Rediscovering film photography

Photographs used to be an art form. At least for me.
They were also a way to store holiday memories but that was a secondary meaning.

A single photo was a creative act.
First there was an active presence in a place to try to capture something of it.
Then there was intent in the choice of subject and angle.
After that came the forgetting and I would be back in the space outside.
And finally there was the excitement of getting a set of prints in my hands.

It was slow.
It was a little scary too.
But mostly it was fun, challenging, creative, and engaging.

It was a craft in which I was a full participant.

Getting a digital camera did not change much of that.
I was still full of intent, presence, and creativity. But it was less scary.

New doors opened and I explored a lot of avenues.
More than a decade later, I have lost my way a little bit.

I don’t create. I shoot, and it’s all too easy.

A month ago, I remembered the old SLR I found at my grand-parents house.
I was told I could keep it. So I did.
The camera was beautiful, an object that carried weight and memories.

I took care of it. I placed it on a shelve high above the ground and I kept it dusted and clean.

Until one Wednesday afternoon when I opened an old roll of film, loaded it in the camera and began shooting again.

Subject: Madrid, Spain

Camera: Minolta SRT 101 / Film: Lomography 400

Subject: Madrid, Spain

Camera: Olympus Pen EE2 / Film: Over ten years expired 200 film

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The river Avon and me – Part 01

I love waterways.

I’m not sure I can explain it. All I know is that I love them. And for the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to live next to some.
There was the New River in Enfield. I would walk past it on my way to work, watching a family of coot live and grow throughout the seasons. It was my moment in the day to pause and forget about any worries I had. There was the river Lea in Enfield. It was further from me and I did not visit often, but it was always a pleasure to take a day out along its banks. There were industries, kayaks, fishermen, families, boats, and all sorts of life around it. There was the Thames in Richmond. I use to live within walking distance of it for a while. It was a completely different river, a mightier one I didn’t dare trade in. It lived according to the tides, sometimes overflowing to remind people it is still wild, still have the power of its long travel through England behind it.

There were other waterways too. The Regents Canal that would lead me to a climbing wall, to the London zoo, to happy memories of time shared with a friend. The Beverley Brook was a heaven of peace in a crowded, noisy London borough. The trickle of the Vesle marked the end of the village I grew up in and the beginning of adventure. The steady flow of the Canal latéral de l’Aisne would bring me to childhood friends.

Waterways have always been a part of my life, and I’ve always loved them. That is, until now.

I live within cycling distance of the river Avon. I see it everyday on my way to work. I often pause to watch the gulls dance in the air while below the muddy banks form intricate patterns of lines and shapes, making me wonder if those patterns are the same a few miles away at the estuary. And in those moments I love the river. But it is not an unconditional love as it was for the New River, for the River Lea, for the Thames, for the Beverley Brook, for every other waterways I’ve lived next to or explored. And I don’t know why.

So this year, I’m embarking on a mission. I’m going to find out what’s missing, or what’s added. I want to love the river Avon. I want it to become my river as the other ones have been. I don’t have a plan on how to best do this. But I’m starting with walking the river Avon trail. I want to see it at ground level, at the slowest speed I can go. So in that spirit, on the 10th of January, I packed a day bag and headed for Pill, one end of the trail.

The tide was out, leaving an empty basin of silt exposed and boats stranded on the shore. The land appeared barren, as if someone had pulled a plug and drained the river. The houses around were silent and closed. I felt like the only person in this area of Somerset. I knew I was wrong but the wintry scenery was not reminding me of warmer days. I remembered the ebb and flow of the Thames in London. It too is a tidal river, but not like the Avon. The tidal range of the Avon is the second largest in the world. At Avonmouth, it can rise and fall as much as 14 metres twice a day, and in Bristol where I live, the water level can change as much as 12 metres. Pill is in between the two, and looking at the empty riverbed, it wasn’t hard to believe those numbers. I pondered briefly if those drastic changes were hindering my relation to the river, making it change its character too often for me to grasp it fully at any time.

