If I don’t know, the wind will carry me
A year of two halves.
I touch down in America in a state of emergency. The east coast is suffocated in snow but later, circling San Francisco, it feels overwhelmingly like coming home. The day after I arrive Bijan and I catch a last-minute assignment for The Aggie and head an hour out of town to sneak into a state park and shoot photographs where the lake should have been. I start my new classes at Davis, and begin to spend long afternoons in the basement of the art building, learning how to develop film and make prints. We find out the newspaper is in jeopardy and start a long campaign to save it. I shoot basketball for The Aggie, on the sidelines pretending I know what I’m doing. When my first assignments are handed in, I head to the Sierra Nevada wilderness for a weekend under redwoods in a flooded log cabin.
The campaign to save the Aggie continues. We need to pass a motion to increase tuition fees in order to raise funds. I shoot assignments between classes: the chancellor works a shift at the campus coffee house; I hang out in a crane with CBS camera crews covering a world record attempt. Bijan and I take a long roadtrip to visit his parents in Irvine, south of LA. We go the beach and the mall and I, shy, meet the whole family. Back in Davis, I cover the election results for the student senate before the paper’s referendum comes in. UCD votes Yes by a landslide: the Aggie is saved.
The quarter is almost at an end, and I am seized with panic and relief in equal measure. I second-shoot the UCD Cheerleaders’ team photos with Abby, thinking about unlikely friendships. A challenge against the Aggie vote is sent to the student judiciary, and my colleagues and I sit through the proceedings well into the night. In the morning we halt production on the print edition and suspend staff pay. I sense something immense lost. On my birthday I sit finals, but then Bijan and I take the car to Berryessa to watch the stars and shoot my birthday photograph. Spring Break arrives, and so does Jonny. We drive to Mount Tam and spend a long weekend in a cabin tucked between redwoods, whale-watch from Point Reyes, and visit my city by the bay. I meet old friends for the first time when Whitney hosts a Flickrmeet in Muir Woods.
Jonny and I head back to Davis. I find it hard to stitch my two lives together. The day after he leaves, my friend Laura arrives. I realise that introducing her to my Davis life is equally impossible, though we hang out downtown and ride the buses and wander campus. We figure out Picnic Day together, though: Davis’s annual festival with family fun and the marching band and a lot of underage drinking. I cover some of the shows for the paper, though the Aggie is only online now. It is mid-April before some kind of normality returns. I let go of the last pieces of my other self. I should feel alone but I don’t. Some nights I stay out shooting long, long exposures of my city in the dark onto medium format, trying to preserve the sublime and tragic thing I can’t create in words.
My world revolves around a ticking clock, persistent as my heartbeat. I want everything, and right now. We are in a heatwave which never ends (this is not a metaphor) and I spend long nights watching the rotation of the ceiling fan, listening to two heartbeats, thinking about the word tenderness. Sam, my photography professor, take Misha and I – and puppy Tilda – to San Francisco to shoot and see. Something about this is searingly precious. Bijan and I fly to SoCal for a weekend of palm trees and Pacific. Davis hosts the Whole Earth Festival, and I find some of my favourite pictures – for myself and for the paper – on my campus which, that weekend, holds so much freedom and joy. At the end of the month Bijan takes me to a special place near Yosemite. I brace big fears against my camera. I have seen few places so beautiful. Not so far away, there is a shooting on our sister-campus. Six students are killed. Back home I cover the memorial for the paper, as hundreds of people arrive on our quad to hold candles in the sweet velvet night. I photograph the whole thing. My pictures are great. As I walk home I start shaking all over, so I sit down on the sidewalk with my camera gear, under a streetlight, and when I start crying I can’t stop. He went after the girls. I am awash with guilt and relief that it wasn’t us.
It is time to go. Bijan shoots my “grad pictures” on an empty campus with the stole he smuggled for me. We pack our lives into the car and the next morning we leave in the dark. We drive to the top of the world, following Abby’s directions and then improvising the end, willing the car up the steep dirt track to the top of the hill. We watch the sunrise and the moonset, simultaneously. Then we slip back down to where the roads are tarmacked, and head south. In SoCal we visit LA and play tourist on Hollywood Boulevard, eat candyfloss on Santa Monica pier, visit Disneyland, and make our own pinhole camera to take down to San Diego for the day. I make a flying visit to the city to see Ethan and Cameron, climb up to the Griffith Observatory, eat streetfood, and hang out at LACMA with David and Whitney.
