Cameras, communication and the intimacy of a moment.Written by John Macpherson
My dad suffered from mental illness for the latter part of his life, and this put a considerable strain on my family for over a decade, particularly my mother. One year was particularly bad and they required a lot of support, and after father had been taken off to hospital yet again, my mum suggested I should take a holiday. It was a week before Christmas and I was pretty whacked, physically and emotionally drained, and did not want any hassle from having to sort out something as a solo traveler, my usual method, so I decided to go with a group and managed to get a late booking on a trip to Morocco, my first and only ‘package trip’.
A week and a day into the trip and with a few alarm bells having already tinkled thanks to my heightened awareness of ‘odd’ behaviour, finally, high in the Anti-Atlas mountains in a small mountain village in the middle of nowhere the trip leader, an English fellow, finally cracked, and the bells ceased their tinkling and positively clanged.
Apparently dejected, miserable and really fed-up he moaned “It’s all right for you lot I just get to know some of you and then you leave me, you all make friends and then go home and keep up friendships and I’m just left here with another group arriving and they all make friends, and go, and I’m left alone again. Its no use I can’t carry on doing this. I’m going back to the nearest town. If anyone wants to come with me you’re welcome.” It was painfully obvious that our perception of this guiding lark as being some idyllic traveling life was in fact for him some form of torture and one which was having a serious effect on his mental equilibrium.
No amount of talking was going to change his mind, he was intent on being off, to anywhere but here. But a few of the group said they’d prefer to stay in the mountains, so the group split with the majority going with him. I opted to stay and continue to follow the advertised schedule which I had been delighted with, and which included several more days in what I considered to be an utterly entrancing mountain landscape high above the desert. Leaving us with instructions to meet in a few days time, our guide departed, and accompanied by several adults I was confident he was in no danger of any sort so I wished them well as they departed.
Left alone halfway up the side of a mountain in a little village might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it was a lovely place with amazingly friendly people, and although they were very polite, they had kept their distance from us, particularly the young women. A few hours after the main group and guide departed I took a wander about and encountered numerous people, mostly children, and although we shared no common spoken language we could share signs and gestures which they happily reciprocated, and they all enjoyed some sweets I carried and handed around and two small boys in particular enjoyed a few of my disappearing coin tricks. But there seemed to be an interest in the fact that the majority of the relatively large group had left, and we few remaining seemed the object of some curiosity. It seemed that the atmosphere had changed and there was a slight but perceptible shift in people’s attitude towards us.
On the second day after our leader had departed I was walking alone through the village when two young women, and the two small boys from the previous day’s fun approached me, and one of the small boys took me by the hand and giggling at my surprise they led me up a narrow path between two houses. The path wound higher and higher above the huts and finally levelled out on a narrow ledge that led across the face of a cliff to where the sound of singing rose. We rounded the corner and found a group of women washing clothes at a small spring, with wet clothes laid out in the sun to dry. They looked in surprise at me and my guides spoke a few words and they all smiled warmly and carried on working.
I was gestured to sit and did so and spent an hour listening to their singing and watching the women work, high above the valley, intense winter blue sky overhead, their voices echoing beautifully. I understood not a single word, but neither did I care. And I never once thought to lift my camera for it seemed as if to do so would be some gross breach of trust and that this whole wonderful scene I’d become a part of would dissolve. Eventually my young woman guides came over and they moved across to the cliff edge and sat together and then made the camera sign to me, and gestured to me to take their picture as they sat together with earnest looks on their faces.
And so I did as asked and when they heard the shutter click they grinned and giggled and were up and off. It was a lovely moment and one that seemed so unlikely a few days earlier. And it struck me how little real contact our guide must have had with these mountain people even although he spoke some of their language and had been in this village numerous times. It seemed hugely ironic that someone could feel so ‘alone’ amidst such friendly and engaging people.
Photographers often say to their subjects “just ignore me, pretend I’m not here” in order to try to gain some ‘intimate’ fly-on-the-wall photographic opportunities. I’ve always hated that. In reality what they should say is “please accept me” – a somewhat different concept and for me a much more humane one; one that brings with it the need for interaction, and mutual respect, and which will of necessity elicit the question from your subjects – “why should we accept you?”. To which your response spoken or unspoken, must be honest and understood.
It’s an interesting concept that invariably what you photograph when you take pictures of people like this, is actually a reflection of yourself.
So, how do you define yourself as a photographer? By the way you view the world, or by the way the world views you?
Something to think about.