Things kind of fell apart last week. Perhaps after being away, the reality of life in China is confronting me again. The roughness and sharp elbows reqired here are wearing on me. The bloom is off and we're back, deep into the normal life of a family with small children. They need a snack immediately, someone hit someone else, there's an impending diaper mishap, and would you please just lie down so that I can deal with it? and the baby won't sleep, and is she hungry? has the stress of the last weeks dried up my milk? they don't like dinner, they won't take their bath, the hitting and the singing the singing the singing right in my ear as I'm trying to cook dinner, and I feel like I'm on fire. My adrenaline is always soaring. The mess, the noise, the constant need, and everything feels like an emergency. I say, that's it. We're going to the playground and then for a moment, we're outside and the light is just so, and the children are digging together in the sand, the baby is sleeping, and I can breathe again. Hugo edges towards me, he rests his head in my lap and says, My Mummy forever. And I know he's missed me, and I've missed them too.
A Photographer's Notebook
I have, as I’m sure many people do, a problem with commitment.
I love starting new projects, looking ahead and dreaming of new ideas. It’s that glow of possibility that gets me; it’s the same root from which stems my passion for travel; my love of airports and train stations; the thrill that grows when a new move is on the horizon: possibility, what’s next, a greater future, the unknown.
But sticking to it, doing the work, digging in, well that’s about the here and now. It’s mundane, and regular, and lacking in the electricity of the possible.
I’ve started a myriad of photography projects. So many that I’ve lost count. But there are hardly any that I’ve really seen to fruition.
But I’m starting another one. A photo a day for a year plus a couple of months, from now until our new baby’s first birthday.
I’ve done 365 projects before. But as always, I loose interest as the work becomes quotidian, I falter under the weight of the ordinary, and concede defeat. For a while I thought I just wasn’t cut out for this sort of daily practice, that I did’t have the discipline (perhaps that is true.) But also, I found that many of my images while doing a project such as this were ordinary themselves, uninteresting, and nothing as special as the masterpieces I see floating around the realms of photography Facebook. I got discouraged by their very ordinariness, the work would feel aimless and unproductive.
The problem was this: I told myself that I needed to shoot inspired artistic images. I told myself that I needed to share daily on Facebook to boost engagement and create a following. I told myself that I needed to shoot for documentation and prosperity, that I needed to remember each and every day of my dear ones’ childhoods.
But I’ve come to see that I was looking at this from a perspective that wasn’t helpful. In fact, those were the opinions of others that I had adopted, like a costume that didn’t fit. I didn’t actually believe my own narrative.
Deep down, I’m not of the opinion that I need to document every moment. Some will live in my memory, some beautiful golden remembrances will fade and be lost to time, and some will be preserved on my hard drive. And that’s the way it goes.
I don’t want to really engage with social media every day in pursuit of an empire. I don’t want to post daily. I don’t want to measure my worth by likes and clicks. Sometimes I’d rather crawl into bed with the kids and read books and fall asleep at an embarrassingly early hour.
But I do want to practice. I need to practice. I feel, with my camera, still a journeyman, and I need rigorous practice to become a master.
It’s true, I don’t think I’m really able to make an inspired work of art every damn day. But I don’t need this to be art. This needs to be practice. Like a musician playing the scales: routine, rote, practice. I need to shoot every day, working on a specific skill, over and over and over again until it’s muscle memory. I need to bring my fingers to my shutter button daily as the pianist brings her fingers to the keys. I need to do a 365 to practice. Especially since I’m going to be taking leave for growing and birthing and feeding a baby. If I’m not shooting, my battery will drain and dust will settle.
So, I’m going to practice. I’m going to dig in and give this weight and importance. I’m going to make it a priority. And somedays I’ll play a beautiful sonata, but some days it will be scales over and over and over. I might post some here. I might not. But I hope by the end of a year I’ll have grown.
People often talk about making photographs. They intentionally use the verb ‘make’ as though they mean building and constructing, shaping and moulding, tactile senses, dirty hands.
But that sentence, I make photographs, in reference to my own work, well it has never sat easily in my mouth.
I don’t mean this as a criticism. Absolutely, there are artists who make photographs, artists who manipulate scenes digitally, or with with light, direction, and style; artists who create images where they didn’t exist before.
I kind of want to say ‘make’, too. Because constructing something is an act inherently loaded with value. But, I don’t think that I work like that. I don’t think I make photographs.
I was thinking about this picture, and how it’s all light and movement. How it’s just a fraction of a second caught, reflected though a lens, burned into celluloid. I didn’t make this. I looked for it, waiting for my girl to swim by me. I tracked this moment. And then, with a click, I caught it.
That’s the way I think I work best. I want to look, to study, to see something. I want to capture what is there, what already exists: be it a particular quality of light; a sense of momentum; a emotion; a feeling. I want to catch something that is real and true, that is weighted with emotion. I want to net a butterfly and pin it down. I want to make still and solid something that is otherwise fugitive, ephemeral, barely perceptible.
