Tag Archives: Motion

The Stories In The Story

Asakusa (Tokyo), Japan. May 2014.



There’s a writing exercise I use with my students where I give them an image–usually something clipped from a magazine–and tell them to write about what they see for a set period of time. Then I give them a blank sheet of card-stock paper with a small square cut out of it. I tell them to put the card-stock over their image and move it around until it reveals some interesting detail, then write only about that smaller part of the image for the same amount of time. Often they write completely different stories or poems, about completely different things and from completely different perspectives. And yet, when you pull back, sometimes it’s difficult to see that all those stories are happening simultaneously.

It’s not really surprising then, that this is also a pretty important idea in photography. In many ways, the art of photography is the art of cropping. We use our cameras to crop the visible world down to the frame within the lens. Once we’ve taken the photograph, we can crop hundreds of different stories from the same frozen moment by shifting our attention and narrowing or expanding our frame to suit. How does the story of hands on a smartphone change if we are also given a glimpse of the face that is using it? What if we only see part of the face that’s using it–lips slightly parted in what? exasperation, exclamation, desperation, wonder? How important is the story of that phone if we move it to the side of the frame and centre on a woman in a jean-jacket or a man piggy-backing his boy and carrying a folded stroller?

Each of these images is cropped from the same image (below). Which story is the most compelling to you?

Bicycles in Beijing, Part I

Beijing, China. April 2013.

This is a season of bicycles. Partly it’s about the weather, and partly it’s about vacations and people having time to ride. A friend has been posting photographs from his mountain biking trip in Switzerland, with trails only a few inches wide in valleys of mountains that go on and on. The Tour de France is riding through the mountains, and apparently, for the first time, there will be a Tour de Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Yesterday families of cyclists rolled along the riverside. The five-year olds push pedal-less bikes to learn the balance of two-wheeled bliss.

Much has been made of the bicycles in Beijing. Nine million of them, the songs say. Bicycles that do not wait for seasons or free time or sunny weather. Bicycles of utility. Bicycles of necessity. Bicycles of shortening the shortest distance between points A and B.

I wonder if there’s a song about the number of cars in Beijing. I expect they are equally numerous, though not nearly as romantic.

Sacks and Boxes

Shanghai, China. April 2013.

Sacks and boxes have been on my mind.

It’s that time in the school year, the year of an international school I suppose, where there’s a lot of packing up and moving along. Some of us are just packing up our classrooms to keep things out of the way of the kind workers who fix everything over the summer. Some of us are moving offices or classrooms and need to truck our stuff from one place to another in the building, or to another building. Most of us, students and teachers, pack our sacks and boxes for vacation with equal parts glee and exhaustion.

And always in the life of an international school, there are those of us packing up for a bigger move. We are transient populations of global nomads and third culture kids. Like turtles, we carry our houses upon our backs, or at least it feels that way. For myself, this will be the first time I have lived in the same apartment for three consecutive years since I moved out of my parents’ house more than twenty years ago.

Sacks and boxes. The selling of furniture and appliances and the accumulated stuff of a life, stuff that’s nice, but not necessary, that doesn’t travel well or is easier to replace than to move. The shedding of material skins. And what’s left, the essentials, the sentimental, the milestones and markers of a journey still underway, these are tenderly wrapped in tissue and bubble plastic and cartoned and labeled for the move to Moscow, Sarasota, Bangkok, Tanzania, Kuwait.

For some friends, it’s the first move overseas in a decade. When they pack their things they will need to pack up their children too, who didn’t exist when they last packed their lives into a baggage allowance of two suitcases, fifty pounds or less. Another friend sent twenty years of worldly possessions in her sacks and boxes, on a ship that broke like an egg on the Indian Ocean. Her loved and collected sentimentals have scattered to the flatfish and the back-pocket mysteries of the sea. All she has left is a sack on her back and a box we will send her at summer’s end. By air mail.

But how do you pack up the non-things? How do you pack up a city of movement and light and technology and gales exhaled by the sea? How to pack away your connections to colleagues and friends and students and parents and the waiters and waitresses from your favourite restaurants? What will they think when at last, you do not return?

We visited Barcelona two years after we had lived there and walked the path of our old commute to school. We passed our daily bakery and peered in the window. The woman who worked there saw us and remembered and waved us in. We hugged, though we never had when we lived there.

And I am thinking of this as I pack a suitcase for Canada, of how when I open it next I will unpack familiar things like t-shirts and shorts, but there will also be connections to unpack, relationships to take up and dust off and climb back into. Daily bakers to hug.

Because in sacks and boxes, we bring it all with us where we go.

Impressions: Trees by the Tracks

Between Shanghai and Beijing, China. April 2013.

I like trees.

Apparently I am also allergic to them, but whatever.

I like the way light falls between them in streaks and patches and flickering shimmers and long shadows like roads to vanishing fairy-lands. How they cut light into shafts that transect the trodden paths and the spaces between. I like how strong trees are and how tall and how even old trees somehow smell new. I like the way they reach up and down at the same time. I like the way they move, bending, swaying without losing ground. I like the way they creak.
I like the way they change the way the air moves, the kind of stillness you feel walking into a stand of trees, like first steps into an invisible temple, the positive presence of negative space. I like their leaves in all the colours and shapes and sizes, the sound of the wind blowing through them just before they fall into fiery fall blankets underfoot. I like the way trees collect snow. I like the patience of trees.

It was a tree in Texas that taught me the value of the smallest patch of shade.

I like the connectedness of trees when they grow together in forests. I like their defiance when they grow by themselves. I like trees that grow, impossibly, through fences and from sheer faces of limestone and granite.
There’s something about a tree that feels sentient. Maybe it’s because they stand up, but it just feels like they know things. The witness trees at Auschwitz kept their silence but made me want to weep. I couldn’t look at them for too long lest I catch their eye and learn the whole story, and I, lacking tree-strength, had as much as I could bear with only the eyes of an hour.

These trees grew in the moments between dust patches on the journey from Shanghai to Beijing. I didn’t catch their story as we sped by, just a vertical impression, a thin stand against the speed of flight and the unsettling of dust.

Fives and Nines

Beijing, China. April 2013.

Of the Ying and the Yang, the Yang is held to be the positive. It is also the hard, the active, the logical and the male. And the odd. Numbers, that is. Our docent tells us that because they are Yang, the Chinese value the odd numbers from one to nine highly, the numbers greater than nine being some combination of the numbers less than ten. In particular, they value the number five because it is in the middle of the odd numbers from one to nine, and the middle is the most stable, most true position. So the gates to the Forbidden City all have five openings, even if you can only see three of them from a distance. There are five sets of stairs and five bridges over the rivers, but no one walks on the middle path. The middle path is the path of the star, the path of the emperor.

The Chinese also have a special reverence for the number nine, because, well, because it is the biggest of the odd numbers and everyone loves a superlative. Each of the five sets of doors in any gate in the Forbidden City is studded with nine rows of nine gold studs.

We worked our way through the fives and nines, among the thousands of visitors, until our docent pointed up and showed us the only occurrence of a ten. The corners of the roofs are adorned with little animal figures, more like action figures than gargoyles, little bipedal animals that face out in neat lines. The more animals, the more important the building, the more important the people in the building. At most, there can be nine animal figures. Except on the roof of the throne room. The throne room is the highest building in the Forbidden City, raised on a dias, its nine doors closed. At each corner of the roof, ten animals look out over the crowd. It’s hard to see from the ground, but I think the tenth might be seated in a chair.