I wrote this earlier this year to stave off the insanity of jet-lag one night while on a particularly challenging assignment in Ethiopia. It’s a little stream-of-consciousness and I offer it for what it is. In my defence, my mind was a little foggy from the jet-lag. If you’re looking for wisdom, move along – nothing to see here. The photograph above was shot in Northern Ethiopia – Gonder, to be precise, back in 2006.
I’m jet-lagged. It’s 9:30 in the evening. I’ve just accidentally slept through the afternoon and woken up to the realization that there’s no chance I’ll get another wink of sleep between now and my 5am wake up call. I’m in a hotel room that redefines mediocre, in a hotel at which I stayed 2 years ago and of which I have unkind memories. I was here with a friend visiting an orphanage and had developed a sore in my mouth which made eating so painful I wanted to cry. Mike refused to challenge the roaches on their claim to the shower. Good times, as they say.
These are the nights I don’t tell people about when they tell me I’ve got the best job in the world. These nights of restlessness in crappy-ass hotels, listening to disco hammering its way in from the streets, longing for home, stressing out about the coming days on an assignment that seems doomed from the get-go. Nights spent trying to stay positive, to not wonder about the parasitic possibilities latent in the mosquito bites the net was meant to prevent. Nights hoping the bug-bite on your eyelid doesn’t swell your eye completely, forcing you to shoot with the other one, the one that doesn’t “see” any better than a teenaged photographer with his first roll of film and an AE-1.
I’ve plugged in my iPod, played Toto’s requisite Africa over and over again, before moving on to Paul Simon’s African-inspired Graceland album. I’ll settle, slow down, move on to Van Morrison, and find my groove, work on the book I’ve been chipping away at, more to avoid getting morose and thinking about how badly I want to sleep this night away, get in the truck and keep moving, get to the location and fix this mess.
I’m meant to be here for 5 days of shooting and the local NGO has policies about transportation that mean I won’t be on location until late Monday afternoon, will have two days to shoot, and then turn around and repeat the 2-day drive back to Addis Ababa and the plane that could have been booked 2 days further out if only we had been told of this policy. It’s no big deal, they pay me, I do what I can, I go home. But the thing is, I care deeply about this work and want to see it go well. It’s a new client and I want to knock this one out of the ballpark. Now the game’s been cut dramatically short and my bat’s been cut in two.
The reason I keep doing this, time after time, is in part because I love the adventure. I keep saying that as long as I make it out alive I come back with a good story and in the circles I move a good story is like currency, any evening spent together with other travelling photographer inevitably ends with an escalating vortex of stories that begin with “when I was in Serbia,” and “How many times have you had malaria?” before finishing with the usual bullshit about how we shot an assignment through the haze of a fever and a camera that was permanently stuck on 1/250. As evenings go, you could do far far worse, but you only get to play if you have the stories. So bring it on, you say, though dreading the thought that the fates might just take you at your word.
I also do it because I love the kids. The humanitarian organizations for whom I work specialise in development that focuses on children and my time with the kids and families in some of the more remote places on the planet, is deeply gratifying. Where it not for the kids, were I coming down only to shoot the installation of a new water pump, I’d give it up entirely, try my hand at writing perhaps. The kids keep me coming back. This is why I shoot. I tell others to shoot their passion, and this is why – it sustains you, makes your work better, and gives the challenge a payoff that money alone could never do.
It’s past midnight now; four and a half hours to kill until the alarm goes off. Nights like this it’s hard not to think about home and the last time I saw my wife and the sushi we had the night before I left. Hard not to think about my morning ritual of a coffee and bagel by the ocean before going back to work, or the days when there’s writing to be done and I walk to the water taxi and take the brief ride across False Creek, under the steelwork of the Burrard Bridge, before stepping off at Granville Island, and walking to my favourite coffee joint. Hard? Hell, it’s impossible not to think about those things.
But in the morning, when the sun comes up and I step out into the dawn and the dust & diesel smell of Ethiopia, and into the Land Cruiser to continue our two-day trek through the breathtaking Bale Mountains before making the descent into the remote lowlands on the Kenyan border, all these thoughts get washed away by the thrill of movement, of new sights and smell and the epic feeling of being a million miles from email and the pseudo-obligations of the busy busy busy routine.
Thank God, on these nights, for Van Morrison. I’ve been thinking about listening to every song on my ipod and counting how many times he says “Jelly Roll”. Despite it all I’d rather, right now, truly be nowhere else. And in 4 days, on the other end of this trip, when I wrestle with jet-lag at this same hotel on the way back to Addis, I’ll be wide awake, but thinking about the Ethiopians I met, the stories I’ve heard & been a part of, and the hope I’ve witnessed. I’ll be looking at images that didn’t exist before this adventure began, and the sleepless nights in a $9/night hotel with the cess-pool bathroom won’t seem so bad. Man I love this job…
Fantastic post, David (as always). Really eye-opening to read your inner thoughts during those moments when you are truly alone.