I cast one last glance at the mud below and walked away. The path veered from the river immediately, passing through a park. I dropped my skateboard to the ground and pushed away. Standing on the board, I glided along on the asphalt as the flow of the water above the silt. I passed a few dog walkers but mostly I had the place to myself. There were play area and benches, views over the countryside, and the constant hum of the motorway just behind. I paused as I noticed it and looked at the bridge in the distance. In the past, this wouldn’t have been there. Instead, there would have been the constant noise of boats and seamen. The stretch of water between the Bristol Channel and the Port of Bristol was notoriously difficult to navigate, and Pill was a place to stop and let experience pilots guide big boats up the Avon Gorge to Bristol. But those pilots have long since disappeared into history books. The way into Bristol is now by road.

I rolled on, spotting familiar cycle route signs. I looked for a red barge on a blue badge, the official trail waymark, but no trace of it were to be found. I didn’t see it for the entire day. The River Avon Trail was not announced. I knew it existed. There was a website for it, even a guide, and definitely a path. But you wouldn’t know this without digging around online.

I kicked my skateboard up and attached it to my bag. The ground was no longer tarmac. Soft mud cushioned my steps and dirtied my boots in a few seconds. Houses disappeared and long expanses of fields opened the view to the right. On the left, the brown murky river passed quietly. Above its bank, a train rattled every now and again. And higher still, the traffic of the busy A4 gradually replaced the hum of the M5.

There was no one on the water, not even birds. And there was no one on the path but me. The river was mine but I couldn’t bring myself to love it. Maybe it was the emptiness of the landscape. I walked on, my steps squelching in the mud. I stopped by an opening in a ditch that let its water fall into the Avon. I heard water for the first time, an outpouring of life into the silent river. A couple of cyclists passed me by. We smiled at one another and I began to appreciate the river more.

I walked on a little more relaxed, a little more appreciative of the waterway. Villages came into view on the north bank, bringing wildlife with them. There was the surprise squeak of a field mouse that I never saw, and the shrill call of gulls in a ballet over the water. In the field behind, blackbirds replied. And for an instant, I forgot about everything else.

As I approached Bristol, I entered the sheltered space of Leigh Woods. Trees enveloped me but their bare branches allowed for a view of the Avon. It began to change here. It felt wider. I knew this was most likely not true. Maybe if it was the reflections of the buildings and the sky ahead that made it looked that way. I paused often to watch the clouds in the river and made slow progress on the trail. I wasn’t in a rush anyway. I was here for the river and I needed to let its pull on me work its magic. It wasn’t quite like the draw of the Thames or the New River, but it was the beginning of something.

A long lorry drove past on the A4 and jolted me out of my reverie. I looked across the water to the unceasing lines of vehicles and wondered if they were not one of the cause that were keeping me away from the river. I do not like traffic sound and sometimes find it hard to block it out. It overpowers smaller natural sounds, making them disappear into the forest unless you actively pay attention to them. It felt like they were masking the river, the new thoroughfare erasing the old.

I continued on the path, human noises growing louder as the traffic of Clifton Bridge added its chorus to the A4. I was getting into Bristol now. The mud underfoot stopped to be replaced by tarmac. I unclipped my skateboard and rolled away from the cacophony of the road network above the Cumberland basin.

In a few kicks, I was within familiar territory. There was the Bristol marina and up ahead the floating harbour. Instinctively I headed for the north bank of the Avon but halfway across a bridge, I stopped. I wasn’t here to speed away from irritating aspect of the riverside. I was here to explore and get to know the Avon. I turned around and went back to the south bank and walked into the Underfall Yards. I had seen the old chimney from afar but I’d never quite ventured to it before, always passing in nearby streets. I was about to roll away when I was stopped in my track by the 78 feet (24 metres) long replica of the Matthew propped out of the water. Raised above ground, the boat looked even more impressive than on water, and I couldn’t help but wonder again how John Cabot made it to North America in the 15th century on such a small vessel. We have ocean liners today, big massive metal boats shaped like unsinkable tanks that look sturdy and safe. But this boat was only a caravel, a small wooden sailing ship. I sat down for a moment and listened to unseen workers carry out maintenance in its belly.

The maddening criss-cross of roads over Cumberland basin was just behind me and yet, I couldn’t hear it. A few metres from it I had found an island of stillness. The water was calm, people were on foot, and the only noises were of men working on boats. I felt like the river was its own here. It was controlled by men but it was allowed to breathe and live.

