Who is that masked man?

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Susan Sontag

I'm special

Recently I’ve had a lot of conversations with fellow photography enthusiasts about how to go about taking pictures of people. If you see someone in the street that you’d like to photograph, do you ask them straight away for permission to take their picture, thereby potentially ruining the spontaneity of the moment that you wanted to capture? Or do you take the picture and ask for permission retrospectively? Or take it surreptitiously and hope they haven’t noticed? All are fraught in one way or another, and all wannabe street photographers seem to face this dilemma.

As my confidence with a camera increases, I’m feeling more of a desire to point my lens towards people – in addition to landscapes and architecture – so I’m having more frequent exchanges with potential “subjects” and have found, to my delight, that most of the exchanges have been incredibly positive and enriching. One day when I was walking around Coppet, on the shores of Lake Geneva, I asked a man sweeping the street if I could take a picture of him and his cart. Perhaps it was my hilariously broken French that made him so accommodating. Or the fact that I’m so happy when I’m out taking pictures that I’m constantly grinning and he found my happiness somehow infectious. Whatever it was, he smiled and laughed and chatted with me, then stood by his cart for a picture, then stepped away while I took a picture just of the cart. It was a wonderful few minutes which gave me more confidence for the next exchange.

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Another day, as I walked around Geneva, I was thinking about family portraits, which is the 2014 theme for the photography club that I’m in. As I thought about it I saw two women walking towards me who I supposed were mother and daughter. I love seeing mothers and daughters together, whether older than me or younger. Having myself been motherless for over 30 years and having had to comes to terms recently with the probably that I’ll never actually become a mother, I find the sight of mothers and daughters enjoying one another’s company incredibly potent, and I’m interested in exploring the relationship through the medium of pictures.

I can never assume in France and Switzerland that I share a common language with the people I’d like to photograph, so as these two women approached I asked in French if I could take their picture, and made sure that I communicated as much through body language – smiling and pointing at my camera – as through words. They didn’t speak, but silently nodded. Their facial expressions remained unchanged, I took their picture and said thank you, and they nodded once more and moved gracefully on.

Mother and daughter
When I was in London for the weekend recently I was so thrilled not to have to contemplate a language barrier that I was much less shy than usual about asking people whether I could point my lens in their direction. I don’t know if it was because I was at Borough Market, where people go as much to see and be seen as to buy amazing food, but whatever the reason, people were universally pleased to be asked. Nobody asked why I wanted to take their picture, they just stood and smiled while and clicked, then I thanked them and we all moved on. These exchanges resulted in pictures like these.

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I also had some experiences, that weekend, of people in the street wanting to help me, without me soliciting their advice, to get the best possible shot. In the first instance there was a man watching me as I took a picture of an interesting looking building. When I started talking to him, he agreed with me that the building was interesting but said that I hadn’t taken it from the best possible angle. He showed me that by standing in a slightly different place, I could capture not just that building, but also the Gherkin reflected off its glass walls. And later another man, standing looking up at the sky with his very professional-looking camera, saw that my eye had followed his to see what he was seeing, and so explained to me that we was trying to capture a picture of the Shard reaching in the heavens towards the top of the nearby sculpture. He wished me luck for getting the shot and moved on.

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All of these wonderful exchanges have helped not just to build my confidence in asking people whether I can take their picture, but also to recognise the potential for wonderful human interactions in the act of doing so. To the extent, in fact, that I’ve begun to feel a little sorry for the people who refuse the possibility of such exchanges. For example, one day in Geneva I saw a woman feeding the seagulls by the lake. My camera was very obviously not pointing towards her, but at the birds that swooped and dived over the water to grab their share of the food she was throwing in the air. The woman saw me with my camera and started yelling at me. My French wasn’t good enough to allow me to understand all of what she said, but I know it was unsavoury and I’m pretty sure that at one point she instructed the birds to pluck my eyes out. I think if I hadn’t had other lovely exchanges with people, this experience would have sent me scuttling back to the safety of photographing flowers. As it was, though, I just felt a bit sad for her, with all that suspicion and anger and misdirected rage. I wished her a happy day and moved on to more willing participants in the photographic exchange.

Having said all that, though, it’s so wonderful to occasionally find events where people’s whole reason for participating is to be photographed and admired. There’s no need for awkward exchanges – they’re there so that you might tell capture their beauty and grace for posterity. This weekend’s Venetian Carnival in Annecy was one such wonderful event. With any self-consciousness removed by the anonymity offered by their masks, the people strutted and preened and posed and positively delighted in being admired and photographed. This makes life easy for a fledging photographer like me. And the results make me hope that one day I’ll be able to capture people just as unselfconsciously when their masks – and mine – are removed.

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Confessions of an expat hostess

The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Bubble guy

I’ve always loved having people come to stay. Because I’ve spent my entire adult life living “away from home”, having visitors has always meant two things:

1)    A chance to spend some proper time with people that I love but get to see far too infrequently.

