Street Photography in Jerusalem

I have always wanted to take interesting photos of people, photos which are unstaged, capturing a moment, a tiny drama of everyday life. I’ve not been good at this. I’m afraid that I’m invading peoples’ privacy, that they will feel I’m stealing something from them.

I’ve learned that these two fears may be true, but only if I, as the photographer, am outside the picture. That’s the key to good street photography; being part of the street.

We practise this idea for a while. The wide street is car-free, but serviced by a tram running down it’s centre.

‘Look’, says Ouria, the local photographer who is taking me on this street photography session, ‘See that man in the hat, waiting at the tram stop on the other side? He’s playing the accordion. Wait for the next tram. Take a photo of him through the tram.’

Seconds later a tram eases to a holt. I stand by the window and raise my camera, trying to ignore the passengers alighting. I feel odd but the effect is interesting. Not only have I captured a glimpse of the accordion player, but I’m in the picture too.

We head into the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Shearim.

‘I don’t know why but I’m nervous about this’, I say to Ouria. ‘It doesn’t seem fair somehow. Won’t the people mind?’

He laughs a little. ‘They will know we are not of the community, but we look more or less like people around here, with your long black skirt and elbow length shirt and with my beard and slightly religious-looked (softly peaked) cap. They will notice and then they will not notice. We will not blend in but they will not think about us for too long. They will not worry about it. Some might cover their faces and one or two might say something. But we are not hurting them’.

‘And they will not hurt us?’ I am surprised by my question; I’m not in the habit of thinking that people are a danger to me. I remembered Jewish friends on the dig at Beth Saida who described having stones thrown at their car for driving into Old Jerusalem on the Sabbath.

‘No, they will not hurt us’.

The narrow street was lined with sandstone buildings, the windows protected by ornate iron work. Tangled in the ironwork of one such window we find a sleepy cat and I take a photo of its pink upturned feet. It feels braver than trying to take photos of people.

But turning down another street suddenly there is a throng of men, bearded, ear-locked, black coated. They come singly and then in pairs, hurrying down the street towards the Western Wall.

‘Stand here, in the middle of the street. Create your frame. Raise your camera and take the picture’.

I can’t.

The uncertainty and doubt is back. These are just men walking down the street, minding their own business. Suddenly they come upon two photographers aiming cameras at them. Do they want their photos taken? Do they mind?

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? I’m not leaping out from behind a pole to snatch away their right to walk down the street in peace. I’m right here, in full view, in the middle of the road between stationery cars, just another part of the streetscape.

Photographers talk about making pictures rather than taking them. I like this notion. Not only does it make me feel better about taking photos of total strangers, but it makes me feel as if I am creating something, there is an important point to what I am doing. I’m part of it now.

Cars begin to come to a standstill in the little street, blocked by some unseen obstacle over the hill.

‘Oh well, this is not good for us’, I say to Ouria.

‘No, this is very good for us. Now they are concentrating on the traffic jam. They are not worried about what we are doing’.

I take a breath and step back into the street, raise my camera and press the shutter release with a click that I’m certain sounds like a clanging cymbal. Nobody takes a blind bit of notice.

We make pictures, the men and me. They float past, a mass of flapping black coats and swinging ear locks, eyes fixed ahead. They don’t care about me. They barely look in my direction. They are focussed only on where they are headed.

We think we are so important in others’ lives. But in general, in the minutiae of their daily lives, people are actually much more concerned with their own business to take much notice of what is going on around them. Together, the men and I have captured their moment of determination, their desire to reach their destination.

For me, this is the appeal of street photography, of making pictures of complete strangers. It’s stopping to experience a tiny insight into another person’s life. We see people rushing about through their day, as we rush through ours. We don’t stop to think about who they are or where they are going.

But a photograph makes you stop, if you choose to. Stop and look. Wonder, question, interpret.

We turn and head down the hill, in the direction the men have gone. The streets are hot and seemingly empty. We find a shady tree on a corner next to a tiny garden fenced in with an ornate ironwork fence. The uprights form a perfect frame. I compose my picture, check my exposure and settle down to wait.

