Taking photos with the body

Taking photos depends on moving, exploring, changing the perspective. Approaching possible photo compositions and subjects from different angles. Dancing around them to find a good composition. Waiting for the good moment. It’s physical.

Foggy morning in the Belgian countryside / April 2021

I used to favor zoom lenses. It was convenient to be able to zoom in and frame from a distance. But my way of approaching scenes and subjects has changed. I’m more interested in what can be captured using my feet, my hands and my whole body. I rarely feel like changing the focal length.

This has little to do with the technical advantages of prime lenses. It’s more about the physical experience of taking a photograph and the way I position myself in relation to the subject.

Novice archers used to learn that the bow and arrow were an extension of their body. Great archers were perfecting the art of being one with their bow. Likewise, the camera is an extension of the body. The body is the one having the experience worth capturing. It is also the one positioning itself in time and space to take that shot.

When I say body, I mean the whole living, feeling, and thinking organism.

Using the camera as an extension of a living body changes the experience of taking photos. It’s a subtle change. It has to do with taking responsibility, being present, putting in the effort.

It has to do with accepting ourselves in our own body and accepting the results of our effort as they are.

Revealing and hiding ourselves

Writing and photography are ways of revealing ourselves. We’re longing to make ourselves known, but we’re also frightened to reveal too much. As if this would make any difference in the world.

Sunrise in Foret de Soignes (Belgium, 2020). Photo by the author.

Some things cannot be said directly because they would expose us too much. Some others cannot be said because we don’t know how to express them, although we know there’s something worth saying. So we play in the foggy marshes of fiction, metaphor and allegory. We use words and images that uncover a bit and hide a lot.

I would like to be able to take off all the masks and, for once, just say who I am. You know, like handing a business card to somebody: this is who I am. But it’s not that easy. No matter how open I’d try to be, I would probably end up telling a story about myself. I would still remain hidden beneath it.

But I’ll give it a try anyway.

I am a man in his 40s. An introvert. The father of a 10yo boy. A dancer. A photographer. An expat.

(You see, even some of these short sentences sound strange to me. Man in his 40s? I never think about me like this. I am a young adult frozen in time. Expat? It’s not how I label myself at all.)

I started taking photos about three years ago, as a way of recording (and then sharing) what was happening in my long walks in the wild.

I have written for a long time, but it was for an audience of one: myself. Journaling my life. I also wrote professionally, mostly academic papers. There, there was an international audience, but the writing was impersonal. The papers had some impact, but they could have been written by so many others with similar interests.

When I get tired of it all, I spend some time in the wild. It brings me back to life.

I try to be a good dad, but I often feel like a kid myself. A kid with insecurities and with a huge need of affection and reassurance.

I tend to judge myself harshly and put a lot of pressure on myself. I am often anxious.

I get more and more aware of time. Of its passing. I try to make it count. I mostly fail at this but I keep trying.

Snowed in

Alone on the mountain. I’ve been hiking for a few hours. I can only hear my breathing and the sound of my steps in the snow.

It started around lunch. At first hesitant, a few snowflakes here and there. Then settling in, with a constant but calm snow fall all through the afternoon. Then fully unbound, with ridiculously big snowflakes. Like a thick white curtain blowing in the wind.

Winter up high. Sinaia (Romania), January 2018.

My mountain trail should have taken 5-6 hours to complete, but it became more and more difficult to advance through the fresh snow. I’ve lost, then found, then lost again the trail markers. It was late afternoon and I just stopped, with no plan and no hope to get back down before nightfall.

Half-frozen, I took refuge in a shack used by shepherds during the summer, as they travel slowly across the mountain range with their flock. The shack smelled of old wood and sheep skin. It smelled of loneliness.

I always have problems sleeping in a place I don’t know, but here I’ve dozed off almost instantly. It may have been my mind refusing to confront the situation. I say sleep but it felt more like falling into a bottomless pit. As if my mind completely shut off. There was dark, with only distant echoes of what would normally have been dreams.

And then there was light.

The light was coming from a small, dirty window pane.

It took me a minute to gather myself and realize where I am. The fright and confusion of last night seemed like distant memories. I was fully clothed and wrapped in a sheep-smelling blanket.

