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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Vous devez faire de ce monde un paradis

I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and the dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

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From the moment my parents carried me home from the small country hospital where I was born until the day that I left that home 17 years later, my address was reliably static: 13 Buckland Street, Northam, Western Australia, 6401. (My Dad still lives in that house, as I’ve described, although the address, bizarrely, has changed.) My parents built 13 Buckland Street and mine is the only family ever to have lived there. So if the walls of the house could talk they would tell stories only of us.

My memories of the day that I moved out, in spite of all the many intervening years, are distinct. As I was packing up the last of my stuff, ready to get in the car and leave the only home I’d ever known, Terry Jacks’ song Seasons in the Sun came on the radio. Yes, yes, I know that the song is a travesty of Jacques Brel’s original Le Moribund and that it’s been described as one of the worst pop songs ever recorded. But on that day my interest in it was piqued only by the fact that some of the lyrics seemed heartbreakingly appropriate. “Goodbye, Papa, please pray for me, I was the black sheep of the family…” “You tried to teach me right from wrong, too much wine and too much song…” “Goodbye Michelle, my little one, you gave me love and helped me find the sun…” The song is about death and although the only death that day was that of my childhood, it still managed to imprint itself on my brain as a farewell to loves and places lost.

I think that goodbye was even more poignant than it might have been because of the fact that I wasn’t allowed to leave any trace of myself in the house. M is 50 next year and still has a few possessions stashed at his mother’s place. But as I was the tenth of the twelve children that Dad and his second wife had spawned between them (six belonging to his first family and six to hers), the two of them had had just about enough of children and their paraphernalia by the time I moved out, so I was promised that anything I left behind would immediately be thrown on a skip. My departure, therefore, was fairly definitive.

13 Buckland Street

(The house as seen now on Google Earth)

I’ve moved into and out of many places since then, the last one always, of course, feeling like the most significant. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been moving our stuff out of the Chateau de Collonges, that gorgeously enormous, beautifully decorated, sublimely situated mansion, and into a standard two-bedroom flat on the first floor of a modern apartment building. True to the pattern that was established when I was 17, I’ve left no trace of myself in the chateau. I’ve taken down our paintings and rehung those chosen by the owners. I’ve unstrung the fairy lights that I had trailing up the stairs. I’ve rolled up M’s Persian carpets and run a vacuum cleaner over the empty spaces they left beneath them.

But the older I get and the more houses I live in, the more I believe that it’s impossible to remove all traces of oneself from a place. I can’t imagine another family inhabiting 13 Buckland Street but it’s inevitable that one day they will. And I’m sure that when that family moves in, they’ll be subconsciously aware of the fact that the walls still somehow contain some of the love felt by the young couple who built the place. The fittings will still reverberate with the laughter and tears of the six children who were brought up there. The air will still be resonant with the stoic optimism of a man who shared his daily life with two remarkable women within those walls, and loved and lost them both.

For as long as M and I were living in the dependence of the Chateau de Collonges, every day felt like an event. It didn’t feel as though we had to do anything in particular while we were there; just being under that remarkable cathedral ceiling, or looking out of the window at the chateau next door, or sitting by the enormous fireplace, felt special. I’m not sure if that feeling was created by the remarkable architecture of the place or by the resonance of the lives that were lived there before ours, but every moment there seemed to be imbued with significance. The house itself was a paradise of sorts.

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I don’t have that feeling here in our new little modern apartment. But there is good news in that. While the chateau was a story in itself, our new home is no more or less than a safe and warm place from which to create stories of our own. We’ve only been here for ten days or so, but as each day passes it becomes more evident to me that while I don’t like to change the places that I live in, I very much like those places to change me. In the first week that we lived here, I attended my first photography club meeting, went to my first French class, swapped books with my friends at the end-of-year wrap-up meeting of the Geneva International Book Club, joined lovely friends to see the cinema release of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as directed by Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in 2011, had lunch on the shores of Lake Geneva with another lovely friend and walked down the road to the gorgeous Divonne Sunday Markets.

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I was nervous about going to my first French class. The level of the group is a little above mine but I thought I might enjoy trying to rise to the challenge. After we finished my first ever exercise in the class, one which involved completing each written sentence with the correct form of the imperative, we went around the room taking turns at reading the sentences out loud. I counted the number of students around the table and the number of sentences left to read so that I could practice before I had to read to the others. It said, “Vous devez faire de ce monde un paradis.”

You must make of this world a paradise.