Why take in the sights when you can be staring at your mobile phone? That should have been the title of this post, for the epidemic of small screen fixation has by now reached astronomical levels. The day I took this photo, I had to literally move out of the way because a young woman went right through the space I was occupying a mere fraction of a second before, while her eyes were glued to her mobile’s tiny screen. Don’t think she ever saw me, or cared for the shadow that jumped out of her way so she could barrel through without a concern in the world. And as to the gentleman in the photo above, I stood next to him with my camera for nearly ten minutes, never to see him raise his eyes from his phone, or care for a second to anything that was going on around him, which obviously was plenty enough.
So what to make of this collective obfuscation that has enveloped our society? From a photographer’s point of view, it kind of makes our lives a little easier, as no one even notices you unless you appear digitally within their screens. But even this is a double-edged sword, so to speak, because as it becomes easier to photograph the phone zombies out there, the activities in which they engage while we click away are becoming a lot more boring. For too many people, the big picture has lost too much ground to the small picture. Life around them seems to have become too boring, specially when compared to the constant refresh of their mobile screens. People just don’t go away with the click of a button, and conversations will always require more words than texting. That small screen sure sounds a lot more convenient, not to mention less time consuming. The problem is that you just can’t fit enough of life into one of those tiny screens, and no matter what you do, those small screen will never love you back for that matter. It glows without shining a light on you, and for a price. A temporary necessity transformed into a constant one. A window to all but what surrounds you. And there’s always a lot going on around us.
This will be another of those “photographers are weird people” kinds of post. Its origin started with a recent realization at the Hirshhorn Museum downtown Washington, DC. I love museums, and that is why during one of the coldest days of this winter, I decided to visit (ok, if you really need to know, I needed a warm place) this eclectic museum to see their new exhibits. If you know the Hirshhorn, you’ll know that it is the kind of museum that challenges that strange part of your brain that is not used very much, but which when engaged, turns your reality into something that takes some getting used to. Translation: I love the place. But there’s where this sort of epiphany took place. You see, like the museum’s split reality, I too possess a kind of split view of the world: one with camera on hand, the other sans camera. With a camera, it seems I only visit museums to observe other people observing the museum art. People, all of them, become part of the ongoing exhibit, with one lacking any meaning without the other. Take that camera away from me and suddenly I become Joe the art critic, with eyes only for the inanimate objects (excuse me, art) found therein. Weird? Perhaps a little, but it is what it is. The camera, like a window for a writer, transforms you somehow. It pulls something from within you that affects your vision of the world around you. It makes you see the human ecosystem as if you were wearing X-Ray glasses. See deeper, see more. A walk through a magnificent visual door that will allow you to hold on to that saw forever.
As it happens every year during the last days of December, I find myself unwittingly drifting down the introspective channels of my subconscious. I say unwittingly because such meditations are not the result of conscious efforts to sort things out in my life, but rather because without warning or intention, the cold, dreary days in December carry me there like a Pharaoh being carried to the temple. At first I thought this was a case of repressed nostalgia, or something to that effect. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that, different from any other time in the year, the last few days of December form some sort of chronological bridge in our lives. Like an unmarked threshold, they seem to separate the historical “us” from the “us” that has yet to emerge and be realized. It is an offer that presents us with the kind of challenges and opportunities that only change can bring in order to give life to the idea of us that constantly roams inside our heads. But this happens every year, you would say, and I would have to agree. Nevertheless, like a full moon over a dark, endless horizon, the recurrent and cyclical nature of this phenomena does nothing to dampen the excitement of its arrival.
One such idea inside my head is that of an insatiable world traveler. Don’t get me wrong, I do get to visit some wonderful places from time to time, but the life of a visitor is dramatically different to the life of a traveler. One flies by while the other lands and lingers. One visits countries with populations of 40+ million people and leaves without being able to call a single one of them a friend, while the other takes the time to forge friendships that may last a lifetime. Those in one group tend to miss more the places they’ve been, while those on the other group will miss more the people they’ve met. And on that line between those two divides is where I find myself on this gray December morning, a witness to the vanishing December days of another year gone by. Far into the distance I can see the silhouette of a magnificent bridge whose beautiful arches and ancient wooden structure beckons travelers to cross the rumbling river below. We’ve all seen this bridge before, but seldom have we decided to cross it. Perhaps now, before a new year dawns into our lives, is the time to dare cross that bridge so we can live more in tune with the self that only dwells in our imaginations. After all, self actualization would me meaningless without the self. Such crossings are deeply personal in nature, but as for myself, the aspiring insatiable traveler, I think I’ll start hastily walking toward that arched bridge on the horizon. After all, that feeling of December will not last forever.
