Program Mode — Not an Option

I’ve been bobbing to the surface as waves of jet-lag wash over me. From a muggy S.E. Asian climate I’ve flown to crisp and chilly mornings in Banff; a good sleep finally affords me an extended breath of fresh mountain air and I’m feeling good. Good enough to sit down and make sense of the last five weeks.

Five photojournalists whom I’ve been trying to peg down for the book were to be in one place, Chiang Mai Thailand for the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop. Once I found out, I had to go. FPW takes place in a different locale every year; previously taking place in Mexico, India, Turkey and Argentina. Next year will take them to Sarajevo. I booked our flights only three weeks before take-off, somewhat apprehensive about the idea of flying across the globe merely to sit down for a conversation with five women. Skype may have sufficed, but in my heart I knew it wouldn’t be the same. I also knew there was more to this trip than conducting interviews. It had a lot to do with my daughters and, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the importance of showing them the world beyond their own doorstep.

Eric Beecroft (the Foundry’s founder), suggested my girls take an introductory class with the photojournalist David Storey. They were the youngest to have ever taken the course and were asked to pursue a subject for the week and come up with a few strong shots. If all went well and a story came together, even better.  Sadie chose street dogs and Jemima, orphanages. I wasn’t about to turn them loose on their own on the streets of Chiang Mai so I ended up jumping taxis with them to orphanages, dog shelters and markets where puppies were being sold like souvenirs. Most of the time, I had my camera bag (same one I used in South Africa some eighteen years ago) slung over my shoulder, thinking I may take a shot or two.

photo: Sadie

Had I known the extent of what the girls would be doing when Eric suggested the class to me, I probably would have said no. Added to their individual work, David chose the subject of Monks as a group assignment. My interviews readily took secondary status as the girls assignments took shape.

‘I was up at 5:30 with my kids this morning photographing monks taking alms.’

Andrea Bruce and I were sitting down for coffee and my first interview in the restaurant of her hotel.

‘I forgot what it feels like, to be plugged into everything around me, camera in hand, completely in the moment. I was having so much fun…and there, in my lens were my kids, shooting away too. It was amazing.’

‘Are you going to write your own story into this book too?’ Andrea asked me.

Photo: Kendall

The book started out being about women in photojournalism — just about them and writing about myself felt awkward. I admitted to her that I’ve been struggling with the idea of including myself but more and more, feel it important. I’ve felt the support of each woman, as I met them, and their understanding of the journey I’m on. Communicating why the work of these women matters; why images of women in the world matters, has always been clear. My personal motivations for doing it…. was something that was slowly being revealed to me.

I made a pact before I left Canada for Thailand, that I would no longer write about my divorce or my ex-husband. No matter what he does or says, this journey is about what lies ahead. These photographers listened to my story of my children’s growing love of photography, how I unexpectedly found myself on the streets of Chiang Mai, shooting alongside them. I, in turn, listened to them speak of one particular woman whom they’ve photographed who has made an impact on them, for one reason or another.

Each talk, taking place in the context of the workshop, enforced for me that there had been something missing from this book — something that made me feel a bit like a hypocrite. I was writing of something I once adored yet I myself had barely picked up my own camera in some fifteen years. And, when I did, it was on autofocus and program mode merely capturing snapshots with little thought behind them. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to admit what photography still means to me. I’d pushed it aside for so long, because to journey out into the world with my camera, the way I wanted to, wasn’t an easy option.

Several times in the last few weeks, emotions arose that mimicked those I felt when I worked as a photojournalist in South Africa. That time of my life was immensely challenging but I was motivated by the fact I was learning about another country and its story. It wasn’t about me, but something so much larger. Back then, I ached to return home changed in some way, big or small; altered by being exposed to completely different people and events. The camera was a tool that facilitated this on a profound level. What I saw through my lens changed me. I was hooked.

Yet somehow I forgot, until my daughters helped me to remember….

‘I love the world so much more now because I’m taking pictures of it.’ If I’d been having any doubts about this journey we were on, these words of Sadie’s made them evaporate completely.

Photo: Jemima

I said yes to the girls enrolling in the photojournalism workshop because Eric said it could potentially be life-changing for my daughters. It was. They’ve been given the incredible gift of connecting to the world in a creative way. No matter what they end up doing in life, they’ll forever be seeing people and cultures in a more intimate light. Following the workshop, we left Thailand for Myanmar —  a land seemingly lost in time but on the precipice of change. Literally everywhere we looked, was a photo. My kids weren’t simply walking through it, they were framing it; most importantly they were noticing it for its beauty, its irony and neglect. They were understanding another country for what it was and their lives were being enriched.

What happened to me was completely unexpected. In the midst of telling the tales of these amazing photojournalists, I’ve picked up my own camera. I’ve felt myself step into the moment and back into the world — nothing more, nothing less. The auto-focus is off. Program mode isn’t an option and creativity is the rule. My senses are being informed by the people and places around me and I’m deciding for myself where my focus will fall.

This round of interviews had me sitting down with Andrea BruceAgnes DherbeysMaggie SteberAdriana Zehbrauskas and Paula Bronstein. It was phenomenal and I thank each one of you, from the depths of my heart, for your support.

I also have to send out an extra special thanks to Eric Beecroft for including my kids. Your simple suggestion has reached far and wide.

That makes fifteen interviews in the can with a few more on deck…

What a journey!

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