Three boats, two photos, one idea

There have been many times when I haven’t got the photo. I can come up with a variety of reasons; forgetting my camera, not having film, or wanting to live in the moment and not through a lens. But the most truthful reason is that I’m sometimes complacent. There is a part of me that thinks that I will always be looking at it, and I can always take the photo tomorrow, until it’s too late and the moment is gone.

In the summer of 2005 it was all of the above. I had returned from a trip to India with 15 rolls of film that needed developing and  a new apartment that had to be found. I returned to my job as a hospital temp and got assigned to a windowless cupboard in the depths of St. Thomas’s Hospital, put the rolls of film in a friend’s fridge till I earned the money to process them and moved onto an old container barge called ‘Le France’ by Tower Bridge.

There were three of us who inhabited the floating dream, as well as my cat Fuchsia and a family of ducks who paraded over the skylight driving Fuchsia crazy with frustration. It was an incredible boat; for a bathtub it had a green garden pond that could fit six people comfortably (but took hours to fill), a kitchen table made from railways sleepers which could host 20 people for Sunday lunch, and an engine room with a defunct engine, where I would potter for hours. A ten-meter bookcase hung from the ceiling by ropes so whilst the boat swayed with the ebb and flow of the tide the books stayed stable. We never locked our door - in fact, I don’t think we even had a key.  

However, the boat did have a few problems; No heating, constantly blocked bilges that needed to be sucked clean, an unstable gang plank that always seemed to collapse when I was coming home at four am leaving me stranded till I could gather the strength to pull the boat closer to the floating walkway. I would then leap up, catch hold of the metal ladder, drop the rope and swing back with the boat, hoping I wouldn’t be crushed between the boats or fall into the rapidly swirling tide. I began to hate high tides; full moons, spring equinoxes and anything else that may affect my ability to get to bed and would arrange my day around the tides as much as I could. At low tide the boat would come to rest at a 60 degree angle causing unprepared guests to tumble out of beds, the cat to skid sideways and the electricity to ground-out, causing the fuse box switches to flip. As the one with the earliest start, I would clamber over the boat’s railings, onto the floating bridges, over the garden boats and climb down another ladder into the bilge of a maintenance boat to flip our boat’s electricity switch so I could make an essential cup of coffee in the morning.

In these moments I usually wondered if my dream was worthwhile? If all it had done was lead me to a windowless cupboard, an early morning assault course, calluses from pulling wet rope and a yet unused fine-art degree? I had carried a feeling of despair after graduation that neither India nor the job had managed to shake, but intensified. However, that summer, as I’d stood on the deck of Le France in the early hours of the morning after I had balanced, negotiated and slid my way to a cup of coffee, I would watch the mirror-still water of the Thames reflect the constant gleaming lights from the city’s skyline and I would stretch my eyes from Tower Bridge to Canary Wharf, noting the number of Terns and Cormorants drying their outstretched wings, as they perched on the old wooden pier stumps, and I’d wait for the soft pink light of the city sky to turn grey or blue depending on London’s mood, and then I would conclude yes, for they had led me to these moments.

As the summer came to an end, so did the dream and we had to leave the boat in a hurry, fleeing to dry land and scattering to East London. My view got narrower, the trees closer, and it took a while for me to learn to fall asleep without being gently rocked by the waves. It was seven months since India and I had finally saved the money to develop the rolls of film I had taken.

On one of the first days of arriving in northern India, I’d travelled south to Agra to photograph the Taj Mahal in the early morning mist. As I walked from the train station across the Yamuna River I had saw a moment that was transient and perfect. It took me less than a second to realize what I saw and a 30th of a second for the camera to commit it to film as the fisherman stood up in his boat  - but for the entire six months I lived on Le France and gazed down the Thames I never fully realized what I was looking at or that these solitary memories would become the most valuable I would have for the years to come.

Early morning on the Yamuna River.

Five years later I’m standing in the mist again, this time in Scotland, gazing at a boat suspended in swathes of grey, listening to the muted cries of the seagulls and the dull thud of wood on wood, as the swell of the loch pushes the boats against the dock. My coffee cup is now replaced with a camera. I have stood in this spot a thousand times, but this time I don’t know if I will be back. My mother’s voice has begun to fade from my memory and the image I have of her is the last one my brother took, a couple of days before she died. I’ve spent the last months trying to forget her face and to remember her as the woman who’d stand next to me on the shore of Loch Fyne, and who would have told me what the small brown bird is I can see flitting over the rocky beach and who the boat I’m transfixed by belongs too.

My brother pulls up behind me, and I take the photo and climb into his car. He asks me if I can actually see anything in the fog, and I tell him yes, a lot.

Early morning on Loch Fyne.

I learned from these times to capture the image when I can, to hold on to it and make dear to me the beauty of my world. Which is why this blog exists – these photos can be deemed irrelevant on a grand scheme, they aren’t changing the world, but they illustrate the world I have inhabited and the choices I have made and the way I’ve seen and see.