When I first took on this intentional journey of self discovery through writing and travel, I had no idea that I would meet and make friends with others who are on a similar journey of self discovery. I feel that it’s a gift to share in other people’s stories and gain insight from their experience […]
Finding Order in the Chaos
Despite having grown up in the countryside I have never really had much of an affinity for it; as a child I learned the names of trees and grass, I learned to swim in the river a couple of miles along the track, I fished it too or at least I sat and stared at the ripples and bobbing float until my thermos of tea went cold.
Ultimately, I was bored and wanted away the first chance I got, village life rarely offers a teenager much and cannot compete with sordid appeal of the city.
So, it’s odd how now I am finding myself searching for the sanctuary of nature, as a photographer I had never really shot landscapes as such and yet here I am up to my arse in brambles.
It all started a couple of years ago, I arrived in Istanbul somewhat damaged by the war in Syria, bouts of PTSD interfered with my sleep, bankrupt financially and mentally, I had plenty to keep myself occupied with. trying to repair the mess I had caused myself from making the decision to stay in Syria when the war started but there where times when the city was too much for me, people were too much for me, as a photographer who has always tried to focus on people this became a concern, its easy to hide in a city of near on twenty million but its hard to be alone.
A bus from a stop close to Taksim would trundle along the shore of the Bosphorus and eventually wind its way up through wooded hills to Bahçeköy on the edge of the Belgrad Forest, fat street dogs lounge on the pavement of the sleepy village, with my headphones still plugged into my head I strode through the village and into the forest, like the city boy I had become even my Nikon was still at home.
A few minutes into the woods I stopped; looked up and unplugged my music and suddenly I could hear the peacefulness, bird song and the rustle of leaves fused, the creak of swaying branches and something or other scuttling in the undergrowth.
My next visit would follow very quickly and this time a bag with a camera and supplies enough to explore the wilderness on the edge of the megacity. I hardly shot an image, mostly I sat on tree stumps and pondered the Fungi, this though really did seem the point, it was not an assignment or project it was escape, I let the forest wash over me and from time to time I spotted order in the chaos and made a picture.
Rising with the lark has always been a challenge I’d failed miserably at, going to bed with the lark a farm more appealing proposition, somehow I managed to wake and set off in the darkness motivated entirely by caffeine, the dawn ferry would leave the European shore of the Bosphorus and sleepily sail to the Princess Islands, an hour into the sea of Mamara, the early boats usually empty and only those working on the Islands or making deliveries would be sipping tea and smoking on the chilly deck.
Alone with just the horses that roam Kinaliada I switched from sitting on tree stumps for the granite like rocks that tumble into the sea, my face damp from a mixture of rain and spray, somedays the wind would be biting cold and my fingers hardly able move the shutter dial, the colder my skin the more alive I felt, the longer I stand with my tripod the more I feel part of the landscape, I shot precious little on these visits, a couple of printable images exceptional, the time it takes far more valuable.
Now living in Sofia, the city is dominated by Vitosha mountain, it sits with patriarchal confidence at the end of every street, snow capped or shrouded in dark mist its alluring and intimidating in equal measure.
At 6am on the 6th June I woke without alarm other than the fact it was my birthday and without hesitation I shouldered my pack and took the bus as far as it would go. The early morning sunshine was warm and I struggled the first steep paths, without map or app I just climbed and occasionally deviating into a shaded glade, bathing in natures forest bath, slowly the weather cooled and changed, rain began hitting the leaves and dripping through the canopy, cool and fresh I felt energized and continued up, somewhere on this mountain was a waterfall and it would make the perfect destination but I had no idea where it was.
My legs were beginning to remind me it was my birthday, I had reached something of a summit, a neighboring peak slightly higher, the pine trees were missing branches and many were laying like battle field corpses, the clouds were now on my shoulders, the sky rumbled and flashed and the heavens opened, the Pines offered little shelter, the rain became bullet like hail stones, the sound of the thunder reminiscent of the reasons that drove me to the forest in the first place, But now I was awake not sleeping, the forest so dark now only the lightening illuminating the silhouetted shapes of trees, I gave myself entirely to the storm, soaking not only the rain but the sound and fear.
Storms inevitably pass.
The Six Set.
To mark this moment I have made a selection of images available as limited editions;
Six Inch image printed on beautiful Hahnemühle fine art paper signed and limited to editions of Six
Only 66 Euros per print
The images have a lovely tone and texture which seems a little lost on screen.