Ouria advises me to be part of the streetscape. ‘Raise your camera and survey the scene through your viewfinder. Keep pressing the shutter release. The clicks will become part of the sounds of the street’.

People walk past, framing themselves in the fence. One man, black-coat tight across his stomach and frothy white beard beneath his big-hat, stood for some minutes staring up at something on the wall out of our line of vision. I pressed the shutter release and he turned, looking directly into my lens.

Instead of jumping back guiltily, I kept the camera to my eye, looking at him looking at me. I was completely in the moment.

Me and the camera and the man. All of us creating the story of that moment in the street.

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archaeological sites Tell Ahmar Syria
archaeology, Syria

Archaeological Digs and Aging Knees: A Recipe for Disaster?

My knees are percussive as I walk between the rows of desks, each huddled over by a student anxiously completing the IELTS exam. My knees snap and crackle and my hips pop. They sound loud in the silence of the room. I suddenly feel old. Old and slightly stupid.

I’m off on an archaeological dig in a few weeks’ time and my joints are protesting.

Today I read a charming piece online by a young woman – let’s call her Cara - who received a stipend to spend four weeks digging at a site in Israel. It is a sweet, thoughtful response to her first dig.

Three things Cara said struck a chord with me: ‘I knew nothing and had to learn how to dig’, ‘I found my future while digging up the past’, ‘It seemed surreal that I was on an archaeological dig in Israel’.

All three sentiments resonated deeply with me.

In 1993, as a naïve twenty-three year old I went on an archaeological dig with the University of Melbourne at Tell Ahmar, North Syria. I didn’t know what to do either and learned very much as I went along.

Tell Ahmar archaeologist

I shudder to think about my field notes, written in huge scrawly childish handwriting, liberally interspersed with Arabic words the workers were trying to teach me and scrappy sketches depicting where elevations were taken from. It was such a steep learning curve.

Going on a dig teaches you all the stuff you don’t learn at uni. My degree in archaeology was along the lines of ‘kings, queens and battles’ with little theory or method in sight. Everything on the dig was exciting; being in Syria, being in a small village, being among people of a different cultural and linguistic background. Just being away from Australia. It was such a surreal experience and exhausting by the end, but at the end of each season I couldn’t wait for the next.

Like Cara I caught the digging bug and for six years I spent some portion of the year in Syria and once in Turkey on archaeological digs. There was something about field work that, in a very clichéd phrase, brings the past to light.

I loved getting up early (and I’m not a morning person), I loved walking out to the field, I loved thinking about what we would do that day and then doing it, I loved thinking about what we were finding and I loved being in Syria. I even loved cleaning the trench at the end of the day's work.

Tell Ahmar archaeological site

The experience of Syria was so momentous that it seemed not to have even happened once I returned to Australia. I lived this rather bizarre life of ten months temping in boring office jobs such as reception and sneaking in archaeological books and then two months or so in the Middle East.

I loved it so much that I wondered how I could sustain a job just digging. After all, archaeology students are a dime a dozen. Experienced field archaeologists are useful but how many jobs are there for field archaeologists? It seemed unlikely that any dig director would employ me without some kind of specialised skill. 

I played with the idea of object conservation and to that end spent a semester at uni studying chemistry and took my exam in the workroom at Tell Ahmar. Tears, frustration and a 50% grade later I gave that up as a lost cause.

I went back to research and completed my PhD on the baked clay figurines from Tell Ahmar. I quickly learned that jobs for academic archaeologists are few and far between as well. I put archaeology aside for other interests.

Cara believes archaeology is her future and I wish her all the best.

I’m off to Jordan soon.

I’m wondering if I’ll have as much fun as I did in Syria. Will it delight me in the same way?

I tripped over a rug this morning and fell heavily on my knees. Those percussive knees I mentioned earlier. It hasn’t helped them.

Will I need knee pads? Perhaps I should take one of those gardening knee cushion things. My left knee is particularly prone to jamming up. What if I trip getting into the trench? What if I just can’t get in at all?

Or worse, what if I can’t get out?  

