Looking Forward

The end of the year and beginning of a new one are conventions. Collectively, we could have divided time and established special moments any other way. For some reason, it was a moment in the middle of winter that most of the world now celebrates as the start of something new. And, despite its arbitrariness, I’ve always felt and lived it as if it were special.

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The past present

I woke up early, too early, like so many times before. There’s a beautiful sunrise out there, for anybody who’d care to witness it. Not me. I am struggling to wake up after I struggled to go back to sleep. Not feeling quite ready to start the day, yet far away from that coziness of being under the blanket and just turning over for another hour of sleep.

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The Secret Life of Trees

Alone at the edge of the forest.

Sap quietly circulating everywhere, like a myriad of creeks finding their way through every twist and turn. Rising through the trunks, splitting at every crossroads, distributing itself evenly through the branches. Feeding everything.

A sea of trees communicating and cooperating through subterranean networks of fungi. One giant organism living, breathing, regulating itself, interacting with the environment. A web of life bringing together plants, fungi, insects, animals. Lifeblood flowing everywhere, unseen and unheard.

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The stories we live in

I would lie if I said that I started this blog having a detailed plan for going forward. But one thing I knew well: it would be about the spellbinding power of stories.

It would be about how stories take hold of us, enlighten us or push us into submission, make us happy or miserable. How we get to live inside our stories for years or even decades, and what this does to our life and our sense of self.

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Vulnerable

I grew up in a world in which being vulnerable was a sign of weakness. Something to hide and correct as soon as possible.

I grew up in a culture in which weakness and strength were seen as attributes of the individual. Weakness – a personal problem. Strength – a personal achievement. What was supposed to take you from one to the other was personal will.

I grew up in a family that didn’t know how to deal with vulnerability. The message was that you need to keep your shit together and be strong. You succeed or you die trying.

The beauty of fragility. October 2021.

How exactly you go from vulnerability to strength is something that I never got to learn. Apparently, it should have been obvious and should have come by itself. But it didn’t.

I grew up with a sense of self (and masculinity) that depended a lot on one’s capacity to show strength and stay above water no matter what. If you’re vulnerable you’re weak, and if you’re weak you’re less of a man.

Vulnerability was treated a bit like an STD: pretend you don’t have it and run to the nearest clinic making sure nobody sees you.

Although I never felt comfortable with this and I often failed at “being strong”, it took me a long time to fully realize the toxicity of the whole thing.

Traumatized people will unwillingly pass on the trauma to their kids by acting in the only ways that are available to them – the ones that hurt them in the first place. As kids, we learn mostly by example, by experiencing the way people close to us act when they feel joyful, excited, sad, or angry. These early experiences shape the way our brain interprets situations and reacts to them.

Growing up in a family that doesn’t know how to express vulnerability in healthy ways creates adults who are equally incapable to express it appropriately. It’s not that they don’t want to. They haven’t learned how to do it or, more precisely, they have only learned the types of acting out (such as protecting oneself through isolation or aggressiveness) that they were exposed to.

Of course, our learning is not limited to what we see around us. As we grow up, we become more and more autonomous in how we learn and how we use that learning. But things are different when we’re very young. We depend on others. Our developing brain depends on the adult brains around us to regulate itself, because most of the mechanisms of self-regulation are simply not there yet.

It took me a long time to come to terms with my vulnerability and to stop seeing it as a weakness. I’m still not fully there. Maybe I never will.

Dewdrops on a spider web. October 2021.

Weakness is a lazy label we attach to others because we don’t feel like actually paying attention to what they’re going through, to the causes of their behavior. Weakness is an unforgiving label we attach to ourselves because we are too used to blaming and discrediting ourselves. These are mechanisms of avoidance or denial.

Our actions and behaviors have causes. If we look at all the causes leading us down a certain path, we can find predispositions, habits, traumas, emotional reactions, cognitive models – but we cannot find anything worth calling “weakness”. It is just a placeholder for things we don’t know or don’t care to know.

