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. 

Keepin’ It Curious

An email I received a few weeks ago was asking me to provide my most memorable travel experience. It was from the publishers of one of my books, Culture Smart: Switzerland. About to launch a new website for their global guidebooks, they were asking all their authors to summon up a favourite travel memory and say it in no more than a hundred words. The challenge for me was not writing a single memory in so few words but choosing only one memory. So, I didn’t. Instead I submitted a paragraph that described more than one trip and spanned a couple of decades. As you can probably imagine, doing that in 100 words was next to impossible but it has prompted me to flesh it out because somewhere in those scarce words, that implied so much, lay the thread that led me to the creation of a video and photo-sharing app that facilitates cross-cultural understanding for travellers and the culturally curious. Since Culture Dock is soon to be released, I figure it’s a good time to fill people in on its beginnings.

As a young woman in my early twenties, I sat on a university campus in Durban South Africa listening to an Afrikaaner band called the Kalahari Surfers sing songs of protest and saw South Africans line up under a marquis announcing a first showing of ‘Cry Freedom’ some five years after the rest of the world watched this film about their own country’s struggle. It was 1991, Nelson Mandela had recently been released from prison and I was experiencing a country awakening as music and art (and political parties) were being unbanned. I was hooked, enough to return within two years to work as a news photographer as South Africa lurched toward democracy. I spent a year holding my camera to marches and rallies and even an execution. I photographed Nelson Mandela the day it was announced he co-won the Nobel Peace prize with F.W. DeKlerk. I took pictures of a ninety year-old woman with crutches, heading to the polling station to vote for the first time in her life. There is no one memorable moment. They stack up, one on top of the other, each one breathing life into the next whispering ‘don’t ever forget this’; urging me to not ever stop learning more about the world around me.

But there is one trip that brought me to tears, not because of the beauty (or the horror) that I saw through my camera’s lens but because I’m now a mother and looking out at the world is never with a single gaze; it’s done with the knowledge our children too are taking this all in, learning from where we’ve been, what we’ve done and will be the ones that will eventually move this world forward.

In 2013, I returned to Johannesburg with my daughters, then age thirteen and fifteen. I introduced them to the family that welcomed me with open arms, into their home in Soweto; to Tsholofelo who was around the same age as my daughters when I first met her and her mother and grandmother. We spent a day with my old friend, the photojournalist Victor Matom, who teaches youth photography in Soweto. With him, we wandered dusty roads taking photos, engaged with people as Victor reached out his hand and gargantuan heart to passersby who all seemed to know him. All of this, and the smell of coal burning stoves, the vibrant clothing worn by women, the explosion of colour as the sun plied its way through a hazy sky toward the horizon stirred memories that banged up against the moment I was sharing with my daughters. We visited the Apartheid Museum where they saw the country’s dark history on display and events I’d attended before they were born.

To be there with my daughters could have felt surreal but instead it became one of the few times in my life when everything made sense. There were reasons I traveled, reasons this country seeped into my heart. I was showing my daughters a place that literally changed my life and the message to never forget this, to never stop learning about the world around us, was being amplified. Somewhere in all of that, the seeds of Culture Dock were born. At the time, I didn’t know if it was going to be a series of books, or a website, or the app it’s ultimately turned out to be. What I envisioned was a space that encouraged curiosity about the world that would be relevant to today’s traveler. Through much trial and tribulation an app called Culture Dock has been born. Its roots go back twenty-five years but took force in earnest three years ago when the idea of an app to facilitate cultural awareness first came into my mind. Through wrong turns, delays, technical glitches and a few other unexpected obstacles, the app will soon be rolled out onto what feels like a precarious world stage.

My intention is to begin a ‘global love affair’. As Canada takes the lead by sharing our rich cultural diversity for our 150th anniversary of Confederation, the rest of the world will be asked to join in. People as well as those in the tourism and culture sectors will be invited to upload photos and videos of local culture onto the app’s channels, sharing such things as local customs and traditions; geography and landmarks; nature and wildlife, you get the gist.

Despite all the crazy delays with the app, it’s helping me to now feel like I’m doing something productive, beyond liking a few posts I agree with on Facebook or feeling my temper rise with arguments that lack reason or empathy. You may be asking yourself who is this woman who thinks she knows what the world needs. I’m not assuming I do. I’m just someone who’s pulled the thread in my life and come up with a platform where I hope people will say ‘hey look what we like to do in our corner of the globe!’ Or, ask a question of someone who does something they may not understand. What I can say for sure is that I know my life has been enriched by people I’ve met who have grown up in parts of the world that are different than what I’m used to. I can tell you how my life expands when I’m curious about different traditions, customs and values.

One more thing, before I exit this expanded travel memory, it’s almost an aside but it happens to fit in perfectly with the points I’m making here. A few weeks into development of the app, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m healthy now but I’m not going to let a bitch like cancer knock me to the ground without saying I learned a thing or two. In this life, we need to focus on the healthy parts. Cancer may run through us, through society; we may allow toxic substances into the system to try to kill it but it’s at the expense of our own life force. By focusing on the healthy parts, the ones that by far outnumber the unhealthy parts, it’s the only way we can feel empowered when life gets crazy. This is how we keep the energy flowing, keep wanting to live for a better day and in the process, we learn just how strong and empathetic we humans can be.

So, who’s up for a global love affair?

Visit Culture Dock and subscribe to our mailing list or follow us on Facebook to keep up with our news because it’s almost time to start filling the app with everything unique to your neck of the woods!

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.

 Visit my FB page at: f/16


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