2)    An opportunity to show people around a place that they may not have visited before.

The older I get, the more I love playing hostess and tour guide. I decorate rooms. I draw up itineraries. I plan menus. I seem to have completely outgrown my old “let’s just book a flight and see what happens” holiday ways, as it seems to me now that if you just wait to see what happens, more often than not, nothing happens at all. I used to think that planning was the enemy of serendipity, but now I find that spontaneity arises more easily out of a loosely structured plan than out of a fog of optimistic indecision.

There are times when my planning works out well for me, and, I can only hope, for my guests. When M and I were living in Israel it was incredibly easy to show people a good time. After a trip to Masada, a dip in the Dead Sea, a day or two of discovering the historic sights and souks of the Old City of Jerusalem, and a walk along the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv, we’d suddenly find that a long weekend had passed with eventful (and sometimes even educational) ease.

There are other times when circumstances conspire to make me a less than relaxed hostess. Take the last year, for example. I would have thought, before moving into probably the biggest and most beautiful house that I’ll ever have the good fortune to inhabit, that welcoming guests into such an abode would be a doddle. And I’d have expected that living in the midst of the extraordinary beauty of Savoie would make it easy to decide where to take people. And that having easy access to some of the world’s finest food and wine would make catering for guests the biggest pleasure in the world.

Unfortunately it didn’t really work out that way and I can only apologise to the people who have come to stay with us in the Chateau de Collonges. Do you remember that scene in Groundhog Day where Phil and Rita built a snowman? In his frenzied desire to show what a fun-loving, likeable chap he is, Phil comes across as something of a weirdo. Let’s have some fun! he giggles. Come on! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Hey, here’s a humdinger over here! Hey! Wasn’t that great?!

I’ve been a bit like that.

Isn’t it beautiful?! Let’s go and see this amazing place! I know you’ve just flown from the other side of the world but forget about your jet lag! Stand right there to pose for a photo! No, not there! There! You love this fine French food I’ve found for you, don’t you? You don’t? But how could you not! It’s great! Yum! I love everything here! It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Ha, ha, ha! Aren’t we having fun?!

I blame the hormones. And the lack of alcohol. And I thank those of you who have visited from the bottom of my heart for saying that you’ve had a good time in spite of my frenzied regime of enforced fun.

Thankfully, there are also times when everything works like a charm in spite of my obsessive planning and feverish quest for amusement. Last weekend, when seven members of my family flew in from Inverness and Amsterdam to help M and I celebrate my birthday, was one of those times. Everything was so simple and so beautiful. My nephews, who are at ages where society might expect them to be sullen and withdrawn, were curious, interested, charming, intelligent and gracious. My niece, who at nearly-three could be forgiven the occasional temper tantrum, was cute beyond any reasonable expectations of cuteness. M and my brother-in-law coped valiantly with the inevitable emotional intensity of any gathering of my family that involves more than one person. And my siblings… Ah, they were my siblings. Having two of them around made me miss the other three even more intensely than I usually do, but apart from that, having them here, walking my Daily Walk and talking our incredible talks was the most fantastic of birthday gifts.

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There were many perfect moments over the three days that they were here but two, I think, will stay in my memory forever. The first was when we happened upon a guy on the shores of Lake Annecy who makes a living out of blowing giant bubbles. Using two sticks, a bit of old rope and his own secret-recipe solution, he creates what my sister Luli gorgeously described as magical trees in kaleidoscopic bubbles. He’s made sticks to suit people of all sizes so everyone got to have a go, as M and I stood back and watched the smiles of our family and of every single casual passer-by. I’ve had over a week to think about it now and still I can’t think of a better way to earn a living than by making big bubbles and beautiful smiles. Thank you, bubble guy.

The other moment was during our lunch in Annecy. I’d planned to make confit de canard for dinner that night, so rather than having anything heavy for lunch, we just bought sandwiches from one of Annecy’s fantastic sandwich stands. We had planned to eat and walk, but somehow, without discussing it, all nine of us ended up stopping at various points along a bridge across one of the canals that give Annecy the nickname of Venice of the Alps.

It was cold, and all of us, apart from my unbelievably hardy Scottish nephews, were wrapped in coats, scarves and gloves against the chilly wind. I looked across from my vantage point on the bridge and saw eight people that I love, quietly eating their sandwiches and taking in the gorgeous sights of this historic town. My twelve-year-old nephew was feeding crumbs to the seagulls, which swooped over our heads, their wings like sails taking them across the water and on towards tourists with tastier treats. Occasionally a couple of us spoke. My sister Luli, also recognising the gorgeousness of the moment, at one point took a little video of the scene. But mostly we all just stood there. Quietly. Just being in this beautiful place. Eating our simple delicious sandwiches and watching some of the people we love being together and apart and cold and warm and quiet and contented.

I was very spoilt for my birthday and was given many gorgeous gifts. And of all them, that moment was the one that I’ll keep inside and enjoy forever.

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