During ‘lockdown’ I’ve spent a bit of time sorting through most of the photographs stored on my computer as well as the much older ones kept in several shoe boxes. You know, doing the kind of thing you say you will do when you have a bit more time to do it. Sifting and sorting. Deleting duplicates and dumping bad ones, scanning old ones and creating albums for others. It was a strangely comforting experience flicking through 68 years of photos over more than a few hours.
Not all of them were taken by me of course; I wasn’t born with a camera in my hand. But there I was sitting quietly, and revisiting people and places. I’m not prone to melancholy but I did allow myself time to just sit and ‘be’ with some of the photographs. Reactivating special moments forgotten but instantly remembered. I was reminded that behind every picture sits a story, and behind that, other stories. We are linked by so many unremembered memories to ancient times.
There’s something quite science-fictionist about looking at yourself as a 4-year-old walking down a road to the beach with your dad holding your hand. A dad who was 20 years younger than I am now. I could almost feel the warmth of his hand and taste the ice cream that I was holding.
I’ve been lucky during my lifetime to have done a lot of travelling – for work and for pleasure and taken lots of photographs. I’ve been to some amazing places and had some fascinating experiences. Nearly got myself killed a few times too. But of all the photos I’ve collected, it’s the ones of people that I love the most. So many people have ‘walked along the road’ with me – some for just a few minutes others for years. And when I look again at their faces, I remember them with affection. So many people and so many stories. Mostly, they have been of very ordinary people, living humble thoughtful lives. I have learned so much from them.
One photograph (below), from which I am having another attempt at painting, is of an old man sitting on the wall that surrounds a moat; the moat which wraps around the Angkor Temple precinct in Siam Reap, Cambodia. The study group I was leading made their way across the moat by bridge to the Temple along with the Temple guide. I’d done the tour a couple of times before and said I would meet them in an hour at the Bayon Temple site. I stayed back, needing a little while for myself, and just sat on the wall while the herd of tourists slowly disappeared. Quiet eventually arrived, and after a few minutes so did Samnang, on one of the oldest bicycles I had ever seen. He sat beside me and half an hour must have passed before we spoke. He seemed to sense my need for some space. He said good morning in English with a French accent. We quickly exchanged identities and had a very poignant conversation. He shared with me a very personal account of life under the tragic genocidal rule of Pol Pot and the Kymer Rouge. Between 1975 and 1979 more than 2 million Cambodians were brutally tortured and killed. I had studied this period through reports and letters, but this was the first time I’d heard a first-hand account from the mouth of a survivor.
Samnang, on the moat wall outside Angkor the largest religious site in the world built over 1100 years ago. Initially a Hindu Temple which became a Buddhist Temple.
Samnang was my age. He pedalled his old gear-less bicycle 20kms to this spot most days. He was the only survivor of his family. He told me that he was the only one left of his name line and that he came to the Temple most days to ‘be’ with his family; a place where he knew his ancestors had gathered for some event over the centuries. The conversation made my visit to the ‘Killing Fields’ at Choeung Ek just outside Phnom Penh the following week even more poignant. I’ve never taken any photos there – I just couldn’t. Such places are simultaneously horrific and holy.
It never ceases to amaze me that despite the capacity for some people to be so horrendously cruel, others have the resilience to survive and to move forward. To dig deep, and out of the depths of their lived experience, find the grace to be friendly to a stranger.
His is a face and story I will never forget, and when I compare my life to his, I can only conclude that I have been extremely fortunate. Not blessed, ( I dislike that concept enormously) just lucky to have been born at the same time but in a different place.