I, Camera

I forgot to pack my camera when I went to Cuba

Hmphh said my mother. Polysporin. But. No. Camera. Bug. Spray. But. No. Camera.

It was a bigger adjustment than the language, or the currency, or the wall-to-wall Canadian tourists.

When I travel, my camera is my shield, my toy, my paintbrush, my prosthetic memory.

How would this trip get remembered? These fragile, final few years with my mother, and this precious time we have together, after so many years of being estranged.

I had to drink everything in, My eyes, my journal, and my own memory became a shutter, blinking constantly.

After awhile, I began to notice how preoccupied people were with their cameras, sometimes, several to a table, conversations punctuated by the white flare of the flash. How, when we were in a tour bus entering Havana, the men across the aisle from us poised their cameras aloft in a grasping, hungry, almost desperate gesture. I watched a woman on the beach crouch low and take pictures of shells. I would have been that woman. Instead, I dozed on a lounge chair.

From time to time I pulled out my sketchbook and watercolours, and tried to paint a portrait of my ma sitting amid coconut palms, drinking a pina colada and reading. (All through my childhood, I never once saw her sit down to read a book). Impossible to capture the benign satisfaction there, hers and mine.

I bought a disposable camera in a shop in Veradero, and these few grainy, oddly coloured shots with the red flare where the light leaked in, are what I managed to bring back.

The week after I returned, I told the story of forgetting my camera to my students. I wanted to illustrate what Guy Debord has called “the society of the spectacle”, the way we communicate, these days, through images and screens. One student told us about her dad, who went backpacking in the 70’s; for some reason there are no photos of that time.

So he tells me the stories, and I remember them, she said.


  1. I’ve never quite understood the threat of a camera picture stealing your soul, but I find myself very tentative when taking pictures of strangers, nonetheless — just in case.

    I often travel without my camera — I think I generally trust word stories more than photographs. Or, for me, photos are adjectives; stories are still the nouns and the verbs.

  2. I rarely take pictures when I travel because I feel like getting behind the lens and choosing the shot takes me out of the moment. Years later, I usually wish I had photos to help me remember those moments.

    PG, i think i can relate to the ‘stealing your soul’ idea. to me it’s even in the language – ‘taking’ a picture… and leaving what in return?

  3. A professional photographer told me once that amateurs “take” pictures; ie snapshots; and professionals “make” pictures, ie art. Still involves potential soul stealing, it seems to me …

  4. The reds and blues on those photos remind me of the Kodachrome photos of the fifties. I think we do mediate our lives too much with cameras sometimes and it can become a way of putting blinders on to the emotional reality of the situation.

  5. Great story and photos. Your mother looks nice. I wonder why some are so caught up in if they are making art or taking snapshots. Seems silly to me. There are far too many who call out I am artist on the earth anyway so lets just live, have fun all the while making art. Your photo’s are fine, reds and all.

    I very rarely travel anymore. Friends send me postcards and I am there. That is one thing that I do have left, is a mind. Fluxus travel the best way to go for me. Thanks for bringing me along with your photo’s.

    Love the VIVA FIDEL photo. My mind just went all around the place with pictures. VIVA FIDEL! VIVA The REVOLUTION!

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