I take a lot of walks in Sydney, mostly around the many beaches. It’s nice being in a city so close to the ocean, like living on the edge of a calming abyss. Here are some simple photographs from last weekend, nice and contemplative, around Bondi and Manly. Surfers waiting in the waves and all.
I’ll be spending the next 3-4 months living in Sydney, working with clients and enjoying the milder climate and fresh air of the country’s east coast. It was sad to leave Bangkok again, so soon after my long-awaited return at the end of last year, but we’re all borne on this great wave of uncertainty, cresting and falling, trying to land on solid ground. And so I find myself here, far from home again, but with some great friends and colleagues to help see me through.
The above picture is an old tree somewhere a few hours north of Perth, on the west coast. I’d take a photograph from my current quarantine room here in Sydney, but I doubt anyone is excited to see the Commonwealth Bank facade or the highway peaking through the trees in the parking lot. One more week until I’m released. Apparently yesterday someone tried to escape after slugging back a few beers in his room. Luckily they caught him before he got too far, but what an idiotic legend. I can almost feel the fresh air seeping through the window panes.
Earlier this year, I traveled to the little-known province of Buriram, in northeastern Thailand. It’s a quiet, rural region residing on the Khorat Plateau–largely featureless and dusty, with cool morning air and a sun that sets golden and warm each evening. A thousand years ago, Buriram was the far reach of the Khmer empire, and several well-kept ruins–including Phanom Rung, on the edge of an extinct volcano–serve as reminders of its rich past.
We were there on a magazine assignment that fell dead in the water once the pandemic hit, though we had no way of knowing it at the time. We spent a week hovering around the main town and the Cambodian border, where most of the ruins are located. It was tough to photograph, and I imagine even tougher to write about, because it’s a place where nothing really happens. A few golden buddhas. An occasional monk in the forest. Lots of gold-flecked statues. A night market that felt sleepy by 8pm.
That isn’t to say it was unlovely. It may be the only place in the world where you can stroll through the preserved, sprawling ruins of an ancient empire utterly alone. We explored forest temples and countless crisscrossing streets in the town proper. We never found much, but in hindsight, maybe that was never the point. It was a strange and prescient place to be just before the world inverted itself.
I like to think it’s alone in being largely unchanged in the world, but I’m sure that’s not entirely true. The pandemic has touched everyone and everywhere, even the remote corners of the world where places like Buriram thrive. Things I found boring at the time are turning more beautiful, and Buriram stands as testament to a way of thinking I should return to. It was an intimate and privileged glimpse into a place not many people will get to see for a long while longer. Maybe it wasn’t much, but it was generous in its way. It just took me a while to see it.
The days are stretched and sagging at all ends. I get up in the mornings and try to write, exercise, read something, check the news. Normal routines that feel like anchors in a shiftless sea. I listen to podcasts, watch shadows crawl across the morning floor, walk for miles in the same three directions. I procrastinate, make the same excuses I made when I was busier. I call and text with friends. I watch television and play video games and draw in small notebooks. I have a palette of watercolors I haven’t touched in over a month. It’s an elastic era. It’s hard finding motivation when every day is the same blank slate over and over again.
We venture out and see the few friends we can, when we can. We make little road trips up and down the east coast, scurrying between places of safety, never unaware of our surroundings. But mostly it’s nothing. It’s exhausting work, doing nothing. I’ve picked up my camera a handful of times. I’m using this time to think, I tell myself, to absorb and process and find new ways of seeing: a spiderweb filled with leaves, virescent lawns, ornate mailboxes, shimmering reflections on still water. The woods.
I’ve been in Virginia for nearly two months, and will likely be here until July, at least. It’s not all bad at all. I’m remembering a lot of things I’d forgotten over the years, finding peace and solace in small moments, letting the days stretch and sag, riding them out with deep, even breaths.
This is how it usually happens in India. I get sent there on an assignment and I stack a few extra days on either end to explore a bit more of the countryside. I take thousands of photographs and dig myself into corners and poke my nose where it does and doesn’t belong, and in the end the magazine publishes around 10-15 final pictures and I’m left with more outtakes than I know what to do with. Photographs that I love, that I remember taking, that bring back very real and visceral experiences for me. The smell of a curry and the way a light flared down a side alley. A cat jumping from crate to crate at the fishing docks. A rickety river bridge and a boy floating in the water below. Sweet street side masala chai. A talkative guesthouse owner. A barber. A painter. A sweets shop employee.
Oftentimes the outtakes become my favorites. They’re the more memorable photographs, the imperfect ones, the ones that didn’t quite fit into the original story’s narrative arc. They become the underdogs. They’re simple images of meals and streets and people I’ve met along the way. They’re inconsequential and they’re numerous and they’re the reason I take on these assignments, knowing I’ll come home with stacks of treasures and memories. So here are some treasures and memories from the state of Kerala in southern India. One of the softer and more accessible points in the country, but no less magical for it.