Maybe we could start sharing readings from Homer. (The Greek one, not Mr. Simpson:)) Have you read Joseph Campbell, David? Ah, the travails of life and the hero’s journey!
David, there’s more wisdom in your post than you realize. This minute I too am sitting in a lonely hotel room. Even though based on your description mine is probably much fancier than the one you were in when you wrote your peice. No matter though. Lonely is lonely, no matter the circumstances. I’m at a point where I no longer feel that what I am accomplishing when I spend time away from my family justifies the cost of being away. It was comforting to hear that even with a job that has meaning you miss your time away from home.
I think I’ll read a few pages of “Within the Frame” and go to bed and dream of great pictures.
Thanks for sharing.
Enjoyed the post, especially the shout out to the AE-1. I started out in digital, but just picked up one recently. It’s not a Leica, but it’s still pretty sweet!
“Whom” and “Crappy-Ass” in the same post! Check that off my list.
I think it’s good to lay your feelings out on the table sometimes, reassures others that you’re not the infallible DuChemin that they believe you to be (I know, despite best efforts). It gives us, your readers, a more personal connection while keeping us a safe distance away, and an outlet for you too, I wrote something vaguely similar when I was on a 14 hour bus to Phuket from Bangkok once…
David, Where are you? I’m going to Addis for healthcare work Jan 15-23 (http://ethiopiahealth.org), then down to Arba Minch and Omo Valley (Murulle) for photography. — Regards, Jim
— Also, perhaps you don’t want to say, what hotel? I’m slated for the Jupiter. Last time was Hilton, but I think it’s too expensive this go-round.
Thomas, he will probably write one this afternoon. 😉
great post. Have you ever considered publishing your stories in some type of memoir?
Your descriptions of the job takes the bloom off the rose so to speak – obviously you can handle it, which is good.
What struck me was a tid bit at the end: “I’ll be looking at images that didn’t exist before…”.
It is that very thing that makes photography so cool – that we have new images to pour over, some good, some not so good every day, week, or month.
I had a week in early November that has opened up a few doors for me. It was The Field of Honor Memorial in Naperville, IL.
Some of these images will be used nationally for their campaign and they will be hanging in a few Congressman’s offices, not to mention print sales down the road.
You just never know what comes next.
Sorry I wasn’t there for that night too David!
I remember your slurred speech, the screaming trash birds on the building next door, and the roach races around the toilet seat. Still the only place I’ve ever refused to shower.
Beautiful post, thanks.
A moving story! You seem to write well when tired and under duress, which works in your work. I wonder how many people can really say they love their job. It is also evident you believe in what you do. Thanks, David, for sharing!
Thanks so much for sharing this, David! I love these very personal and telling accounts from the road. What a fantastic way to begin the week!
Bad night, but great sentiments. I think on balance that the bad night was worth it as it can be good to be reminded of the things we love. (It’s also worth it to suffer for the things in which we believe.)
Now let me tell you about malaria, open sewers in a bedroom and sleeping with rats… 🙂
Reading this post was like listening to smooth jazz – thought provoking, rhythmic, eerily moving. You’ve got a distinctive writing voice; one worthy of best-seller status. A decadent pleasure to read. Thanks for sharing it.
Possibly my favorite post you’ve ever written David. More and more I’m seeing, life is about stories, having ones to share that you’re proud of, and found you’re hardest to have more.
What you mentioned about “the kids” that keep you coming back, keep you shooting. I believe, as artists, we’re addicted to inspiration, constantly on the look out for that feeling, that powerful inner urge, that burning fire, that the more you feel it, the more you want it. And that’s what pushes us through everything else, lets us get over obstacles that seem surmountable only by intense love. This is our blessing as artists, and this is our curse.
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David, nice meeting you on Saturday. We were discussing Ethiopia too…. it’s funny I was just searching and looking at Kazuyoshi Nomachi’s work and then checked your most recent post!
Sounds like you love the job to put up with so much to get those awesome photographs. Thanks for sharing and keep it up, the world needs photographers like you.
Funny thing about “looking for wisdom.” You usually find it where people tell you not to look. Thanks for the post.
Isn’t it wonderful how the past contains our stories, letting them out when we can find ourselves removed enough to handle them, to laugh at them, to see them through today’s eyes?… Man, I love your job, too, David. I only shoot the way that I shoot, but I will always hope that my vision can capture some of your attitude, grace and wisdom….and , of course…humor. Thanks again