Bristol used to have a tidal harbour, grounding ship into the silt bottom of the river at low tide, causing damages to the hulls and hassle to commerce. So in the early 19th century, William Jessop created a dam and a lock not far from the harbour to control the water level. The excess flow was diverted into the freshly dug New Cut which was allowed to reveal its silt bottom while ships were safely docked in the level water of the floating harbour. The Underfall Yards where I was were crucial to its operation with its sluice system and I marvelled in at the feat of engineering.

After a while I got up and went on with my journey. I knew exactly what lay ahead. I would pass the SS Great Britain, the large tourist attraction forcing me to veer away from the river before returning to it and meet the old rails of the Bristol Harbour Railway. Trains used to run between the harbour and the train station but nowadays they go back and forth from the SS Great Britain to the industrial cranes at the end of the harbour, transporting tourists, train lovers, curious locals, and children.

I zigzagged my way between the rails, sometimes on foot, sometimes on the board. I wasn’t alone here. A handful of people were enjoying a scenic walk along the river. On our side of the river, boats of all sizes and shapes were docked along its edges. On the opposite side, Bristol coloured houses brightened the day, and all around us gulls danced and fought with one another provided a show in the air.

I reached the M-Shed, my favourite museum in the city, and sat on a pillar for lunch. This was the end of the harbour and the end of my walk for the day. I like it there. You can read Bristol’s history by sight. Often the replica of the Matthew is docked there, welcoming people on board for a tour or a private party. Opposite, the once Baltic trader three-masted barque Kaskelot rest, and further beyond, skateboarders practice their tricks while shoppers and arts lovers meander along the water’s edge. Back on the south bank, tall cranes are a reminder of Bristol trading heyday’s in the 1950s. But this is gone now, the smoke, the noise, the business of commerce. Instead there is the gentle footsteps of passersby, the conversations of people, and the clatter of plates and cutlery from the thriving restaurants and cafés along the goal ferry steps.

I unpacked my sandwich and took it all in. Here, at the harbourside, I was in love with the river. I basked in this feeling because I knew it was only fleeting. I loved this place, this harbour, but not the whole waterway.

My sandwich finished, I hopped back on the skateboard and pushed my way home. I was no closer to an answer to my original question. But I felt I had got to know the river Avon a little bit more intimately. Knowledge I had gained from books and the Internet was a little more concrete, helping me to understand who the river Avon is today. I am not in love with it, not like the other waterways of my past but I was left a little smitten, hopeful that this spark would grow. There is still half of the trail to go, and then miles and miles of water to explore in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset. There is still time. The river is not going anywhere and neither am I.

A circular walk around Dursley

The summer holidays came and went in a frenzy of job applications, interviews, and finally a new job. There were also family and friends visiting, WarmShowers guests to welcome, and an album about Bristol to get ready for release in September. My outdoors time became limited to evening walks in the city and occasional drives out near Bristol.

So, late in August, during a regular visit to the library, I couldn’t resist grabbing Beyond Bristol: 24 Country Walks by Robin Tetlow when I spotted it on display. I came home, settled with the book and selected a walk. The choice of Dursley was easy. It was just far enough that I wouldn’t go back the following week but still easy to reach.

The very next day, I packed a day bag for my partner and I. We hopped in the car and soon left Bristol behind. City streets transformed into motorway lanes before narrowing into country roads. We missed the car park mentioned in the guide but found a spot in an unremarkable residential street. The sun was shining and it was easy to pretend summer was finally here.

We set off and left Dursley and its shops unexplored. Narrow lanes took us between fields, past grand houses, and finally into the open countryside. We ascended steeply on Cam Peak, as if to escape everyday life we had to exert ourselves and reach higher ground. We stopped for a moment on top to regain our breath and admire the views. To the east lay the rolling hills of the Costwolds with valleys nestled in their crooks, rivers, and copses dotted about. To the west lay the Severn estuary and the mountains of Wales. I stared at them, longing to be back on Offa’s Dyke Path but knowing it would be a while before I could meet it again.

We went on, descending and ascending until we reached the flatter ridge of Cam Long Down. Wales was still visible to the west and I fancied a wild camp in one of the recess of the ridge, watching the sun set over the Brecon Beacons. But it was early in the day and I didn’t have any sleeping bag with me.

