I started traveling in the pre-digital era. There was no Facebook or Instagram, almost no one carried a phone and internet cafes, when you could find them, worked on dial-up. It was also pre-digital photography, so documenting the places I had journeyed far and wide to see meant lugging some heavy equipment, insisting rolls of film hand inspected at airports and searching for places to develop negatives and print photos.
Everywhere I have traveled I have had one, or two, film cameras with me. By bus, train, plane, boat and motorbike my cameras were with me. Throughout Asia, across Australia, around the Caribbean, into the sands of the Middle East my cameras were with me. And now, on this grand adventure on board Kate, despite owning a pocket digital, a digital SLR and having a smartphone to take happy snaps with, I still carry around a couple old school manual film cameras.
I admit they don’t come out as often as they should.
The convenience of my pocket-sized digital gadgets now often trumps the elegance of these timeless pieces of equipment. The salty ocean environment is harsh and after losing one camera when a dinghy was swamped years ago I am probably overly cautious about my gear, you can’t just go to a shop and buy them anymore. Not to mention that the publications I write for, and this blog, rely on digital images.
But, every now and then, we discover a place that demands I slow down and consider it for more than the millisecond that it takes to “point and shoot.” Last month, on a bright sunny morning back in New Caledonia, I found one of those spots nestled along the banks of a quiet river.
After returning back to the boat to drop off Steve, pack cameras into dry bags and pelican cases, and to check the battery on my poor neglected light meter I still had enough just water to get the dinghy back over the sand bar at the mouth of the river. There, amongst the tall colonial pines, bathed in buttery, dappled morning light was the remains of several large stone buildings. I set down my boxes and bags, dug out my cameras and got to work.
According to the guidebooks these building were an 18th century penal colony, most likely inhabited by outcasts and vagrants shipped over from France, left to fend for themselves in the wilds of the South Pacific. Now the windows were un-shuttered, the door left open and the ceiling reached the sky. But the stone walls endured. All but a few of the almost foot thick enclosures were completely intact.
I wandered around the quiet woods, listening to the leaves crunch underfoot while trying to remember how to compose and focus though the little viewfinder that I actually had to lift to my eye. As I walked between the great trees that stood where men once did and pushed aside the odd sapling that was poking into my composition like a curious child I felt that familiar calm wash over me. Photography has always been a solitary activity for me; a quiet mediation on a space where words only break the exquisite interface between me and the lens.
I have constantly been drawn to empty buildings, those places that have been discarded, overlooked and let to ruin, but I do not find them lonely. There is a great amount humanity in these spaces. There are always traces of the people who built them, worked in them, lived them, died in them. If you look you can see fragments of the people that sheltered in them, and hear whispers of the love and hardships that they shared.
It will be months, if not years, before I get to see these images. And maybe then they will be under exposed, or out of focus or just lack that certain something that makes a picture a great photograph. But each one will remind of that special place on that quiet morning, where the light was just right and the breeze rustled in the trees high above me. It will remind me to slow down and observe the world carefully, and to make a little space in my day for the things that I love.
In between rolls of film I did a quick survey with my little pocket camera, here are the results.