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.

Pictures and words

I very rarely publish a photo without writing about it. Sometimes just a few words. Other times 2-3 paragraphs. A few times it’s mostly text and the photo seems almost a secondary element.

Good photography can talk by itself. Truly great photos carry the story and the emotion within that frame. But great photos are few and far in between for anybody, including accomplished photographers. And all photos, great or not so great, can benefit from written word.

In some cases, written word just adds context and detail. The story is transmitted visually. The text is secondary and only accentuates, clarifies or adds color to the visual narrative. Sometimes, it talks about the personal connection or involvement with the subject of the photo.

Blue, green and gold.
The rising sun has set the top of the trees on fire and it’s just starting to reach the forest floor. Parts of this blanket of bluebells are still in deep shade.
Everything is changing fast. The light, the colors, the mood of the whole scene.

In some other cases, visuals combine seamlessly with text. One could not stand without the other. The text is more than a caption. The photos are more than an illustration of a written idea. The photo essay or the documentary photo projects are classic examples of this.

The combination of visual and written has something powerful not so much because “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but because each of these means of expression adds something that the other cannot. They are complementary, not contiguous.

In the end, the means of expression is less important than what is transmitted. Is the story genuine, interesting, meaningful? Is it something that speaks to you, that will stay with you?

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.

Silent streets

The crowds will eventually return. The students, the rich, the tourists, the loners, the freaks, the drinkers will cross each other again along these medieval streets.

These streets 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.

But for now, the city still lives its silent life. Still breaths its hidden breathing. Almost deserted.

Street highlights and shadows, with the tower of the Brussels City Hall in the background.
Old books on display in a closed pub.
Street art and oblique shadows.

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.

Old tombstones

These 18th – 19th century tombstones are to be found in the back garden of small wooden churches in Transylvania. The grass grows wild. It gradually covers the tombstones, which are now perfectly integrated in the natural landscape.

These church gardens are usually full of flowers, some of them cultivated but most of them wild. You cannot really tell where the cultivated part fades into wilderness. Some other gardens are full of fruit trees. Older trees, with long roots reaching out into the tombs and deeper still. And more recent ones, whose growth over time has pushed them closer and closer to the tombstones. Fallen fruits mingle with wild flowers in this place for the dead and the living.

The black dog of depression

Photos from inside the tunnel, Dec 2019 – Jan 2020.

“Being anxious at this extreme level is bizarre. You feel all the time that you want to do something, that there is some affect that is unavailable to you, that there’s a physical need of impossible urgency and discomfort for which there is no relief, as though you were constantly vomiting from your stomach but had no mouth. With the depression, your vision narrows and begins to close down; it is like trying to watch TV through terrible static, where you can sort of see the picture but not really; where you cannot ever see people’s faces, except almost if there is a close-up; where nothing has edges. The air seems thick and resistant, as though it were full of mushed-up bread.”

Andrew Solomon – The Noonday Demon: An Atlas Of Depression

Quarantine

This is a good time to ask ourselves what are the things we could go without, and what are the ones we really need. The ones we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live without.

We often confuse want and need. And we’re not always clear about what we need. This takes information, learning and reflection.

The quarantine forces us to think about what we really need. On the one hand, we can experience first-hand how it is to live without a lot of things for longer. On the other hand, it forces us to change habits, shift priorities and focus on the essential, in order to stay sane.

I used to be a passionate skier. This winter I haven’t skied at all. Last winter I had one day of skiing. As it becomes more difficult to find natural snow and ski resorts are scrambling to ensure good conditions, skiing becomes too much of an environmental nuisance for me to go on. I miss waking up in the morning to fresh snow, and making the first descent on the slopes while there’s nobody else around. But building huge water tanks up in the mountains, to ensure enough water for artificial snow, is not cutting it for me. And skiing on crowded slopes in high season, on those patches that can be covered by snow cannons, is not my idea of being in nature.

I am a passionate dancer. Being in the flow, having the right connection with your dance partner, being fully present in that moment are pretty amazing things. Would I be able to go on without? I know I would be missing it a lot. After a while I would probably start dreaming about it. I would dance alone. And then it guess I would just think less and less about it. I’d miss it from time to time, but nothing unbearable. As you would miss a lover.

I’ve been in love with forests and mountains for most of my life. Being deep in the forest at sunrise. Looking all around you from the mountain top after a day of hiking and climbing. There’s no formulation that does justice to this feeling. There’s nothing that compares. Would I be willing to give up hiking and mountaneering? If I had a choice, if I had the slightest choice, no.

If there would be no choice, I would survive. But my life would not be the same.

Transylvania

The place beyond the forests (that’s what the name means) that I’ve discovered as a child and I always returned to.

Apuseni July 2019