Single Photo Stories – new weekly series

I am starting a weekly series focused on stories built around single photos. I will keep all stories under 100 words. Being concise is a skill, probably one of the most difficult to acquire. Stories can be directly linked to the photo (how it was taken, what was happening) or they can simply use the photo as a writing prompt.

For today, I chose this grainy photo on a windmill in a small nature reserve close to where I live.

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Minimalism

Almost anything can be improved by removing stuff. Simplifying it. Getting rid of the clutter. Then getting rid of even more clutter, which at first glance may have seemed important.

It works with books, photographs, relationships, or lives.

We are compulsive hoarders of sensations, emotions, objects. We commit to impossible schedules and we have impossible ambitions. We want to be everywhere and part of everything. Not miss out. Not be left out. We live on the run and then, from time to time, we inevitably break down.

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The dead-end

There’s a previous part to this, available here.

I get off the train feeling thirsty and scattered as if I couldn’t put myself together and I left an undefined part of me in that compartment. I breathe in the cold morning air, petting a stray dog, and then I start walking on the side of the road towards my destination. Apart from the single employee of the train station, with a uniform that he seems to have worn continuously for the last two decades, and a couple of alcoholics having their first vodka and beer at the tiny bar of the station, there’s nobody around.

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Human signals through the fog [English/Français]

It’s 4 am and it feels like the day will never come. It may come on another planet, where things still go on the way they always used to. The sun will rise and the myriad creatures of that planet will bask in the morning light, stretch, and warm their bodies.

Down here, it feels like the outside is a huge underground hall.

I watch through the window the milky fog advancing through the houses, like a thief in the dark, swallowing them one by one.

There’s a special quality to loneliness at 4 am. You don’t simply feel far from the others, or detached from them. You feel as if the others are not there anymore. The planet has been silently struck by a deadly pandemic overnight. For some incomprehensible reason, I am still here to witness the morning after.

I would like to say I only have myself but the truth is that I don’t know what I still have – and who is this me having it. The contours of my sense of self are dissipating and hovering around the room. Slowly floating away through the open window. I am not happy. I am not sad. I am simply not quite there anymore.

It’s 4 am and all the memories that could hurt me, all the ghosts of the pasts, are already here. Watching me with their small beady eyes from the dark corners of the room. Not attacking, just letting me know they are present.

Outside it’s the dawn of a subterranean, fake, engineered appearance of a day.


Signaux humains à travers le brouillard

Il est 4 heures du matin et j’ai l’impression que le jour ne viendra jamais. Le jour va peut-être arriver sur une autre planète, où les choses se passent toujours comme avant. Le soleil se lèvera et les myriades de créatures de cette planète se prélasseront dans la lumière du matin, s’étireront et réchaufferont leur corps.

Ici, j’ai l’impression que l’extérieur est une immense salle souterraine.

Je regarde par la fenêtre le brouillard laiteux qui s’avancer parmi les maisons, comme un voleur dans le noir, les avalant une à une.

Il y a une qualité particulière de la solitude à 4 heures du matin. On ne se sent pas simplement éloigné des autres, ou détaché d’eux. On a l’impression que les autres ne sont plus là. La planète a été silencieusement frappée par une pandémie mortelle du jour au lendemain. Pour une raison incompréhensible, je suis toujours là pour témoigner le lendemain.

Je voudrais pouvoir dire que je n’ai que moi-même mais la vérité est que je ne sais pas ce que j’ai encore, et qui est ce moi ayant des choses. Les contours de mon sens de soi se dissipent et flottent dans la pièce. Ils flottent lentement à travers la fenêtre ouverte. Je ne suis pas heureux. Je ne suis pas triste. Je ne suis tout simplement plus là.

Il est 4 heures du matin et tous les souvenirs qui pourraient me blesser, tous les fantômes du passé, sont déjà là. Elles regardant avec leurs petits yeux globuleux depuis les coins sombres de la pièce. Elles n’attaquent pas. Elles me font savoir silencieusement qu’ils sont présents.

