There's a song I listen to so incessantly that sometimes it plays in my dreams. I wake up humming the harmony line, and the tune trickles through my lips for the rest of the day. On Tuesday I turned twenty-one, and the first day of my definitively adult life began with the sounds of a harmonica in my head.
It was a lovely day. While I was still in bed, singing sleepily to myself under my breath, Jonny called. He suggested I make myself a cup of tea from the fancy selection I save for special occasions. I thought this was a sound idea, and when I went to choose I found a small package wrapped in brown paper tucked inside; a present from him. It was a disposable camera and a note with £10. "I think there's still one exposure left. Money is for a 1 hour service at Boots, plus a little something sweet. Happy birthday."
The first time I went to stay on his boat I noticed the disposable sitting on his shelf. He said it was very old and he didn't know what was on it. This must be it, I thought, and how sweet and exciting. We're still at that stage where we are finding each other out. There are whole chunks of his life I was not a part of, and now I could discover some of them through forgotten photographs.
Before they rushed off to lectures my house mates surprised me by decorating our living room with balloons and giving me an enormous chocolate cake: an excellent breakfast. Laura and I caught a bus to town, and I put in Jonny's disposable and my latest roll of film to be developed. I remembered hearing from Lousie that Poundland were selling off Agfa film for £1 a roll, so bought enough to last me until Christmas, and moseyed between stationary shops for pretty thank-you cards to send those who have given me gifts.
Collecting prints from negatives is the best sort of anticipation. I'd been a little worried about my roll after the incident at JFK, but I'd got lucky and the pictures came out fine. Looking at the photographs of Central Park and the skyline from the Empire State Building hit me with a particularly vicious nostalgia; separated from my images not just by time but by place. Looking at memories for the first time is a kind of second death of the moment, I suppose (though I don't ascribe to Barthes rather nihilistic view of 'death as the eidos' of photography.) They also hadn't all come out as I'd imagined them in my head, and that is another kind of the death of the moment too. Images are more solid than memories, so the moment reflected in my mind will almost certainly be replaced over time by the photograph.
I think it's that which keeps me coming back to my camera, though; a fascination with when and how to photograph a moment. Should it be caught and kept as a solid record, by a photojournalist? Or adjusted so as to be closer to a memory, suited for my film diary, and tinted with sounds and smells and the breathings of my own heart? Or, sometimes, should it be created artificially, preened and posed to live not as a real moment but as a metaphor, a concept, a visual essay? Mostly I slide between the latter two in my digital work, and the former two in my analogue. I'm intellectually ensnared by the first, but I practice the second more freely. The third I haven't tried in so long it makes me sad.
I put the film from New York away and my memories to rest on the other side of an ocean, and tipped Jonny's disposables into my hands. I'd expected shots from school trips, perhaps glimpses of my other friends who went to his school, or maybe later pictures from his time on the west coast, when he watched the sun set every day over the ocean and the year felt longer than any other. But there were no boys in blazers, or beaches. I recognised the scenes in each picture as they fell into my lap. I could pin-point them for you, I could take you there myself. It was only after the third or fourth photograph that I realised: that was the point.
He'd filled the roll with literal snapshots of our life together. Small moments which described big parts of us. It's hard to explain, and I don't really want to here, because the photographs are for me from him, and they are ours, and they frame what we are creating together. But at their simplest the pictures show places which remind him of me, and remind him of important parts of our relationship.
a second opinion
The last one was my favourite. Way, way, way back when our lives touched over small tables in coffee shops, and we would talk about love over lattes, and once he had gone I'd make origami cranes from our receipts. Now we spend weekends tucked in small cafes, still ordering the same drinks and sometimes folding origami; but the cranes I make no longer slip into my pocket. There's no need for keepsakes any more.
the same, but better
I looked through the pictures again and again on the bus to uni, thinking about how long they must have taken him and how carefully each one had been thought about, and about how much Jonny insists he dislikes taking photographs (but still talks to me about mine.) On the far side of campus I got off, and walked through the little estate where I lived in First Year. Hidden away at the very back is a cycle path which leads to the sea. I've never walked the whole way, though Jonny and I want to in the summer, but I know it leads out of the city into the hills and the woodland. I had Linden and a tripod, and no clear concept in my head but an ache for an image.
