Exposure

I started out, as most of us do, being overly preoccupied with sharpness and focus. Of course, there’s a place for sharpness and focus and some compositions require them more than others. But there is also lots of scope for playing with them and sometimes leaving them behind. This is true even for documentary photography, where selective focus and graininess can produce amazing results.

For this week’s Lens-Artists Photo Challenge, Sofia dares us to show how we play with exposure in order to create mood, movement, and emotion. I have selected a few photos shot a few days back, in Brussels, at a procession organized for Dia de Muertos. I remember following the same procession three years ago, before the Covid pandemic.

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Tender is the night

I suddenly woke up as if an alarm was going off somewhere. A high-pitched noise drilling holes into the fabric of reality. But there is nothing. The silence is complete, definitive, almost painful.

I dreamt of you. Again. You were looking at me with that look of calm detachment. Not even disappointment. Not even resentment. Just coldness, as if you were looking through me, beyond me, to whatever else was there once I was out of the picture.

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Rainy night

It rains over the city like a curtain falling after a big show.

Contours are blurred out. Light trails lit up the night. Colors dissolve into one another. Hurried silhouettes pass by.

Summer is gone. The irreversibility of this simple fact is now made concrete, almost painfully tangible. There’s no going back to that part of life, with all its good and bad.

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Night flight

This Belgian village counts just a handful of houses, meandering across the hills. In front of the church, there’s a hand-written sign: “big fire on Saturday”. That’s about all the detail. Here, everybody knows everybody. And everybody knows where everything happens.

It’s the communal bonfire at the end of the carnival. The burning of winter in effigy.

As it gets darker, people start gathering on a hill outside the village. Some of them costumed. Kids are running around, high with excitation and fatigue. It’s freezing.

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Artificial Light

I used to photograph in natural settings most of the time. Natural light was a given, with some exceptions when I wanted to experiment, especially when shooting in very low light.

Then I started photographing in urban settings more and more. I love walking around early in the morning or late at night. I like the backstreets that feel as if they are still part of an old, forgotten city frozen in time. I like the energy of city life – not the crowds but the small gestures and happenings at the margins. I like to see the city calming down and, in a way, coming back to itself after all the agitation and shouting are gone. I like to observe people going about their lives.

These photos respond to this week’s Lens-Artists Challenge, Artificial Light, proposed by Ann-Christine.

Brussels, 2020
Belgian countryside, 2019
Lisbon, 2020

Darkness my friend

It got dark in the forest. I left the river behind and I’m climbing. I can hear my heart beating fast. I can hear the forest living its night life.

Down by the river (Belgium, 2021). Photo by the author.

In the dark, my senses become hyper-acute. We’re so dependent on light that we instinctively cling to it and gravitate towards it. We use any remaining shred of light to reassure ourselves.

But we can also let go of light and relax in the dark for a while. What a thing – to let go of certainty and control.

What’s the worst that can happen? Seeing that everything still works despite us not being there to control it?

Being deep in the forest at night is like letting all defenses down and facing myself. There’s no protection but still I feel strangely protected. I cannot tell what will happen but I am fine with it. Be as it may.

I am climbing my way up in the dark and bumping into bushes and rocks. I hear sounds all around me. There’s no need to look back. I know I’m safe here.

The forest has the eyes of a mother.

The long black shadow

“You cannot get rid of your shadow”, she thought while driving. It was 5:30 am. A chilly December morning. Definitely not the kind of morning when you’d jump out of bed at 5 and take a ride in the dark. And still, there she was.

What was she looking for? Behind the wheel, she was asking herself exactly this – and it was hard to find a good answer. It was more of a compulsion. When she woke up that morning, after few hours of sleep, she just couldn’t resist it anymore. She felt that she had to return to that place.

As if you’d been running for a long time, trying to leave your shadow behind, and now you finally give in and turn back. Your shadow is there all right, glued to your feet.

She had not been to that place in a while but she knew it well. In fact, it’s where most of her dreaming took place. It’s where he brought her for her birthday, in what now seemed like a different life. It’s where they laid down in the tall grass, watching the hypnotic shapes of the clouds backlit by the setting sun.

What was he saying back then? She could not quite remember. But his words were like flashes into the night, illuminating the sky for a split second. Burning her on the inside, one flash after another. She remembers feeling as if she was there, completely present with that moment, and at the same time watching the whole scene from outside. Watching his lips move in slow-motion and the tall grass dancing in the night wind. Telling herself “this moment will pass and never come back”.

That cold December morning, she felt compelled to return and look for that fleeting moment and the echo of his words. Look for him, knowing full well he won’t be there. Look for her, as she used to be back then.

Like being stuck in a dark room and searching for the door, where you know the door has always been. But the door is not there any longer. Everything you feel is uninterrupted wall on all sides. There’s no exit.

The wind picked up and brought her back to the present. She had been staring at the spot where, in a different geological time, they’ve set up the tent and listened to the sounds of the night. Owls, foxes, dogs and many others, impossible to identify.

Behind her, the long black shadow cast by the streetlight is pointing towards the place where the sun should have already appeared. It’s dark with just a hint of light on the horizon. An aborted sunrise. The thought that all this may well be a dream, one of the many dreams that took her back to that place, is strangely comforting.

As she is standing there, an invisible camera moves away from her and goes up for the final shot. She looks around as if she wants to take it all in. Then she slowly walks away, her shadow getting incredibly large, like a giant finger pointing towards something far away, across the fields.

She gets smaller and smaller into the picture. Just a spec, a pixel in a noise of pixels. And everything else – the places they shared, the forest, the muddy fields, the farm at the end of the road, the village nearby – is getting smaller and smaller. The world wakes up and all the colors, sounds and smells of life get into the picture as the camera moves away.

The girl dragging her feet and her long black shadow have disappeared completely.

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.