Many of you know that I struggled returning to photography after documenting the evening leading to my father’s death. Quite literally, I was sucked dry of anything artistic and left in a puddle of shame - questioning if my instinctual grab for the camera was exploitative or even dangerous to my own mental health.
The main takeaway from the events made me ask myself if I can ever be trusted to not over-do. I suppose this is a reality each documentarian has to come to terms with.
The aftershock of my dad’s still-framed frailness is something that will continue to haunt me - however, I have to thank him for bringing me to my limit, together.
Six months of tears, self-reflection, and a whole lot of forgiveness later, my camera and I have begun to make amends.
“Better late than never” is what I told myself as I stepped out into the sauna of humidity that surrounded the Bab Al Bahrain market.
Bab Al Bahrain translates literally to “Gateway of Bahrain.” Designed in 1949, the refurbished central business district house is located in the heart of Government Avenue (which hosts many banks and major business establishments in the area). While the front entrance of the facility is open and airy, the further one loses themselves down the streets, the more narrow and stuffy the alleyways become. You can find a variety of items: food, cell phone repairs, jewelry stands, and gifts from all over Southeast and Southwest Asia. The Bahrain souk has the quintessential charm that many think of when imagining a Middle Eastern market.
Upon my arrival, I scoped out the first areas that I wanted to engage and found this kind man.
We did not understand each other’s languages, but we mutually understood that a friendly smile meant an acceptance of our spaces. I pointed to my camera and then to his face, which he nodded - flashing an even bigger smile my way.
He remained on the corner stoop as he watched me walk away.
As I have discovered a new level of anxiety since moving out of my home country, I found myself slightly overwhelmed and decided to backtrack some - sitting on the ground, to the left of this wall.
Through the right side of the opening is the main entrance into the narrow roads of the souk (like Pike’s Place Market, except more cramped).
Sitting on the ground was the perfect place for me to collect my thoughts and calm my mind.
10 minutes later, this friendly taxi driver came to show me where a great shot of the cityscape was. He asked me many questions about myself and was very surprised to hear that I was not a tourist, but a resident.
Next, I watched the shops open as they laid their items out. As this is the first store that visitors stumble upon, I can only imagine how coveted this real estate is.
Watching their ballet of preparation, I thought about each week that I have sat, staring at a wall in grief, while these men have continued the same movements - day after day. I suppose life does go on whether or not I am conscious of life outside my walls - a great reminder for me.
Continuing through the souk, I stopped at various locations to simply watch.
Eventually, I was led inside of a bright building where the upstairs was a continuation of shops that sold trinkets and rugs. Below held a few shared space cafes.
At the bottom of the escalator sat a shop owner who was selling a variety of thobes. She had the kindest smile that made me instantly feel like I was back on my home island in Washington State. She seemed somewhat surprised that I would ask to take her photo.
With such beauty and kind eyes, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to remember her.
After the central area of the souk, I was led to the winding and narrow alleyways.
Workers of all sorts lined the area, and many were very curious as to what I was doing. Most of the time, I just smiled and again, pointed to my camera and their face. They would nod ‘yes,’ but still curious as ever.
Through the alley I went, and each new corner offered a different level of uncomfortable temperatures as garments lined the area, stifling much of the airflow.
Men continuously wiped their faces of sweat with their handkerchiefs and bobbed up for a “Madame, come look”.
Bombarded with a million offers to purchase items, I skated through with many of “not right now, but thank you!” A people pleaser, through and through, I was happy to see that they were not angry when I declined their offers.
Shop owners with air conditioned buildings mostly stayed inside, but worked their way to the door to invite me inside to take a look - working their way back in when I declined.
Along the way, I became lost and decided to wander. I found myself oddly staring at this particular back alley. While others stood and stared at me, taking photos of an empty water bottle hanging from three stories high be a piece of string, I realized something about myself.
Many of the photos that I have taken in this country, so far, have been of the garbage or dirt that is on the ground.
At first, I thought this was a reflection the an unconscious feeling of what I viewed this area - that wasn’t the case. What I realized was that my appeal to the mess was a reflection of my own “dirt.” I’ve recognized that my draw to the items thrown around this country is an acknowledgement of my own messiness that tells its own complex story.
It wasn’t until the mop and a painting of red sauces that I realized, we are all sitting in our own filth - some of us, layers upon layers of hurt. The fortunate ones are able to stand up, scrub off the mess, and move on - shinier than before. Others, we stay leaning against a wall, having the tools to clean, but simply unwilling to get up and try.
These months have taught me that I am indeed a walking tool, capable of cleaning my mess. So often, I think that I am not - and that is why I believe the mop, as simple as it is, spoke to me.
I have trusted the lie that I do not have the abilities or that I am incapable of fulfilling what is needed to completely move on from a painful experience that plagued my family this year. But really, I’m just sitting against my own messy wall, unwilling to clean the dirt myself.
So, It wasn’t a conversation with another human that brought my day to a meaningful close.
It was a filthy wall and mop that I owe my self-discoveries.