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Maher bent forward and poured a stream of Tamer Hindi juice into a cup for me from the antique Ottoman flask on his back. It’s very sweet and very welcome, its natural Red Bull and will give me energy Maher tells me, sounding not unlike a Red Bull commercial. Dressed in traditional garb and wearing wraparound sunglasses, he aptly represents the curious contradiction of the Middle East, ‘Don’t forget to tag me on Facebook’, he shouts as I wander off.
A tour bus pulls up and a group of septuagenarian’s shuffle towards the amphitheater, not stopping as they take snap shots of the Roman colonnade with their tablets. They don’t stop to try Mahers juice either, too much of risk perhaps; a jippy tummy or worse, getting left behind to fend for themselves. Amman is only a side show, it’s Petra they have come to Jordan for, the jewel in the Kingdoms crown.
It’s a shame that Amman doesn’t get quite the attention it deserves, agreed appearances can be deceptive and it takes time to warm to this modern Middle Eastern capital. Originally built on seven hills it now sprawls over as many as nineteen, and has swelled with refugees from Iraq and Syria. Most of its population is in fact Palestinian, reflecting the turmoil of the region. Reassuringly, Jordan has remained largely trouble free and safe for travelers.
It won’t really take long to explore the official tourist sights of Amman, the second century six thousand seat Roman amphitheater impressively squatting into the side of a downtown hill, the Citadel ruins on the hill opposite with its columns and Ummayad Palace, a museum and mosque or two. The coach parties hardly stop for breath before they speed down the Kings Highway to Wadi Rum and Petra.
But surrender to the urban madness of Downtown, and be consumed by the chaos of the Souk and you will get an altogether different experience of Amman. Take time to explore the alleyway coffeeshops, binge on street food and chat with the street side vendors. The selling point of Jordan is not its crumbling columns but its congenial and ever engaging people whose character and personality will leave a lasting impression long after the postcards have faded.
Downtown Amman lies in a wadi, a mish-mash of formal and informal commerce, the hipsters rarely venture down from their lofty cafes on the surrounding hills – a latte is a latte so why strain your calf muscles clambering up to join them. The area is a street photographers paradise to explore, discover and find moments of unexpected serendipity.
I bump into Maher again, we talk of Palestine and Syria, he asks me where I learned Arabic, I ask where he learned English. I am an engineer he tells me, I just do this for some extra cash. He pours another stream of date juice into a plastic cup for me, daylight is now fading and the plaza in front of the amphitheater is filling with families – footballs are flying around, tea is being poured from large copper kettles, it’s time for my evening prayers now Maher informs me, we shake hands and as he turns away he says one last time; ‘Don’t forget to tag my photo on Facebook, John’.
Read the full essay and more street photography images from Downtown Amman in the wonderful Roam Magazine on-line here: Roam Magazine and do follow them on Instagram at @roam.magazine
Travel writers and bloggers who want to collaborate on projects please do get in touch and lets talk about possibilities
A Cold Night in Samokov
I arrived in Sofia just as the year was ending, my life in luggage I could carry, another blank page ahead of me, I knew only one person, Iva, a host on Couchsurfing who had kindly offered to host me, I rarely surf couches but the offer was timely and genuine.
Over wine and Banitsa we chatted into the early hours about art, life and travel, you really must meet Rossitza Iva had implored, and, disregarding the late hour our meeting had been arranged for the party the following night ushering in the new year.
Well after the apocalyptical impromptu firework display had finished terrifying me and the neighborhood dogs Rossitza made her fashionably late entrance.
From Andalusia to the Orient is a project with EU funding that Dr. Rossitza Ohridska-Olson had been busy creating in Bulgaria, discussing and celebrating the interaction of the shared cultures of Europe and the East, quickly we found common ground and before dawn had broken on the new year we had discussed the possibility of me taking part in the evolving exhibition.
It may come as something of a surprise to some but things can move pretty quickly in Bulgaria, soon after our initial meeting we traveled to the small town of Samokov an hour or so drive from Sofia, the town better known for winter sports has a rich history of art and culture, there we met with Vesselin Hadjiangelov the director of the beautiful museum of history, from Andalusia to the Orient had already arrived in Samokov and was on display in the prettiest of Ottoman mosques, it was soon agreed I would also take part.
