Pictures and peacocks

Taking pictures is savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.

Marc Riboud

Pride

Hey, I just remembered something exciting – I have a blog!

It seems that completing the April A to Z Challenge must have taken it out of me. I haven’t written a single word since 30 April. I’ve barely even looked at my blog. I haven’t even responded to some of the lovely comments that people kindly left, congratulating me on making it to the end. And a whole lot of messages and emails that gorgeous friends have sent to me in the last number of months remain unanswered.

Sixty days have passed since I composed the final fullstop of the 30,000 words that I wrote for my Vagina Monologues-inspired challenge, and now I suddenly feel compelled to write again. That means that I’ve needed one day’s recovery for every 500 words that I wrote… I can hardly call myself a writer with those sorts of statistics following me around!

I’m offering one final stat, though, to explain the mitigating circumstances behind my absence from the world of writing. Since I last posted on my blog I’ve taken about 3,000 photographs. And I even quite like one or two of them. I’ve started to frequently update my Flickr page and also to follow and be inspired by some amazing photographers on that forum. (Do you have a Flickr page? Please let me know so I can follow you too!) And I’ve been reading some great photography books, like the brilliantly named (and brilliant) Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs. I do. And I did. And I’m not taking great photographs yet but I’m working on it.

I’m going to ease back into this writing thing slowly… There are already 250 words on this page and I don’t have a day to spare for recovery! Instead I’ll show you some more pretty pictures of a peacock.

Here you go. Proud-looking fellow, isn’t he?

Fine feathered friend

And another one, with the object of his affections.

The object of his affections

Let’s see what Switzerland offers up for me to share with you tomorrow. I have high hopes.

Ooh, and just to let you know, I’m making my own greetings cards out of my photos these days. Let me know if you ever see anything here or on Flickr that you’d like to send to a loved one on a card and we’ll see what we can do.

Work

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.

J.M. Barrie

Subtitling and stuffing my face
Subtitling and stuffing my face

Back in the very old days when I worked in schools and offices, and didn’t have the flexibility of working from home, I thought I’d be hopeless at trying to do a job when surrounded by the comforts and temptations of my own abode. I thought I’d spend all day gazing into the fridge or watching daytime TV or vacuuming under the bed.

But I’m not like that with subtitling. I really enjoy it. As soon as M leaves the apartment at 7am I sit down at my desk and throw myself into it. I enjoy the tick-off-the-list nature of the work – I’m given a programme to subtitle, I download the video, I subtitle the programme, I do a detailed review of my work, I spellcheck, integrity check, save the file and send it to the client. Tick. The job is done and I move onto the next one. It’s quite mechanical but there’s something in that that appeals to me. And I do, of course, appreciate the fact that essentially I’m getting paid to watch TV.

But on Thursday last week, I was distracted. I’d wrapped up one season of The Only Way Is Essex and was moving onto another, and all I could think about was food. I kept getting up from my desk to grab another chocolate Easter egg or make another coffee. Or have a sandwich. Or eat the leftovers from last night’s dinner. Or wish that I’d bought that packet of Zweifel paprika crisps that I’d eyed in the supermarket so that I could now sit here and scoff the lot.

On Friday morning, when I sat at my desk and tried to get back into the awful mind-numbing rhythm of TOWIE, I felt the same way. There was a Lindt bunny with my name on it. But as I got up to grab the doomed rabbit, I spied my camera. The SD card, I knew, was still full of the hundreds of photos that I’d taken during our hiking holiday. So I slotted the card into my computer and 90 minutes later had chosen some of my favourite pictures, uploaded them to my Flickr account, and thrown myself back into TOWIE with a level of energy and enthusiasm that had been absent since we’d got back from our break. The lovely Lindt bunny lived to tempt me another day.

This was such an important reminder for me about what I already know to be true about work – that you have to choose a job that you love doing. Sorry, I know it’s obvious but sometimes I forget the glaringly self-evident and have to beat myself over the head with it. Don’t get me wrong – I love subtitling. It’s harmless and it’s helpful and it appeals to the pedant and the geeky grammarian in me. But as a freelancer I have the gorgeous joy of being able to mix it up a bit. I can do the work that I get paid for and I can intersperse it with some “work” that makes my heart sing. And that prevents me from eating my own bodyweight in chocolate. And I think if I didn’t have this flexibility in my scheduling then I’d have to come home from the nine-to-five and learn to paint or write a novel or knit jumpers or start trying to recreate the Bayern Tapestry. Or something. Anything to remind myself that work is important but fulfilment matters more.