Dehors, c’est l’aube d’un jour artificiel et souterraine.

The things we keep in the dark

Maybe it’s the rain. Maybe it’s the lack of good sleep. Maybe it’s the alignment of planets. The evil eye. The karmic debt. The fury of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. A short circuit in the ancient parts of my brain, those that I share with lizards and frogs.

The beauty and the ruin. Belgium, October 2021.

Maybe it’s none of this crap.

Whatever it is, I feel like a scared soldier, hiding from a war that ended long ago. Feeling all his old wounds come alive with the slightest change of weather.

It’s not so much the hurt. It’s being alone with the hurt.

This cosmic way of being out of sorts.

Wearing your inside out and making the impossible to hide it.

This all too familiar vulnerability. The constricting feeling in the chest, as if the walls are closing in.

The feeling of being cornered by something you must absolutely escape. Fight or flight. Escape at all costs.

Choose your poison and drown in it. Your favorite toxin, your sickening sweet self-sabotaging story. The one you hate but still cannot let go of. Your preferred “I’m shit and I’ll never be enough” narrative.

Will I ever be able to get up, smile, and sing?

Will I ever be loved again?

Will I ever amount to anything?

Was I ever loved?

The things we keep in the dark.

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.

Sanctuary

We have always needed places of refuge and protection from others and from ourselves. Without them, our individual and social wellbeing is threatened.

The Abbey of Villers-la-Ville is a 40-minutes drive from Brussels, Belgium. Built in the 12th century, the abbey was abandoned in 1796 and fell into ruin. At the height of its power, it was said to host 100 monks and another 300 men who were not formally bound by the vows of the Cistercian order. Like many other places of its kind, the abbey functioned not only as a place of worship but also as a sanctuary.

Terminologically, sanctuary refers to a sacred place or a container of a sacred object. Its meaning has evolved to refer to places that offer protection to those who need it: heretics, political opponents, all sorts of persons persecuted for their beliefs or practices.

Sanctuaries were usually designated areas within or around churches and abbeys. Under certain conditions, people could take refuge within their walls. They were hosted and fed until the danger passed. They were protected until they could return home or continue on their way.

For most of our history, the idea that persons have individual rights that need to be publicly protected was a weird notion. Rights were a result of status or function, and compliance with rights was subject to the whims of local or central power. In fact, long after individual rights have been recognized by law, we’re still a long way from ensuring that they are actually respected.

The idea of sanctuary derives from a basic need for understanding and empathy. Its premise is that we can all be subject to persecution or oppression. We may not fully understand the others’ ordeal, but we realize that they need protection. We also realize that we could be in their place. That is why we need places of refuge that can accommodate different individual circumstances.

Sanctuaries are complex institutions. They may have moral authority, but they often do not have the legal and political power to enforce compliance. Even when they have some degree of political power, as in the case of US cities that disregarded Trump’s sociopathic immigration policy, they need to confront a higher political power.

Nevertheless, sanctuaries work. They rely on acts of courage and kindness that build upon one another and become examples for others.

But oppression is not always external. We also need to take a break from ourselves – from our relentless self-criticism and blaming. We need shelter and protection from our demons. We need a space of acceptance and non-judgment where we can rest and recharge.

Inner sanctuaries are difficult to create and maintain. For some of us, childhood offers good premises for emotional self-regulation and a solid sense of self-worth and agency. For others, these premises are shaky. They struggle with trauma, depression, and low self-esteem. Reinforcing these premises is the work of a lifetime.

Most forms of therapy and self-care rely on the creation or restoration of this inner sanctuary. Before we can do something about our problems, we need to stop identifying with them. Before we can act, we need to restore a sense of autonomy and agency.

As our circumstances change, our sanctuaries may need to change too. They may need to be reinvented. But our need for spaces of refuge and protection – whether from outside persecution or the ghosts of our mind – is here to stay.