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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My book has taken a few twists and turns and needed space and time to come together. I figure it’s time to sneak preview a chunk of it; well, at least its beginnings. This seems so very far away now —  a good sign I guess, that the distance traveled, in every way, has all been worth it…

 

     “You may not realize it, but every time you bring your camera up to your eye you’re making decisions about composition. Simply put, composition is how you choose to frame the picture you’re about to make.” ~ 

      Dragging the heavy cardboard box outside into the sunshine, I struggle to remember what’s inside. This was the box left behind, stored away in a friend’s basement after packing our belongings and sending them off to Canada. Kathrin gently reminded me of its presence when I arrived. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, pick a sunny day, take that last box outside and go through it to see what you need’. I’m staying at her home near Zurich while my two daughters visit their father who still lives here in his native Switzerland. The box had been taking up space in their basement for a year and a half now. She was right, it was time for me to deal with it.

          With a knife I slice open the packing tape and tentatively peel back the flaps. On top is a decorative hat made by one of my daughters in art class. This must be the box of things too fragile to ship, I’m thinking as I gently remove the hat, wondering what lies beneath. Peering in I find, layer upon layer, the many paintings and drawings made from kindergarten through grade school. The ones I could never throw away.

          Beneath the art, at the box’s core is something solid, heavy. It’s a black case that I immediately recognize. I remember. The strength mustered to drag the box into the fresh spring air dissolves as I anticipate the case’s contents. Sitting down on a cement wall, perching its bulk on my lap, I gently unzip its sides, causing photographs to fall to the pavement at my feet. Precious images of little girls in princess costumes, riding bicycles and holding pet rabbits; those of daddy and his daughters with the majestic, powerful Alps as backdrop splay around me. Mixed in are other images. One of my ex-husband in the mountains of Lesotho in Southern Africa from the time we’d met when I worked as a photojournalist in South Africa. Others, a right-wing Afrikaaner with arms in the air, moments before his execution, and one of me, in a flack jacket, flanked by South African soldiers, confront me.

          Finally, scattered on the box’s floor are heaps of photos and negatives, all taken at any given time over the last eighteen years. After I remove each one individually, I sit motionless, staring at the chaotic stack in front of me — an abandoned game of cards after all hands have folded. If only it had been a game. This was the box of things too difficult to bring forward; it was all that was just too much. Moving ahead without them for a time created a buffer, one that allows me now, one image at a time, to endure. In a long game of solitaire I hold each photo for a time, allowing memories to wash through me. By recognizing pairs and sequences that no one else could have possibly seen, I am bit by bit, being pieced back together. Not until I’m finished do I begin to understand, it was I who held the camera. There was someone who existed outside the frame of all of these photographs who was strong enough to stand in the world bearing witness to all she loved and all she feared.

          Putting most of the photos neatly back into the box ready to be shipped, I choose several of my kids with their father, some of the children alone, and a handful of my ex father-in-law who recently passed away.  I put them in a large envelope. Tomorrow, I’ll give them to my daughters, to give to their father. I don’t know why. It’s the only hand I feel I have left to play.

                                                              JUST ‘OTHER’       

              Before he left, our daughters bought pouches and filled them with small stones for him to carry. Dropped from their palms were a rose quartz, an agate and bloodstone offering him both love and protection. Wrapped around the stones was a note from me, a bandage holding tight the wounds that had not yet begun to bleed. My message wasn’t original, just words about a field and forgiveness, said best by Rumi. I knew it was us he was questioning, our marriage and what it meant to him. He’d made this clear. I could only let go as I watched him gather his families hopes and dreams in his pockets and set out to meet himself. He hadn’t been asking for permission. This was solely about him.

          Little girl’s fingers left smears on a wrinkled sheet of paper that was taped to the kitchen wall. It was a map pulled from his pocket before leaving on his journey; handed to our daughters age eight and ten for them to follow the pilgrimage he was taking through Northern Spain. At first glance it appeared so utterly basic, a display of my husband’s intentions that showed absolutely nothing of what was happening to the life of our family. It was December of 2008 and he was to walk the Camino or what is also known as the Way of St. James to hold back the years, renew a spirit that hadn’t yet found what it was searching for.  As he left, embracing me at the train station, he said, “I love you, I hope I work out my shit,” neither his lips nor eyes met mine. I was scared but I had respect for what he was doing. 