I’d love to have a chance to ask Eve Ensler whether she felt like she was working when she wrote The Vagina Monologues, or when she first performed it as a one-woman show.

I’d be prepared to bet that she didn’t.

Rest and relaxation

Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.

Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

Japanese garden, Interlaken
Japanese garden, Interlaken

Shh! Don’t tell anyone but I’m taking a day off. A day off from hiking, a day off from taking pictures and a day off from my A to Z blogging theme. Ah, the self-indulgence is delicious!

The rain that greeted us when we opened the curtains this morning made the decision for us. We’ve been out there hiking and sightseeing for at least eight hours a day for the last four days and it’s been amazing. But what’s the point in heading up a mountain when all you’ll see is cloud? Today I’ve stayed in our hotel room with Easter eggs, The Guardian, books and cups of tea and I’ve loved every second of it. M’s gone out for two walks and I’ve declined both invitations to join him. I even turned away the lady who came to clean our room so that I could stay comfortably tucked up in bed. Ah, the bliss!

This is the second post that I’ve written today as I had to catch up from a period of lagging behind on the daily blogging challenge, but now I’m even cheating on this… I’m not going to write but am putting up some pretty pictures instead.

It’s radical, I know. I’m a reprobate. But don’t be reproachful. Tomorrow I shall be renewed. And I shall try to restore my reputation.

But for today, I’m remembering that a picture tells a thousand words. So let me regale you with this random selection of photos from our R&R…

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Daughters

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.

Kahlil Gibran

For my mother, Wilhelmina
For my mother, Wilhelmina

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!

 

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.

Coppet cart

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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Picturing people

When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.

Ansel Adams

IMG_1776_1

Hm. I’m supposed to be writing today. I have a blog post pretty much all sorted out in my head. And one of my sisters is threatening violence if I don’t send her the next instalment of a short story I’ve half completed.

But my brain has been overtaken by images. When M and I went to the International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Chateau D’Oeux last weekend I took over 500 photos, and the colours, shapes and shadows depicted in them have been swimming around in my head ever since.

I rarely take pictures of people but there’s just something about the snow and the cold that makes everyone look funny, beautiful or interesting. And the balloons last weekend were so mesmerising that everyone’s eyes pointed upwards and no-one had the least interest in whether a camera was pointing in their direction…

Here are a few of the pictures I took. Please let me know if you think I should stick with the landscapes!

Getting on with getting old

Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.

Terry Pratchett

One of the great joys of my new post-chateau, return-to-civilisation life is the photography club that I’ve joined. I’ve only met with the group twice so far but already its activities and intentions and the thoughtful observations of its members are changing my perspectives.

The first meeting that I attended was all about lighting. One of the group members, a professional photographer, had brought in some of her expensive equipment to show to the rest of the group. After giving a detailed tutorial on how it all works, she encouraged the Nikon users (whose cameras would be compatible with her equipment) to experiment with it. Canon users (for most seem to have a strong preference for either one of these two brands) could play around with the Canon-compatible lighting gear brought in by the organiser.

So my fellow photographers had cameras and lighting equipment and the requisite knowledge to use them both. But they didn’t have a subject. So I, having neither a Canon nor a Nikon nor any other kind of photographic equipment other than a trusty little point-and-press, volunteered.

“Modelling” was fun. All I had to do was sit or stand as instructed and be a passive subject for the light to bounce off. Nobody told me to smile and I wasn’t deliberately doing so (although when one of the group commented on the fact that I’d been smiling non-stop for 90 minutes, I was glad to know that the joy that I feel in life is apparently reflected on my face.) And I learned a lot about lighting while I sat there and listened to everything that was said about the umbrellas and soft boxes that were being moved around me, or I around them.

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(Thank you to Wilna Weeda for this photograph.)

But one of the greater lessons that I learned that day was, I’m afraid, more about the subject than the subject, if you see what I mean. Let me explain…

After the session ended it occurred to me that of the hundreds of photographs that were taken of me that day, there might be one that I could like enough to use as my profile picture on this blog. My current picture is, as I’ve explained, six years old now, and is starting to feel a little dishonest. Perhaps my new photography friends, I thought, might be willing to share some of their photos with me.