I was humming as I set off along the trail. The sky was overcast but not threatening, and there was almost no one about. I felt a vague sense of nostalgia, a little deja vu, as though walking into the hills on this cold, crisp day brought me around in full circle. It had been a long time since I'd ventured out alone with just a camera and a tripod for company. Perhaps here? And longer since I'd felt a real urge to shoot. Today when I woke up with the harmonica in my head I felt full with the need; uncomfortably bloated. There was a picture I needed to take, today on the day I turned twenty-one, and it needed to be made out of (into?) a lot of thoughts which I hadn't quite detangled in my head yet.
I remembered a time when I used to set out like this every week, sometimes every day. I think, sometimes, this was my favourite part of my whole existence. This, this hour or so when I was alone under the sky and I didn't really know where I was going, except for the promise that there would be a photograph at the end. When I could talk out loud to myself about the things loitering at the periphery of my mind, the things I couldn't voice to anyone else. I smiled to myself now as I walked; the things which took up so much space back then have shrunk to the size of a single shared pillow, rocked on water, and the touch of two palms pressed hand-in-hand. I have come around a full circle. Everything felt the same, but better.
As I walked I started to collect the handful of ideas flitting erratically about the greenhouse of my mind. They had been conceived some time last night while I dreamt, and grew into the foetus of a photograph as I passed quietly from the last moments of my twentieth year into the first of my twenty-first. They had been evolving, tacitly, as I ate birthday cake and bought film and indulged in other, more immediate stimuli. They were still there, though, and they had begun to take a shape I could start to recognise.
But it wasn't until I had left the cycle path, picked my way across fields starting to turn green, and wound my own trail through the trees, that the photograph showed itself to me at last.
It was almost 4 when I looked at my phone again. I was back on the cycle path, a step or two behind a pair of joggers, and mothers with small children were walking home with bookbags and scooters. I wanted to tell someone about the picture, so I called Jonny and stood at the top of the hill and looked down at the fields and the kids who had stopped to climb the old hay bales. "I have a photograph, and I think it might turn out to be important to me," I said, less eloquently. After important photos, ones which aren't necessarily technically brilliant but which turn out to mean something very solid to me, I get a tight feeling around my ribcage like someone is squeezing me very hard. I had that tight feeling now. I had looked at the photographs once and put Linden away, scared to look again and prove myself wrong. By the time I was waiting for the bus, though, my heels were tapping with impatience to be home, to have them in front of me again and start the process of turning them into something others could see with my eyes.
I worked in Photoshop for an hour before Laura called me down from my attic to catch a bus. She and I and Milly went up to campus to watch Five Broken Cameras, a moment of serendipity in the cinema listings after I have wanted to see it for so long. My friends joked that no one else would choose to watch a documentary on events in the West Bank for their birthday. But I wanted to see the film as part of the rite of passage I had made for myself all day, touching each part of my photographic life in turn. The film reminded me that in some places you can be wearing a vest screaming PRESS and soldiers will still shoot live rounds at your camera, and not care if their aim is a little off. It reminded me that this is a selfish career, one that puts you above the people you love and demands that they come to terms with the fact you have chosen to put yourself at risk over playing your part in their happiness. It reminded me that I have never covered my face against teargas, and I better get used to it.
And it planted a new, jarring, sapling of thought. Something about the starkness of British voices amongst the lilt of Arabic at the Palestinian protests felt out of place. The young brunette brandishing a Nikon at the funeral of a murdered protester sat uneasily with me. Susan Meiselas said 'The camera is an excuse to be some place you otherwise don't belong.' At first I thought, yes! great! But I am starting to think about the difference between an excuse and a reason, and more than that: a right. Your camera does not give you license to invade a culture, a community, or enter fights which were not yours to start with, however passionately you believe in them. It is your work which gives you a warrant to search these places for stories. Your images are your voice, and what they can do for others provides a permit for you to enter their lives. Make your work intelligent, eloquent, and sensitive, and don't forget that you live on the sidelines of the conflicts you cover even when there are bullets in your hair. '[My camera] gives me a point of separation, and a point of connection,' finishes Meiselas' quote.
