In a jet lag stupor, I sit on the edge of my bed staring at my camera equipment. Neatly arranged in their little Lowepro nests, the lenses and cameras stand ready for the job ahead.
And at this moment, I don’t want anything to do with them.
I have lived life behind a camera since I was eight years old, my way of participating yet remaining an observer, rarely fully integrating into the occasion. I can break down cultural barriers, communicate without language, and both equalize and shift power to my subjects with the best of them. Sure, I can set aside my camera and join in the fun, or crisis, or event at hand, but my mind is always, and I mean always, on how to frame the subject. I stand independent, often.
Today, my heart is restless. A few things happened here in Ethiopia within the first forty-eight hours that have been immobilizing. It is not worth detailing exactly what happened because it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that I feel raw and exposed, and I have turned the lens upon myself. I see who I am, as a reflection in my Ethiopian friends’ eyes. I have never so fully appreciated how bonding into another culture can transform a person. It is one thing to go to a country to taste their food and enjoy the scenery; it is quite another to invest oneself so fully that a mirror erects itself and is present with your every move and gesture. While I rejoice in this new frame of mind, it is painful to stand on the fulcrum of now and then, and not be self-imposing if not downright critical of my past ways of relating.
Here in Ethiopia, I see how humans can relate to each other on an innate and intuitive level and I celebrate this relief from my guarded self, only to become saddened by the realization that I most likely will go back to old ways of relating upon returning home to our easy society. When I land on familiar soil after visiting Ethiopia, I increasingly isolate in my house for a period of time. I can’t bear to see how we relate (or more accurately, don’t relate) to each other. We can’t help it. We have been raised on a steady diet of adequate and swift fulfillment and we avoid obstacles at all costs. Here, obstacles are a way of life, and from an early age, people learn how to traverse them with gusto and lean upon their hearts for solace. In turn, love flows expressively from one person to another.
My friend Daniy told me that when he is really happy about something, he does not eat because he feels full in other ways. I think about how often we turn to food or entertainment for pleasure in the US. How often do we turn to each other to make us feel equally, or more, full? Who makes us feel so happy we can forgo the need for food?
Increasingly, we are relating to each other more via social media and other means of technology, with less face-to-face time. I am struck by how often people touch each other here, holding hands, stroking each other’s hair, kissing cheeks, removing a stray hair that crosses a loved one’s lips. I get in a bit of trouble when I come back home, because I start to touch people again, and it often startles others.
An Ethiopian friend who moved to Portland seven years ago told me how he now has to refrain from his culture’s practice of kissing a child or elder upon entering a room and greeting them, whether they know them or not, because he could be seen as a molester or manipulator. How amazing to be raised in a culture such as his.
I think of my relations back in the US, and I want to take this Ethiopian culture filter and overlay it upon my home life. As I sit here now, I realize that the cameras have been a way for me to build instant intimacy over the years. I long for more of the overt gestures of humanity in my life. I have walked through a door on this journey, and there is no turning back.
I leave my cameras behind, exit the hotel, jump into Daniy’s van with all of his friends and we make our way toward a place to go dancing. Night passes into morning hours, and I realize how much I have to learn by this culture. We form a circle and dance with arms around each other’s waists, one leg lifted up, feet intersecting in the middle to see who will outlast the rest, the instigation of shared physical exhaustion, set to a rhythm. It helps to stay in the game by focusing not on my weakened knees, but upon the faces of my friends. As we all feel pain and shortened breath, exhilaration takes over and we become high on this thing called life.
My self-reflection dissolves, and I no longer feel like a separate entity. I am less as one, and more as community.