We followed the path down, up, and down again. A couple advanced towards us with loaded backpacks and walking sticks. They looked like they were hiking the Cotswolds Way.

‘Beautiful day for a walk,’ the couple greeted us with a clear American accent.
We agreed.
‘Are you on the Cotswolds Way,’ they enquired.
‘Not this time no. We’re doing a day walk around Dursley. Are you?’
They were. We carried on chatting about the English countryside, the USA, and the plans they had for the rest of their time in the UK. We shared names and photos before finally parting ways, them comforted in knowing their destination was in reach and without too much uphill, us knowing we were just at the beginning of our day with plenty more uphill to come.

Out for a walk

We traversed a muddy copse to be greeted by the sight of a bench with a viewpoint. But before we could settle on it and consider lunch, a group of walkers arrived.

‘Beautiful day for a walk,’ they greeted us with a clear British accent.
We agreed once more.
With only a light pack on their shoulders, we didn’t enquire if they were on the Cotswolds way but chatted about the beauty of the local area. One of the man turned out to be very local and enlightened us on the best pubs around for a drink, a meal, or both. We took note for the evening. As the conversation drew to a close, they had inched closer to the bench, leaving us with no choice but to go on.

Our disappointment wasn’t long lived though as we happened upon Uley Bury, an Iron Age hill fort, within minutes of having left the bench. We settled at one side of it, our view made of trees, hills, and fields. Everything was coloured green no matter where we looked. Happy with this find, we sat down and unpacked our food.

Our bodies refueled, we hiked down the hill and followed the river Ewelme for a while. The going was easy as we followed the lay of the land chatting about this and that, watching the birds play hide and seek with the trees. We took a turn left and entered the village of Uley. We found a small arts centre adorned by a coffee shop. Tempted by the idea of tea and cake we considered stopping but time was ticking on and we still had a good five miles ahead of us. Soon the map and book instructions stopped matching the land around us and it became clear that we were lost.

We knew we weren’t too lost as Uley was on our route. We only needed to find the old mill. So we walked out of the small back roads in search of a high street. On the way we met a lady gardening and enquired about the mill. Unfortunately she had only recently moved in and knew nothing about it.

Defeated, we reached the main road and stopped for a minute. I assessed the map more carefully. I could see the road, I could see the path we were supposed to be on, and I could see a telephone box not far from it.

‘Let’s walk on, there’s supposed to be…’ But before I could finish my sentence, an old woman came running towards us.
‘I hear you’re a bit lost. You’re looking for the old mill?’
I closed the book and smiled.
‘Yes. Do you know where it is?’
‘Absolutely. You just need to go on this road and follow it until you see a telephone box. There’ll be a junction after that. Turn left, follow the road and take the first left. Follow it for a few minutes and you’ll find the old mill.’
We both thanked her, happy to have confirmation that we weren’t about to go horribly off-piste and that the telephone box still stood erect.

A few minutes on the main road to Dursley from Uley we found the crossing, the first left, the old mill, and a few metres away, our path. We were going through fields once more, going up and around electric wires before entering Coopers Wood, the path muddy under our feet, and our views restricted to trees. The path veered to the edge of the forest, the trees thinning to our left and opening onto the landscape we had walked a few hours earlier. It felt good to see how far we’d come and to know what the land looked like on the other side of the valley.

As we went, both lost in our thoughts, we happened upon a rope swing and couldn’t resist taking turns. Behind us, a young farmer glared at us with envy in his eyes. I hoped he would soon be finished with his day’s work and be able to enjoy the swing.

Eventually we tore ourselves away from the rope, mindful of the grey clouds inching their way in our direction. The woods ended replaced by the outskirts of Dursley. We stepped along quiet roads until the path veered under the trees once more. As we disappeared under their canopy, the rain began to fall. Grudgingly we paused to change into our rain gear, there was less than a mile to go. Soon we were back on Dursley streets, our steps fast as if to pass between the rain drops. But before we could reach the car, the rain intensified and made us run to the shelter of the market place where we had began the walk. We looked at each other, both with the same question in our mind.

‘Do you want to wait it out?’
‘For a bit.’

