Unphotographable*

*I had this story and this title in mind long before I learned about the blog by the same name by Michael David Murphy.  If you enjoy the idea behind this post, you definitely should read his blog and follow him on Twitter (@unphotograph).

I hinted at a coming trip in my last post. I’m leaving  for Taos, New Mexico, in order to participate in a writer’s retreat. As part of the preparation work for the retreat, I had to write something. I’m sharing with you part of the text I have written and submitted for the occasion.

It tells a story that really happened to me, a story I’ve told many times already, most often in my mind.  I love telling myself this story every so often.  Never before had I recounted it in writing, though, not even in French. The story that’s in my mind doesn’t translate well into telling out loud, even less so in writing.  It would have been hard to do justice in my mother tongue, it was even harder in my second language.  When I’ve learned that I had to write something, though, this story begged to be told; I had no choice but to tell it, so I did the best I could.

Anyways, enough preamble.  There you go; I hope you enjoy it.

* * *

I was walking on a street. I can’t remember what it was called. Though I have a general idea of the area in which it is located, I’m not even sure I’d be able to find it again if I ever was to go back to that city and look for that street. What I do know is that it was a hot and sunny day, and I was walking south. It was springtime, the end of April, and the street was busy, alive, the way things can be at that time of the year. Though I was only walking there to get somewhere else, it was interesting to be on that street and soak in the life that was buzzing around me.

All of a sudden, something caught my eye. A picture begging to be taken. I didn’t take my camera out, but I did stop and take the picture. In my mind. And here is a print for you.

One of the shops lining that street. In its window are three mannequins dressed in white, ready for their wedding day. In front of the window, admiring those white gowns and giggling like little girls dreaming of their own wedding, are three beautiful young women. They’re maybe deciding which one of them would get which dress, or trying to guess who will be the first among them to get married, I don’t know. They’re laughing, and there are sparkles in their eyes. All in all, a lovely but ordinary scene… made striking by the fact that these three young women are each wearing a black tchador. A perfectly symetric and beautifully poetic image.

It would have made a gorgeous photograph, especially in black and white. Why didn’t I catch the scene on film? Well, the image was perfect, but the moment also had that same quality. Purely magic… and fleeting. I simply stood there, stopped in my track, sinking it all in. I was afraid that if I took the time to take the camera out of my bag, it would be gone already. I didn’t want to look away, not even for half a second: I knew it would be gone all too fast already. And I didn’t want to interfere with that moment. I was allowed to be there and witness the scene, but there was no way I could get to know how those ladies would feel about me photographing it without ruining the moment. Wether I had chosen to ask or I had opted to just take the picture without asking first – thus risking to incur their anger or, not much better, to have them noticing me and posing artificially for the picture – would have made no difference in the end: the spell would have been broken.

So I simply stood there, sinking it all in, engraving as many details as I could in my mind. Those details that would have been captured on film, yes, but also those that we never find in our pictures when we later look at them. The physical things that would have been cropped out of the frame. The immaterial things that a camera cannot record: the sounds, the smell, the warmth of the sun… and most importantly, the feelings – mine, and what I imagined being theirs.

Actually, considering how much I took in, I’m really sorry I couldn’t get a better print for you.

* * *

This picture I ‘showed’ you was taken – or not, depending on your point of view – in Tehran in late April 2001 (early Ordibehesht 1380). I was walking south, headed to the bazaar, maybe for the last time before coming back home. I knew, though, that I’d be back. I didn’t know when, but it didn’t matter. It would be as soon as possible. Iran had me under its spell.

* * *

If you want to know what happened next, well, yes, I did go back. It was in 2004. Almost as soon as I came home from my first trip, I started learning Persian by myself and with the help of a few wonderful Iranian friends, whom I had met through my desire to learn their language. My second stay in Iran was very different from the first one, as I spent most of it in university, perfecting my knowledge of Persian. That sojourn was more challenging than the first one in many ways, but I’m grateful for that experience too. It gave me the opportunity to learn more about Iran, its people and its culture (and, of course, about myself too – a lot), so that I could have a more complete image of it than the one I had drawn during my first stay. I cherish both equally, and I can’t wait to go again. Iran still has me under its spell.

By the way… be warned: if you ever get me started talking about Iran, I’m unstoppable! :)

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3 Responses to Unphotographable*

  1. celine says:

    this is fascinating! and something I have experienced in the past, too: a moment so special, no picture would “lui rendre justice”. please tell us more about Iran.

  2. Josiane says:

    @Celine: I’m glad this brought back a special memory of your own. These are truly precious.
    You know what you’re getting into by asking me to tell more about Iran, right? You’ve been warned! ;) Seriously, I won’t go on and on, but I certainly can tell a bit more.

  3. Mysterious Kyeli Birthday Surprise says:

    Happy birthday, Kyeli! Text “The spelunker yodels at midnight” to (415) xxyyzzz, where xx is the last two digits of Pace’s verification code, yy is the answer to life, the universe, and everything, and zzz is the the first three digits of your social security number plus the number of full years the two of you have been together.

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