A motorcycle accident at age 28 left David Farber with one functioning limb—his right arm—and one functioning eye and ear. But it didn’t deter his passion for travel and photography. He has journeyed to Alaska and Africa to photograph everything from moose to wildebeest to hippos.
Before the accident, Farber was an avid hiker. “My vacations were hiking across badlands and deserts or climbing mountains,” he says. “I didn’t sit by a pool and get suntanned.”
He grew up in Skokie, a Chicago suburb which he estimates was about 90% Jewish. He was the middle child, with two sisters. He remembers his family saying a prayer over the Hanukkah candles. But his early childhood was far from happy.
“All I remember was the fighting and the stench of cigarettes,” he says. “So I would spend all my time in the woods behind our home.”
That’s where he formed his concept of God—or, more accurately, of no God. As a five-year-old, he found himself looking at the bugs and plants and thinking, How can there be a God that created everything? My dad can’t make a butterfly. He can’t make a tree or flower. So he decided there must not be a God.
Accordingly he rebelled on his first—and last—day of Hebrew school. “I told my dad, ‘I’m not going back and you can’t make me,'” he recalls. “And they didn’t.”
His parents separated when he was five and divorced a year later. His mother got custody but was not financially or emotionally able to handle the children. By the time he was eight, Farber was in a foster home and his sisters each at different facilities. A year later he was in another home, with Jewish foster parents.
Farber bonded with his new family, especially with his foster mother, Claire. “They will always be my folks, my mom and dad,” says Farber. He lived with them until he moved away to college. His birth mother “was supposed to have visitation, but she just stopped coming or calling,” says Farber. He never saw her again; she died in 1974. He has stayed in touch with his birth dad.
He started taking pictures when he was thirteen and by fifteen had saved enough to buy a Honeywell Pentax camera with a 135mm lens. There has always been just one subject for his photos. “Strictly wildlife and nature,” he says. His other love is music. He sang in choirs in high school and was the first freshman at Northeastern Illinois University (Chicago) drafted into its opera workshops.
Farber graduated from Northeastern in 1975 with a degree in biology. High school and college science classes had reinforced his atheism. “I grasped onto evolution because that seemed more logical than someone creating everything,” he says.
Following college, he became a head machinist for Allied Valve Industries in Chicago. After work on September 8, 1981, he and a friend rode their motorcycles to the gym. Farber stopped at his house to grab his gym bag, but removed his helmet and forgot it when he ran back out. On the way to the gym—the first time in his seven years of motorcycling that he rode without a helmet—an oncoming car struck him.
His injuries were extensive, including a fractured C6 neck vertebra. The doctors said he had less than a ten percent chance of surviving the night. But instead he went into in a coma for seven weeks, then a semi-coma for six more weeks. To this day, Farber has no recollection of the accident.
After his release from the hospital in August 1982, a nursing assistant stayed with him part-time. But mostly he was alone.
“I was unable to do much but stare out the window,” says Farber. “I was very, very depressed.” His love for wildlife kept him going. “When I would go into deep depression, I would look at a photo of a bull moose I had taken at Glacier National Park,” he says. “That would pull me out of it. It’s so beautiful, I thought, I’ve got to get past this.”
In January 1983 he hired Sue Lopez as his full-time caregiver. Lopez encouraged him to try things he’d thought were no longer possible—including photography.
“What if I can’t do it anymore? I thought,” says Farber. “Then one day my parrot was up in the pine tree out front. So I grabbed my camera. I was working with one hand, and it took me a long time to set up the shot. But it came out almost better than photographs I’d taken before my accident. I never put the camera down after that.”
Farber designed a utility frame to hold his camera and large lenses. He developed a system to fire the camera by mouth—by sipping on a tube—allowing his one functioning hand to remain on the focusing ring. Those inventions became unnecessary when he bought his first digital camera in 2004. A natural-born lefty, Farber cuts mats and build frames—using only his right hand.
Lopez, a devout Christian, had a harder time getting Farber to pick up a Bible than a camera. “She told me about Jesus,” he says, “but my head was not straight. I was still so full of anger [over my accident].”
In 1997, his foster mother, Claire, was hospitalized. When she stabilized, Farber took a wildlife photography trip to Florida. With a week of photography still ahead, his camera broke, and he decided to head back home. Claire died two days after he returned.
“All of a sudden I felt like maybe God was real and had orchestrated the situation so I’d come home and say goodbye,” says Farber.
Then Lopez got cancer. As her condition worsened, Farber visited the church across the street to try to hire someone to help him. John Hoeflich volunteered and refused payment. For the last sixteen years, he has come to Farber’s home every Sunday at 5:40 a.m. to do therapy and help him into his wheelchair. The small congregation held a home Bible study once a week; Farber began to attend and ask questions.
Lopez succumbed to the cancer in December 2001. But it was not until a year and a half after Lopez’s death that Farber took the next step toward the God he said he did not believe in.
“I was lying in bed one night,” he remembers, “and I said, Okay, no more ‘one of these days.’ And I picked up the Bible and started to read it for myself.”
He found that the Hebrew Scriptures resonated with his love for classical music, especially his favorite, Handel’s Messiah. As he read in the book of Isaiah, he recognized verses from Handel’s masterpiece that described the Messiah as “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) and the one by whose “stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). When he reached the New Testament months later, he read another verse Handel had quoted, describing Jesus as “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). As Farber continued to read, he began to believe that Jesus might be the Jewish Messiah.
“I was afraid to admit to myself that I was wrong all those years, saying I didn’t believe there was a God,” Farber acknowledges, “and I was afraid to admit to my sins.” But on December 25, 2003, he asked Jesus to forgive his sins and come into his heart.
“I felt different,” he says. “I felt relief that I was finally able to admit I was wrong.” He also gained a new appreciation for his heritage as he recognized the Jewish context of the world in which Jesus lived, as described in the New Testament.
Farber has gradually come to view the world—and his own circumstances—through the lens of the Bible.
“During my bouts with deep depression, I thought, Why didn’t God just let me die? Is this my punishment for the sinful life that I led?” says Farber. “Now, so many years later, I look on my accident as a gift, and I thank the Lord for this second chance at doing things the right way, by following Jesus.”
Farber makes detailed trip plans to photograph wildlife and nature. He has Antarctica, Australia and the whale migration in Hawaii in his sights. He is writing his autobiography, and an independent film company is working on a documentary of his life, Lion in the Streets. Farber says he is looking forward to heaven, but adds, “I have so much more I want to do.”
To see more of David’s work, please visit www.naturallyfarberphotos.com
To learn about the documentary film being made about David, visit http://www.lioninthestreet.com/home.htm