Thursday, February 15, 2007

Tools for urban contemplation

I have a modest sense of achievement tonight, having web published the beginnings of my photo journal of the redevelopment work in the city centre. Five pages, each with six captioned pictures to start with, charting the first stage of the Oxford House demolition. I'm going to need a fair chunk of webspace to cover the work ahead, and I'll have to go shopping for this. There are plenty of offers around, annoyingly in different currencies so it'll take me a while to agonise, as I'll be spending my own money on this. But, I can't spend too much time, given that I've almost filled my existing quota of webspace provided by my regular broadband ISP.

Taking pictures of demolishers and constructors at work may seem a bit nerdy. However, one of the tasks of a missionary pastor in the heart of the city, is to learn how to value and cherish the lives people actually live, how their creative urges are expressed and celebrated, how they manifest their own inner longings - not through their handsome well deserved pay packets, but through their daily quota of job satisfaction. It's great to hear some of the guys in the hard hats enthusing about what their doing and the equipment they are using, even when they have had little or nothing to do with half a decade of debate about what changes to the city centre there should be and how these should work to the benefit of all citizens.

Another aspect of the photographic record is that it reminds people of the journey the city is taking. As someone grappling by vocation with the question T S Eliot put into Christ's mouth: 'What is the meaning of this city?' The angles and perspectives I discover myself selecting, the photo captions that emerge as I prepare a fresh page unconsciously reveal something of this engagement. Also, I write in order that I may understand what is going on. I write also in an effort to put myself in others' shoes, from time to time. It's doing what you love and loving what you do, as a witness to really important things about life, the universe, God, destiny, everything that challenges the banal and the trivial aspects of our existence.

The hard part is having the discipline to pick up the camera as habitually as I (nowadays) pick up my hat - I've only become a regular hat wearer since I returned to the UK. The camera obliges me to stop and look at what's going on, and try to take it in, to contemplate, rather than hurry on. I contemplate out of doors in town or country far more than I ever do in the holy places where I am obliged to spend a fair proportion of my working life. The inner peace and quiet acquired in the latter somehow nourishes the former.

I wish I had to nerve to photograph people with the degree of attentiveness I give to surveying the general scene. But then I am reluctant to arouse people's ire by pointing a lense at them when their faces are already communicating their desire to be somewhere other than here, or they are somewhere else because they're plugged into to a mobile phone and walking without looking, adopting that strange angled gait that used to shout 'cricked neck!'.

Unless they are wrapped up in awkward public intimacy, most people don't much look at each other in the street, being busy negotiating their passage. We're not a culture that goes in much for bold stares, as happens in parts of Europe and elsewhere. It's all done with the sly glance - except for children, of course. Gazing is mostly reserved for must-have products in the shops - such a narrowing of our vision.

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