This is the first in what we hope will be a series of guest posts on twenty-five minutes. We invite friends to set a timer for twenty-five minutes and write. This first post comes from Jesse Dart, a friend of Mehrunnisa’s. Jesse is a fellow writer, photographer and anthropologist. He currently lives in Northern Italy. He is the author of the newsletter ‘Art of Escape’, a way to travel the world with ‘a story, an image, a scene’.
In early fall 2003, I boarded a flight from Chicago O’hare airport bound for Johannesburg South Africa via London. I remember the flight from London the most, leaving in the early evening from Heathrow and flying due south over the entire continent, north to south. Over the Sahara, below us was dark emptiness. I remember thinking that even when you fly over the ocean at night, there is usually some reflection on the water. The desert had none of that, only a few dim lights.
In my pack, I had about fifty rolls of film. We were there until just before Christmas, transiting from Jo-burg, as we called it, up to Kruger National Park, where we did our fair share of game drives and animal spotting before crossing into Mozambique, spending a few days in the capital Maputo before heading north to Beira, where we’d spend the next many months in a guest house whose back yard was a sandy beach on the Indian Ocean.
I kept my film as cool as I could in the humid and warm climate of the tropics. Each time I set foot out of the house I had it in hand. My camera had already become and extension of my arm by this time in my life, it was more natural for me to have it than not. Here in Beira, we had no mobile phones to carry, no iPods for music, no canteens of coffee, just a bottle of filtered water, a notebook and pen, and for me, my Pentax.
I shot forty eight of the fifty rolls I had, and I kept the spent ones in the fridge in the kitchen which was not a place that we went often. Nelson, the man hired to cook for us was always in there preparing something for lunch, snacks or dinner. He was an excellent cook, and I still have a few of his recipes stuck away in a notebook.
While we were in the bush for a couple of weeks, many of the people I photographed were, for the first time in their lives, captured on film. This was before the day when we all had a digital camera with a screen on the back, so no one was running around to try and see themselves. What we forget is that digital not only changed things for the photographer, but also for the one being photographed — bound to make you delete any photo that doesn’t show them in the way they want. Luckily for me, I was never turned down by anyone. No one minded that I was taking a photo of them. This is partially luck, but also, not showing up and expecting someone to just be ready to be on film. It takes time. Patience. It takes a kindness and an openness to rejection from the beginning.
When I got back to the U.S. in December, I knew it was going to cost quite a lot to get all the rolls developed, so I had to do it in shifts as I could pay for it. A few rolls at a time, starting with the first ones. It took about four months for me to pay for all forty eights rolls, by this time I had forgotten the photos of elephants and giraffes, of hippos or of our safari guide. The photos that stuck with me the most were those of the people. People that I hope one day to see again. What I’d like to do is show up with the prints and see if I can track them down, offering them a printed image of themselves from many years ago.
During the past year of the plague, photography has been on my mind. Still to this day I have two film cameras and prefer them to my iPhone. Wherever we go I usually throw it in, just in case. Morocco, Puglia, Mexico, Bath in Somerset. I’m a travel photographer, V says, and she’s right.
A year spent not traveling further than the supermarket has left me bereft in terms of my ability to contemplate images, but has given me a new sense of feeling about what photography means to me. It means escape and adventure. It means capturing faces and places almost more for memory and reflection in the future than for an immediate sense of happiness now. Because I never know if the image will turn out, or if I’ll even like it, it’s also mysterious.
Many aspects of life seem to become less mysterious — we can input an address and our car or phone will guide us to the front door of our destination. Cameras show us an image instantly. We can message friends around the world in a second, video call family member and see how they are changing on a daily basis. Mystery doesn’t have to be religious. It can be not knowing your way in a new town or not seeing a loved ones face for awhile.
When I got back from Africa my family hadn’t seen me or my face in months. I showed up very tan and thin with a shaved head and a few new bracelets. I left most of my clothes there, choosing to carry with me my beloved film and camera and a few wood carvings and pots which now sit in our house. My family was surprised to see me, the mysterious traveler had returned and I think and believe that we were all richer for having spent the better part of the past five or six months with very little contact. I was able to be completely where I was and so were they.
I think about this these days, that maybe a little bit extra mystery in our lives is never a bad thing, so I’ll keep shooting film and writing letters. Not because it’s trendy or cool but because it’s what I’m used to doing. Let’s hope that there will still be ways to resist the increasing encroachment into mystery in the future before the tech-overlords of the world take it all away from us for good.