By RJ Bardsley
This weekend in Paris I met a photographer. Well, I should probably say that I met a former photographer.
It was Saturday night, and I had just finished a week of work with clients in London and Paris. Because of having to re-arrange my flights a couple of times, it was actually cheaper to stay in Europe and fly back on Monday. Such a chore – I know. I had spent my morning shopping and then had lunch with my friend Rana, who had moved to Paris two years ago. It was a late lunch of cheeseburgers and beers in Montmartre, where we sat lazily catching up and enjoying the warmth of early summer in Paris. After lunch she walked me through the streets of the famous neighborhood and we laughed as we strolled, talking about people we both know and stopping here and there for Nutella crepes or a quick glass of wine.
At the end of the day we split a cab back to the Etoile, where I was staying and where she lives. We said goodbye and decided that we might meet up later if we were both up for it. I worked for a couple of hours and then decided I would wander out for a bite to eat. After walking around the Maurais for a while, I settled on an interesting-looking little Tabac. I sat down outside and ordered a jambon et fromage sandwich along with a beer… or biere, if you want a little local flavor. And I sat there munching my sandwich and drinking my biere, watching the crowds pour down the street. I think the Maurais is in the second arrondisement (maybe the first), it’s a neighborhood close to the center of the city with several museums and a lot of really interesting shops and bars. As compelling as all that sounds, one can only people watch for so long, and so I pulled out my phone and began reading a book I’d started earlier that week.
I didn’t notice much when two men sat down next to me and ordered beers. One pulled out a portfolio of something and tried to show it to the other, but the other just waved it away, saying in French that he couldn’t. After a little while the first got up and left. All of this happened in the corner of my eye, and I really didn’t make much of it until the other guy, still sitting next to me, commented that it must be a good book I was reading.
I smiled. Yes, I replied, it was part of the Tales of the City series by Armistad Maupin, and it’s one of my favorites. We got to chatting – a little in French, but more in English. My French is pretty bad and I am shy about how awful I must sound, futzing around in that magnificent language. I had been instructed by my friend Rana earlier that day that in Paris it’s customary to talk about travel and vacations with a stranger, not work. So, I chatted with this stranger for a little about travel and different places. But the conversation quickly moved to work, because, as an American, I really don’t know how to talk to strangers about much other than work and geography.
He said he worked in a hotel. I nodded and told him I worked in public relations and marketing. I eventually found out that he had at one point been a photographer. He had spent about a decade in London making his living taking pictures mostly for book covers. I picked up that he had also had several gallery showings and had been quite accomplished at his craft.
When I asked what he was working on now, he shook his head and turned away.
“Nothing,” he said. “I can’t do it anymore. I don’t know what happened, but I’m just so bored I can’t even think about it.”
“Bored with photography?” I asked.
“Yes – all of it,” he smiled. “It seems silly to you? I know. That man who was just here,” he motioned to the chair next to him where his friend had been sitting a little while earlier. “He is a friend of mine with a gallery here, in Paris. He wants me to show something but I won’t. So he asked me to look at some pictures that another photographer took. I told him no, but still he shows up with them tonight.” He shook his head silently.
“Pourquoi?” I asked. “Que est-ce qu a changé?” What changed?
“Je ne sais pas.” I don’t know. He shrugged. “I want to do something different. I want to work with something that I can touch, that I can get my hands on. I want to maybe paint. I’m interested in light – I want to think about light in different ways – the way it looks on the horizon, in the morning, at the top of the Eiffel Tower.”
I smiled. Not because what he was saying was funny or warm, but because something clicked inside of me. This photographer – he forgot how to love his art, or maybe he is done with it. Perhaps it was a part of his life that he worked through and found whatever he was supposed to find. How fortunate and unfortunate at the same time. How fortunate for him that he accomplished as much as he did – he made a living doing what he loved for well over a decade, and the covers of several prominent books feature his work. How unfortunate that he no longer finds fulfillment in this work. But maybe he’ll find it in drawing or painting.