In my last post I wrote:
This [most recent] trip to Brasil was an eye-opener for me on a few levels. I felt that I was walking on a tightrope in… the country… I became very conscious that behind the myth of a magical/spiritual Bahia lies a very difficult, and sometimes unbelievably harsh, world of poor, landless, and/or homeless people who suffer yet are determined to surmount obstacles. They struggle daily to survive – and do not always succeed.
I saw a great deal of poverty and began to understand that it is difficult to break through social and economic obstacles (due to the dramatically unequal distribution of income ) – *many* people live in destitution. Black Brazilians are among the poorest. Throughout the country, they live in sprawling favelas (slums) or in abandoned buildings and warehouses, as part of the Movimento dos Sem-Toto (Roofless Movement). In the Bahian countryside it is common to pass through small villages where the housing is barely basic and where multiple generations of people live together. Quilmbos (also known as mocambos), are plots of land given to those who are entitled to slavery reparations. There is a pervasive lack of decent education there too. The chances of getting out of these conditions are slim to none.
Yet I also saw strength, endurance, and hope surface in daily life. Upon reflection, I understand this hope to be related strongly to religion. Perhaps it is because the state of Bahia is at the centre of Afro-Brazilian culture and that the Baianos (as the people are called) practice religious and festive traditions that go back to their African ancestry. While I was at the coast, I had the opportunity to experience three different celebrations of Iemanja (the goddess of the sea). In the region of Chapada Diamantina, I witnessed the preparation of the local Patron – a part of the Umbanda religious celebrations in one particular small village. Umbanda combines Catholicism, African, and Kardecistic religions and is headed by a Catholic saint (sadly I missed this celebration because of food poisoning).
Saudade is the word Portuguese colonists used to express their longing for their mother country; it is considered a melancholy nostalgia for something that may not have even happened and thought of as a central element of the Portuguese soul. It is said that this was the same feeling that was intrinsic to the African population that arrived in Brasil as slaves and who were sick and nostalgic for the homeland from which they were uprooted. It continues today as the millions of Afro-Brazilians hold on to their culture, religion, and traditions. And yet, nevertheless, I was able to see how these utterly impoverished people are able to find love and joy in the everyday, despite acute daily hardship. They are extroverted, are touched by the mystical, and ache for something long-gone. Looking at my photographs, with the distance of just a few weeks, I see that much of what I caught on camera was a mere glimpse of narrow lives, people with a shared past, a long history but an uncertain future.
“The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudade)
“Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again… The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.” – Introduction to Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento
I just finished the second of two back-to-back photography workshops with Ernesto Bazan (this one in Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brasil). We visited families in Arandai and Velho Mocambo(?), explored a few out of the way places (i.e., at the end of long, dry, pocked, iron-filled dirt roads), and had the opportunity to watch a celebration of Umbanda. It was quite overwhelming as children from the homes we visited, ran around posing and trying to grab each photographer’s attention. Multiple generations live together, and both calm and pandemonium abound. Likewise, the festivities we witnessed had equal shares of order and chaos. It was easy to get lost in the throes and, as a photographer, to lose intention.
Focusing (no pun intended) is difficult. It is a trait that I must nurture, when a great deal of activity surrounds me. I have to remember to do what I am naturally inclined toward, rather than be swallowed up by the waves of movement around me (or, alternatively, do what I think is expected of me when I take pictures with other photographers). When I heed my own voice I tend to turn in a different direction from others. I do not do this to be contrary or non-conformist but rather to find my own space. I get lost in the details, layers, cracks, and crevices, rather than be swept away by the whole; I go at my own rhythm. Looking until something – almost always intangible – captures me. I then try to transform that particular something into an image.
After initial inner struggles (and many poor shots thanks to these fights with myself) what calls to me are typically the quieter and less certain spaces of my surroundings – the things that can be overlooked because they may be too quotidian or too spare. But, I respond to these with my heart – they feel like psychological layers. It is a dance between “me” and “object” – and I explore the space where we intersect. How it manifests itself to me and then how I translate that feeling into image is unclear to me (at least for the moment.) I simply allow myself to be carried with it and go with the grain. Like saudade or pentimento, the photograph becomes an utterance detached from context, thereby giving it a unique integrity and opening it to abstract or new meaning.
This trip to Brasil was an eye-opener for me on a few levels. I felt that I was walking on a tightrope in both the country and my work. In regard to the Brasil, I became very conscious that behind the myth of a magical/spiritual Bahia lies a very difficult, and sometimes unbelievably harsh, world of poor, landless, and/or homeless people who suffer yet are determined to surmount obstacles. They struggle daily to survive – and do not always succeed.
With this as a background, it seems almost trite to talk about my photography. But I am discovering that the pictures I take are responses to the spaces and places where I work in. During these weeks in Brasil I figured out that I must feel comfortable in my own skin and do what is right for me. It is something I always know but do not always allow myself to remember and act upon. In Brasil I felt strong links to saudade, something that escaped me entirely when I visited the country in 2015. After a while it was difficult not to see it everywhere. Yet, despite the melancholia there is strength and hope that seems to prevail even under some of the more dire circumstances.
