The photos are slowly turning to black and white before my eyes. It’s a cold and windy January. I’ve made it so far.
It’s not until we isolate that we realize how much we depend on the others, and how much we are connected to the rest of life.
Some activities are obviously social simply because we cannot do them on our own. But even apparently individual activities, such as taking a coffee in the neighborhood coffeeshop, or taking a solo daytrip to get away from it all, depend on many others. They depend on employees, public services, infrastructure and, often, on the kindness of strangers.
As there are so many things we used to do and cannot do anymore, I guess it’s a good time to ask ourselves what are the things we could go without.
And what are the things we really need, the ones we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live without.
The garden looks as if the gardener has left and never came back, but things have continued to grow according to his plans for a while. Then everything started to fade into the unregulated beauty of natural growth.
I’m in the back garden of a small church.
Fallen fruits mingle with wild flowers. Here and there, old tombstones rise from the tall grass as if they’ve grown out of the earth.
Transylvania, the high plateau in the Western part of Romania, is where you can find many wooden churches built from the XVIIth to the XIXth century. They were built as small village churches. However, there is something about them that goes beyond their functional role. Maybe it’s their modesty, despite the disproportionately long, thin towers. Maybe it’s the way they fit into the landscape.
Some of them are still used by the locals, although it tends to be for special occasions.
I am not writing about churches as religious symbols. What I’m interested in is how things created by other people, in different ages, speak to us irrespective of our beliefs. I’m also interested in how human creation interacts with natural landscape, to the point where there’s no clear line of demarcation between the two anymore.
The construction techniques for these churches have evolved to deal with the limitations of the time and context they were built in. Metal was scarce and wood was plentiful, thus the construction was made using as little metal as possible. Sometimes, no metal at all.
If from the outside these churches look like they are about to take off, with their long thin towers pointing towards the sky, the interior looks and feels more like the inside on a villager’s house. Hand-made carpets, sheep furs and a narrow passage towards the altar, as if crossing through the family rooms towards the “good room”, reserved for guests.
But it’s the gardens that attract me the most. Part old cemetery, part orchard, part flower garden, they are full of life. The names on the tombstones are almost erased by rain, wind and the passage of time. The grass grows wild.
In spring and summer, these gardens are full of flowers, some of them cultivated but most of them wild. You cannot really tell where the cultivated part fades into wilderness. Old apple and plum trees punctuate the landscape with their weird shapes, like humpback witches. Their roots reaching deep into the ground, into the ancient tombs and further still.
Imagine a place where you feel completely at ease. Where you feel alive. Where you can be yourself – including that part of yourself that you ignored for so long.
Is that place your home? Your back garden? Your secret childhood place by the river? That cozy table in your favorite coffee shop? A remote place deep in the wild?
Each of us may have more than one such place. For me, one of them is hidden somewhere in Transylvania, the place beyond the forests.
“Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water.”
This is how Jonathan, Bram Stoker’s protagonist, describes his voyage through Transylvania as he approaches Count Dracula’s castle.
Stoker’s description sounds flattering, but for me it is painfully clear it’s written by somebody who hasn’t actually been there and does not have any personal connection to the place. It is like a cheap painting of an imagined exotic landscape. Bright colors, clear waters, and snow-capped mountain peaks. Of course, for him the landscape was just a makeshift background for his vampire story.
For me it’s different. It is not a postcard. It’s a permanent mark, a solid ground, a wound, a reason for hope, a concentrated solution of life, bitter-sweet. It’s something I always carry in me.
It’s lying in the sun, listening to the distant sound of the sheep bells as the animals move slowly, eating their way through the high planes.
Taking time among free-range horses, waiting for them to trust me and get closer. Petting their neck and watching the vapour of their breath in the crisp morning air.
Taking a break after a long climb through the dense pine forest, to enjoy the view that suddenly opens in front of me. From up here, I can visually retrace my steps through the wild river valley below me.
Standing at the entrance of a cave, feeling the cold breath of the inside of the mountain. Watching the vapors of the ice-cold river as it disappears into the darkness. This river doesn’t look like much, but it has managed to slowly carve its way through hard rock.
Here at the entrance, facing the darkness of the cave, I feel my heart beating faster. Everything is raw and untamed, like this river being furiously sucked inside the mountain. All my senses are awake and I feel fully alive.
What overwhelms me is not the intensity of emotions, the excitement, the adrenaline. It’s the feeling of being completely present with everything that happens, and accepting it.
It’s like standing in front of my own darkness and finally being able to say that I accept everything as it is.
Late November. The weather seems to have sucked the color out of everything. I’m living among shades of grey. But I dream in color.
I wander across Miradouro de Santa Lucia, the terrace overlooking Alfama and the Tagus river. Where street players and singers gathered every evening. Where I’ve waited for sunrise. Where I’ve stood silently at night, listening to a song together with other passers-by. A moment of connection created by a human voice and a guitar.
Then I continue on to Portas do Sol, the larger square from which numerous streets branch out downwards, to the river, or upwards, to Castle Sao Jorge.
There’s a small coffee shop, right here on the corner. They open really early and they serve coffee and pastel de nata. They only speak Portuguese but we understand each other in the universal language of people in need of caffeine.