We waited for the bus on the hill above the city, with the cathedral all lit up and the sky clear and silver-pricked. Somewhere between the hill and my bed my birthday ended, and the Moirai holding my spool of thread began to unravel it again for another year. Twenty-one and unspecial, I opened Photoshop under my duvet and picked up where I left off.
As I tripped my way down the steep, muddy bank of the river I could feel the photograph, concrete, tumble through the layers of concept conceived while I walked. The stream was fast-flowing and clear, and the clouds sent down a soft glow through the trees. I stood at the edge of the water with my breath misting in front of my face.
Aesthetically, I knew straight away that this was not a photograph best shot from the riverbank. It was cold, and I'd come unprepared for river-wading, but the visually strongest image was one which used the natural parallels of the bank and the vanishing point in the distance. The mud was dark and marshy as I slipped out of my boots, but the current was strong around my ankles. Losing my shoes in favour of the water turned my toes numb before I'd finished setting up my tripod, but at the same time I felt a small part of me awaken again, arising groggy from an anaesthetised sleep. I stepped on a thorn hidden in the riverbed but only noticed it lodged in my heel when I went to check my camera. The insistent pull of the water around my calves when I waded further downstream tempted me to leave my camera and let the river take me onwards, around the corner and into the trees. My physical numbness roused a mental consciousness I realised I had lost sometime around the end of my fifty-two weeks.
I shot, dazed, for three hours. A spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling. Not a soul passed along the footpath from where I'd first stumbled on the river, no planes flew overhead, no voices called through the trees. Small fish flitted past my feet like shards of glass, and a brush-tailed squirrel scuttled down its tree trunk to stop and watch me and my camera for second after second. I talked to myself, sung for inspiration, laughed out loud. Photographed and photographed.
When I had my picture I sat on the bridge upstream and looked at the images for a long time. Emotion recollected in tranquility. My photograph was all in bits - I knew I'd expand it later in Photoshop - but in each fragment I could see the pieces of my personal discourse coming together.
On this birthday, the prologue of my adulthood, I look to the future with the sound of a harmonica in my head and see a river. I awoke, pregnant with image, and it led me to a place simultaneously forgotten and unknown. The stream I am standing in has diverged from that of my peers', and I find myself swimming against the tide of my parents' and tutors' expectations. It is a tributary so uncharted I stop sometimes and wonder whether I should turn back. I am young, but I worry about failure. Springsteen's song, the one I am humming, voices my fear of regret. What could be worse than looking back on your life and knowing that small, irreversible decisions changed it in unimaginably awful ways? And am I making choices even now without appreciating the consequences? Is this really what I want, and can I achieve it? I am thinking about the film Laura and Milly and I saw, and considering sincerely for the first time the sacrifices I might make if I carry on up this stream. In the photograph I balance unsteadily, hold my camera to my centre - but could I be choosing to only ever find myself pregnant with image? Will photographs be the only creations I'll bear?
Courage. Still I can feel this river's waters gently push at my legs, urging me onwards. This photograph I have made denies the "death of the moment" which occurs in my analogue work, partly because the moment itself is manufactured - it was never truthfully alive in the first place - but also because it speaks of my determination to hold on to my moments tightly. While they vanish right into the air I will anchor them with both hands and a fast shutter speed. I want to preserve them in my memory as well as my camera. And I want, too, to hold on to the dream and the drive I share these moments with right now, despite the boulders life might disturb my riverbed with in the future.
All these things seem so important to me now. Is a dream a lie if it don't come true? Perhaps I will turn to look over my shoulder in two or twenty years, and smile at how young and naively earnest all of this is. Yet, I write as I photograph: to capture the moment. 'Ultimately,' Leonard Freed said, 'photography is about who you are. It's the truth in relation to yourself.' This post is my truth, as it exists now. My dream cannot be a lie because it lives as truth in me today, and my need to fulfil that dream is what sends me down to the river, holding a camera, on this, first day of my adult life.
This recording. Song starts at 05:30.