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Arwad Island Syria
Syria, travel

Arwad Island

Leaving the Syrian coast the boat bounces over the waves to the island of Arwad. Despite the relentless heat, the dust in the creases of my elbows and my queasy stomach, I find myself riding high on a crest of previously unknown happiness. Feeling the salt spray on the back of my hand I am certain that this is bliss; a moment of pure, effortless joy.

boats Arwad Syria

Arwad is tiny, a labyrinth of alleys hemmed by whitewashed walls. I meet some children who take me to their home. Their father shows me carved stone features in their kitchen; reminiscent of medieval churches, perhaps the family’s ancestors had reused some abandoned ecclesiastical masonry.

In the main room, three aunts sit on a couch in their nightdresses, enjoying a water pipe. We share smiles and nods and cups of sweet, black coffee. I curse my lack of Arabic.

Arwad Island Syria

Through the window the Mediterranean holds a mirror to the sky and star-like sun glints glisten on the water. The island seems surrounded by ships plying their wares on this inland sea as they have done since the Phoenicians opened the trade routes to the west centuries ago. At this moment, in those kind women’s house, it seems that everything was exactly as it should be.

But the briny breeze softly beckons me on.

I wander down to the shore and watch the boat builders near the old Phoenician stone wall. A group of men are dancing to a boy beating a rhythm on a broken bucket base, their bodies arching and rolling like the waves. Nearby several hulks of wooden ships are being scraped down.

Phoenician Wall Arwad Island Syria

I move on to the Arab fort where centuries ago, guards-on-duty scanned the sea for Crusader ships. Far from the heat and clamour of the island, a bench among the hibiscus and oleander in tall terracotta pots invites me over.

I sit in that tranquil courtyard with closed eyes, utterly content.

Fort Arrow Slit Arwad Syria
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compound Tell Ahmar
Syria, travel

I am brushing my teeth at the compound wall and I am blissfully happy

The mud brick walls of the compound emit a faint heat through the soft mellow warmth of the evening. I lean my hand on the wall’s rough surface and watch the lights of the tractor in the field below moving between rows of corn.

Beyond the fields lies the Euphrates River; the jebels on the other side are silhouetted against the remaining pale glow of the sun. I spit minty foam into the rubbish which cascades down the tell outside our compound; the heat has bleached it clear of its odour. Dust fills my nostrils instead.

We came to Tell Ahmar this morning in a yellow servees taxi. We trundled through the streets of Aleppo, passing road side fresh fruit and vegetable stalls and fruit set out to dry on vast stretches of fabric and tarpaulin. Apartment buildings in dusty outer suburbs gave way to farmland, dotted with olive and orange trees. The plastered houses looked cool and clean.

The arable land became dryer and dustier and corn and cotton replaced fruit trees and mud brick ‘beehive’ villages appeared. Farmers, young men and old men in gallabiyahs, their wives and daughters in bright patterned dresses and scarves, dots of colour on the landscape.

Then suddenly we were in the desert, a pale, pebbly, flat land stretches to the horizon. Small boys encouraged flocks of fat-tailed sheep onwards in search of elusive grassy snacks. 

It seems inhabited, uninhabitable, but Bedouin men appeared on the roadside as if from nowhere, dressed in white gallabiyahs, red head scarves and suit coats. They alight from buses and head straight into the desert.

On the far distant horizon, the low range of hills grew closer. We passed between them and suddenly the river is there, the Euphrates, wide and dark. We crossed the bridge guarded on each side by bored young men sitting on mattress-less beds with guns slung over their shoulders.

compound Tell Ahmar Euphrates

We drove up a little way up the valley, green with corn and cotton. Men waved to us from their tractors. Others looked up from their work and smile.

The taxi turned off the main road onto the unmade track leading through the village to our compound. We peeled ourselves from the taxi’s upholstery and stretched our cramped legs. Small children chased us to but stop at the gate or seated themselves on the boat lying just inside, watching us with shrieks of laughter, these strange foreign people.

For we are strange; the circus has indeed come to town. 