Why is it that we search for more meaning in a photo after we have taken it than at the time the photo is being captured? I’m sure that there are many explanations for this, but for me, it all has to do with frame counts. Let me explain. In the process of acquiring a particular photo, we observe the world as a continuous video, a sequence of fast-moving frames that get processed inside our brains with a refresh rate that mimics the speed of light (or so it seems). If we watch a person walking, we don’t particularly remember the uniqueness of any particular step, or gesture, or scene complexity. It just flows from one side to the other in a perpetual motion, and at the end we kind of remember the overall occurrence of having seen someone walking. It is a factual story that in all its generosity, allows our imaginations to rest without bother.
Photographs, on the other hand, disrupt our imagination’s slumber and literally compel us to “fill in the blanks” of the story. In true Sherlock Holmes fashion, it makes us leap from that frozen fraction of a second into all sorts of directions and plots. A delayed reaction from the moment of capture, for sure, but perhaps the essence of why we capture images in the first place. That is not to say that seeing life as a moving video is any less rewarding, but rather that just like we tend to remember particular scenes in a movie, photographs are the particular scenes of our visual movies. They anchor us to a place and time like no moving object can, and feed that which is the essence of us all: our imaginations. That is why in the photo above I simply do not want to know more about this couple, for it is more fun to “imagine” lovers on a sunny day reading from her latest writings and oblivious to the passing of time. Reality? Perhaps not, but as long as I look at that photo, I’ll pretend that it is.
Like just about every day, I went walking today with my camera. When I do this, I typically bury my cell phone somewhere in my camera bag where it is very hard to access. I do this because I’ve come to realize that the whole purpose of being outside is to see and feel what’s going on around me. I want to disconnect from electronics and connect with the world that keeps on moving in spite of our interest in joining it. Perhaps this is a photographer thing, but I don’t think so. More than that, it is a fascination with a world that is alive and in motion, a world where glances still hold unspeakable mystery, and where human energy continues to create all things wonderful and all things bad. Humans, in all their shapes, forms, and behaviors are the stuff of life.
That is why it is so hard to positive spin on the modern phenomena of the connected disconnected. The being there in society, but not there at the same time. Like the young man in the photo above, to be actively linked to the faraway world via a cell phone, but totally uninterested in the the world that sits just a few feet away. Connected, but disconnected. A statement about our modern digital generation, I guess. But perhaps, if he would have only glanced up from the screen for a moment like she did to make eye contact, a whole new world connections would have been possible. They shall never know, for at no time did he raise his eyes in her direction. Connected, disconnected. A new form of normal.
Today I would like to spend a little time praising the virtues of aimless wandering. I say aimless in the sense that such wandering is not constrained by any particular pattern of the type that leads to predictability of your course. No, the type of wandering I’m referring to has to do with selecting a general geographic area and then letting your feet (and curiosity) take you wherever they want to take you. Not for a moment, but rather for hours on end, and even full days in some occasions. It is the joy of day-after-day discovery, and a constant reminder that there’s a world out there that is both dynamic and exciting, not to mention the source of endless visions that will last a lifetime.
It was wandering that led me through a beautiful, ancient door and into a magnificent courtyard in Milan where lovers lazily embraced on a sunny summer day. It is wandering that has led me to discover the everyday lives of people in cities and neighborhoods that practically don’t exist in most people’s radar consciousness. Life reduced to a lover’s embrace, to a smile from a stranger, or to the asynchronous rhythm of a city coming alive in the mornings. There, between the silence which makes its last stand in the mornings and the inevitable noise of humanity mercilessly charging forward at the break of dawn, is where I find the tumultuous nature (and beauty) of living. Wandering, in small or large quantities, makes such discoveries possible. Drive or walk to work? Try taking a different route on a regular basis. Going shopping? How about trying that Korean store, or a farmer’s market for a change. Ditch the car and walk sometime, enter a restaurant where most people don’t speak your language, or hang around people who are not like you for a while. Visit a new city just because and get lost on foot for a few days. Travel and linger. Wander with a purpose, or without one, as places have a funny way of guiding your steps sometimes. Who knows, you may even discover that most people are alright after all.