And then they did. And then I found myself struggling with the brutality of the truth.

You see, I’ve always wanted to embrace the process of ageing. Every birthday, rather than thinking, Oh my god, I’m yet another year older!, I try to think about what I’ve done/seen/experienced/achieved over the last twelve months and think, Well, yes, it takes time to do that stuff. Of course I’m another year older. It doesn’t always work but that’s how I try to think.

When we lived in Jerusalem, I realised one day that I was then older than my mother ever lived to be. In her mid to late thirties and early forties Mum was operated on, injected, zapped with radiation and filled with all sorts of odious medicinal concoctions, all so that she might be able to beat cancer and be granted more life. More years. More experience. More time with her loved ones. More lines on her face. And each one of those lines would have been a reflection of all that she’d lived and all the people that she’d loved. And in the eyes of the only beholders that mattered, those lines would have made her all the more stunning.

But cancer won. And Mum was buried young and beautiful. And because of that I recognise that every day that I live is a gift and a privilege. Why should I give a shit that I have lines on my face? I’m alive! Getting older, I learned at a young age, is far better than the alternative.

About 20 years ago I attended a Guardian literature event in London. That was, of course, pre-Google Images, and I had no idea of what some of my favourite writers looked like. I browsed curiously through the brochure about the authors who would be speaking that day. Among their pictures was a shot of the brilliant Hilary Mantel, young, blonde and slim. It came as a shock to me when she walked out onto the stage. Only the blondeness was still recognisable from her profile picture. I found myself feeling annoyed with her. The fact that she’d put on weight was beside the point – an author’s dress size is no more relevant than a tennis player’s attractiveness, as I wish the media would recognise – but I thought the fact that she wasn’t prepared to claim and proclaim who she was now was unworthy of her. (I’ve since learned that Mantel struggled with her body image after her rapid weight gain, which was caused by endometriosis, a hysterectomy and the prescription of high levels of hormones, all of which she’s written about in her memoirs, Giving Up The Ghost. No wonder she wouldn’t allow herself to be portrayed as she was; she didn’t know.)

I’ve never understood people’s nostalgic sighs of,  Ah, if only I could be 19 again… I wouldn’t go back to that age for anything! God, if we’re talking about the trials of body image, do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? Those years were tough! I’m so much happier now that I know myself a bit better, now that I’ve got some life experience under my belt. In some situations I can even be fairly sure of the best course of action to take because I’ve made so many mistakes before that I know well enough not to make them again. And finding new ways of fucking up is fun! We’re all human, aren’t we? That’s what it’s all about! What is it about our society that makes us value youth over experience?

So there we have it – evidence that at points in my life I’ve occasionally had some good and worthy thoughts about life and ageing and appearance and expectation.

Ah, but it’s so very easy to be sanguine about ageing when you’re young! It’s so simple to say that you’ll never have Botox or plastic surgery when you don’t even understand what the word “elasticity” means when it’s used in the same sentence as the word “skin”! It so easy to look condescendingly at women who’ve gone under the knife when you’ve never caught a glimpse of an ageing person in a shop window and not recognised that ageing person as yourself!

(A side note to my 90-year-old self, by the way: I know that compared to you, I’m a spring chicken at 43, and when I say “ageing” I don’t mean that I think I’m very old now. I know I’m not. I’m just acknowledging that I’m older than I used to be. I’m trying to grow comfortably into the skin that you now inhabit. Be gentle with me please, older and wiser me!)

I was very grateful to my new photography club friends for sending me some images from our lighting session but I have to admit that my first reaction to them was, Noooooo! I can’t possibly show these to anyone! I look so old!

But now I realise that I can’t just talk the talk. I can’t just spout on about how I think our personal and societal concerns about the outward signs of ageing are beyond ludicrous. I can’t just say that I value the laughter lines as evidence of the laughter, and the sagging skin as proof of the much appreciated and ever growing number of days, weeks, months and years I’ve spent on the planet. I have to truly accept them. I have to put on a brave face. A brave ageing face. I have to put a brave ageing face on my blog.

So here it is.

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(Thank you to Catherine Hieronymi for this photograph.)

Take that, ageists. I’m out and proud as a middle-aged woman. Come back in ten years. In 20. Hopefully even 30 or 40. Then I’ll really have some stories to tell you. And all you’ll have to do to hear them will be to look at my wizened old face.