The long black shadow

A trip in the dark in a cold December morning, to revisit a place of love and leave it behind.

“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 glued to a long black shadow has disappeared completely.

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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.

Everything is in flow

The small stream is at almost perfect standstill.

There is an imperceptible movement somewhere, the water molecules are rolling downstream in slow motion. But to the naked eye everything seems frozen.

It’s early autumn and the first colorful leaves are slowly gathering on the water. The Great Falling of Leaves has not started yet.

I’ve stopped for a minute to have a drink of water and watch the sun playing its hide-and-seek through the branches.

It’s cool down here. It’s a good place to rest and stay silent.

Panta rhei said a Greek named Heraclitus about 2500 years ago. Everything is in flow.

There are hundreds of books, articles, movies, plays and paintings building on these two words. Panta rhei. You cannot step in the same river twice. Everything changes constantly.

Right here, although there is a small waterfall upstream, the silence and stillness are overwhelming. The water rushes down the waterfall and all of a sudden calms down as it zigzags between the rocks.

I’m sitting there and the stream is still on the outside but is moving through me. And it carries with it all the sorrow, clarity, regret, realisation, depression and hope of the recent past, like leaves on the water.

The seventh sky

So many memories of looking at the sky.

Up on the mountain, lying on my back and catching my breath after hours of hiking. There’s nothing else but that moment of heavy breathing and the clouds passing by. Then the breathing slows down and there’s just light. I lie there between the rocks and I become a rock, a part of the mountain.

Or at nightfall, close to the tent, staring at the Milky Way. The heat from the fire nearby distorts the image, as if playing an old roll of film that’s partially damaged. Fire sparks mingling with the stars. And that feeling of getting swept away into the sky. Falling off the face of the earth.

The seventh sky is where the sun is always shining while down here, on the ground, is miserable.

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.

The stories we tell ourselves: fear

I’ve never experienced war. I was not targeted by political repression or terror, although I’ve seen it happening around me. I did sufficiently well not to worry about my livelihood. I had a job continuously since I finished university. In fact, for most of this time I’ve had two jobs at the same time. Still, I feel like I’ve been living large parts of my life in fear.

Fear of what? What could have possibly been so scary?

Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa (1954). Mastery of fear was part of the Bushidō code.

I guess you could call it fear of myself. Of not performing well enough, not being sufficiently successful or sufficiently liked, not being up to the expectations. Fear of being rejected. Fear of losing someone’s affection. Fear of writing a text like this and putting it out. Fear of exposing oneself.

I remember myself in school. The teacher was asking questions on the current or the previous lessons. And I was pretty sure I had the right answer but I just couldn’t bring myself to raise my hand and talk. What if I screw up in front of my colleagues? In fact, even when I was completely sure my answer was right I still had a hard time speaking up. I’d rather keep silent than expose myself.

In those situations there was a fear of speaking up. But fear does not need to have a definite object. After a while, fear becomes its own object. You don’t say exactly what you mean, you don’t do exactly what feels right to you, you don’t react when something unacceptable happens, you don’t say no when you feel like saying no. It’s like being caught in a web of fear and you don’t even know anymore what you are fearful of. Fear and avoidance becomes part of how you see the world.

The problem with this is that it becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism. The more you live in fear, the more likely you are to continue living the same way. Not saying what you mean becomes second nature. Not being able to say no becomes an invitation to be taken advantage of.

Fear also changes the kind of stories you tell yourself. Living in fear means giving up agency, seeing yourself as a passive spectator, a patient or a victim. It means seeing yourself as being controlled by circumstances, the actions of others or your own emotions. And once the story you tell yourself becomes the story of a victim, you will be more and more likely to think and behave like a victim.

Because self-narratives are part of what makes up our identity. We become what we came to believe about ourselves, whether or not it was true to begin with. Ideas of self-worth, competence and ability and embedded in our narratives. Getting rid of a toxic idea means dealing with the story it is part of.

As pretty much anything else, fear can be tackled one step at a time. There are ways to re-learn to say what you mean and to do what you feel is right. The good news here is that self-reinforcement works both ways. Once you’ve practiced a bit and proven to yourself that it works (and that it’s less dificult than you thought), it gets easier to continue doing it.

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, you are encouraged to identify your cognitive scripts (the self-narratives) and question them, put them to the test, play with them and find alternative scripts. All this is meant to create some distance between yourself and the story you tell yourself. Once there is enough detachment, you recognize the story as a story. Something powerful but man-made. Something that was made – not a necessity of nature – and that can be unmade.

Fear is only as strong as the attachment to our own stories about ourselves.

You may also want to read the first part of the “stories we tell ourselves” series, which talks about shame.

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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.

Looking vs seeing

How often do you look at the sky?

Me, not so often when I’m living my normal city life. But when I’m out hiking and exploring, quite a lot. I look all around me.

We spend a big part of our life looking in front of us. We experience what happens to be happening in front of us. It’s like looking through a keyhole.

Even so, looking is not necessarily seeing. We look through things, we don’t pay attention, we don’t care that much. We see shapes and details but often what we’re really looking at is our problems, desires or expectations.

In some ways, taking photos helps you see more, because it forces you to focus on the essential. In order to do that, you have to identify the essential and render it visible. Neither of these comes by itself.

Identifying the essential is not easy because the essential is not out there. It has to do with the way we interpret the scene and what we want to make out of it. You may be in the most beautiful or interesting places on earth and not come up with anything more than random snapshots. The scene does not speak by itself. It needs purpose. It needs the right framing and idea to guide it.

There’s a world of difference between the scene as we see it and the photo taken. Compositions that make a lot of sense when we’re absorbed in the scene can result in flat, uninteresting or chaotic photos. The camera does not capture emotion, smell, mood, the whole experience of being there. It does not capture our field of vision. It captures photons from whatever direction you point it towards.

Turning this visual mess into something intesting has to do with things such as composition, subject and use of light. Deciding what to include in the frame and, maybe more importantly, what to leave out.

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.