A few weeks ago, I found myself in the book store at the photography section. I have to give the store credit, every time I look at the photography section, it always has new material. Two books tempted me; I narrowed it down to one: A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel: My Journey in Photographs by Annie Griffiths Belt. I was really excited to discover a mother who made a career in travel photography work, and I wanted to know how she did it. That the book was text-heavy was a selling point for me: I wanted to hear all about her experiences as a mother and photographer, how she balanced it all. When I saw the opening quote from fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, I was in:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
I finished it the other night, and I have to say it was a bit of a disappointment. Now, it could very well be that my expectations were unrealistic. Perhaps I should have known from the coffee-table-book presentation (hard cover, large size) that it probably wasn’t going to give me what I was looking for.
The photos were great, although they did have a sort of National Geographic-ness about them that I didn’t quite care for, a datedness I guess. Many of them made me feel 10 years old again, looking through my brother’s stacks of National Geographic magazines, and not in a good way. It’s probably not fair of me to hold this against the photos, since the woman has enjoyed a very long career that began around the time I was 10, but oh well. I very much enjoyed her later work, especially her photos for Habitat for Humanity.
The text is where it was really disappointing though. I feel like this book couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be. Is it a coffee table book? A memoir? A travelogue? While I’m all for fusion and postmodern blurring of boundaries, I think it was a bit of a failure in this case.
Where I was hoping for a sustained discussion of her experiences, perhaps bound by the theme of motherhood or feminism, I got merely a series of chronological anecdotes. None of them delved deep enough for my satisfaction. It was like taking a survey course, where just as you begin to grasp a subject or theme, you’re forced onto the next one.
My disappointment may also stem from the fact that within the first few pages, I very quickly realized that I will never make a good travel photographer. I’m far too risk averse for that. And my sense of smell is too keen.
According to Myers-Briggs, I am an NF, an idealist. I am an abstract thinker who prefers to deal with information that comes from my intuition, with underlying patterns rather than concrete facts. I suspect Griffiths Belt is an SP, an artisan, who prefers to deal in concrete facts and information that comes through her five senses rather than intuition. And I suspect that fundamental difference is at the heart of my disappointment. I want to see how her experience fits into the big picture, and she’s really not so interested in the big picture.
Disappointment aside, there were a few moments in her writing that really spoke to me:
“As a photographer I have learned that women really do hold up half the sky; that languge isn’t always necessary, but touch usually is; that all people are not alike, but they do mostly have the same hopes and fears; that judging others does great harm but listening to them enriches; that it is impossible to hate a group of people once you get to know one of them as an individual.”
“The most touching aspect of my work has always been how quickly people open up to me and my camera. I do try to appear as non-threatening as possible. I travel light, never wear a photo vest or camera bag, and work very simply. I believe that it’s far better to look like somebody’s mother than like a photographer. But despite my efforts to connect with people of other cultures, I know that I remain an aberration in their world. I arrive in my jeans and T-shirt, a middle-age white woman in a baseball cap, speaking a strange language and wielding a big fat camera. And yet the openness and generosity of the people I encounter always takes my breath away.
“Whenever possible I try to communicate without an interpreter, because it’s so easy for an interpreter to actually become an unwitting wall between me and the people I’m trying to photograph. I’d rather make an idiot out of myself pantomiming and using whatever few words of the local language I possess than to rely on an interpreter. And I have learned that even without a shared language, it’s easy to let people know that their children are beautiful, their homes are lovely, their tea is delicious, and their stories are worth sharing with the world.”