I stepped outside. Blinded by the light, I took in the cold air. Everything felt fresh, as if just created. I was ready to take my first step in the virgin snow.

Just as when I was little, I silently said “me” to remind myself that I am actually existing here and now. And, just as when I was little, I got dizzy from actually realizing this.

Out of the frame

Photography is as much about what we include in the frame as about what we leave out of it.

I think the point applies to much more than photography.

Protection. Eifel National Park, Germany, 2018.

What we call focus is not only about the thing we focus on. Monomaniacs are very focused persons but they’re dysfunctional. What they lack is the capacity to change focus and decide what they need to leave out of their mental frame.

It’s not so much the ability to keep our attention on a subject that differentiates us. It’s the capacity to choose our focus, shift our focus and choose what to ignore. This involves self questioning, self restraint, and the ability to differentiate between what’s relevant and what’s not.

There’s a whole world out there and we are looking at it through a tiny mental viewfinder. This is our in-built limitation, but it’s also a gift.

At the end of the day, for anything we set out to do, the clarity of our focus will largely depend on what we decide to keep out of the frame.

How to be completely miserable in five easy steps

Unless you’re living in a cave, it is impossible to avoid the assault of online self-improvement advice. It’s all over and it covers everything from stress management to changing habits. Pearls of wisdom are overflowing from all corners of the internet.

Couple on holiday (Lisbon, 2019)

I don’t know about you, but for me this continuous flow of (mostly) unrequested advice makes me want to break something. I mean, I can live with the fact that so many people feel entitled to give advice. But often the advice is just generic stuff regurgitated from other sources. You can immediately tell when you stumble upon pompous bullshit.

Instead of breaking stuff, I will offer my own advice on how to be utterly and completely miserable.

I am well aware that many of us manage extremely well to be miserable without any external help. However, I feel that additional structure and reasoning can only improve the quality of one’s misery.

I. Follow all the possible advice on how you can improve yourself. This will offer a unique opportunity to feel inadequate, as it’s simply impossible to assemble it in a coherent whole that actually benefits you. To add insult to injury, you will also feel like a total loser for not staying the course. For not mastering self-control in five weeks, like this random guy that offers you a discount on his course on self-control.

II. Get into arguments on social media. Everybody knows that this is how people change their opinions – by being lectured or insulted online by strangers.

III. Publish everything you create (be it writing, photography, drawing, music, anything really). Then agonize over the lack of sufficient validation in the form of likes, comments, shares, or anything else you tend to consider a sign of interest or appreciation.

IV. Be harsh on yourself over every little perceived failure. Tell yourself that you are simply unable to get it right. Don’t let it slide. Squeeze all possible self-loathing out of it.

V. Don’t be satisfied with current failures. Dwell on the past and replay mentally your moments of low and embarrassment. This will ensure that, rather than going through the normal process of gaining perspective and healing, you have the chance of keeping these wounds open.

There it goes. Actionable advice for both amateur and professional self-saboteurs. My modest contribution, based on personal experience, to the underrepresented field of self-undermining therapy.

Crossing lines and dead leaves

A morning walk in the forest. The fresh snow fallen during the night simplifies and clarifies what would otherwise be a busy, grey landscape.

I stopped in this small clearing. Everything is silent. The rusty leaves of last summer are still hanging on, like a nostalgic tune. The background retains some of the mist and snow dust of early morning.

This door was open only for you

There are visible doors that remain closed forever. And there are invisible doors that become visible only when they close.

Once upon a time, a man from the countryside wanted to get access, through a guarded door, to law (or justice). However, every time he tried to get in, the doorkeeper told him he cannot let him in just yet. The man was being told that getting access to law was possible. Months passed, then years, but the door remained closed.

The man started bribing the doorkeeper and he spent everything he had just to be able to return to the gate with an ever higher bribe. The man got old. Just before dying, he asked the doorkeeper why he never saw anybody else trying to enter through that door, since all people seem to be seeking the law. The doorkeeper replied:

“No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

There’s something haunting about this story, first published by Franz Kafka in 1915 and then included in his novel “The Trial”. And even if you can’t quite put your finger on it, you recognize and react instinctively to its strangeness.

