Dick Simon likes to get an audience’s attention by saying he’s going to talk about the worst four-letter word in the English language. And then he surprises them. The word isn’t any of the usual curses; it’s simply “them.”
That’s because “once you identify any group as a ‘them,’ your brain stops working. You revert to stereotypes and preconceived notions. You’re no longer listening,” explained the entrepreneur and documentary photographer.
The Newton resident said he has devoted the better part of his professional life to breaking down stereotypes, particularly where the Western world meets other cultures and ethnic identities.
First he did this as an entrepreneur with a focus on import trading. Then he did it as a business leader sent on behalf of the Young Presidents Organization to work with members of developing countries at war with other countries and help them find common ground.
But most recently, he’s taken a step away from his business career to explore his commitment to social enterprise through documentary photography.
Simon will give several talks over the next two weeks, with an event next Thursday at the Newton Free Library to be followed by presentations at the Scandinavian Living Center in Newton and the Framingham Public Library, on some of the countries he has photographed, and what he learned through that process about international relations.
Though he hasn’t left his master’s in business administration entirely behind, Simon traces the beginning of his pivot from entrepreneur to artist to a yearlong, around-the-world trip he took with his wife and children in 1999. While the children were ages 6, 8, and 10 at the time, the journey turned out to be as eye-opening for their parents as it was for them, he said.
“Coming out of that experience, I thought, do I go back now to a job in real estate development? Or do I try something else?” Simon recalled.
After the terrorist attacks in September 2001, that question was answered through Simon’s membership in the Young Presidents Organization, a global network of chief executives younger than age 45 that promotes education through the exchange of ideas. Smart, diplomatic leaders were needed to visit such regions as the Arab world, India, and Pakistan, and facilitate communication there among the local professionals and business people.
It was through those travels that Simon developed his understanding about the poison behind the word “them.”
“As I went into more of these situations, I came to recognize that when we think we know everything about a situation or a conflict, we go in with preconceived notions. But once you arrive in a conflict-ridden region that you’ve read about in the headlines, you discover that there are additional dimensions to the issue, and that our preconceived notions may not be very accurate.”
For example, Simon said, he was sent with a group of 16 CEOs from nine countries to North Korea.
“Before we got there, we thought we knew certain facts. We thought that it was impossible to go to North Korea. It’s actually pretty easy. Another fact people told me before we left: It’s very dangerous and I probably wouldn’t be able to get back out of the country. In truth, for Western visitors it’s very safe. The government monitors and patrols everything, but it keeps its visitors safe.”
Simon, who in recent years studied photography through Tufts University’s Institute for Global Leadership, in its Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice, and the New England School of Photography, found the medium was often the best way to debunk the myths and reflect the realities of a region. He did a series of images from the North Korean subway system showing ordinary people caught up in their everyday lives, commuting to work. His camera found visual imagery everywhere, such as in a favorite photo of his in which two people sitting on a train are looking up at posters of their nation’s leaders, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, looking down on them.
“That’s a perfect metaphor for what life in North Korea is like,” Simon said. “I try to use my camera to get past the stereotypes of what you normally see or think you’re going to see, and find instead what else might be there.
“These situations are far more complex and nuanced than we originally think, and the only way to grasp them is to recognize that all sides have their own narrative,” Simon said. “When I traveled to Syria a few years ago, people warned me that the Syrians were all suicide bombers. But when I showed them photos of the faces of the Bedouin people we stayed with, they saw that their stereotypes did not always hold. Photography . . . humanizes, demystifies, and reflects the nuances of human life.”
Simon will present his work and give a talk on North Korea at the Newton Free Library, 30 Homer St., at 7 p.m. next Thursday, and at the Framingham Public Library, 49 Lexington St., at 7 p.m. June 6.
He will focus on his trip to Iran in his 2 p.m. presentation on June 2 at the Scandinavian Living Center, 206 Waltham St. in West Newton.
For more information on the photographer or his presentations, go to www.dicksimonphotography.com.
ART DISPLAYS: Students in the interdisciplinary Rivers and Revolutions program at Concord-Carlisle High School have created an exhibition called “Evolution of Learning,” on display through June 23 in the community gallery at the Concord Museum, 53 Cambridge Turnpike in Concord. The students chose a theme, explored the museum collections to pick objects, wrote labels, created their own artwork, installed the exhibition, and developed hands-on activities. For museum hours, fees, and other information, call 978-369-9763 or go to www.concordmuseum.org.
The 13FOREST Gallery, at 167A Massachusetts Ave. in Arlington, is showing “Tangent” through July 5. The exhibition of new and recent work by Boston-area artists Mary O’Malley and Rebecca Roberts explores themes such as mathematics, architecture, and textile history with a range of materials that includes ink, gouache, cloth, gold leaf, and paper. For hours and more information, call 781-641-3333 or go to www.13forest.com.
Tours of the 1853 Homer House, at 661 Pleasant St. in Belmont Center, this season will include “Winslow Homer’s Croquet Summer,” an exhibition that explores the series of croquet artworks created by the artist when he stayed here with his uncle just after the Civil War. Visitors will learn the story behind these early works in the setting that inspired them. A turn at croquet on the front lawn is included in admission. Tours will be offered on the hour at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, and 1 p.m. on Saturdays beginning this weekend and continuing through Aug. 31. Admission is $10 adults, $5 students and seniors, children 12 and under free. Call 617-484-4892 or go to www.belmontwomansclub.org.
OLD-WORLD MUSIC: Next Thursday at 7:30 p.m., musicians from the First Religious Society in Carlisle and First Church Belmont, along with special guests, present an eclectic program of works from several centuries with compositions for harpsichord, bassoon, flute, and voices at the First Religious Society, 27 School St. in Carlisle.
Music by Handel, Scarlatti, and Bach will be performed, as well as contemporary compositions. Admission is free, but contributions will be collected to benefit the SPARK (Supporting Parents and Resilient Kids) program at Boston Medical Center. A reception will follow the concert.Send ideas to nancyswest@ gmail.com. Please include date of the event in the subject line.