Just before the first spring flowers pop out of the snow and before Lent, the 40-day fasting period before Easter, something colorful and outrageous happens in villages and towns across Belgium. It’s carnival time and people come together to celebrate in excess, just as later on they used to congregate to celebrate in fasting and penance.

While the fasting and penance part is on the wane, the explosion of joy and excess of the carnival is alive and well. The carnival of Binche, a town of about 35000 inhabitants in the South-West of Belgium, is the best-known and the oldest in the country. The first written record of the event dates back to 1394.

People from all over Belgium and beyond come to witness one of the oldest surviving street carnivals in Europe. Hardly anything about the dress, rituals and customs have changed since the 14th century, prompting UNESCO to list the Carnival of Binche as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Celebrations start on Sunday and culminate on Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras), just before Lent. The main characters of the event are les Gilles, with their tall hats with ostrich feathers, wooden footwear, wax masks and colorful costumes. The outfit features a linen suit with red, yellow, and black heraldic designs (the colours of the Belgian flag), trimmed with large white cuffs and collars. The suit is usually stuffed with straw, giving the Gille a hunched back.

Other characters, such as the Paysans and Paysannes, Harlequins and Pierrots, join in as the procession unfolds through the town.

They all throw oranges that the crowds try to catch in flight. Oranges fly in all directions and you really need to keep your eyes open and duck every now and then. The procession leaves behind hundreds of squashed oranges.

Here’s me, proud of having caught one while holding my camera in the other hand.

The celebration continues long into the night, after the Gilles have come out of their heavy costumes, after the big fire in the main square has raised its flames over the tipsy heads of the villagers and has consumed every last bit of winter wood.


Through the Looking Glass

It’s been a few weeks now that I’ve been working on my photo project focusing on autism. So far I’ve visited eight participants, some of them two or three times. I’d like to share some observations on how it is to actually do this as compared to what I imagined or expected.

M. is drawing an elaborate map of the city’s public transportation. He uses different colors for the different bus and metro lines.

I need to start with this: it’s amazing and humbling to see the willingness of people with autism and/or their families to make time for me and open their personal space and vulnerability to me. It takes courage to open up. It takes trust. I feel privileged to receive this trust. At the same time, this creates an expectation and a pressure on myself to be up to the task. “Don’t screw this up, man!” It’s my voice, nobody else’s.

Contrary to what I was expecting, most participants are not overly concerned about data use and data privacy once they’ve agreed to be part of the project. It’s my responsibility to make sure that they formally agree to have their pictures taken (signed consent forms) and that their personal information is not misused. This is all the more important when children are involved.

In the autism community there is a great need to be seen, to be witnessed, to share one’s story, to connect. Many families are socially isolated as their lives revolve around needs of the person with autism. Adequate support, from sport activities for kids to respite time for parents, are scarce. Caring for a child with high support needs is a lonely road. Health insurance covers therapy only partially. Some therapeutic activities are excluded from insurance altogether. There is a widespread feeling of not being seen, listened to, important enough to have proper support.

In my project, I want to capture what’s happening without scripting and moving participants around. In some cases, this comes naturally. During my visits, the families propose some activities to their kids. We move from one room to another. We go outside for a short walk. The interaction that develops spontaneously offers plenty of opportunity for photography. In other cases, my subject does not want to interact, play, hug their parents. They want to eat, sit on the sofa with their tablet, move incessantly through the room. This is also them. It’s part of their life. I take it as such and I photograph whatever is there. It does not have to be spectacular. It doesn’t have to conform to my expectations.

Most of the work comes after the visits. There are audio recordings to be transcripted, narratives to be written, photos to be edited. There’s the pressure of doing justice to each of my subjects by publishing things that depict their life honestly while showing respect and avoiding anything potentially demeaning. There’s also the self-questioning and self-doubt, the “am I really up to this” moments.

While all this is very much about autism, the relevance of the project is not limited to autism. What happens with my participants says something about the social acceptance of some behaviors and ways of being. It says something about the support systems we build and about the accessibility of support services, whenever they exist. It says something about the way we understand normality and they way we include or exclude people from our circle of concern based on this understanding.

I’ve titled this project Through the Looking Glass. I borrowed the title of Lewis Carroll’s book because it provides a good metaphor for the whole effort behind the project: exploring a world that is at once recognizable and unfamiliar, as if looking out from inside a mirror. As Alice travels thru time and ‘through the looking glass’, she learns how to make sense of the strange and unfamiliar, and her understanding of what used to be obvious and familiar also changes.

You can visit the project site here.

Cultivating Attention

Photography cultivates a certain awareness and attention to detail. You walk on the street, all senses awake. There’s this detail here and that situation over there. You can see things developing into something that could be a good photo. You anticipate. You position yourself in the right place and wait for the right moment.

Sometimes (in fact, many times) that place was far from being the right one. And the right moment passed before you could react. Or never arrived. But the experience is still yours to enjoy. It wasn’t pointless.

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Photo Project: Autism Stories

There’s something miraculous about things that we dream of, that exist entirely in our heads, and that at some point become tangible because we act on them.

In fact, we do this countless times everyday. I wake up and I think about brushing my teeth. Then I actually do it (although it may take a while if I happen to have a hangover). It’s a small gesture but it’s out of my head and out there in the world. It’s so common. And yet it’s miraculous.

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Tender is the night

I suddenly woke up as if an alarm was going off somewhere. A high-pitched noise drilling holes into the fabric of reality. But there is nothing. The silence is complete, definitive, almost painful.

I dreamt of you. Again. You were looking at me with that look of calm detachment. Not even disappointment. Not even resentment. Just coldness, as if you were looking through me, beyond me, to whatever else was there once I was out of the picture.

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Single Photo Stories: Autumn Sun

There’s something discreetly glorious in this lazy October sunset.

Backlit fallen leaves and mushrooms. The almost imperceptible breeze. The buzz of insects slowly rising through the forest like a mist.

I am sitting in a small forest clearing with the sun on my face. There’s nothing I can add to the scene, nothing that can be improved. I am only witnessing the moment.

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There are borders that are meant to keep people in. They prevent people from traveling to see how life looks on the other side. When you see something different, you compare and evaluate. Terms of comparison are threatening for regimes that are built on delusions of grandeur and uniqueness: “Why would you even want to go out? This is the best place to be anyway!”

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Single Photo Stories: The Oak Forest

It’s starting to get dark. All of a sudden, an evening breeze breaks the almost perfect silence of the forest. It moves millions of leaves and brings them to life. There’s a cosmic sigh carried by millions of voices. A long out-breath. A muffled voice trying hard to pronounce something.

I cannot understand what it says but somehow I know it’s something that concerns me. And you. And anybody.

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Single Photo Stories – new weekly series

I am starting a weekly series focused on stories built around single photos. I will keep all stories under 100 words. Being concise is a skill, probably one of the most difficult to acquire. Stories can be directly linked to the photo (how it was taken, what was happening) or they can simply use the photo as a writing prompt.

For today, I chose this grainy photo on a windmill in a small nature reserve close to where I live.

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