Who would’ve known, that in a city hardly ever associated with romance, you would find such a display of PDA (i.e., Public Display of Affection). That’s right, I’m talking about Washington, DC, the same place where sanguine bureaucrats like to play with your hard-earned money and where where sensitivity is not a word most locals would use when socially describing their ideal versions of themselves. But a few days back, there it was, out in the open for all to see. Love, affection, and obliviousness to the world around them. A cool day ushering in the short days of autumn, a lazy sun tired of its summer work, and a lover’s kiss. Who would’ve known, there’s hope for this city after all.
If I ever were going to attempt to write romantic novels for a living (don’t worry, I’m not), there is no doubt in my mind that I would do so from a place like Como in Italy. This sleepy, little town by the shores of the lake that takes its name, Lake Como, is everything you can imagine of the romanticism of a bygone era, and then some. What is it with these northern lake regions in Italy and southern Switzerland? To say they are beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe them, because they are so much more than that. In fact, I had once heard a Swiss actress in America say that she returned to her small village in the area every year in order to recharge her spirit. And now that I have had some time to wander in the area from Locarno in Lago Maggiore to Como, I now fully understand what this actress was talking about. Life at a slower pace, natural beauty beyond description, and some of the most wonderful food in the world combine to form the perfect antidote to all that ails us in our busy, chaotic lives. I may not know how many places in the world possess such wonderful potion, but Como definitely has its share of it.
Como the town is not a big place, but three main areas seem to dominate the region. For starters, there’s Lake Como with its postcard-perfect landscape. This southernmost part of the lake is quite a busy place, with ferries taking passengers to other famous towns around the lake and lovers slowly strolling down Lungolago Mafalda di Savoia as if oblivious to the world. The lake and its indescribable scenery are nothing short of visual candy, and sitting by that shore on a perfect spring day will be all the proof you’ll ever need that it is possible to be happy in this life.
The other two main areas in town are the city-center square, Piazza Alessandro Volta, and the imposing Cattedrale di Como at Piazza Duomo. Both extremely impressive and surrounded by small shops and quaint restaurants where you could easily pass the hours away with total disregard to time. In between these two, an old-world paradise for the senses makes sure that you never move at a fast pace while you are in town (which the many cafes in the area would’ve guaranteed anyway). Stopping every few steps to gawk at some window display while stopping yourself from spending your retirement money becomes virtually impossible in Como. This is what Italy does to you, and we love her for it.
On the train back to Milan I couldn’t stop thinking of how beautiful this country is. Sitting in that train longingly looking out the window to the passing countryside before me, I couldn’t help but think that I had just been to one of the most wonderful places on this planet. And as the train got farther and farther away from Como, the famous words of composer Giuseppe Verdi kept replaying in my head: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” My sentiments exactly.
You know those days when nothing much seems to be going on? Well, yesterday was one of those days. The whole city seemed to have entered the New Year’s hangover stage and everywhere you went there seemed to be an eerily quiet atmosphere with only a few, slow-moving folks trickling about. This is actually pretty normal during these first days of the year, as people psychologically gear themselves for the inevitable return to the daily grind. After all, all those postponed projects and tasks from last year didn’t quite disappear with the champagne on New Year’s eve.
However, the absence of crowds is also a great opportunity for some unique photography. Empty space can be accentuated, serenity can dominate a scene, and the proverbial “photo bomb” can be eliminated from the frame. Hoping to capture a little of that that empty, serene space, I headed down to the Alexandria waterside to take a long walk along its quiet, rocky shore. Bereft of crowds and the never-ending sound of human activity, the place was like a scene right out of some small European village along the French Mediterranean shore. The mighty Potomac river was so calm that it appeared to be sleeping after a night of celebration. Couples moved at glacier speeds before coming to a halt in order to linger and take in the beauty of an empty landscape. Young girls danced with seaguls as if in a choreographed performance on a vast, outdoor stage. In the quiet humm of a morning breeze, nature and the human spirit appeared to still be dancing the night away. A new year, hesitantly taking its first steps while shining its soft, morning light on us to remind us of the beauty that life can be. What a day. What a life.