I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t make photographs. I wait for them, I stalk them, I hunt them.
I wrote this, like two weeks ago? I dunno. I didn't post it because I've been a bit mired in the banal and unimportant doldrums of life. That and sickness. Anyway, today I'm feeling quite productive. I might actually be back on form? Three weeks plus after getting back home? Question mark? So, here you go, a overly earnest blog post like is my speciality.
It’s hard work, coming back to real life. I’ve been away from it all for a few weeks. When you’re on holiday, the minutia and tedium of the everyday recedes into the background for a while. Diapers and hairbrushes, limit testing and tantrums, and the frazzled race of getting out the door in time for school, it all fades when I’m away from my kids.
I had this time and space to be a human without the responsibilities of wiping bottoms, enforcing bedtimes, negotiating over candy allowance, soothing hurt feelings and bonked heads, worrying for another person’s moral development and psychic wellbeing. I had time to reflect and centre and think about what matters to me.
That is a great gift, you know. That time to think about what matters and who you are beyond a meal maker, a limit setter, and a diaper changer, that time is precious. And having a week of it, uninterrupted, feels like a drug almost.
And then, all of a sudden, I’m back in my messy apartment, where the kids have written in Sharpie on the walls, and the children’s room is a mess, there’s dinner to sort and food on the floor and noooooooo I DON’T LIKE THAT and heeeeeey GIVE IT BACK, smack, HE HIT ME, and no, I won’t let you call me names, slam, YOU ARE A BAD MUMMY, and the laundry and the laundry and the laundry.
And then there’s that little thing of homesickness. Being back in the western world reminds me of what I miss: both those various and sundry trivialities (heirloom beans! corn tortillas! sidewalks! climbing frames!) and matters more significant, like a functioning social contract and a more equitable class structure.
While I was away, every second though in my mind was, this is incredible, my life is amazing, I can’t believe how great everything is.
And that is true. My life is amazing. Most of the time. I have so much privilege, so much luck. Sharpies scribbles or no, we have a house to live in, food to eat, enough money to have fun, and healthy children. But there are other things that are difficult, and no matter how great the big picture is, small hard things are still hard. And stepping back into real life does take real work.
I think the thing is, well, the thing for me is, that while I’m out exploring both with kids and without, I feel fairly competent and capable of being a human in the world. Airports and train stations are my habitat. It’s easy to feel like an actual grownup when you just need to get from A to B and you don’t really need to worry about cooking dinner or cleaning up messes. Everyone is on vacation time and vacation mentality, so tempers are blithe and no one needs to worry about punctuality.
Then, back in real life, I’m confronted with the fact that I don’t really know how to keep a tidy and organised home, and my kids won’t eat heirloom beans and corn tortillas, and for me, most significant, the assault of temper tantrums and miscellaneous issues in discipline make me question my competence and my ability to actually be a human in this world of adult people who know stuff and can do things. You know?
Anyway, so, I guess the real work of settling back into real life is remembering, despite all the difficulties and laundry and lack of corn tortillas, that actually yes, my life is pretty great, and it may not look like the life I would have had if I had stayed in North America. But still, it is great. And I did fill my suitcase with corn tortillas. And so what if my kids won’t eat them: more for me.
I kept Stella home from school on Monday. There were no appointments we needed to attend to, no compelling medical reason for keeping her home. I just wanted her home.
Some very dear friends were visiting Jakarta from out of town. This family was one of the fist with whom we really connected when me moved here. We just all really got each other you know? And our girls snapped together, both wonderful and weird.
And then, as is the cycle in this nomadic life, they had to move on. We said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. We promised to be friends across oceans and all through the years. But sometimes friendships fall away to distance and time. And I worry about that.
We are, at least for now, committed to being a nomadic family for the long term. My kids didn’t choose to live their lives unrooted and unmoored. They will have to say goodbye to many dear friends as our family continue in this wandering life. But I want them to know that friendships, uncommon friendships with people with whom you snap together weirdly and wonderful, these types of friendships expand and grow even across oceans and through the years.
I want my kids to grow knowing that these friendships expand and flourish and help us grow. Community, however distant and wide, is precious. We build it and guard it deep in our hearts. We do what we can to protect it and watch it grow.
So. We busted out the kids from school to run around the pool deck, to dress up in gumboots and tutus and sing all the words to Let it Go, to laugh at videos we make, and have lunch beers and watermelon juice (when juice is normally verboten), and we just have the best time together.
Also, I let the kids play with this GoPro, which, incidentally, was given to me GIVEN!!! by a lovely, generous person from a Facebook group to which I belong. I posted a question about underwater camera housings, and she just offered to send me this camera which her family did not use any more. Her only instruction was to pay it forward. And isn’t that a beautiful example of community and kindness and generosity?
Well, we all played with this camera, we had so much fun, some really big laughs, and some beautiful moments with people so dear to us.
You know, I really do feel so lucky to be touched by community and kindness and goodness.