A night in Alfama

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.

Silent streets

The streets are full of absence. I am walking alone. Stopping from time to time to catch the smell of an old building. That smell carrying all their past lives and all the love and suffering and death they have seen inside.

The crowds will eventually return. The students, the rich, the tourists, the loners, the freaks, the drunk and the lovers will cross each other again along these old streets.

These places have known plague, war, famine and dispair. They have known joy, endless evenings on the terraces, couples making out, groups of friends celebrating something, doesn’t matter what, people walking alone with the wind in their hair.

For now, the city still lives its silent life. Still breaths its hidden breathing. Barely moving but alive. Like a hibernating animal, bringing its vital signs down to a minimum in order to save energy.

Street highlights and shadows, with the tower of the Brussels City Hall in the background
Old books on display close to Manneken Pis, the symbol of Brussels.

Dia de muertos

The day of the living is everyday, although the living don’t seem to realize it. The dead have their day too, when the living are invoking them, talking to them, talking about them without being regarded as morbid or mad. Social conventions are dropped for a while, as in all traditional celebrations. Then we put the mask back on.

All Saints Day is celebrated on the 1st of November. Dia de Muertos was originally celebrated in Mexico at the beginning of the summer, but gradually shifted towards November, to coincide with the Catholic holiday.

At the end of last year, I accompanied this procession through Brussels.

Painted faces, skeleton costumes, skull masks, bright colors, excited kids running around, scary characters popping up out of nowhere, smell of incense, singing and chanting.

There is something special about a mass of people moving slowly together purposefully. There’s an energy that slowly gets you and carries you with it. You can feel it in gatherings, demonstrations and processions.

Having a camera means that you can let yourself be part of it and at the same time keep some distance, in order to see things in their context and assess what is meaningful and worth capturing.

Mariachis singing and playing in the St. Gilles district.
Violin player in the procession.
The Master of Ceremonies dancing and leading the crowd.
A giant skeleton passes by the Church Notre-Dame de la Chapelle. The painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder was buried here.

Keep on moving

I miss travelling.

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.

The summer before the virus

Belgium is not known for its sunny climate. It’s not that uncommon to have weeks upon weeks of rain and grayness. But when the sun finally comes out, it transforms everything. The streets, the buildings, the people.

In September 2019 I went out for a weekend walk with my camera and I stumbled upon this brocante (flea market) extending across several streets. Most of the sellers were locals, people who had just impovised a selling stand right outside their home.

There is a special warmth to moments like these, when people gather not to protest, strike, demand things or try to convince others, but rather to enjoy each other’s company. There are no expectations. You can sell valuable artwork or used shoes. You can come on a high budget or lose half a day reading old books on display and leave without buying anything. Nobody gets upset.

There’s a lot of street artwork in central Brussels, some of it based on cartoon characters. Sometimes you cannot miss it, as it takes an entire side wall of a building, on a popular street. Some other times you need to know where to look, as it’s been carefully hidden.

That day, in the crowd of the flea market, I felt like I was meeting some of these characters in real life. As if they’ve descended off the walls and mingled with the people. Trying to pass unnoticed but still having something cartoonish and slightly off about them.

Wild at heart

This is not an urban park and it’s not the city seen from the outside.

This patch of wilderness has formed pretty much by itself, not far from downtown Bucharest, on the site of a huge construction project of the communist era. Trees began to grow, water accumulated and formed small lakes, reeds started conquering everything. And then foxes, rabbits, rats and hedgehogs and birds of all kinds made it their home.

All this life that has been pushed away by the city to its margins and towards extinction is now claiming its right to exist here. A few years ago, it has been finally granted the status of natural park and protected area.

A long time ago, I lived at some point close to what was then a deserted project site. I knew about it and I kind of circled it from afar, but I’ve never actually entered. To go there was to look for trouble.

In a Terry Gilliam movie (Twelwe Monkeys, 1995), nature takes over the deserted city, as most of the human population is wiped out by a virus. It’s the post-apocaliptic comeback of wilderness.

Fortunately, this wild area developed without Bucharest being destroyed. But part of it was. This used to be a residential area, with small houses, gardens and narrow streets. They were wiped out to make space for the wet dreams of a communist dictator, just as many other historical areas of the city. The project failed and then the dictator fell. And the area started a life of its own.