A flurry of activity followed, images were selected and edited, printers were harangued and Rossitza worked through several nights on the design, layout of the hanging panels and accompanying text, it all seemed slightly unrealistic to achieve and yet, on a cold night in Samakov the results were hanging and guests sipping wine.
The images were hung as a labyrinth, a confusing journey of contrasts and misconceptions, the hanging panels were cut with hexagonal windows allowing just a glimpse into another world.
The first six weeks of life in Bulgaria have been very inspiring, the warmth and hospitality unrivaled, I feel very blessed to have met such lovely people.
Am now just about to leave on an exciting road trip so please stay tuned for more images and silly stories, sign up for email updates in the box to the right and below, social media junkies I am all over the web so lets connect and if anybody wants to help with next months rent then buying a print will help tremendously.
A grey and grumpy Vitosha mountain stared down at me as I made my way along the wide scruffy boulevards of downtown Sofia, cobbled streets and tram lines glistening with a smattering of winter rain, the commies had gone but their heritage remains, a snub-nosed ageing tram proof of Sofia’s charming Soviet past, eager to explore a new city and a new country I set off with expectant stride, what had the Russians done for us I thought as I set out to discover.
I found myself strolling through a pretty park and through the naked trees I spotted the golden balls of the Russian church, its steeple thrusting into the moist evening sky, officially named after the patron saint of the last ruling Russian Czar, who by all accounts was a complete asshole, not though Saint Nicolas the Miracle Maker who, needless to say was a thoroughly nice chap-as Saints have a habit of being.
I didn’t have a guide book but if I did am sure it would say it was a pretty little church well worth a visit, as I pondered the pious the quiet evening air was punctuated by a high pitched scream, I glanced in the direction of the pained outburst; and there, just in front of the back entrance of the church, so to speak, were two Dachshunds coitally engaged, their owners, one on her knees and the other stooping to the level of the dogs were seemingly orchestrating a less than romantic union, another couple sat sucking enthusiastically on cigarettes on a park bench, voyeurs to a public display of canine copulation, I, on the other hand tried not to stare but out of the corner my eye watched stooping owner maneuver the horny hound much like a quarterback with a football, another screech and shuffling of paws, the voyeurs puffed in silent boredom. This I thought, was a curious affair.
Another screech, unable to resist one last glance I stumbled over the curb of the pathway and headed towards the Alexandra Nevsky cathedral in search of some neo-Byzantine sanity.
What was happening in the corner of a Bulgarian park is something of a mystery to me, perhaps the proximity of the church was relevant, a blessing from the Miracle Maker perhaps? Could it have just been everyday animal husbandry occurring in a pretty little park in Sofia.
The art and joy of street photography allows me to slowly absorb the environment I am exploring, to pause and observe, to question, often voyeuristic and always fascinating.
Breaking Blog News:
2003-2013 Living in Syria
2013-2018 Living Turkey
2018- I have now relocated to Sofia in Bulgaria for a new chapter and Balkan adventure.
Here are a few of the first street images I have made while exploring my new home-with lots more to follow along with my usual off-beat observations.
Do sign up for Email updates in the box to the bottom right of the page and connect on all the usual channels @JohnWreford
It was one of those biting cold Damascus winter mornings, it had been snowing and the streets were sluiced in slush, I had been living in Mohajarin on the slopes of Jebal Qasioun, I splashed in and out of the dirty puddles as I trudged down the towards the Citadel and the Old city, I think it’s fair to say Damascus doesn’t cope well with the winters, however short and neither do I.
I clambered and cursed my way over the flooded footbridge and elbowed my way through Souk al Haramia, slipping and sliding past the fish market into Malik Feisal street, I made this walk often enough and on a better day would enjoy the drama of a bustling downtown going about its myriad business, my camera bag was weighing on my shoulders by now and I was late for my assignment, was it a Monday morning-or at least it feels like one.
I made my way along Malik Feisal Street past the sorbia sellers and tin smiths, the street clogged with traffic and the pavement cluttered, a man came towards me, middle aged and wearing a heavy trench coat, the collar turned up as feeble protection against the cold, he asked me the time in Arabic and after a swift glance at my watch I replied also in Arabic, ah English he said, in English, my Arabic clearly not fooling anyone, this really wasn’t the moment to stand in the street and make new friends, I answered his questions as I continued to walk, without invitation or the slightest encouragement he changed his direction and walked along side me, he peppered me with the usual questions, my answers mono symbolic, I stepped up the pace a little and he shuffled after me, I lost track of his rambling but got the distinct impression he had some agenda, he kept mentioning a woman in his house, it all really made no sense and when I arrived at the turning into the Old City I stopped suddenly, shook his hand and bid him farewell.