Back in Irvine I am having trouble sleeping. Bijan and I take a trip to the desert where, just before we lose signal, my phone picks up an alert for flash floods. We camp and walk and see the jagged and terrifying ridge that marks the San Andreas Fault, and in the dying light watch a lightning storm play out somewhere in the empty sands to the east. I spend Fourth of July with his family by the pool, numb with what comes next. I leave LA with a promise on a cloudless morning and touch down in Philly before the sun sets. My short stay on the east coast reminds me of the richness and complexity of the country I have mistakenly believed I understood. I meet Lindsay-Anne over coffee in D.C., and we talk about big-small things in this big-small city. I ache to leave her so soon. A train ride, a suitcase, and I am on a plane again. Something dies quietly over the Atlantic. I spend the rest of July in books and bed.
Ethan arrives, stopping briefly on his solo tour around Europe and her architecture. I show him what Norfolk and Cambridge have to offer, enjoying his easy company and the way he sees things through west-coast eyes. He stays longer than expected but I don’t want him to go. I print up every roll of colour film from America and put the pictures away in a drawer for now. I want to write film diary but I can’t. I can’t shoot either: in an entire month I take one image – on my phone. Instead, I spend a lot of time looking at the photographs which start to come out of Gaza, out of Ukraine, and out of Ferguson. My Flickr friend Lu has a dream that I am photographing Gaza and refuse to come home. I’m not in Gaza but she’s right.
I second-shoot a wedding with local maestro Luis Holden. The day is beautiful, I’m proud of my work, and I learn more in eight hours than the internet could ever teach me. A few days later Bijan arrives at Heathrow. We spend two weeks exploring the highlights of my life here: from Norwich to London to Canterbury. I shoot a little film but mostly we are just together. After he is gone my classes start, and I am a fourth-year at Kent and very close to the end.
My university hosts its 50th anniversary. I shoot the celebrations for the campus paper and make good pictures which aren’t printed. Meanwhile a cluster of serious and sexual crimes occur on campus. I pitch an investigative report to editors, aimed at exploring important and topical issues around campus rape, and receive patronizing and dismissive replies. I go back to shooting sports fixtures, angry and tired. Doggedly eager to shoot, and doggedly eager to report on a cause I care about, I contact food banks in Canterbury with a project proposal. Each one turns me down. I take the train home for reading week.
Life continues. I pin up an old curtain on my wall and tack a shortlist of photographs for my film diaries all over it in clusters. I haven’t shot film since Bijan left, but still I have a year of photographs to write about. America looms over my bed in the dark: the photographs are the first and last thing I see each day. One Wednesday I end up in London with nothing to do, so I visit photography galleries by myself. There is Nick Hedges’ Make Life Worth Living at the Science Museum, where the gallery is empty and I’m allowed to take pictures and eat cake. Across the river I visit the World Press Photo exhibition, buoyant with expectation, and what I find confuses me. The photographs are mostly brilliant (and, excitingly, I recognise most of them already) but the venue and layout are difficult. An upper-middle-class audience mill through the boards, wine glasses in hand, glancing at scenes of death and destruction over conversations about work and the concert. I am conflicted: should I just be happy that photojournalism is getting attention? Towards the end of the month I wake up to an email saying I have come third in a big photography competition. I win some money and a lot of confidence; the other winners were both professionals.
There is very little sun. I had forgotten this. The Christmas lights make strange shadows on the high street. I am still writing film diary feverishly, and I have a handful of my black-and-white 35mm printed and scanned for the first time. I bag a paid job shooting the Christmas meal for a campus society and spend the night on the outside looking in. The next morning Bijan calls me before bed and gently tells me that he thinks something is very wrong. The next day I see someone at the university and tell her I think I am chronically sad. She extends my essay deadlines and sends me back to my parents. In Norfolk I eat more and sleep less and see a doctor and feel better. I shoot a beautiful wedding just days before Christmas, confident and joyful in doing what I love. That evening Bijan does something very brave. In twenty-four hours I have made the decision, and, full of love, we say farewell. I had expected the year to come full circle, but there is no plane ride and no coming home. Instead, at the year’s sunset I take a tripod and a camera to a place I know and make a photograph just for myself, for the fist time in a long time.