Phone. Passport. Camera and film. Mask.
The luggage of any photographer planning to travel abroad has taken on a new essential. But after the tumultuous period we’ve all been through, I wasn’t going to complain about having to wear a piece of cloth around my nose and mouth for a breath of fresh air. After all, nine days in the Basque country with my trusted Canon AV-1 and a few rolls (okay, perhaps more than a few) of Portra 400 and Kodak Tri-X was exactly the new lease on life I had been craving.
Before we get there, a word on San Sebastian – it’s a beautiful city with a hypnotic lure. The famous fresh food, the enormous bays, the captivating old town, the utopian landscape; they draw you in and make you question why you aren’t indulging in this high quality of life 365 days a year. Exploring with my Canon, it felt like an impossible task to do it (and my photogenic friends) justice.
But the enchantment only carried me so far before I started thinking about what we’ve all just been through.
Day one of any new setting, let alone the north of Spain, is a struggle in restraint for any photographer. It takes an effort to keep from ripping through a roll before lunch. But one frame caught my eye. I noticed two women on a bench with a beautiful backdrop, and I started painting their story.
Matching the excitement of two teenagers, their energy gave the sense that this was the reunion they had been waiting for. The beauty of their connection translates through the image. It was refreshing to see that spark between them, but it was bittersweet because it was also my first harrowing reminder of the pandemic which we have just lived through.
A few blissful days passed. At the start of a hike to a neighboring fishing village, composed like a still frame taken out of a Wes Anderson flick, I saw a man sitting on a bench. Alone, his body language gave the sense of dejection and, again, it felt like there was an intriguing story to be told. Maybe it was my gray perception (due to you-know-what), but the old man looked deflated, healing from a loss that changed everything for him. His isolation engulfed the lens, and once again I was exposed to another stark reminder of the unprecedented few years gone.
I pushed these melancholy thoughts to the back of my mind. Another couple days of unshackled freedom and guilt-free experiences. Near the end of our trip, we got a bus back to Bilbao for our flight home the following morning. Before we left, we visited the Guggenheim museum, home to some of the most internationally renowned modern and contemporary art. The creative structure of the building was, itself, mesmeric.
After a little while in the museum, the feeling had started to creep back in. The overarching emptiness due to Covid protocols filled the rooms and I caught myself dwelling on that instead of the prestigious, evocative art that surrounded me. I didn’t plan to use my camera too much within the museum, but one moment screamed out to me.
One Hundred and Fifty Multicoloured Marilyns, an expressive painting by Andy Warhol, looking back at my friend, gazing at the faces. The foreground of the image is bordered by the bleak reminder of a reality where two strangers are not yet supposed to be within close proximity of each other. Warhol’s painting portrays an ominous reflection of mortality. The thick red color scheme is striking to me. The juxtaposition of a hundred and fifty faces, against one Ben on a socially distanced bench, again brought to life this constant reminder of a new world we are living in.
The message I am trying to get across (and the lesson I was trying to avoid) is this:
I went to Spain in search of a holiday that preceded a life of Covid. What I realized, what I learned through the beauty of a lens and perspective, was that Covid’s mark on this new world is irreversible, whether I like it or not. The masks of the subjects in each story are metaphors for the picture’s narrative – whether that’s joy, pain, beauty or loneliness. Social distancing and rules will eventually disappear, but the scars left behind are more permanent than I realized. That’s a recent acceptance to which I am still adjusting.
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