The few other clients are locals taking a few minutes on their way to work. I am the only outsider here, sipping my coffee outside while the owner is still cleaning up and arranging the tables. But I feel like being where I should be.
The sun has risen right in front of me. I have this whole morning ahead, like drinking spring water with your bare hands, like virgin snow on the mountain. Everything can still happen. I’ve lost so much and I’ve lost myself so much, but here at this small table with its cheap tablecloth I feel like everything is still possible.
“Obrigado”, I say to the coffee shop owner. I continue in English, telling him how much I loved the pastel. He’s nodding and smiling. He doesn’t have a clue what I’m saying but understands it’s a compliment.
I go off the main road into narrow back streets that zigzag uphill. Beco de Maldonado, Rua dos Cegos, Calçada do Menino Deus… It’s like going back in time. I could imagine myself walking these streets 30 or 50 years ago. Nothing would need to change to account for the passage of time.
There’s nobody outside but the houses are alive. There are voices inside, there are noises of people cooking, cleaning, just going about their normal lives. The first fallen leaves of late summer are blown away by the breeze.
There’s something in me that would like to cling to this moment, that would like to stay frozen in this snapshot like a fly caught in amber. I’ve always had a hard time letting go of things that I love. Accepting that they come and go.
But right here, surrounded by pigeons flapping their wings in the sun, I just leave things be and I let go.
The train won’t be on time. It won’t arrive ever again.
Its ghost is chasing through the woods. The vegetation is slowly taken over.
I’m standing here as the sun goes down and this incredibly warm light washes over me. In the background, everything lits up like a giant bonfire.
I discovered these abandoned train tracks somewhere on the border between Belgium and The Netherlands. Most probably, they were used to transport coal from Limburg towards the nearby industrial cities. This former mining area is now a national park.
The noisy tourists have finally disappeared. They must be having a late dinner in one of the newer, fancier restaurants of the neighborhood. Or having cocktails in a bar overlooking the city. The streets are deserted, apart from the occasional couple walking slowly and holding hands, or an old lady walking a dog.
At night, city streets live a different life. Like a nocturnal animal, they wake up to different sounds, smells and movements. Freed from the layer of agitation and noise brought by humans, they are breathing again.
The locals are living their quiet home life. There are voices and smells of home cooking, but everything is slowly dissolving in the breeze.
From time to time, the breeze picks up. It carries smells of ocean and seaweed, of deadwood floating away to nowhere. Boat lights are flickering on the Tagus river, each of them carrying its own story.
This ancient hilly quarter of Lisbon, where people have left on the ocean never to come back, where lives and loves were lost to famine, plague, fire and war, is not my home. But I feel so much at home here. So much in touch with the thousands of stories slowly unravelling around me.
A cat comes to caress himself against my hand. He looks at me and then he goes away into the dark. Am I accepted into this hidden, almost invisible street life? I am not felt as an intruder? I stay silent and let things be. It’s almost as if I’ve become part of the landscape.
I hear the sound of a cruiseship horn far away. I’ve never been on a cruiseship but it hits me violently. It brings back memories of travelling to unknown places, leaving behind what I love, being left behind by a loved one.
Are these my memories or have I become part of this place and now I am dreaming its dreams? I cannot tell anymore.
Narrow streets are leading down towards the river like torrents on a mountain after a heavy rain. The wind has stopped and everything is still and silent, as if frozen in a picture frame.
Up on the mountain, lying on my back and catching my breath after hours of hiking. There’s nothing else but that moment of heavy breathing and the clouds passing by. Then the breathing slows down and there’s just light. I lie there between the rocks and I become a rock, a part of the mountain.
Or at nightfall, close to the tent, staring at the Milky Way. The heat from the fire nearby distorts the image, as if playing an old roll of film that’s partially damaged. Fire sparks mingling with the stars. And that feeling of getting swept away into the sky. Falling off the face of the earth.
The seventh sky is where the sun is always shining while down here, on the ground, is miserable.
I fall in love with places and I tend to come back often. I care about them. I feel hurt when I read about illegal logging in a forest where I used to walk as a teenager. My heart beats faster when I see a photo of a city street where I’ve lived something that stayed with me. An old square where I took a coffee early in the morning, watching the sunrise. A place where I’ve left part of me.
There are different ways of travelling.
There’s travelling to see and travelling to be seen. There’s travelling to live and travelling to show.
The first is about discovering and losing yourself in what you’re discovering. It is about trying to become part of the scene without altering it. Staying low key, watching, letting things happen.
The second is about affirming yourself wherever you go. Making your mark, letting people know where you are and what you think about that. It’s about imposing yourself on whatever is happening.
These ways of travelling (and of being) are also reflected in photography.
The first one would correspond to the type of photography in which the photographer remains a discreet presence behind the camera. The focus is on what is going on, on the situation, on the story. The story says something about me as photographer, because it’s MY way of telling the story. But the focus stays on the story, not on myself.
The second one emphasizes the photographer at the expense of what is going on. The photographer can either be physically present in the pictures (the selfie maniac) or compose the photos so that they bring the attention back to him/her.
There is a difference between doing photography as a continuous ego-affirming exercise and doing it for the sake of showing / documenting / honoring what is out there. We lose sight of this difference too easily.