Paris Light

# photography# travel

Paige jumping off a diving board, surrounded by my siblings

I don’t know where my family got the travel bug. There are six kids. Four of us have lived in France (separately), and all of us love to travel.

I think we were partly inspired by our parents. Both of them had formative experiences traveling in Europe. Mom did an exchange to a small town in Germany. Dad did the grape harvest in the south of France, then bummed around the Netherlands. Our family never had much money, but both of my parents saw value in travel, so they encouraged us on our own adventures.

Our oldest sibling, Paige, was the first to go abroad. She went on a trip to London as a teenager. I was in elementary school, and she brought back British candy that made England seem like a magical place.

When she graduated from high school, Paige went to Paris as an au pair. This time she returned not with candy, but with photos.

Photography was part of my upbringing. My mom was deft with her film camera, and she passed the practice to my sister, who started taking beautiful pictures as a teenager. Mom stuffed the bookshelf with albums of family photos. For a family that went through multiple fractures, those albums were one of the things that maintained our sense of wholeness.

Paige’s photos from Paris pushed the envelope. She took black-and-white pictures of people and places that were both artful and playful. She had an exhibition at the Khyber Art Gallery in Halifax of a series of photos of a clown on stilts. I remember that the photos used dramatic angles to make the clown look larger than life.

My family had a running debate about digital versus film. I used digital cameras as a teenager. But for Christmas when I was eighteen, my mom gave me an old film camera — an Olympus OM-1 with a 35-70mm zoom lens: a great kit for street photography.

A train bed filled with snow

The first photos I took were simple observations of my world: objects, cityscapes, friends.

A piece of plastic wrapped around a highway guardrail

Two months later, I left on my first trip. I’m the second oldest child, and I was the second to leave home. I went to Africa for six months and brought my new film camera.

Traveling alone in Africa was profound and also boring. I had the greatest adventures of my life, made wonderful friends, and discovered amazing places. But I was also a confused, tentative eighteen-year-old, far away from home without much money and with little to do. I would go outside and just walk around the block for fear of getting lost. So I took pictures.

A child running down an alleyway in Zanzibar

In 2008, you could still buy film and get it processed almost anywhere. I took hundreds of photos. I learned to photograph strangers. Five months into my trip, my light meter died, and I learned to guess my exposure.

a man on a boat in lake victoria

a child on a bus

Later that year, my 14-year-old brother, Allister, took his first trip: he came with my sister to meet me in Germany at the end of my Africa trip. We backpacked in Europe for a month. Allister had my digital camera, and my sister and I both had Olympus OMs.

me and Allister

We all traded cameras, taking pictures of each other and of fun things in the street.

Allister and Paige on swings

This photo is from a park in Berlin, near our hostel.

Ten years later, when my wife Claire and I moved to Berlin, we ended up in an apartment around the corner. I walked past this swing set all of the time.

Claire also grew up around photography, and so it has always been something we’ve shared through our whole relationship.

But, for a long time, I largely stopped taking pictures. I got busy with school, and then work. Last year, Claire encouraged me to get back to it. She told her dad to get me some film for Christmas, and I started taking pictures again.

A 'No fouling' street sign with a sticker that says 'Vote Enya' on it

As always, I was drawn to photograph funny things in the street. And sometimes those photos are great. But often they feel a little empty. I realized that a human makes a photo more interesting, so I started thinking about how to take pictures of people. I picked up a book on photography, I joined my local camera club, and I practiced.

In Glasgow, I still feel uncomfortable taking pictures in the street. People seem very suspect of the camera. But in Paris, it’s fine. They ignore the camera. So, each time I go to Paris for work, I go out for photo walks.

My sister has always had an uncanny ability to disappear behind the camera. She makes her subject feel comfortable, and gets spontaneous photos. In contrast, I always feel stiff and awkward, like I stick out. For me, taking pictures of strangers is a practice in balancing humility (be unimposing) and bravery (be bold).

A man arranging plants on the sidewalk

Here’s what I’ve tried:

I wear nondescript clothes, including a baseball hat. When I find a scene I like, I stand out of the way and set up my shot. I appear relaxed and stay relatively still, with my camera ready in front of my face. When a person comes into the frame, I casually raise the camera to my eye (if it’s not already there) and take the picture.

Bikes crossing an intersection

At this intersection, I noticed that the bike lane switched sides, so the bikers had to come diagonally across the intersection, creating diagonal movement across the scene. I stood behind a car on the edge of the intersection, positioned my camera, and waited for some cyclists to come through the frame.

A woman walking along the canal

Back in 2008, Paige, Allister, and I stayed in a loft apartment on the Canal St. Martin.

When Claire and I moved to Paris in March 2020, we wound up in an apartment at the other end of the canal. So during lockdown, that’s where we took our walks — up and down the landmark that welcomed me to Paris many years prior.

On one of my photo walks this past September, I walked down the canal. I noticed how nice the pedestrians looked as they walked through the light, next to the calm water. So I stopped with my camera, and waited for a the next approaching pedestrian to come through the patch of light.

I like taking pictures because they freeze these special places in time. But, on reflection, I recognize that it’s not the place that’s special — people make it so. Like in the photo of the swing set, and the canal: they move me because they connect me to people I love.

I think that’s what photography is. Each photograph reminds me of people: mom and her kids on vacation; my sister’s black and white pictures in Paris; my wife giving me tips for shooting portraits; and all of these anonymous passers-by, living their own lives. Each photo tells a story — about the photographer and the photographed. These photos make me feel connected, like those family albums. They foster a sense of wholeness.

© Sam Littlefair, 2022