It’s as if looking inside a deep, endless well. As if looking inside yourself.

It reminded me of a Romanian folk tale I’ve mentioned a few weeks ago. The tale starts like many other tales, with a hero embarking on a personal quest. In this case, the hero sets out to find immortality. But as the story advances, things turn dark and unpredictable. Although the hero emerges victorious from all the fights and traps he finds along the way, he does not find what he’s looking for. When he returns home, he finds Death itself waiting for him. But it’s not the Grim Reaper of everybody and nobody in particular. It is his own Death, waiting just for him.

Like any good story, Kafka’s parable is open to interpretations. Is it about justice, state authority, the crushing power of impersonal rules? Yes, but not only. Is it about alienation? Yes, but not only. The story is richer than any particular interpretation or moral message you could draw from it.

Maybe that’s what stories do. They speak about doors – about change, transformation, passage to something different. But they are not necessarily meant to help you open that door, only to make you realize it’s your door.

Tombstones and wild flowers

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.

Alone in the puppet theatre

I wake up suddenly in a place I don’t recognize. As I lie on my back, I look up and I see colors. Like an unfocused lens, I see blurry patterns before I can make out objects. And then it dawns on me. I am still in the puppet theatre where I’ve come last night for the performance.

I cannot remember what happened after the show or how I got to spend the night here. The colors above me are the puppets hanging on the walls of the small theatre room. These are the old puppets, retired after having served in so many plays over the decades. Now they are facing the scene just like the rest of the audience. In fact, they are part of the audience. They can watch the new puppets performing in exactly the same plays they used to do.

Am I dreaming? Did I black out? It’s simply not possible that I’m still there.

I’ve dreamt of this room so many times. Its old wooden beams. Its long wooden benches. Its small scene covered by painted wooden boards. The smell of old wood and dust. The little funny speech of the master puppeteer at the start of the play. The moment when the lights go out. When the wooden boards move to the side and reveal the scene. People slowly settling down and stopping their whispering.

And then it starts.

It’s funny, you know. You enter this room and you look around and there’s a cynical voice inside wondering if you’ll be able to make it through the play. If your adult mind will still be able to access that state of grace. To enjoy the show. I’m not talking about putting yourself in the shoes of a child. I’m talking about letting yourself be swept over. Looking at what’s happening in that spot of light in front of you with total openness and wonder.

When the play is over, as people go out, the master puppeteer is always there, thanking each of them. He is still using his puppeteer voice when he tells them, with a smile: “If you loved the play, go tell your friends about it. If you didn’t love the play, it stays between us.”

Am I locked in here? Did they simply forget about me at the end of the play?

It’s all so real. I can feel the hard wooden bench I’m lying on. I see the puppets just above. I feel the amazement of being here. It’s dark outside. And there’s that unmistakable smell of old wood and dust.

I close my eyes. I am here, whether it’s in my dream or not. What will be will be.

A lone tree has fallen

These two photos are separated by more than two years and a half. I’ve taken the first one in the spring of 2019 because I was struck by the image of the lone tree against the moody sky.

It was a cold, humid and moody day. The tree looked like it had been dead for some time. But it stood tall, its branches reaching out for something. Reaching out with no expectation of receiving. The stone wall to the right belongs to a medieval chapel.

I came back in December 2020 and I saw the tree fallen. It hadn’t been cut. It had simply collapsed under its own weight. It fell towards the stone wall, its highest branches reaching over into the chapel courtyard. Its branches are still reaching out, like the human casts of unfortunate citizens of Pompeii, caught by the lava with their hands reaching out for an escape. Just like the first time, it was cold and cloudy.

There is a Romanian folk tale in which the hero goes through all sorts of trials in order to achieve his dream – immortality. When he finally gets back home, victorious from all the battles but jaded and without having achieved his goal, he stumbles upon his own death. The grim reaper had been there all the time, waiting for him – for him and nobody else.

I don’t know why this tree reminded me of this folk tale. Maybe because, in its dry stillness, the tree offered an impression of endurance beyond life, until it collapsed. It projected an image of immortality and it met its own death there, in the field.

“The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber. The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry