Photographs, travel & memory


I picked up the page of slides, some falling out of their plastic squares. I was in one of the oldest charity shops, in the middle of Oxford, where I used to live when I worked for Oxfam.

My head was whirling with memories of the four years I lived there, early in my humanitarian career. I had already been on some difficult missions and places, having shot photos in Nepal, South Africa, Kosovo and Albania. However, I did not yet have the confidence to say that I was a photographer. As a writer, too, I wasn’t there yet: the fiction I’d started in those years went nowhere, remained unfinished and unsubmitted.

In the first year I was there, I hadn’t yet been to DR Congo or Angola, two countries where I would return to again and again. They helped make me who I am.

In the first year I was there, I hadn’t yet been to DR Congo or Angola, two countries where I would return to again and again.

Fifteen years later, Oxford seemed very small after years of travel and living in London. Even the street where I lived was tiny!  Who knew they could have public roads like that, where you could stretch your arms across and reach a wall of the side of a 18th Century house, now rented out to students, each with a bicycle locked up in front.

As I walked around the streets that felt both familiar and somewhat altered, I was trailed by two children, one small, the other not-so-small anymore (actually, already my height at the age of 12). They asked questions, demanding ice cream and sorbet; they were miffed at the near-total lack of playgrounds in the town centre, but took it upon themselves to climb every accessible public wall or sculpture instead.

Back to these slides: I hadn’t seen the type in years. Myself, I hadn’t shot on slides or film in a very long time, since I got my second digital camera ten years ago.

I missed it, and remembered how we used to work with film. I can still picture the darkroom I used to use in South Oxford, filled with fumes and people experimenting with light and dark. It was a very creative place.

I held the sheet up to the light. It was four rows by five of well-labelled shots of artwork, taken in Pisa, Venice, London and other places. The images were of paintings and sculptures in churches, altars, medieval towns and museums. Very neat handwriting crisply noted the place and the title of the art.

I noticed one slide of a building by my husband’s favourite architect: Palladio’s perfectly designed Villa Capra (Rotunda). I bought the slides for £1.99 without any hesitation.

Who would donate sheets of slides to an Oxfam shop? Had someone passed away, and their family didn’t know what to do with them? Or someone was having a clear-out, and thought others would be interested? I was intrigued.

Who would donate slides to an Oxfam shop? Was it a breakup? Lost job? Evidence of a previous honeymoon that had to be jettisoned?

A break-up? A lost job? Or maybe it was a happy occasion, such as a marriage and a merger of two households, but the memories of a previous honeymoon had to be jettisoned?

The truth may have been more mundane: perhaps it was that an art professor, used to fairly old-fashioned methods, had eventually retired. After years of giving the same lecture to bored students, they had finally passed on the post to someone who knew how to do a PowerPoint presentation.

But I’d like to think it was something a bit more romantic than that.

Maybe it was an older professor – a woman, I’d like to imagine —  shedding her belongings before the next big adventure. She would have had years behind her, and stories to tell. But she knew that she had some unknown number of years ahead, and that there was not a minute to waste. So things were recycled, gifted, and given away to charity shops. Perhaps her house was sub-letted or rented out to students. Or she bought a second-hand (or third-hand or older) campervan and donated anything that didn’t fit. The only things she kept were those that were essential for the next destination.

And now I am here, back in London, with 20 slides I didn’t take, of artwork around the world I haven’t seen. But I know of at least one that I might plan to see. I just need to sort out how to get us to Villa Capra sometime, before I grow too old to dream.

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