“Just try harder”, “come on, it’s not that bad”, or “be strong” are meaningless (and often insulting) for somebody feeling vulnerable. They are meaningless because they all reflect the same lack of attention and empathy for what actually goes on.

We need to be seen and held in somebody else’s attention and care much more often than we want advice or material help.

Snapshots, postcards and photos

What are our photos saying? What is their real subject?

Things have changed a lot since I first started playing with a camera, almost four years ago. I took a lot of bad shots. Felt tired and discouraged. Searched and experimented. Had small breakthroughs. Found myself in the right place at the right moment. Had moments of inspiration. Had tons of time with no inspiration. Had no time.

Then there was the whole rest of life. You know, the life that takes you for a ride that is sometimes slow and boring, some other times crazy and lighting fast.

The distinction between snapshots, postcards and photography is not meant to lecture anybody on what “real” photography is. Everybody photographs what the hell they want. Different subjects and styles makes sense to different people. There’s more than enough lecturing and dogmatism out there. I don’t want to add to it.

However, I think some differences matter. I’ve been around the photography world long enough to have a sense of what good, meaningful photography is. And what it is not.

My kid in a puppet theatre, watching two mousquetaires engaged in a duel.

Snapshots are the fast food of photography. It’s what you usually find on people’s smartphones, but there is also a lot of snapshot photography done with advanced and expensive cameras. There’s nothing wrong with snapshots, my phone is also full of them. They record moments of our lives. What can become annoying, at least for me, is the pretense of doing photographic work and presenting it as such.

If snapshots are a bit like fast food, postcards are like an expensive meal that you cannot really enjoy unless you talk about it to all your friends. It’s the chasing of spectacular places or subjects. It’s the kind of photography that generates countless almost identical shots of the same subjects photographed from the same angle. When I was still on Instagram account, I remember following an account that was posting collages of such similar photos. Depending on your mood, watching these can be either funny or depressing.

It goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong with photographing spectacular places. I wouldn’t have known about many of them without such easy access to postcard photography. Again, what is troubling is the pretense of depth and storytelling when all is offered, in the best case, is good technique. Sharp focus and good color editing are to be appreciated, but they do not replace or compensate for the lack of photographic vision and narrative.

The kind of photography I like (and aspire to do) tends to be personal and honest. Personal means that it’s based on a personal interest, problem, obsession. It’s not reducible to what others have done or to what others expect and like. Honest means that it does not try to pass as something which it’s not, or to take advantage of its subject.

Personal does not mean self-centered. Honest does not mean that we limit our creativity to showing only “what’s really there”. What counts is the photographer’s intention in taking a photograph. Is it meant to promote him or her? Or is it meant to uncover, explore, protect, honor something beyond us?

What are our photos really saying? Is it “look where I am right now”, “look who is posing for me”, or “check out how skillful I am with these highlights and shadows”? Or is it a way of documenting something bigger than ourselves, a way of disappearing in the shadow of a story that is worth telling?

As with everything else in life, things can be done in a way that continuously comes back to us, that is essentially about showcasing and congratulating ourselves. Or they can be done in a way that tries to witness, respect and honor the persons and stories we come across.

A different angle

Usually, we don’t look up or down unless there’s something out of the ordinary happening. Something that disrupts our horizontal routines. We are creatures of habit.

This is also reflected in photography. I don’t know about you, but most of my photos are eye level shots. This makes sense in many contexts, such as taking portraits. But it also narrows our perspective.

Changing the perspective, whether it’s a landscape or a personal problem, does not come easily because it messes up with our convenient little tunnel vision (that we usually call experience).

But changing the perspective is not just something we might do for the sake of creativity. Sometimes it’s the only thing to do to get unstuck.

There’s always more than one way of looking at what’s happening. Chances are we don’t just happen to find ourselves in the perfect field of view. In fact, many times we find ourselves in a hole and we react by keeping on digging, while waiting for something different to happen.

Here are a few shots that break away from the horizontal perspective, in response to Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #164 (Looking Up/Down).