          As our daughters traced his route, the places, Pamplona and Logrono became real to us as did his pain. “My feet are freezing and my knees are aching.” The pilgrim with a cell phone relayed to his family. It was December and cold. This trek, this road to Santiago normally takes people a month to complete, if not longer but it was never his plan to walk the entire way. He didn’t have that kind of time to work out his shit. I awaited his decision around Burgos, where he was probably making a plan to accelerate; depart from the path he was on and take a bus toward the ceremonial end where seekers arrive at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. 

          One needs to walk the last one hundred kilometers to earn the Compostela or official certificate. The pilgrim can state whether the goal of his or her Camino is ‘religious’, ‘religious and other.’ or just ‘other’. “Just other” would have sufficed. It was enough for the pilgrim office and it would have been enough for me yet he insisted, by way of explanation to our daughters, that he was going to a place where people who believe in God go to figure out their lives. I’d never heard him speak this way before. God had never been a focal point in our family, at least not been used as a reason to do anything, 

          Late one night another text came in. His backpack has been stolen and he was at a police station. Some considerate pilgrims from Brazil had lent him clothes and even money. It was three in the morning but I didn’t question the strange hour. I just thought of him in a cold police station, exhausted and thinking of me. An hour later as the phone laid next to me in bed, where he used to lay, it chimed and a text came in. My eyes met the screen of my flip phone and I read, “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, it’s me who needs to change. I love you.” 

          The gasp of air allowed, as I surfaced into the world again was brief. Within a day I eddied, taken down again by my husband’s narrative. With Christmas less than two weeks away, while shopping for gifts, another message from him came in:  “I’ve decided I’ve had enough of these so-called pilgrims. I’m checking into an all-inclusive resort in Tunis. Hope you aren’t too disappointed.” 

          In retrospect, I can only guess that text was meant to explain the suntan he was going to come home with and the pounds he kept on rather than shed. The day he returned he asked us to pick him up at Zurich’s main train station. My children ran to him; I received a hug and kiss from arms and lips that felt like they’d travelled far away but missed the return flight.

          My husband sat next to me in my car asking if he looked “enlightened.” The mere fact that he was asking told me otherwise, but I lied,  and weakly replied, “Yeah, you look good.”  

         As he excitedly told our daughters how he’d ridden horses on the beach, a sense of nausea enveloped me. The contrast in our emotions couldn’t have been more stark. Being held in limbo for the last few months, wondering if my family was about to fall apart, had been a personal hell—and it had been made that much more difficult by the mind-boggling fact that my husband was coming home just two days before Christmas. His light and breezy mood was emoting neither sympathy for what I’d been through nor reconciliation. It was something else—something outside the realm of emotions I’d been anticipating. Whatever was going on with him, I felt, it had very little to do with me. 

          Our daughters were asking questions from the backseat, but their father was struggling to answer them, unable to remember the names of the places we’d been tracing on the map he’d given us of Spain. 

            “That place where they run the bulls, Pamp . . .”

            “Pamplona,” I awkwardly finished his sentence for him.

              Staring straight ahead, I drove through the streets of Zurich, where holiday shoppers were out in full force. The city, to me, is one of the most beautiful in the world; its old buildings, steeples, and narrow streets appear to be designed specifically for the perfect Christmas scene. In the old town, a market sprawls, offering up baked goods and Glühwein to keep shoppers warm during the holidays. Next to the lake, people young and old gather in a tent around vats of warm liquid beeswax, and make candles. This activity had become a family tradition of ours over the years: with a long wick looped over our fingers we would dip into the vat, patiently pause to let it cool, then dip again—sometimes for hours. Even as our feet became cold and our bellies began to rumble, the vision of what we were creating impelled us to keep going. Time passed; layer upon layer strengthened what was once a spindly string into a form capable of emitting light and warmth. 

           Today, we returned to our house—the one we’d bought just two years prior—and I tried to read the signals, looking for the warmth that should come from someone who’s left his wife on tenterhooks as he contemplated life for the past three weeks. The man who had been my husband seemed to have disappeared, and I was quickly becoming aware that I would never have a sense of that person again. His actions were not one of a father returning for Christmas—he was already a step ahead of the holidays, if not twenty. His first priority when he returned was to get bindings mounted on a new pair of skis, even though we hadn’t even spoken about going on a trip to the mountains.

