# travel

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.

A Trip to the Isle of Mull

# travel# photography

Last week, Claire and I took a trip to the Isle of Mull with our friend, Nelly. I met Nelly at my web development bootcamp in France. We both launched our web development careers at the same time in Paris, and Nelly and Claire became good friends while we lived there. Claire and I were thrilled for Nelly to visit Glasgow — and at the perfect time of year.

A cloudy, autumnal tree-covered landscape reflecting in the still waters of Loch Lomond

Mull is an island off the west coast of Scotland. Shortly after leaving Glasgow, we made an impromptu stop on the side of the road to take in the breathtaking site of Loch Lomond, shrowded in mist, covered in fall colors, reflected in the perfectly still water of the loch.

The dramatic landscape of Glencoe

After leaving Loch Lomond, we drove through one of Scotland’s most famous landscapes: Glencoe. We stopped at the lookout at the top of the glen, where I got this photo. The landscape feels sumptuous, with the rich orange heather covering the ground, and the pillowy clouds crowning the hills.

We took the long way around to Mull, around the stunning Morvern Peninsula. Nc’nean Distillery sits at the tip of the peninsula, in a beautiful and very remote woodland — so remote that most of the staff live at the disillery. So remote that when we realized we were down to a quarter tank of gas, we were genuinely unsure we would find a gas station. (We did. It was a small, unstaffed, community-run pump.)

A row of whisky barrels

Nc’nean is a new, sustainable, women-run distillery. Single-malt scotch whisky has three ingredients (water, yeast, and barley) and a very strict recipe that all whisky distilleries must follow. Within that recipe, Nc’nean experiments as much as they can. They use different types of yeast and produce alternative barley spirits. Theirs is a brave strategy in the old boys’ club that is the whisky world. In 2017, they sold their first bottle at auction — a youthful three-year-old scotch, which fetched £42,000.

A photo of the water from aboard a ferry

We ended the day with a sunset ferry to Mull, and then a short drive to the famous seaside town of Tobermory, where we had dinner at the pub.

The next day, we went for a hike on the shore. We were looking for otters, of which we saw none. But We did see many golden eagles.

A rugged road running between the ocean shore and rocky cliffs

After the hike, we followed the one-track road for the breathtaking two-hour drive around the island.

Sheep blocking a one-track road

A ram and two sheep blocking a one-track road

We got caught in many Scottish traffic jams.

The next morning we caught the ferry from Tobermory back to the Ardnamurchan Peninsula on the mainland. From the ferry landing it is a very long and winding but incredibly beautiful drive back to Glasgow. The Ardnamurchan Peninsula is one of the only areas of Scotland that the locals have started repopulating with native oak trees, replacing the conifers that have covered most of Scotland. As a result, Ardnamurchan is uniquely leafy and the fall colors are amazing.

Looking up at the canopy of an oak tree from under neath, with green, yellow, and orange leaves

We stopped for a walk in the oak forest, and I could have stayed forever.

The view through a forest of oak trees, with a moss covered ground

From there, it was a long, peaceful drive home. All three of us had the quiet contentment that comes from spending time in a beautiful place.

Allister and Jesse in Scotland

Last month, my brothers Allister and Jesse came to visit me in Scotland. They arrived on Friday, and on Sunday me and Claire and Jesse and Allister departed on a highland roadtrip.

We visited Stirling Castle, which is one of my favorite landmarks because it’s the historic seat of the Scottish monarchs. You can stand in the royal bedchambers. It astounds me to imagine what our Scottish ancestors would have thought about their descendents standing in King James’ bedroom.

Allister looking at the ceiling in Stirling Castle

My friend Francois gave me a box of long-expired Kodak Ultra film, which I loaded up for Allister and Jesse’s visit. I pushed the exposure two stops, which still feels a little dim, but the photos have a fun texture. Here’s Allister staring at the ceiling in Stirling Castle.

From there, we drove through beautiful Perthshire to Pitlochry, where we did a distillery tour at Blair Athol distillery.

Allister and Jesse outside the distillery

Here are Jesse and Allister outside of the distillery, which was a beautiful old ivy-covered building.

Jesse standing in the middle of the road

Allister standing in a red phone booth

We spent the night in Pitlochry at the youth hostel. In the evening, we walked to the neighboring town of Moulin for dinner at the pub. Allister tried haggis, neeps, and tatties, which he said was actually pretty good.

In the morning, we drove across the highlands.

Jesse holding Allister upside down

In the middle of the country, we stopped at a coffee shop. I switched to my digital camera because I knew I’d be taking lots of pictures. We had some pent-up energy from driving all day. So, when I asked the guys to pose for pictures, Jesse immediately picked up Allister and dangled him upside-down.

Allister and Jesse standing on Aonach Mor, with highlands in the background

On the West Coast of Scotland, we took the Nevis Range Mountain Gondola up the side of Aonach Mor, for rainy views over the highlands.

