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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Throw your hands up at me

Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who’s confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.

Joss Whedon, author of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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I miss men. Really. I live with a wonderful man and that’s one of the many great joys of my life, but a very great deal of the rest of my experience is currently skewed towards time spent with women. The play that I’m in was written by a woman and is for and about women (although I very much hope that there will be many a man in the audience). I’m in an all-women photography club. I attend a mixed French class but there are only two men in it. I’m in a book club which thankfully includes men but the strong and lasting friendships that I’ve made through the club are solely with women. So I miss men. I like men. Not to say that I like all men – saying that would be just as brainless as saying that I like all women, or that all women share the same experience. But on balance I like people and that collective noun includes men. So I like them and I don’t see much of them so I miss them.

Having said that, all this time that I’m spending in the company of women has reminded me that women are great. (And I’m going to stop apologising for generalising – let’s just take it as read that I’m just talking about my own current experience and that in that experience people are tops.) Take the women in last night’s Vagina Monologues rehearsal, for example.

The plan for last night was to gather in an auditorium at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and talk about our directors’ vision of the staging, then do a read-through of the entire play, on a stage and with each other as the audience. Most of us have pretty much memorised our lines now and it was the first time that we’d performed them for one another. My monologue comes quite close to the end of the whole piece so I sat for a long time, watching the amazing performances of the women who came before me. They were GREAT. They were strong, touching, funny, heart-breaking, defiant, courageous and extraordinary, both collectively and individually. How, I wondered, could I hold my head up as one of this amazing group? My heart was in my mouth. Then at 9:50, before I’d done my bit, an announcement came over the Institute’s sound system: The building would be closing in ten minutes. So we gathered up our things and went outside.

As we stood on the cold Geneva street I knew that I’d be missing out on an important step in my preparation for the play if I didn’t present my piece to this group. So everyone gathered around, scarves, coats and gloves insulating them against the cold, while I performed my piece. Suddenly I wasn’t nervous anymore. I looked at all their faces and I knew that they wanted me to do well. They wanted me to entertain them, to make them laugh and cry and feel, just as they had made me laugh and cry and feel with their own performances. We’re all in this together, their faces were saying, so let’s have fun. They listened and laughed and clapped when I finished. It was enough. I don’t think I’ll be nervous anymore.

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I had another experience with great women a couple of weeks ago too, although that event was solely orchestrated by a man. It was my BFF’s birthday and her husband arranged not just for me and my BFF’s other BFF to travel to London to surprise her, but also for the three of us to spend an evening and a day together, then go out for dinner and be joined by another 15 surprise guests, all, as it turned out, fantastic women from all walks of BFF’s life. She hadn’t seen some of them for years. (BFF’s husband’s brownie point piggy-bank is bulging to the point of bursting after all this, by the way. Other boyfriends and husbands be warned – the bar has been set very high.)

This is an interesting group of women for me. I met BFF about 20 years ago and the awkwardness of our early association was ended when we shared a couple of glasses of wine after work one night soon after, and we’ve been somewhere in each other’s lives ever since, sitting in each other’s wings through all the good times and the bad, and meeting and picking up where we left off whenever life allows. I’ve seen many of her other friends at lots of parties and social gatherings throughout the years and I know that they’re great. But something that even BFF often forgets about me is that I’m actually quite shy. This is hard to believe for people who see me at my confident best around people that I love, but I’m nervous around strangers and hopeless in groups. But that night I made a decision to hide my shyness and strike up conversations with people I knew less well, and I was rewarded with some great exchanges. I hooked up with many of them on various social networks when I got back to Geneva and I feel like I’ve made some new friends that I somehow already know pretty well. We each have our own lives and stories, but if we look at it another way, we’re all in it together.

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Some of the conservations that I had that night reminded me of my long-held belief that you should never envy the lives of others – other people’s lives might look amazing from the outside, but everyone has their struggles and at least your own are ones that you’re familiar with. So I don’t believe in hero worship. But…

I’m so proud to count among my friends and acquaintances some people that I definitely consider heroines, and in honour of International Women’s Day I’d like to briefly mention some of them. All the women that I admire are very different from one another, but share a common thread of decency and fortitude and courage. They’re people first and a whole range of other amazing things after, including writers, earners, campaigners, mothers, artists, students, cooks, travellers, photographers, partners, readers, friends and lovers. Some of them have a public face and I’m thrilled to be able to point you in the direction of some of their work, and some live equally amazing lives more privately, working hard and seeking daily happiness and fulfilment for themselves and those around them.

Some have raised families while travelling the world for their own or their partners’ careers. Some have endured illness and campaigned for better treatment for others suffering from the same afflictions. Some have stood in defiance of the conventions of their communities and come out as gay or transgender in spite of the concern that they wouldn’t be accepted for who they truly are. Some have written books or worked on PhDs or held down fulltime jobs while bringing up amazing little men and women. Some have decided not to have children, in spite of pressure from their families or others around them. Some have battled against depression in order to live another day. Some have worked and some continue to work to create families for themselves when the odds are stacked high against them being able to do so. Some have left safe and predictable jobs in order to pursue dreams of acting or writing or travel. Some are running their own businesses. All are very different, yet in terms of their resilience and strength and humour they’re all in it together.

Please find below a by-no-means exhaustive list of some of the amazing women I’m lucky enough to know and links to some of the wonderful work they’re doing. Thank you all for being my heroines.

Sending you all lots of love and wishing you a fabulous International Women’s Day, wherever you may be.

The women, the world

Caroline – 120over80 aims to improve your sense of health and well-being through music.

Monica – Artsplay:  “It is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

Ingrid – If you love books, words, learning, stationery, the environment, people and design, this is the site for you.

Collette – Email calmmassage@optus.com.au

Helen – This blog is about opening lines and getting people talking.

Vera – Vera is interested in exploring the difficulties of language, the circumstances under which people genuinely connect, and in creating pieces that live beyond the performance.

Marisa – Gifted photographer.

Estelle – “A sparkling travel narrative of a 30-something woman taking a year to configure herself in Italy, exploring modern Rome, old-fashioned Italy, and love.”

Angie – This site is a safe haven for the veggie-minded and those of the pescetarian persuasion.

Marzena – Art director, photographer, graphic designer

Laura – “Laura always thought she was a frustrated piano player but she’s now realised it was actually a computer keyboard her fingers were itching to tap!”

The organisers and cast of The Vagina Monologues, Geneva