Book’s Beginnings

July 9th  (prologue)

July 9th, for me, is a memorable date. It was the day I was married, in a fairytale wedding, at a castle in Scotland. It’s a date that has either lifted my spirits or fell hard upon me, depending on the year; the time of my life. I was married for eleven years and have now been separated for seven. The last few years I’ve been in the clear; have managed to maintain benign thoughts as July 9th comes and goes. I’ve done the work, I’m good. That is, until today. July 9th now screams for attention — a wounded day that cares little about love or pain, or what it’s asking of me. July 9th is making sure that I will never again be able to treat it as just another day.

Pink liquid is being pushed into my veins. It’s not how I pictured it – like in the movies where you sit for hours hooked up to an IV, reading books and magazines or chatting to your neighbour. I brought my computer along, thinking I’d have two uninterrupted hours to do some work. Instead, nurse Jackie (her real name) sits prepped before me. She’s working the first syringe with two more on deck. We’re playing a game of deception. The plastic tubes look like they’re full of Kool Aid but it’s medicine that’s being pumped into me that will kill the cancerous cells inside of me. It will also kill healthy ones. I don’t feel sick but from this day on, for the next several months, this ‘medicine’ will turn me into someone who looks sick — bald, skinny, powerless. As it saves my life, it will also zap the life force out of me and with that knowledge, I’ll struggle to define who I am in all of this. I don’t know if I’m ready for this level of acceptance. Again. Why again? No this isn’t a cancer that’s returned, not literally. Just another challenge that’s come at me, out of the blue. I’m trying to remember the feeling of doors opening. I must go back four years to the last time I tried to remember who I am and what’s important to me. Then, it was brought on by an event that shocked me out of complacency. I thought I got it – I thought I was on the road to some smooth sailing. I guess not.

 

Annie Griffiths  (March 13, 2012)

I’m sitting on a balcony seat at the Jack Singer Concert Hall feeling giddy. Finally, I’m in the same building as one of the reputed photojournalists I’ve been reaching out to over the last several months.

A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel is the name of Griffith’s sold out talk. It’s also the title of her book, the one I just bought in the theatre foyer. She has spent three decades working as a photojournalist and she did it, amazingly, while raising two children. She’s done exactly what I had once envisioned myself doing about twenty years ago. I thought I’d be the one, baby on back, camera in hand documenting cultures around the world. Instead, when the time came, my camera bag was put down; replaced, for all practical purposes, with a diaper bag.

Griffiths opened her talk by showing a photo of her first assignment as a student of photography, describing it as “the day I became a photographer;” explaining she was “in heaven” as she took the image of a tree bathed in light. In her book she writes, “It was the first of a lifetime of days when time stood still and I became far less important than what I saw in the camera’s viewfinder.”

I felt a pang listening to Griffiths. I have few regrets but in that darkened theatre in Calgary, in the very city where my photographic dreams began; as her experiences were unveiled, I was reminded of motivations long forgotten. Griffiths’ words during her talk wondrously echoed the themes I expected to be addressing in a book about women photojournalists. She spoke of the tool the camera can be for communicating the resiliency of women in the world saying by doing so, “we can change the world”. She spoke of human connections and a certain “intimacy” that arises with strangers by virtue of having a camera in hand.

At one point Griffiths talked about an assignment she had in Nebraska on a family ranch. Staying as a guest, she was awakened one morning by the light, a sunrise so beautiful and luminous she grabbed her camera and tore out the door to get the shot. After hooting and hollering over the incredible image she had captured, Griffiths then noticed a line of cowboys also taking in a first in a lifetime scene – that of a National Geographic photographer shooting in nothing but her underpants. Her message, and one she also communicated to a crowd of Calgary school children yesterday afternoon: “Find something in your life that excites you so much, you run out of the house, forgetting to put on your pants.”

There are more women on my list with whom I hope to meet. I couldn’t have chosen a harder ‘breed’ than the photojournalist to try to pin down, in time and location. There were other things to consider.  I was telling these women that I was researching a book on women photojournalists. It wasn’t a lie. I intend to write that book. I’m just not yet sure of the concept or even what it is I’m trying to illicit from them. Is it bad, I wonder, to admit that this is a personal quest that’s as much about me reclaiming my sense of self as it is about them and the work they do? Must these be inseparable?

