Lost in Time: Thoughts on Photography, Time, and Us

It’s the start of a hot spring day here in Bulgaria, my way-station of the month. Work is chaos right now, and I took a break this morning, a fluke. About to close the Netflix tab, I saw a clip of the movie Kodachrome, starring Ed Harris, a long-time favourite.

And just like that, I’m falling down memory lane. “Kodachrome”? I couldn’t resist.

In college, I took journalism and photojournalism during the days of film processing with chemicals and darkrooms. My skills were proficient enough that I was hired to be a photolab staffer to supervise other students needing a hand in the dark. For $10.85 an hour, a king’s ransom in the day, I helped others with dodging, burning, processing, drying.

This was my front yard for two years in Victoria, BC, Canada. Kinda I loved living there.

That was the first year of my college program, but the second time in my educational career that I was the last class in one campus before the school transferred to a new, expensive building. The first was high school, where we were the last class in the old senior high, built in the ‘30s, and the next year, my graduation year, the first class in the shiny new 1990 building, with the reek of off-gassing carpet glue.

The next year was the flipside to that. I attended community college in an old warehouse row in the industrial district. It was so run down some areas were considered unsafe. In photojournalism, the darkroom work happened in a decrepit lab. Blackcloth was taped to ceiling tiles to prevent light seepage destroying our photography work. The lab, to put it succinctly, was a shithole. Bad air circulation meant the acrid sulphur of developer and fixer would burn the lungs by the end of a long day. But, still, a night lost to the photo lab was magic for me. A shitty push-button tape player bleeding music, dodging photos. Hours got devoted to creating magic on a blank page through light and chemistry.

The next year, we moved to a new multi-million-dollar campus with a high-tech lab. The old lab, only the freaks like me would see daylight bleed away as time slipped through our hands with hours on end of playing with imagery. In the high-tech new lab, where no blackcloth was needed on the ceiling and where fans whisked the carcinogenic air away, one had to book a couple weeks in advance for time on the fancy new enlargers. There was no slack for those too distracted to clear out by the time the next eager photog ambled in to process and print their rolls. It was a tense and greedy place where the photojournalism kids had stand-offs with the new fancy students in the just-launched Fine Arts and Mixed Media programs.

By then, I’d gotten a weekend job halfway between home and school, printing photos in a Kodak lab. It made me picky about film brands. Fuji was great on nature. Better blues and greens. Kodak was fantastic in portraiture, capitalizing on warmth. Lesser-known Agfa could be great at either but needed a skilled printing hand to correct for a predilection toward cyan tones. I stayed on there for two years, graduating and segueing into a full-time printing gig with the shop.

My boss was a narcissist who thought the world owed him everything. He felt like the big shot in town because his shop was the go-to with many pros. But his “nice guy” act was just that. When the shop was closed, he was demanding and cruel. When I got injured in my second year of printing in his lab, he thought I was lying and launched a complaint against the Worker’s Compensation Board, since I was injured on the job and he was penalized during my compensation pay. But dude caused it by leaving a stapler on the ground, which I’d later step on, rolling my foot and shredding every muscle in my ankle, putting me on crutches for nearly two months.

I had doctors on my side. He lost. I won. But I knew I never wanted to work for him again.

Between that and being trapped at home, I began looking for an escape from my life. See, I couldn’t even drive my car without hurting my foot, so I was stuck in my rural home. None of my city friends took the time of day to visit me. I was 21 and felt dead to the world.

Feeling sorry for myself, I considered leaving Vancouver. Within a week, I was at the library, sending letters to every potential employer in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The north. The land time forgot.

The resumes went out end of day Tuesday. Friday morning, I had a call. Three days later, the manager flew down for a conference in Vancouver. Three weeks later, I drove 30 hours north, through autumnal British Columbia, got room and board in the Yukon, and became manager of a photography lab.

Once upon a time, I lived in the Yukon, and my big brother came for a visit.

I had hoped it would be the start of a life of adventure and photography. But “life”? Not so much. A year? Yes.

A year, then adventure would come to a halt.

Strangled by bad finances and the high northern cost of living, I schlepped back to Vancouver, got involved with an ex, fell into old routines, and began a decade and a half of treading water while life happened to me, rather than me happening on life.

I managed another Kodak lab, but something was already changing in 1996 – the internet had been born and photography was beginning to go digital. My lab, after nearly two years, announced it was closing. Within a decade, most labs would hear their death knell ring.

Time rolls on and everything ends for some other beginning.

This fall will be the third anniversary of me going all-in on the adventurous life I once hoped I was starting. Almost 24 years to the week I drove north, and I’ll be 45, instead of 21. Back then, my life was ahead of me. These days, I’m probably half-way through life. Maybe more. Who knows, right?

And then I went nomad.

After schlepping back to Vancouver, I slowly lost most of who I was. Feeling beat down and without options, in 2012, I decided to leave once again, moving to Victoria, on Vancouver Island. Three years later, I went nomad, which has been a journey back to who I was, and a reckoning of who I’m becoming, as I travel the world.

But I think we all lose ourselves along the way in life.

Sometimes, I think our lives become a whirlpool. Round and round it goes. Spinning, uncontrolled. We get caught in current and can’t get out. It was like that, for me.

Maybe it still is, sometimes. Maybe that’s just adulthood. Maybe that’s why I played such a desperation move in going nomad.