My work is not straight documentation but, rather, a subjective (and limited) description of experience. In framing the material subject of a photograph I express an embodied tactile knowledge – it is a gesture toward turning familiar places and objects into visceral experiences. But my photographs barely scratch the surface (or layers) of this state of being, of saudade.
I’m now past the halfway mark on my travels. After beginning my trip to Brasil with two weeks on my own, I’ve just now completed the first of two photography workshops. Below are a few photographs taken over these last nine brilliant days with Ernesto Bazan, and the four wonderful people who joined me with him.
It is only a 40-minute ferryboat ride to the island of Itaparica, from Salvador, Brasil. Larger towns, like Itaparica, Mar Grande, and particularly Vera Cruz are more bustle than anything else. So, based on my last experience here, it was the villages I was seeking. In general, the people there are fairly laid back. Most are friendly and open and pay little attention to this Gringa, walking around with her camera. Some ham it up for the camera. Others think I am loco. The majority, though, are truly curious about me and want to know where I am from and what I am doing there. And I try to figure them out. We are worlds apart and I am humbled by the openness, modesty, and dignity of those who let me into their lives.
My Portuguese is pretty basic. I cannot stress this enough. I know a few words here and there and try to form sentences (and typically forget to add verbs). Somehow I manage to communicate with people on a very rudimentary but somewhat successful level
The following are a handful of photographs taken over the five days there.
I am back at the Salton Sea. I have been here for two weeks and have less than a week to go. This past weekend I realised that blanks are filling in, on this project; it is a satisfying feeling. Another trip or two, to this area, and I should be able to say “that’s it!” This place, right from the start, touched me. It will be odd to not have to return. In the meantime… there is still more work to get done.
Over the years there have been several elements that have consistently played important roles in how my life and my art have unfolded. I grew up immersed in art; my parents took me to museums and encouraged me to be creative – to use my hands by drawing, building, and photographing. Unwittingly, they also taught me to enjoy solitude. Beyond this though, throughout my university pursuit in the visual arts and to this day, I have always craved movement and change (I moved sixteen times in twenty-two years). I have also always felt strongly compelled to learn about and understand other people and cultures – so much so that as a teenager I considered anthropology as a career.
Once I settled into nesting by making my home with Steve, while continuing to dabble in art, the urge to address all of these interests led to my leaving my all-consuming day job as an archivist and setting out to travel on my own for several months. If I hadn’t done so I would not have realized that travel and photography are my true passions.
I have come to understand that both these pursuits have everything to do with the need to know. When I travel, I am completely open to discovery. I want not just to set foot in other lands but to become a part of them, however briefly. I want to see and experience that which is different about other cultures and, dispelling all assumptions, learn about what we all have in common.
In her New Yorker article this past July, Loneliness Belongs to the Photographer, Hanya Yanagihara wrote:
…the person with the camera is not hiding but receding. She is willfully removing herself from the slipstream of life; she is making herself into a constant witness, someone who lives to see the lives of others… the photographer moves through the world, our world, hoping for anonymity, hoping she is able to humble herself enough to see and record what the rest of us—in our noisy perambulations, in our requests to be heard—are too present to our own selves to ever see. To practice this art requires first a commitment to self-erasure…
…The annals of photography contain many extraordinary portraits, but the ones we linger on longest achieve something exceptional: they suggest that in the microsecond it takes for the shutter to blink, some communion has been found, that an unseen life has become a seen one, that attention has been paid, that an act of witness has been accomplished. They remind us how much we want to be seen, and also how infrequently we practice the skill of seeing others. But if there is a cure for the invisibility of loneliness, it is this. It is why, depending on who you are, that click of the camera’s shutter is a sound that evokes either anxiety or relief. Click: I see you. Click: I see you. Click: I see you. You are not alone.
The camera is the instrument through which I observe, discover, and learn as I travel. Although I am behind it, it connects me to others at the same time. It starts the conversation – be it through simple eye contact with the person I am photographing or, sometimes, a profound sense that the person I am photographing understands she has my complete attention and respect. It is when I travel and photograph that I can truly see.
I am attentive to my environment; I am constantly framing moments in my mind’s eye as it sweeps the landscape around me. I try to capture the feel of things with my photographs – of people, of spaces, and of objects. Although I have begun to work on photographic projects in the last year, my pictures are first and foremost about the subject in each individual image and about the impression it made on me. I work toward getting at what lies beneath the surface. Through photography I collect experiences, remember, learn, and share what I have felt and seen. To quote Yanagihara again, “The lens may distance the photographer from the rest of humanity, but with that distance comes an enhanced ability to see what is overlooked.” I would also venture to say that wandering with my camera brings this photographer closer to intimate exchanges and humanity. It is my propensity for travelling alone that, perhaps ironically, enables this.