The first sentence of Lafcadio Hearn’s, ‘My First Day in the Orient,’ reads, “Do not fail to write down your first impressions as soon as possible …They are evanescent, you know: they will never come to you again, once they have faded out; and yet of all the strange sensations you may receive in this country you will feel none so charming as these.” Although Hearn was quoting a teacher he had met shortly upon his arrival in Japan, these words have stayed with me and I carry them close whenever I travel.
Having received the unexpected complimentary upgrade to business class on my flight from Frankfurt, I wanted to give myself the opportunity of decompressing over a few cups of coffee at the airport lounge upon my early morning arrival. It was important for me to gather these first impressions free of the six hours of undeserved pampering i’d just received. The airport taxis are large and spacious providing an almost disconcerting amount room in which to stretch out. My driver, from India, was very polite efficient and a genuinely nice guy. My first impressions of Abu Dhabi, forged mostly during the fourty minute drive to my hotel were surprisingly not what I had expected. Gratefully falling short of the endless starchitectural landscape of neighboring Dubai, the drive across Abu Dhabi was eerily familiar to me… I had been here before. Indeed, this was every trip I had ever made to visit my grandparents in Arizona. That hour long drive from the airport in Phoenix to their home in Sun City came rushing back to me in all the most wondrous of ways.
Abu Dhabi is a landscape built for automobiles with more foreigners on the road than locals. It feels far more like Arizona than the Arabian peninsula. Traffic is indeed a bitch at 7AM. A low lying smog(or more likely sand) hangs in the air while drivers are tangled in the politely aggressive tango of getting where they need to be. I need a shower. I can’t help but noticing the occasional van filled with migrant laborers being shuttled off to some construction site where they are undoubtedly working for sub-standard wages which still presents a better option than what they could have earned in their homelands. I try to push aside the inner conflict and focus on the fact that I am in Abu-freaking-Dhabi! I really need a shower.
Groovy, if not mis-matched architecture dots the landscape and construction sites abound. The Grand Mosque appears on the horizon dominating the landscape like an oddly comforting alien craft that has gently landed integrating itself into the hearts and minds of all who see it. Gazing upon it for the first time in this morning light is intoxicating to say the very least.
Everyone is so accommodating, genuinely welcoming… I was expecting excellent ‘customer service’, but what I found was something far less pretentious and much more genuine. It’s hard not to smile.
There are places I sought refuge growing up… I can remember them all. The crisp cool summer mornings racing across fields wet with dew in a frenzied attempt to not be late for breakfast at summer camp; shadowing Josie, our housekeeper, as she went about her daily routine of cooking, cleaning, and teaching us right from wrong; and just about every moment spent in any room of my grandmothers house in Sun City, Arizona. They are vivid, palatable impressions that might well have been forged mere hours or days earlier.
Refuge takes many forms… and for a curious 19 year old trying to gain a foothold in 1986 Japan it came in the form of a magical summer themed double album titled ‘Kamakura’ by the Japanese band, Southern All-Stars. Those songs filled with never ending notions of long walks on the beach, unrequited love, and warm summer nights were so all encompassing to me that I struck out in the middle of a cold winters night with my less self-assured nonetheless willing friend, Sam, to hitch an 8 1/2 hours long ride in a micro-bus to this coastal inlet where we found ourselves staying with artists we had never met in a hundred year old house whose only source of heat was the irori or central hearth pit in the center of the living room.
A couple of cold dark winter days on a desolate windswept beach and none of that mattered because I had lived the summer fun that existed there long before I had ever arrived. In these subsequent years Kamakura has become my refuge from all things Tokyo, from the stresses of life, and from myself… it resides high on the list of those places where fear is vanquished, self doubt and loathing are not allowed, and the realities of my own worth become somewhat less muddled.
The complex nature of just about everything in Tokyo demands a precision of execution and blind fidelity to a social order that’s constantly revoking certain inalienable rights like the ability to not have the rest of humanity pressed firmly against you during an hours long morning commute, what Tony Bourdin called Japan’s ‘ease of compartmentalization’. The carefully choreographed loading and unloading of commuter trains and the rhythmic drumming of footsteps relegate original thought to mere afterthought in the endless march forward.
A seemingly unlikely choice for someone whose struggles with anxiety have been as pronounced and profound as mine, Tokyo provides a relative anonymity I have found nowhere else. Movement en-masse results in a reduced awareness of the world around us which is uniquely suited for the way I photograph. I see the camera as refuge from a world I’m not always so comfortable with.
Photography was an easy choice for me. Looking through that viewfinder I can frame the world with only the realities I have chosen. Just me alone in that dark box sorting perceptions accentuating perspectives… unlike life it is a medium I can control.