Allister and Jesse standing in front of the William Wallace memorial at the Glasgow Necropolis

Through the week, Claire and I showed the guys around Glasgow. Here’s Allister and Jesse at the Wallace Memorial at the Glasgow Necropolis.

Portrait of Allister

Portrait of Jesse

Here’s Allister, moments later, crossing the bridge from the Glasgow Necropolis to the Glasgow Cathedral — one of the oldest buildings in Glasgow, and the site of the original Christian settlement, and then Jesse outside of the cathedral.

Allister and Jesse climbing stairs

The weather rained for a lot of the week, but one day this beautiful golden light came out and I spent at least half a roll on it.

Jesse out of focus

I missed these guys the minute they were gone.

Visit Arichonan

The ruins of a stone house in the forest.

Arichonan is an abandoned village on the West Coast of Scotland. In the 19th century, the landlord evicted the villagers — farmers — to rear sheep.

When the villagers protested, the police came and carried them away.

An abandoned house on a hillside.

Last month, we visited Arichonan. It was me, Claire, and our friend Erin.

Hidden down a path in the forest, the village overlooks a valley stretching miles out toward the ocean. The village itself sat on the slope, old stone walls criss-crossing the hill. The walls drew the outlines of store rooms, gardens, and cottages. A main house stood at the top of the village.

A fireplace heath in the ruin of an old house

The buildings appeared ancient, but some crisp details remained. A cracked cauldron sat on the ground in one house. An ornate iron hearth leaned against the wall in another.

It was just a few weeks prior when we hosted our friends Liam and Laura. Laura, a Canadian, had ancestors from Scotland. They moved to Canada in the 1800s when they were displaced from their land by sheep.

I thought about my own ancestors, who moved from Aberdeenshire to Canada around the same time. They were poor farmers, too.

According to historians, the farming way of life was difficult and leisurely in turn. Crofters, like my ancestors, rented a small farm from a landlord. Farm work was heavy in the harvest season. For the rest of the year, they had spare time for leisure and craftwork.

During the Industrial Revolution, demand for wool made shepherding more economically valuable than farming. The wealthy landlords who owned most of the countryside evicted their tenant farmers and let the farmland go fallow so they could graze sheep. The farmers were forced to find a new livelihood, farming on poorer land, working for wages in the cities, or making a new life over the ocean. This new flood of cheap labor provided the engine for Britain’s industrialization.

At the same time, in response to Scottish resistance, the British military was stamping out community and heritage in rural Scotland, destroying the traditional way of life.

The combination of military and capitalist subjugation drove Scots out of their traditional homelands, emptying the Scottish highlands. Countryside that was once full of farms and villages became desolate.

During the same period, Romantic painters discovered the dramatic mountains and desolate moors of Scotland. The Romantics popularized a new image of Scotland as a majestic, untamed wilderness — the image that persists today.

Flash-forward to the 1900s. Workers in the cities returned to the Scottish countryside — not to live, but for leisure. Sir Hugh Munro mapped Scotland’s mountains and made hiking the country’s national pastime. Landlords tried to ban hikers from their territory, but Scots fought back. You can’t own the land, they said. The people won, and access to the land became law in 2003.

When you ask a Scot what they do in their spare time, they’ll likely tell you they go hiking. Glasgow itself sits at the foot of the highlands, and you can see the hills from any high point in the city.

When you venture into the hills, it can feel like you’re completely alone.

But you’re not. And sooner or later you’ll walk past a crumbling fieldstone wall or the foundations of a farmhouse — reminders that this place wasn’t always empty.

Our friend Erin relaxing in a tree

After we got home, I Googled Arichonan to find out what happened to the villagers. After their revolt was quashed — like Laura’s ancestors and mine — they moved to Canada.

Eat Grass

# travel# photography

Cows on a hill by the beach.

In April, Claire and I went to Skye with our friends Liam and Laura.

A white calf grazing on a ridge near the ocean

We camped on a ridge overlooking a white-sand beach. Between the ridge and the beach was a pasture.

A white calf looking around a ridge near the ocean

In the evening, cows came out to graze. I took these photos at magic hour.

A herd of cows grazing along a steep hill over a white-sand beach

I love how the photos came out. They feel slightly psychellic, like nature photos from a 1970s textbook. It feels true to the moment: beautiful and surreal.

A cow striding through a pasture, looking straight at the camera

I took this photo and then my battery died. I climbed back up the ridge to our campsite and we watched the sun set.

We had a small fire, which we used to make a hearty stew and hot chocolate with whisky.

The sunset took forever, and the afterglow lasted until late in the night. When it was finally gone, the sky filled edge to edge with stars. Claire and I laid out for a while, staring up.

Sometimes I get vertigo when I stand close to an edge. Laying on the ground, staring at the celestial fresco on the infinite vaulted sky above, I felt the same feeling — that I might slip off the ground and fall into space.

© Sam Littlefair, 2022