There was something about the time I worked as a photojournalist that sticks with me; never quite leaves me alone. It arrives in flashes, the way a vivid dream haunts a day causing emotions to rush as meaning makes an escape. Pursuit of an explanation has, until now, felt futile because it doesn’t ‘fit’ into the composition of my days. I’m meeting these women hoping they can do the impossible — hold me in a dream so I won’t ever again forget what makes me feel alive.

 

Zurich, Switzerland. 1999-2009. Position: Hausfrau

I lose myself in the average day. In a world that presents no apparent threat, I’m dysfunctional. Mind numbing tasks cause me to forget myself, leave body parts strewn throughout the house. Chores then become an act of survival, my female form eventually taking shape as the day progresses. Once I find my legs, I managed to walk throughout the house collecting things. Toys introduce an ear; girl’s pants, a nose; newspapers unveil a breast. Just in time for my husband, as he walks through the door at the end of the day, I find my fingernails, eyelashes and lips. I come to him, slightly rising to my toes and brush my lips with his – careful not to let them loosen and fall to the floor. I had clumsily made order of things but the puzzle was never right. Pieces were always, always missing.

SUV’s pull up to the school; kids pile out and hours later they all pile in again. What happens in between?  What happens in between the drop off and pick up, while my husband walks through a parallel universe, gone to work by the time I  awaken. I’d moved to Switzerland but inhabited yet another foreign territory, that of a hausfrau and of motherhood and I was unsure of my footing.

I recall the early days, wondering if this would be the day someone asks me where I am from. If so, I’d explain that I’m from Canada and when the kind mother replied saying how beautiful it is there, I’d agree. From one beautiful country to another I’d travelled, or so it seemed… if you don’t count the journey in between.

Perhaps she’d ask about my husband. Wonder if he’s Canadian or Swiss. But I’d be getting carried away, letting my imagination run wild at this point. The Swiss don’t pry; aren’t prone to small talk either. But, I’ll forge ahead, imagination usurping culture.  I’d tell the woman that I met him in South Africa. Surely here, the conversation would fall silent and I’d ache for continuity. Is it so hard, I’d wonder, to say such simple words?  If the ever so kind mother would just find it in her heart to say, “Oh, isn’t that interesting,” my feet would fill the shoes around them, trust the ground beneath the soles and I would, just like that, be standing right there in the world again.

What happens in between? In between the story I hold inside and me asking you what bank it is that your husband works for.  Inhaling deeply, I feel like my 8 year – old rushing in the door at the end of the day head filled with a tangle of thoughts. With distracted mind, I capture her words as they fly in the air; hang them on a line, like laundry needing to be dried and sorted —put in its proper place. But, I couldn’t expect that from a stranger – such hard work for my words. I’d choose the easy way out – blame language or culture for our awkward moment and our words would become so very practical.

With cold toes and a shiver settling in, I’d say good-bye to my daughter outside the school, and as I catch another mother’s eye, I’d smile. Maybe she’d be the one who surprises; opens a porthole for this incongruent being; pulling me ever so gently through. Yes, she’d be the one to ask: “What is it you did in such a place?” Allowing for that space where the language of my past can be interpreted. Encouraged, this breathless child would speak, relying ever so much on her to understand what the hell I was talking about.

I was a photographer for a year on a newspaper during the country’s first democratic elections.

“Did you see anything awful?”

Socks fly out of my mouth.

“It’s a pretty dangerous place, isn’t it?”

Underwear and bras catapult from my teeth

“Were you at all frightened?”

Shirts and blouses swirl in their glory above my head; a tornado of laundry threatens to lift me off the ground.

The school bell rings with each article stopping mid-flight; hanging suspended in the crisp fall air. She walks away, a child tugging at her sleeve and all comes tumbling down.  I gather it up, the costume that covers my life, grateful, for a time, that it keeps me safe and warm.

 

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Start with the Corners

…or reason #1 for starting an app called Culture Dock.

Have you ever been watching a film and you hear one line that feels like it’s being spoken directly to you? Each word hits you, like you’ve tapped the ‘pronunciation’ button on Duolingo, the one with the turtle next to it so you can slow it down and take the opportunity to really understand. I was watching the British ‘rom-com’ Man-Up on Netflix when this quip from a bar stool, between friends, became less a line in a movie and more a manual for life:

You’re an emotional jigsaw, you need to piece yourself back together. Start with the corners and look for the blue bits.

