Paradox: The Human Condition (A Photo Essay)

To be human is to be a paradox. Celebration tinged with tragedy. Hardship inspiring resilience. Happiness inviting discipline. The state of “human-ness” is a condition of being and becoming. Whatever we are now, we are never fully actualized. Even in youth, we age. We are forever in flux, ever realizing abeyant potential. At any given point, we are any and all of these things simultaneously. The photo series, “Paradox: The Human Condition,” gathers these layers of paradox into two-dimensional stills — snapshots of the “human condition” sampled from different lives. Together, they form a harmonized arc illustrating beginnings and ends, and beginning again.

Celebration + Tragedy

The moment after a warm new life is first unveiled into the cold air is a moment both ubiquitous and celebrated. Is it because our DNA-instinct to reproduce is finally realized? Or is it the sensation of joy in creating another living being? Is the latter how we experience the former? Celebration is sometimes followed by tragedy. Not every new life is born with the organic tools to keep their fleshy motor running. For all its “inhuman-ness,” technology enhances the human experience by granting us the ability to avert tragedy and return it to a state of celebration for the birth of a new human being — and thus, another unique instance of the human condition and all its budding potential not yet made manifest.

Joy + Discouragement

Where one finds joy, another finds reason for chastisement. In the same way that we coax a plant to grow or neglect it to wither, a human life encouraged to blossom will thrive. One whose talents are discouraged will soon lose the joy of practicing those gifts — and potentially, the joy that individual would pass onto others by virtue of that talent. Potential is a shadow. It is knowable but not yet substantiated. To eclipse the shadow is to make it unknowable entirely.

Thrill + Thrive

What is the human condition without excitement, from the thrill of anticipation to the active painting of a memory that will shimmer into the waning years of life? It’s why we obsess over variety. Over breaking monotony and climbing out of ruts. Why we go on vacations. Watch movies. Play games. Laugh and love together. To be thrilled is to thrive. And for some, the thrill of living is only crystallized through danger and the threat of harm, no matter how small.

Look Back

To reflect on the past is very human. While some believe dreams are memories that have not yet been made, a more ubiquitous human experience is that memories are the faded filmstrip of dreams that make up our past. We relive them in satisfaction or shame, or somewhere in between (a mixture of both). When you look back into the abridged celluloid of your experience, what do you see?

Hardship + Defiance

The joys of human experience would be meaningless without hardship. Opposition creates strength. Strength is how we survive and surmount opposition. Only in overcoming an obstacle do we gain satisfaction in achieving the goal. The state of being human is a continuous cycle of friction and growth, survival and evolution, hardship and defiance.


We live because we die. It is central to the human condition. Every living person must eventually stop living. Most of us also experience the loss of our fellow humans. That loss is felt profoundly because of what is taken with it when that sapient light no longer burns. We remember the fire, not the darkness. When the fire goes out, it is again not the darkness we remember, but the ghost of the flame. When we draw up the memories of a human life, we do not recall the hardship or the tragedy or the discouragement, but the joy, the thrills, the thriving and the celebration.

Ethan Cunningham is a creative wanderer. He holds an MFA from Boston University. His short works and photography have appeared in Fiction365, Forth Magazine, Three Line Poetry, Agave Magazine, among others. He has also worked on several award-winning short documentaries featuring international non-profit endeavors: Operation International: Ivory Coast, Rally for Rangers, and Darkhad Valley. Ethan lives in California with his wife and cats.

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