For the past 42 years the Salt Institute For Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine has been telling stories through writing, radio, photography, and most recently, film. Students spend hours upon hours interviewing and recording everyday people and places to document their hopes, struggles, successes, and failures.
Lobstermen. Schoolteachers. Minor league hockey fans. Churches. Potato fields. Shopping malls. Salt was built on the belief that a good story is dictated by its authenticity, not its fame.
I attended Salt in the spring of 2010 and spent a semester in the writing program, constantly asking myself: what does it mean to be human?
I lived in an apartment across the street from my grandmother in the section of Portland known as Libbytown. Since my mom grew up there, I felt connected to the neighborhood and began researching its past. It was a story about a place struggling to reestablish its identity, having been physically torn apart by the Urban Renewal movement of the 1960s. It became my final long-form assignment for Salt, and a version was published as the cover story for the Bollard. It was the first money I ever made from publication.
I brought a copy over to my grandmother and we spent an afternoon talking about her neighborhood—what had changed over the years, what hadn’t. She was proud to see my name in print. Then, just two days later, she passed away unexpectedly. I was the last person to spend time visiting with her.
Salt means a lot of things to many different people. For me, it’s an internal compass steering me home.
We live in a culture of the 24-hour news cycle. It is fleeting, loud, and overbearing. It is driven by money. It does not care about the way light falls in a small-town diner on a Sunday afternoon or the wrinkles on the skin of a woman in a nursing home.
I was in denial when I first heard of the school’s closing. My brain refused to accept the information. When it finally hit me, it hit me hard. I wept. Salt is not a just a building and it’s not just an institution. It’s a symbol of truth. It represents the common man. It teaches empathy and generates understanding.
Salt is a small, special place that has a beating heart unto itself, as constant as Casco Bay’s waves, as relentless as New England pride.