He didn’t take the hint and continued to tug at my sleeve and patience, as we walked through the souk the streets became less crowded, he was mumbling now but there was a recurring mention of fruit and sexual metaphor, namely a banana, his English now also beginning to falter, he seemed slightly nervous, I tried once again to explain I really was busy and tried to left him standing outside a shop selling spanners, I turned the corner but he had dashed after me, the alley narrow and empty, he stepped in front of me, muttered again something about bananas and grabbed me between the legs, I punched him, a right hook to his cheek, he fell backwards and for a second or two sat on his arse holding his face, I moved towards him with half a mind to continue the pasting he clearly deserved, he stood up and started to cry, he began begging me and apologizing, stroking my chin as he did so, I didn’t hit him again.
The perils of the solo female traveler in the Middle East are often reported, little is mentioned of the perils faced by the solo male traveler, as my previous post My Gay Adventures in the Middle East mentions, I have a volume of incidents, of course my ability to deal with the situation is somewhat different, no doubt harassers would think twice if they had been walloped, or would they?
Some months later, a clear spring morning I was outside the Damascus National Museum taking some photographs, crouching down and aiming my camera towards god knows what, somebody was trying to engage me in conversation from behind me, at first I ignored the words and just wanted to get my shot before attracting too much attention, Syria can be touchy about photographers sometimes, job done I stood up and turned around, a middle aged man was backing away from me nervously, I didn’t recognize him at first but when the toe-rag turned tail and ran off down the street the penny dropped.
For those unfamiliar with Arabic and Damascus here is a glossary;
Jebal Qasioun is the mountain that sits proudly behind the Syrian capital.
Souk al Haramia is the Thieves Market, great place to pick up a cheap cell phone or as my friend Basal did, a Hassleblad.
Sorbia is a diesel powered stove used for heating and keeping the tea hot.
I think we all know what a toe-rag is.
For more of my Damascus Diaries including the events leading up to me being placed under investigation by the Syrian security services, buying a house from a murderer, A short stint as a fake art expert and a nasty incident involving the presidents wife please follow the blog by adding your email in the box on the right hand panel of this page.
John is currently in Istanbul and available for collaboration
Syria, a country torn apart by a relentless war, five years of disturbing headlines, dreadful imagery, chemical weapons and a refugee crisis not seen since the Second World War: this is what we know of Syria.
Brutal media headlines reducing innocent people seeking peace and security to mere statistics and derogatory adjectives.
Individual stories and histories are removed as the media simplifies, homogenizes and represents people through stereotypes: often the sole source of information for the wider general public. After years of conflict, what does the public know about Syria and its now tormented people?
Turkey is currently hosting around three million Syrian refugees. Whilst the most vulnerable are living in camps, the majority are determined to continue their lives, not only to survive but flourish and follow dreams, overcoming adversity and the constant hurdles that the stigma of simply being Syrian brings
The reality of strong personalities, creative and inspirational people who in many cases prefer not to be labeled refugees, some are heroes and deserve the praise and attention but most are ordinary people forced to do extraordinary things to survive, wanting only to be judged on their own merits not as refugees or even Syrians.
War is dramatic and the media needs exciting images but for the most part the people caught in the middle are not exciting or dramatic they are normal people with normal backgrounds.
As a photographer who lived for so long in Syria it has been very hard for me to engage with the media narrative, not wanting to take sides despite my own feelings and not wanting to be part of the misrepresentation of the crisis, painfully aware of how little any contribution I make will effect change, yet as my many Syrian friends struggle and fight to survive I feel an obligation, as futile as it maybe.
The project Syrians Unknown had been in my mind for the last four years and I pitched the idea to several media outlets but without success before finally being accepted as an exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the images will also importantly go into the museum archive alongside those of Sir Wilfred Thesiger, arguably one of the greatest travelers of the twentieth century and a personal source of my early inspiration.
I chose to shoot the images at night in black and white, in the shadows and simply strip away distracting context, I want the viewer to look these people in the eye and connect on a human level, I have also included snippets of the long conversations we had over often several meetings and countless cups of tea and coffee.
The exhibition will run until the 30th September Details below:
The exhibition is dedicated to all those Syrians who have shown me kindness, love and friendship, to those who we have lost and to those who will rebuild and flourish.