Moments of Being: Jon Mullen, Camp Photographer, on returning for his 20th year at Mondamin.

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Sometime in the last 20 years, If you have been a camp parent online, poring over the day’s pictures from camp, wondering how your camper is doing, and then finding that boy in the midst of a decisive moment of joy, triumph, silliness, or pensive reflection - you owe a note of thanks to Jon Mullen. Jon, a masterful teacher with the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system, has been coming to camp since 2004, and has taken, by his count, almost 750,000 pictures of the boys and counselors and the camp. He has chronicled the camp experience in all facets and many of his photos are - I believe - works of art.

In the process, Jon has become much more than a recorder of the decisive moments of camp. Due to his wide experience in many school settings. he serves as wise counsel to new counselors themselves, assisting us all in being better teachers to the young. He’s coming back in 2024 for his 20th season, and we feel lucky to have him. Here, in his own words, is a reflection on his experiences at camp, from his nervous beginnings to his current catalog of life changing moments, large and small, at this little old camp in these old mountains, just east of the Eastern Continental Divide. We hope you will join his stories in 2024.

Gordon Grant, Interim Asst. Director, Mondamin

Moments of Being:

2004…11pm: I arrived in the dark, to a ghost camp, in the middle of a thunderstorm. That first night, I was terrified: alone in a strange cabin in a strange place. Four cinder block walls, empty light sockets, a concrete floor and a metal creaky bed.…On a peninsula in the dark….caught in the middle of a thunderstorm.

I lay there, rain roaring down the roof, convinced I’d made a horrific decision. Fifty year old graffiti glared at me from the rafters, sharply etched in lightning flash. Thunder smashed through the screens, rattling my teeth and nerves, before grumbling through the hills into menacing silence.

I had gotten the job through a friend - a friend I’d met in a new city that was huge and unfamiliar. He talked about this place called Mondamin. He loved his job.

“It’s a great way to spend a summer”, he said.

My summers had been listless…spent tutoring sighing, tuned-out kids at kitchen tables all over Charlotte. I might have said something about wanting his job.

The next day, in the middle of fifth grade, the phone rang. In 2004, when you didn’t think to screen your calls, I picked up.

“Hi! This is Robert, Al Scharnberg gave me your name!!”

I had no idea who this unnervingly friendly Robert-person was.

I showed up for my interview in dress pants, a suit, a jacket, and tie. Frank met me in shorts and a dusty polo. He looked carefully at my meticulously prepared photography portfolio.

“Hmmm,” he said.

I got the job.

I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared for an all-male camp. I wasn’t prepared for the intensity, the bravado, the hilarity, the brazenness and the noise. Still I dutifully documented all of it. Hiding behind the lens of my Olympus.

I’ve learned my craft. I know where to stand. It’s instinct now. I know precisely where the sunlight will land. I know f-stops, apertures, and shutter speeds for each activity and for each hour of the day. I know how long it takes a kid to get down a zipline. I don’t know in seconds. I know in breaths; in feels. I know how it feels in my camera lens. The shudder of the second deck. Breathe and click. I know the clouds. When to take cover, and when to let the wind fill the sails on the lake. More than “know,” I feel. When that kid jumps off the second deck, I feel the wind and green plunge. And I exhale as the shutter clicks.

Camp breathes. I breathe with it. It wasn’t always so.

Those first few years, the pictures were a struggle. I could never get them to look quite right. The lighting was too tricky. The kids were moving too fast. My digital camera was nothing like the film cameras I’d always used. Still I hid behind my camera and silently got better at my craft. I studied the light. I watched the patterns, people, and cycles…. I figured it all out.

One Tuesday night I put my book down, shelved my anxiety, took a deep breath…and drove to this place called “Little Man Lodge” for an open house for counselors and staff from both camps. Frank had said there would be ice cream.

I was startled at the camaraderie, lack of judgment, and immediate acceptance. I was shocked at how quickly I fit in. I sat looking through old photo albums as person after person came by and struck up a conversation….I left that night with a lot more friends, and a lot less worry.

So I stayed. And another summer…and another. This year’s lake-sparkle splintered through the universe…whirling together into memory, light and shadow. Another Luau, another skit, another starry night, another dock lesson, birthday, another van ride back from a trip…. Each year another community arrives, connects and flourishes for a brief season…before we all scatter. Another play, another cast. Another set of stories spun out into the big wide world.

Wind, clouds, movie nights, and noisy supper-rainbows later and suddenly those kiddos, lost and looking for their towels on the dock, are now part of that cast. The sputtering 10-year olds in too-big kayaks are now teaching sputtering 10-year olds…in too big kayaks. Time marches, and suddenly, I’m an old stagehand, watching the actors age and grow…to be replaced by new actors eager to hear stories about the old actors. 100 years of stories floating between the inky lake and the stars….

2023: 11pm. Today’s pictures are all uploaded. Smiles captured in a folder. One thousandth of a second, frozen forever and foldered by day.

I smile at the title: “Mondamin: Complete 2004-2022”.
Three-quarter-of-a-million pictures later, It’s a far cry from the young man, terrified by ghosts, bats, and thunderstorms.

So the next time around the sun, I’ll document it all… The glitter,, the lake, the loud, the crazy, the quiet and introspective. The insane enthusiasm for life. It keeps me young. It keeps me coming back. It does my heart good to document this year’s cast. To make new friends. To stand under the trees and breathe the morning air. To capture the fleeting sparkle and joy of this year’s community on a lake in my tiny corner of this tiny planet. To help nervous parents sleep at night. To add to the 100 year story that is Mondamin.
It mattered in 2004.
It matters now.
It will matter in 2024.
I’m glad we’ll all be here.

Jon Mullen, Charlotte, NC, 9/19/2023

About Gordon Grant

I came to Mondamin as a 14 year old camper in 1969, and have followed what I learned here in adventure and academic education for 54 years: at Mondamin and Green Cove, Nantahala Outdoor Center, NC Outward Bound, Asheville City Public Schools, and UNC Chapel Hill. I still practice deep play in whitewater, rock climbing, and hiking, and am still working on my kayak roll…

I have worked closely with the Bell family in these years, from the founders of the camps, Chief and Calla Bell, through their son and daughter Frank, Jr. and Nancy Bell, and their grandchildren Andrew, Calla, and David. Each generation has taught me something.

My wife, Susan, is my partner of 40+ years; we have shared outdoor adventures around the world. Susan has headed canoeing at Green Cove. Our daughters, Rachel and Glenna, were Green Cove campers, and our granddaughter, Virginia Rugh, will be at August camp this summer. We intend that our grandson Grant will be at Mondamin in 2028. I am working with David Bell and the Mondamin staff to assure that he, and many other boys, will be having adventures on their personal frontiers at camp for years to come.

Gordon Grant