Capturing in-between moments

I am in downtown Lisbon. It’s not a photo trip and I don’t have much time. But I have the camera with me. I turn a corner and there’s this amazing back side of a building, with old water downpipes going across the run-down facade. I stop for a second.

Then I see this girl at the window. Her profile is drawn perfectly against the darkness of the room behind her. She’s lighting a cigarette and talking on the phone. I quickly take two photos before she disappears.

It’s only later, when I look at these shots on a monitor, that I see her expression. She’s neither happy, nor too sad. She’s inside her own story. Maybe she’s in a call with her boyfriend. Or maybe it’s her estranged mom. Among all these people carelessly walking by, she’s alone within the bubble of her own life.

With photos – as with many other things in life – we usually try to plan in advance and prepare for the “right” moment. When that moment arrives, we are there, ready to capture what happens. Then we disengage and wait for the next moment. And then the next.

This selective focus has the obvious advantage of building structure and order into an otherwise chaotic stream of stimuli. But it can also make us overlook the potential of everything that happens in between. The potential of all those moments in between what we prepare for and pay attention to.

The in-between is simply a reflection of life, fluid and continuous. Life happening, irrespective of how we decide to categorize it, fragment it, or distinguish between what we think is relevant and what’s not.

That day in Lisbon, there was no planning or preparation. The photo was a spontaneous reaction to what was happening there and then. There’s nothing wrong with planning, but sometimes the most interesting stuff happens outside our carefully-laid plans.

Capturing a bit more of this fluid continuum of life means training ourselves into staying open. Staying awake. Staying flexible. Not hardening too much into our own expectations, concepts, or plans.

Accepting that the plans we make are merely organized intentions.

Acknowledging that value and beauty often travel incognito and that it takes a trained eye to recognize them.

Relaxing in the knowledge that there’s much we cannot control.

Looking at the world with the eye of the absolute beginner.

Being present and working with the situation as it is, not as you have wanted it to be.

Our obsession with high points robs us of the quiet, continuous flow of interesting stuff happening around us.

Life is mostly made up of in-between moments.

Wired for stories

One of my earliest memories is me lying on the bed while my dad was reading me a story. It is so early I’m not even sure if it is a real memory, or rather something I’ve picked up along the way and made it mine. I don’t remember what the story was. But I do remember how it felt to be told a story.

Stories are ways of telling one another things that matter. Telling them without simply describing them, without lecturing about them, and without forcing our moral conclusions on the audience.

I’m not only talking about popular tales, short stories, novels and the like. We are storytelling creatures and we structure our experiences and our past along narrative lines. The way we see ourselves becomes our story. One that we rewrite and redefine as we go along.

Dia de Muertos in Brussels (2019). This Mexican holiday is associated with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (1st and 2nd of November). What sets it apart is the atmosphere of celebration rather than mourning.

Long before we set out to tell a story, we listen to or read countless other stories. From grandma’s tales to the latest psychological thriller, we live among narratives. Many of them become part of us. We learn, consciously or not, about different story patterns and plots. About how good storytelling feels.

Dia de Muertos in Brussels (2019). Three women prepare themselves as the procession is about to start.

When telling stories or listening to them, we rely on this implicit knowledge of what a story is and how it should be told. We don’t need to know about narrative arc, plot and conflict in order to feel that some stories feel right and others not so much.

We are wired to look for stories, understand them as stories and extract personal meaning from them.

That’s why good stories are at the same time personal and universal. They speak to us directly, as if they were written for us. And they do the same with countless other people.