A Ten Year Love Affair
The internet has been abuzz with the collective ten-year look back over the first month of the year, an endless parade of frequently entertaining looks at some of 2009’s most awkward styles and trends. Typically made most entertaining by the fact that we all look a lot better now (or, at least by 2019’s standards – give it another ten years and I’m sure we’ll all find new reasons to cringe).
As it turns out, I seem to have lost most digital copies of photos from 2009 and before in various computer transfers and hard drive malfunctions – what a shame. I can tell you that this was right around the time that I gave up on the red hair I’d been sporting for a couple of years at that time and had my first brush with bleach. The result was a shock of vibrantly orange hair that, if I remember correctly, really did reflect the light with an almighty force. I can’t even curse my rudimentary hair dyeing skills – it did exactly what bleach does. I just didn’t know that yet.
I don’t think anyone’s missing out on much by not seeing those photos, really. Thinking back on 2009, it’s not that God-awful bleach blonde hair I remember most, it’s the summer I spent in Lapland surrounded by a group of high school students from across Europe. (If asked, some of them might remember the God-awful bleach blonde hair, though. I’d rather not ask).
For a couple of weeks, our thirty-odd person group was all we saw, nestled in a hostel by Lake Inari, only to be visited by the occasional reindeer passing through the yard. Summers in Lapland are something quite special. Within the Arctic Circle, you will be faced with almost endless nights during the winter and, in turn, almost endless days during the height of the summer. Most nights, the sun barely dipped below the horizon, a brief hazy not-quite darkness falling for an hour before the sun began to climb again.
I don’t recall doing a whole lot of sleeping during that time. Time was an illusion and the nights would roll on: running from the warm sauna to plunge into the freezing cold lake, cooking sausages over a wood fire and swatting away the swarming mosquitos, climbing the slopes to watch where sunset met sunrise. I remember long games of hide and seek across a dozen rooms, muddy games of kubb (a traditional Swedish game that, at its core, involves throwing a bit of wood at other bits of wood and hoping you don’t get hit too hard in the ankles) and one particularly memorable day making hay bales in which I discovered just how bad my allergies are.
Contrary to how it sounds, we weren’t actually just there to mess around in the Lappish countryside for a couple of weeks before being shipped back to our parents, but to participate in an international arts camp.
Now, I’ll level with you. Never in my life – at least up to that point – had I been described as artistic, and certainly not by my mother. My artistic skills were, at best, round blob stick figures and messy sketches, which I would put down both to a lack of skill and a lack of patience. I have slowly, over the years, dabbled in a little drawing and a little more patience definitely produces better results – but I am not an artist, not in the traditional sense.
The primary reason my mother sent me to an arts camp was because arts camp meant not-sports. Teenage Suzey and sports did not mix. Adult Suzey and sports still don’t particularly mix – my hand-eye coordination hasn’t improved much over the years.
Being at arts camp, I came to realise two things very quickly. Firstly, I was still very much not a traditional artist. Set up with a canvas and some paint brushes in the undergrowth for a while, I produced a landscape painting that might be described as abstract. Secondly, however, and much more importantly, I realised that there was a much broader scope to art than I had necessarily taken the time to consider.
One day, we were set up in a room with a shoebox, some duct tape, and black paint.
“Today, we’re going to make our own cameras.” Our instructor for that day would go on to become a mentor to me over several summers – but we’ll get to that.
I stared at the box. Well. Alright, then. Photography was something I knew, really, nothing about. But I’d been taking photos all my life, inspired by my mother and her cupboard stacked high with photo albums going back years and years, and her impressive trust in me that from as early as three years old in Venice when she allowed me to take my very first photo with her camera. At age fifteen, I already had dozens of albums packed with photos, roll after roll of film captured on my clunky little camera. Pictures of family, of friends, of places I’d travelled with my parents. Several dozen, I believe dating back to around 2001, of soft toys arranged in various places in my bedroom.
Presented with my box, I discovered a love for an art I barely knew existed: the visual arts of photography and film. Me and my box pottered around outside the building. If you’ve ever experienced the joy of having film printed, waiting a week, maybe two, to have what you saw through your viewfinder captured in physical form – it’s nothing compared to having one chance to take a shot, without knowing at all what it will look like until you’re watching it swim into view in a developing tray.
I fell in love with the smell of the darkroom, my eyes adjusting to the low red lights, fingers scrunched up in rubber gloves as I deposited the negative into the next tray. I could have spent all day in there – and, I think I more or less did, using up as many pieces of photo paper that they would spare me, long after everyone else had disappeared off to dinner or other activities.
I doubt I realised it, then – the significance of that moment in my life going forward. A couple of years’ later, I would attend a second of these camps, and the same instructor would hand me a video camera and gesture to the surroundings of the tiny island we were on.
“Go and make something.”
So, I did. And as I watched it back alongside my campmates, projected on a small screen in that tiny classroom, I fell in love a little more.
Somewhere along the line, I turned what I love into what I do. A ten year love affair sparked in a remote area of Lapland as a teenager somehow became wrapped up in who I am, what I do, and what I aspire to be.
I still have that pinhole camera. It’s sitting under the desk in my old, high school bedroom in my parents’ house. If you open it, it still smells faintly of the darkroom chemicals. Amongst the various failed negatives and some other miscellaneous memorabilia from that summer, there’s also the first love letter I ever received, written on an airplane napkin. But that is a story for another day.