A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can’t make old friends.
Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere
A few years ago one of my colleagues told me about his experience of visiting his mother in an “old people’s home”. Usually, he said, he spent his weekly visits talking just with his mum, and he saw the other residents in the home not as individuals with lives and stories, but more as a collection of geriatrics whose presence in his mother’s home he had no choice but to tolerate.
Then one day his mum was busy with something when he turned up for his visit and he had nothing else to do but talk with some of the people sharing the roof over his mother’s head. And he realised that they were amazing. He heard extraordinary stories about the lives that people had lead, the things they’d achieved and the sacrifices they’d had to make. It was a good reminder for him, he said, to always look behind the possible decrepitude to see the life and the love and the story.
A number of months ago I made a new friend in Geneva. I was sitting at a bus stop outside of the Art Geneve exhibition at Palexpo and the lady sitting next to me took an English novel out of her handbag, so I struck up a conversation with her. By the time we’d reached Cornavin we’d established that she was born in the same year as my mum and I was born in the same year as her daughter. This, to me, is a very special kind of friendship, for reasons that those who know me well will understand (and those who don’t can read about here). The next time we met we went to see a photography exhibition and spent about five hours telling each other about our lives. It was at the end of that rendezvous that I told her that I was going to be in The Vagina Monologues and she said she’d like to come along.
And she did. My lovely 72-year-old friend K was there in the audience for the matinee performance, laughing and crying and whooping it up with the best of them. The hug I got from her after the show was more important to me than perhaps she realises.
One of the monologues that K was most touched by was The Flood, which was based on Eve Ensler’s interviews with a group of women between 65 and 75. One of the women said that she’d never had an orgasm and had cried when she’d seen her clitoris for the first time at the age of 72. Eve Ensler wrote The Flood for her, and our directors cast the wonderful Christina to play her part. They couldn’t have chosen better. Christina’s warmth, charm and humour paid perfect tribute to the woman and the life that she might have had if things had panned out differently for her.
After the matinee performance of the play K asked if I could introduce her to Christina. A brief but beautiful moment passed between a 72-year-old woman and a woman decades younger who had played a 72-year-old woman.
It was a good reminder to all of us to always look behind the possible decrepitude to see the life and the love and the story.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.
As I get older I’m increasingly fascinated by the relationship between mothers and daughters. As I’ve mentioned here before, my own mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was six and she died when I was twelve, so most of my memories of her revolve around illness and death. I honestly can’t imagine what my life would be like if she were still in it, but I’m quite convinced that I’d be a different person, living in a different place and making my decisions against a backdrop of a whole different set of values.
I know that I’m guilty of romanticising the whole mother-daughter thing. It’s obvious even through the soft-focus of my nostalgia that a lot of adult daughters have difficult relationships with their mums. I’ve heard many complaints about mothers who criticise, mothers who bicker, mothers who have made unforgivably poor parenting decisions during a daughter’s formative years.
But I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have a mother around to bicker with!
At least two of the Vagina Warriors were able to get up on stage last weekend knowing that their mothers were out there in the audience. What an extraordinarily wonderful thing! The gorgeous girl sitting on my left on stage mentioned one night that her mum was going to be there and said that we’d probably hear her laughing and whooping and cheering. And we did! How fantastic! Throughout her life my mum was elegant and well-mannered but in some surprising moments could do the most impressively loud whistle with her fingers… I have no doubt that if she’d been around for The Vagina Monologues she’d have been whistling away with the best of them!
And so, since I’m a motherless, daughterless daughter with a keen interest in learning more about how mother-daughter relationships work in all their complicated glory, a new photography project has been born.
For the next year, I’m going to be seeking out mothers and daughters who’ll be willing to spend some time with me and my camera. The first assignation is already planned, and I’m hoping that after a couple of hours at the Divonne Markets with a lovely whooping woman and her beautiful adult daughter, I’ll have a slightly richer understanding of how life as part of this dynamic can be. And with subjects as lovely as these, capturing gorgeous portraits will be a doddle.
If you and your mum and/or daughter(s) would be interested in getting involved in this project, I’d be so very thrilled to hear from you. I’m based in Geneva at the moment but I travel a lot – please do get in touch no matter where you may be!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.