I sat on the stairs and began perusing the pubs in the area, the list of the local man we had met earlier still fresh in my mind. Unfortunately all of them where in the opposite direction from Bristol. So we headed for a Dursley pub instead. There was no food available, but we had a drink and a rest in the warmth while we let the rain pass before heading home.

Bonus video

Dappled leaves on the Cotswolds Way

An update on my 2017 goals

Six months have passed since I set myself goals to achieve by the end of the year. A lot has happened in those months and it’s time for an update.

  • Learn European Portuguese

    I have been learning a lot of vocabulary and I am confident enough to handle basic conversations. I understand soap operas when I have Portuguese subtitles on and I can read learners’ books. But I have not practised the language with a tutor or Portuguese person. I want to use a website called iTalki to help me improve but my work hours have made it difficult to arrange any kind of schedule. So instead I have gone on with a pattern of fuelling my vocabulary with a side of listening and reading.

    Lately I have let this goal slide. Other commitments have taken priority over learning Portuguese and I find myself struggling to maintain my daily practice. I am aware that I have overgrown simple vocabulary learning but alternatives are more time-consuming – which doesn’t help me timetable them in a busy schedule.

    But, I have began a new job with more regular hours, and this I hope, will make it easier to make time for iTalki tutors and boost my language skills.

    One thing I have completely given up on are the videos. They took me too much time for not enough return. So only one video was ever produced.

  • Take a photo every day

    At the beginning of the year, I used Splodz very helpful monthly prompts to help me focus and remember to take a photo a day. But I soon gave it up as the habit became more ingrained in me. My eyes automatically catch details and I remember to stop to take them in and capture them. I have gone through days when no photos have been taken, but most days I do and I’m happy with that.

    Follow me on Instagram if you want to see all those (almost) daily shots.

  • Record a sound every day

    This goal has been dropped back in April.
    I started this exercise to push myself to listen and use my recording equipment more. And I do. But recording every day proved too much. Instead of pushing me creatively, the process began to hamper me. I would grudgingly record a sound which resulted into a bad recording. Then I would have to spend hours at my computer to edit what I had captured instead of devoting time to other sound exercises that I found more valuable. At first I pushed through, thinking it was a hump to go over. But the feeling of time lost and wasted never stopped. So I stopped.
    I did not put my recorder and microphones away. Instead I took the time to develop a new sound specific project, one that forces me to listen and record regularly, but also one that is more meaningful and encompassing. But more on in another blog post (coming soon…).

    Follow me on SoundCloud if you never want to miss one of my recordings.

  • Other goals included

    -Setting up a new blog: this is probably not going to happen but I’m fine with it.
    -Sharing the sounds and story from my journey through Spain and Portugal: coming in September and December.
    -Going on a longboard microadventure: this is probably not going to happen.
    -Walking the West Highland Way with Zoe and Jenni: due to work issues, this is not going to happen for me but other plans are afoot.
    -Exploring the areas around my new home: this is well underway.
    Reading a book by a Portuguese author every month: this is going well although my library is running out of Portuguese authors.

Overall I’m happy with how I’m doing with my goals. There is room for improvement but setting myself targets has provided a focus I wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Have you set up goals and resolutions for the new year? If yes, how are you doing with them? Are you on track?

Pedalling Portugal – Photo report

In early March 2016, I found myself in a deserted coach station in Spain. At my feet lay my bike, wrapped in industrial size bin bags. Next to it, my four panniers rested in a line ready to be mounted on the racks. And I stood in front of them, the reality of my journey slowly sinking in. Eventually I hooked the panniers to their rightful place. I got on the bike and off I went. This is what I saw.
For 32 weeks, I will post a batch of photos every Monday morning.
Later words and sounds will come. But for now, I’m going to share what I experienced through the photos I took. If you miss a post, go to this page to find all the links.

I left Santiago on a coach as I needed to get to France quick so I could visit my dad. I got back on the bike in Irun and cycled along the Vélodyssée for a while, met up with my dad, cycled along the Loire à Vélo for a bit, met up with my mom and little sister, ditched the bike in favour of coaches and trains as I got reunited with my partner once more and we set to explore pockets of France. I couldn’t have wished for a better end to my journey.