The date was March 19th and I’d just finished my last round of radiation following surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer. My hair had grown in about half a centimetre and the strength in my body had begun to return but not much else in my life was operating cohesively. We had started development with the Culture Dock app  but with all the recent challenges, I was losing site of why I embarked on such a massive project.

It wasn’t the first time I’d looked for markers, not the first time I’d felt like my body parts were scattered all over the place, needing to be put back together again. But, it was the first time I’d heard an inspirational quote that was, at the same time — so damn functional.

‘I’ve got this’ I thought. The ‘corners’ represent the reasons I created Culture Dock. Once I remember these, it’ll all makes sense. Right?

The first corner is easy. I’m in Johannesburg, South Africa and I’m way out of my comfort zone but for the first time in my life, I’m doing something that I decided to do on my own, that I’m passionate about.

A few weeks, prior, I’d shown my portfolio to the editor of a newspaper. The publication called New Nation was black owned and edited and almost entirely black staffed. With deep roots in the anti-apartheid movement, its editorial team had found their place in the struggle as journalists and photojournalists fighting injustice with pen and camera. I was a skinny little white woman from a ski town in the Canadian Rockies, presenting portraits that I’d taken in the kingdom of Lesotho that my photojournalism instructor would have called ‘smiling peasant shots’.

“These are very nice’ the editor Gabu Tagwana, said to me, “but have you taken any action shots?”

I must have presented as a curious story to him, one he wanted to see play out because despite my feeble answer that “I’ve shot plenty of photos of ski racing in the mountains of my home town”,  I got the job.

I’m covering a rally in an area then known as the Western Transvaal. The right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) is granting freedom of the city to its leader, the notorious white supremacist leader Eugene Terre’Blanche. Accompanying me is another staff photographer, Andrew Tshabangu. As we photograph the ceremony, Andrew stays close and at one point quietly asks me to ‘not venture too far away’. As he does this, he raises one eye above his camera to tell me, rather shakily, ‘These are the photos I’ll never forget’.

In defiance, not far away, Umkonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress, is granting freedom of the township to Joe Modise, the founder of MK. From marching bands and grey uniforms with swastika-like emblems, Andrew and I slide into a stadium full of black South Africans. It isn’t long before he ventures off, my eyes following him as he explores freely with his camera. I stand, feeling exposed on sun- parched grass with bleachers, packed with people, on either side of me. Fists rise in the air and without music, Nkosi Sikelel‘ iAfrika, fills the stadium. As the booming voices belt out the pan African liberation anthem, it resonates in a place deep inside me and I remember what I came to do – take pictures.

I fall into a rhythm, moving with the sounds and personalities of a country stiffened by fear and bolstered by courage. It’s the beginning of the most incredible year of my life. With camera in hand, I feel grounded but also open and curious. I find in this, the most incredible way to exist. We don’t have to be in such extremes to have our sense of curiosity about the world jolted. I’ve since learned I can return to familiar stomping grounds, lift my camera and see things I’d never noticed before.

My first corner of this jigsaw puzzle life isn’t a place or a thing, it’s the memory of a feeling I don’t ever want to lose. It was hard to find, at first because it got lost in the messiness of raising young children in a foreign country and living life as a hausfrau for an unintentionally long period of time while my husband climbed the corporate ladder. That long lost piece snapped into focus in a single moment when he walked out on me saying, ‘I don’t want this, I want to travel, see other cultures.’ Must I mention that we met in South Africa? That I’d written a book about the culture of his home country, Switzerland; that I’d been waiting for the day we could again travel and enjoy seeing more of the world?

Pardon the well-worn cliché but It seems I’m on a streak of turning lemons into lemonade; turning heartbreak into words and words into apps and apps into platforms that help people understand one another. But, I haven’t yet got that far. I guess you could say, I’m still looking for the blue bits cause there’s still work to be done.

I invite you to read more about the Culture Dock app and to make a contribution to our crowdfunding campaign on Start Some Good. Thank-you to all who’ve already pledged their support and shared this campaign on Facebook. Every little bit helps!

Stay tuned for reason #2! 

Purchase my photographic memoir, Black Taxi: Shooting South Africa, about the year I spent working as a photojournalist in Johannesburg during the lead up to South Africa’s first democratic elections.