People ask me why I went on the lam. Like there’s some easy reason. “To travel,” that’s the easy answer. “Because I can,” that’s the other.

Time, though. That’s the complicated answer. Too little of it. Too much of it. Stopping it, wasting it, loving it. Time.

But I think sometimes, if you stop, sit, listen to the wind, stare at the world around you, you can’t help but witness time flitting past you, slipping away, falling into the void. Time stops for none of us. We know this. I’m not sure, though, that we understand it. We take it for granted.

I know I did. I do. It’s a failing and a habit, both human nature and a default setting.

There I was, sitting on the sidelines of life – injured back, unhealthy, living removed from everyone I cared about in my little island home, watching life happen through a picture window to the street outside, and online.

All the while, I seemed to be losing my grasp on what world existed. In Europe, right-wing politics and Nazi fervour seemed to be stoking fires in small pockets. At home, we were more divisive than we’d ever been in my lifetime. Around the globe, the environment was out of control. Tipping points were happening in the march toward climate change, points from which some experts said we couldn’t claw our way back.

Portugal’s Porto Ribeira seems stopped in time.

Age seems to be a curse, as we grow older. It takes age to show us that time is a gift, that experiences – good and bad – are precious. Time is a filter through which we see our lives, through which we learn and grow and move forward.

Urgency and fear, regret and loss, those are the sorts of emotions that have landed me here in this sleepy Bulgarian neighbourhood.  They’re emotions that clutch onto us as we age. They’re cumulative emotions, compiling steeper as every year passes.

There’s nothing wrong with being moved by such emotions, as long as there’s hope and optimism somewhere down the road too. Of course there are those; one doesn’t pack everything they own in a bag without a little hope and optimism tucked away.

Kodachrome, the film that tripped me down memory lane, has Ed Harris as a celebrated photographer, speaking to some peers, about what it is that drives them to be photographers. Harris says…

“We’re all so frightened by time, the way it moves on and the way things disappear. That’s why we’re photographers. We’re preservationists by nature. We take pictures to stop time, to commit moments to eternity. Human nature made tangible.”

In a way, perhaps that’s why I’m travelling too. The tangibility of who and what we are.

The other day I walked through Old Town Plovdiv and there, just without warning, without signs, was this graveyard of Roman ruins. Toppled, fallen, broken columns, all carved and weathered for the better part of 2,000 years, built in the 2nd century under Emperor Hadrian, once a gate to the city, a throughway on the Silk Road into Europe, en route to Rome.

It stopped me in my tracks. It’s one thing to see ruins that are celebrated – fenced in, paid admission for, documented, touted. But it’s quite another to happen upon the wreckage of time, a reminder of once-great societies that now lie as detritus on a roadside. Just… there. Beaten and eaten by the winds and weather of centuries past.

Ruins by the roadside in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

On the one hand, this leaves me with a sense that nothing I do matters, because it all slips away anyhow. When you look at the care and work that went into creating these columns that once were palatial but now lie fragmented and forgotten, it’s easy to dismiss today’s pressures and stresses as silly obligations we’ve brought upon ourselves. We deem things as urgent, unmissable, unneglectable, but the reality is, it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t.

Delusions of grandeur seem born of empires. Doesn’t matter how great they become, eventually they’re covered by the sands of time and forgotten, or cited as a curiosity from an age long gone.

But on the other hand, there’s something left of them. Here we are, 2,000 years on, marvelling at the traces they’ve left, the lives they lived, the accomplishments they made. What will remain of me? What legacy will I have left? A hundred years from now, as someone who will never have children, will anyone remember my name? Or will I have blown away on the winds of time too? I like to think I’ve changed a person or two in my lifetime. I like to believe the Butterfly Effect, that I’m a cascading ripple on the pond of life.

In the film Ed Harris scoffs at digital photography. He dismisses our society as taking more photographs than ever but leaving no record of them. We’re making “digital dust,” he says.

Perhaps that’s a reflection of our society.

We are the creators of the  “disposable” society. Single-use. Never before in history has it occurred to people that a product’s virtue is that it can only be used once. What have we become? What a strange time.

As I walk through history, through streets cobbled centuries ago, this travel life of mine leaves me caught between worlds. In one world, I panic over the legacies I dream of leaving, and in the other I realize none of it matters… that we’re nothing but memories on the wind.

So I live life two ways. Sometimes, I try to suck the marrow from daily life, enjoying as much as I can, worried that if I sleep, I’ll miss everything that matters.

Other days, I’m blissfully content that nothing matters more than doing nothing and watching the world happen. Those days, I enjoy being an observer in a world that doesn’t need me and won’t remember me when I’m gone.

Sometimes, that’s a sad thought. Other times, it’s downright freeing.

Luckily, life is never absolute. We can be this way, then that. Time may be a construct, but as sure as the sun crosses the sky, the time, like daylight, falls away from us. As your time slips away today, ask yourself if you’re using it as best you can. Not compared to others, not compared to what’s expected of you. Are you using time in a way you enjoy? Maybe that’s seated on a park bench. Maybe it’s staring at a coffee as the sun beats down on you and people brush past in their obligated lives.

Maybe, like me, it’s typing as the day’s heat builds and fatigue kicks in, before, finally, the sofa beckons me for nap time. When I’m dust on the wind, I don’t think it’ll matter that I took a nap at 5:46pm on April 26th, 2018. Do you?