Men’s voices shout their goodnights and a motorcycle fires up. The generator thuds, the cow tethered next to our compound moos in a rather desperate sort of way; the donkeys bray their replies. A man climbs onto the roof of his mud brick house and adjusts the TV antenna. Voices murmur around the compound as my colleagues prepare for sleep. The stars stretch over the valley.

It seems surreal to me that people have lived here for such an incomprehensibly long time.   

The cow falls silent, the tractor is heading home.  I rinse my mouth and head back to my room.

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China, travel

Salsa, Chinese-Style

Even before I’d heard of the Eurovision Song Contest I’d hold its dance equivalent in my bedroom before tea on Sunday afternoons.  Dressing my nine year old self in a weird combination of clothes, “Maria from Italy” or “Tatiana representing Russia” would prance around the room performing what I imagined was the national dance of those countries until my mother called me for boiled eggs and toast.  Since then I’ve been fascinated by the cultural dances of the world, so it was inevitable that I would take salsa dance classes while living in Huhehaote, capital city of Inner Mongolia, China.

It took a while to find the Love Sport Gym, located as it is among the food court of the Hailiang Shopping Plaza.  Perhaps they hope to attract guilty over-indulgers.  Finally I found it, lodged between the noodle soup place and a posh restaurant serving brown slimy things from the sea.  Tiger Wang, the sales manager, was most helpful and before I knew it I had parted with several thousand yuan for sixteen months membership of the smartest sports club in town.  The dance class schedule was exciting; belly dance on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Latin on Saturdays and best of all, Mongolian on Sunday afternoons. 

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m any good at dance, just because I’ve attempted various stylizations such as flamenco, salsa, Greek circle dancing and a little bollywood (I’ve also learned basic Arabic drumming).  I just enjoy the rhythms and the movements and the insight gained into that culture.    I don’t relish going to the gym but taking a dance class after a boring workout gives me the impetus I need.  It’s a good way to make new friends too, even if we’re still on smiling and nodding terms.  I can also count to eight in Chinese. 

For Chinese people, taking a dance class is all about exercise and discipline.  Classes for the interested amateur are serious business.  Learning the steps and performing them correctly is the goal, any actual fun had in the process is secondary.  The Latin dance class is a good example.  Our teacher is a tall, lean woman in a short black skirt and grey leggings and an animal print top.  She stares belligerently at us, lecturing us and stopping the music at each error for further correction.  The students stand in military rows.  There are no men and absolutely no partnering up.  We learn two steps in the whole hour. 

It is not fun. 

Not speaking Chinese, I leave each class with a cricked neck from straining to see the teacher.  I am always two beats behind.  With the exception of a couple of other ’40-something’ ladies, most students are flexible young girls in their twenties.  ‘Tatiana from Russia’ is nowhere to be seen as I strive to keep upper body stiff, my legs straight and my wide western hips under control in a very stiff, rather forced form of Latin dance.

I asked a friend to help me speak to the teacher after the class.  ‘So, where do people go in Huhehaote to dance salsa socially?  I mean, for fun?  You know, practice the steps we have learned?’ 

A lengthy and heated conversation takes place between the teacher and my interpreter who finally turns to me and says, ‘There isn’t’. 

‘But what did she actually say?’   

‘There is nowhere you can go.  Well, maybe there are some dance halls but these are for people of…bad reputation…it could be dangerous for you…’ 

‘I don’t mind!  I don’t want to talk to them.  I just want to dance with them!’ 

It was hopeless.  People in Huhehaote do not dance for pleasure. 

On a trip to the city of Guangzhou in southern Guangdong province I spent a morning walking the shady boulevards of Yue Xiu Park.  Turning a corner, Latin rhythms drew me up the hill.  My heart skipped a beat.  Salsa!  A group of ladies (and some gentlemen) were dancing together and taking it very seriously. Faces expressed concentration, limbs moved with precision; there was little eye contact between the dancers. This was not dancing from the heart, it was dancing for the heart, like aerobics. Like so many things in China this activity was for self-improvement, keep-fit for the elderly.

Nonetheless I joined a congo line doing the rabbit dance, the simple repetitive steps mimicking the catchy tune. It was fun. We laughed at the silly dance, even if it wasn’t salsa.

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