          The obvious conversation that had to take place—the one that was the culmination of three months of being held in limbo—was left to me to instigate. “When are we going to talk?” (When are you going to put this nightmare to an end?) I finally asked.

          We sat together on the sofa, and he spun a disingenuous tale of how he figured out it was time to unravel himself from the fabric of our family (though he said it in a far less poetic tone). If I were to try to remember it verbatim, I’d fail. My mind was spinning trying to make sense of what was being said. I strained to hear something real, something authentic to help me focus. Eventually I did. With absurd yet heartbreaking clarity, this moment of my life was defined, in one sentence, by my husband.  “I don’t want this, I want to travel, see other cultures” 

           How could anyone who had ever known me, yet alone loved me ever say such words?  In an instant, I was faced not only with his callous indifference but the immediate impulse to survive this by taking responsibility for the things I’d neglected that had once been fundamental to my character. “This is not my story.” I kept saying to myself as I felt my world shatter around me. 

          The day before Christmas, at dinner, while my husband slept off what later I would learn was jet lag, I had to address my daughters’ questions and tell them that Daddy wasn’t back—that he was leaving. I asked him to stay until December 29th, to help with the kids. He initially agreed, but by the 27th he had grabbed his skis and headed out the door.

          Things weren’t adding up at first; it was the cliché credit card statement that ultimately gave it away. Initially I paid little attention to it—my husband may be going through a midlife crisis, but I thought I knew what he was and wasn’t capable of. I mean, who would make up a story about doing a spiritual pilgrimage and think they could get away with it? Furthermore, the entries on the American Express bill were in Spanish, that made sense since he’d been in Spain—right? 

          It was during a very long and confused call to my mother in Canada, late one night, that I was prompted to retrieve the statement to take a more careful look. Before a long list of charges was a currency I didn’t recognize. It was neither that of the Swiss Franc or the Euro. With my finger (the one that had been following a map of Southern Spain for the last three weeks) I scanned a particular transaction, one from a women’s boutique . . . in Argentina. On closer examination, I realized that none of the transactions were from Spain. All of them—including hotels, restaurants, and shops—had been charged in Argentina. My husband had been there for the past three weeks, and he’d been there with the woman he’d been having an affair with for quite some time. There were no cold toes or aching feet; no stolen backpacks. The only revelations stemming from his journey were the ones slamming into me full force as I shakily told my Mom I had to go. 

            “Did God tell Daddy to leave us?” 

              It was Jemima, staring up at me in the cold light of the next day. Of my two daughters, she is the one who always has a question and is never satisfied with a quick answer. What are the rules here, I wondered. He had done whatever he wanted so what were the rules?  How am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to say? The responsibility I felt was crushing but it also brought clarity; not for the state of our family but to be as true to myself and daughters as I possibly could. In the absolute silence after my daughter’s question, this certainty pressed through me. 

It’s never left.

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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. Continue reading

It Matters

I’m not going to tell the whole story here — these pages are not meant for this.

From the onset, I didn’t want to make this book about my divorce — no messy details I said. This is going to be about my life as it is becoming; not what it was and certainly not what someone else is trying to make it. And, I stand by that. Today though, I walk the edge.  I’ve awoken to more s**t — stuff from my Ex I thought was of the past. Legally, I’m trusting things will be OK but it’s been enough for me to question how I will accomplish all that I need to. It’s a stumbling block that’s all.

I’ve been writing today about the amazing photojournalists I interviewed over the last few weeks. Keeping focused on their words helps ground me but I still have more to meet; many more stories to pull together. Continue reading

Women in Photojournalism

At the time I was reaching out to female photojournalists around the world with the quest of writing a book, two of their male colleagues had fallen in Libya. I worried that my queries were ill-timed. They were coming together in solidarity to mourn their loss. I didn’t expect a response for some time. I was wrong.

Within a day, the replies came. The first was Barbara Davidson who had just found out she’d been awarded her third Pulitzer Prize:

“Sounds really interesting, I’d really like to be a part of this book project. Keep me posted and thanks for thinking of me. Best b”.

Next it was Andrea Bruce.

“I would be happy to be included. Let me know if you want to chat some….at the moment I’m in Mexico.”

On her heals, Holly Pickett —

“Sure, I’d love to be part of your book project. I haven’t read the articles yet, been distracted today by the death of a colleague and I can’t really think about anything else. But if Andrea signed off on it, I know it’s a good thing.” Continue reading