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.

Universe

To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

 

Celebration

Celebration

My BFF has always been rather amused by what I describe as my “relationship with the universe”. And she’s right to be. She knows that religion is not an affliction that I suffer from, and she probably thinks that it sounds like quasi-religious fervour when I say things like, “I’m so grateful to the universe for X” or “The universe is not there to fuck you up.” This kind of talk sat far more comfortably in my Catholic childhood than in my rather more rational adulthood (well, maybe not the “fuck” bit), but for some reason I can’t seem to shake the words “the universe” out of my lexicon.

In theory, I totally agree with Richard Dawkins when he says that, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” I agree that the universe is utterly indifferent to my happiness and well-being, but it’s actually that that makes me feel so unbelievably fortunate. Since there’s no all-powerful being forever on my side, how is it that I get to inhabit such an incredibly beautiful world and live so happy an existence?

When I refer to “the universe”, I think it’s just because I need words with which to express my gratitude. And it seems to work for me. Unlike some believers in a malignant and vengeful God, I don’t blame anyone when things fail to go my way. But it does make me feel better to be thankful when I experience the kindness of friends or strangers, or when something good comes my way, or when I see something beautiful. And those things happen many, many times every day.

This desire to express gratitude is part of the reason why I’m enjoying getting into photography. Every picture that I take is an attempt to express my gratitude for the fact that I was there in the moment when a particular thing happened, or that I was able to visit a particular place or spend time with particular people. I need to get better at taking pictures so that I can more accurately document some of the incredible moments that I’m privileged to witness. (A few early attempts can be found on my Flickr page here if you’re interested in taking a look. I promise that I will get better.)

Other things that I always thank the universe for are the beautiful opportunities that spring up in the course of an ordinary life. Like the opportunity to speak regularly on Skype with a father who’s quite recently embraced the joys of technology. Or the chance to have beautiful times with friends and family who visit my home, or invite me to visit them in theirs. Or the ability to speak frequently with much loved family members who live far, far away. Or the opportunity to join an extraordinary group of women to perform a wonderful play in a theatre in Geneva.

I don’t know how else to express it.

And so I say thanks to the universe.

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.

IMG_3297 IMG_3261_1

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!