A year in photos: the first half

I’ve stayed close to home this year, nesting in my London flat and only venturing off the island in February when I flew to NYC for my 40th. I needed to lay down strong roots in this city, to feel safe and held before I could begin to do the work I’ve been called to do this year. 2012 was all about work — in fact, since 2009 it’s been all about work — and balance was needed, so 2013 became all about healing/rebuilding. But as I look back through my photos on Instagram — my biggest photo outlet this year — I see that I haven’t only existed in my head, even if it felt like that. I’ve done stuff, and seen people, and lived another twelve months at the pace that felt right. I’ve got a few more months of this, I feel, and then it’s game ON for 2014. There’s only so much internal work you can do before you need to get out there and put it into practice…

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Portrait of the author as a 40 year-old woman

Susannah ConwayMy grandmother was in her 40s when she gave birth to my mother in 1943. She already had two grown-up children, so to be pregnant again at her age was quite a shameful thing. When I compare my experience of being a 40 year-old woman to that of my grandmother, or even my mum, I know that I got the better deal. Despite living in a culture that places such ridiculous importance on youth and beauty, turning 40 no longer signifies the end of your juicy years; in many ways it feels like just the beginning. Yet every time someone tells me I don’t look forty — which is always appreciated! I’m as vain and insecure as the next person — I still wonder what is forty supposed to look like?

Susannah ConwayAfter years of making do with Polaroid and iPhone selfies, I thought it was about time I got some proper author photos taken. In Unravelling — actually, in all of my classes — I talk about the value of self portraiture. I don’t know many women who enjoy having their photograph taken, so taking your own portrait is a way to take back some control. You can play with angles and light; figure out which side is your best; finally get acquainted with the woman whose eye you studiously avoid in the mirror. But it has to be said that photographs usually lie. Being photogenic has nothing to do with how attractive you are and everything to do with how the bones of your face translate into a flat image. If, like me, you have a particularly expressive face you’ve likely had a shock when you see snaps of yourself. Really? That’s what I look like? But it isn’t. It’s your face caught in the split second of the shutter opening and closing. Thankfully we don’t live our lives on camera.

So when I asked Xanthe to take some portraits of me I had to let go of my need to control the outcome. Obviously we talked about best sides and angles and what I think works and doesn’t because I’m a perfectionist and that’s what i do — if this rattled her she was professional enough not to let it show :) We spent an hour walking around my neighbourhood, finding walls for me to stand in front of, awkward at first but gradually loosening up. Despite having absolute faith in Xanthe’s abilities as a photographer I was convinced we’d have to redo the shoot. I thought it might be easier to do it inside. I thought perhaps I should have worn something less…clingy. Fret fret fret. But as it turned out, my sweet friend had done what she does best. Looking through the 40 images she sent me I was quick to skip past the ones I didn’t like… and then there it was — a photograph of me that looked like I feel. She’d caught me through her lens when I’d let my guard down. She saw me.

Susannah ConwayIt’s nice to be seen through the eyes of another — taking portraits was one of my favourite things to do when Polaroid film was in plentiful supply. And as uncomfortable as it can be to have our picture taken, think of them as gifts for your future self to find. I’m grateful for all the self portraits I took at art school, glad to have those reminders of who I was trying to be:

1993I look at this photo from 1993 and wonder what the hell I was so worried about. I had such great skin! Great hair! I want to pat that girl on the head and say there there, you really don’t know you’ve been born, eh? And I know my 60 year-old self will want to say the same to me when she looks back at these new portraits. And boy, does that put everything into perspective on the difficult days.

Today, right now, is the youngest we will ever be. Let’s make the most of it.

The August Break is back!

The August Break 2013
It’s that time again, you guys! Back in August 2010 I decided to give myself a break from writing blog posts and instead shared a photo or two each day as a way to be present in my days without the pressure of finding words. I blogged about it (of course), invited everyone to join me and lo, The August Break was born. This is the fourth year I’ve hosted it and it’s been SO MUCH FUN to see it take off as a month-long community project.

Would you like to join me this August? Here’s how it works:

Each day, for the whole of August, you take a photo and share it on your blog. You can add words if you want — or not. You can use any camera. You could share a series of photos, or miss a day out, or just post on weekends. There are no real rules, basically. This is all about being present and enjoying taking photos just for the hell of it. And perhaps reinvigorating your love for blogging, or taking a break from writing. If you don’t have a blog you can add photos to the August Break Flickr pool. We’ll also have an Instagram hashtag — #augustbreak2013 — so we can gather as a group there, too.

This year I thought I’d mix it up a bit and create a list of daily photo prompts, inspired by the Photo-a-Day project that Chantelle has been running the last two years. So if you don’t know what to photograph you can refer to the list and shoot that:

The fabulous Katrina Tan of Pugly Pixel has created yet another gorgeous August Break badge for us, so if you’d like to add it to your blog’s sidebar you can. She’s also created some wee footer badges you can use on your posts — the badge goodness is linked to over on the main August Break page.

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And, as always, I’ve created a blog roll so feel free to add your blog so we can all visit each other. That’s over HERE, too.

I’m really looking forward to giving my over-thinky brain a rest this August and letting my images speak for me. I’ve got a few big posts up my sleeve too, but I’m not going to put any pressure on myself to get them published. Let’s just enjoy August and give our creative mojo a reboot!

Want to join me? xx

New York, New York, be still my heart

There are three places on earth where I feel most myself: London. The south coast of England (specifically Mudeford and Kimmeridge bay). And New York City. This last one was and wasn’t a surprise to me. I’m English to the very roots of my being, yet when I walk through the streets of NYC it’s like I’m following echoes of a past lfe — or a future life yet to be. I’ve visited three times now and on each visit I sink deeper into the energy of the place. I never seem to need a map (though that’s not remarkable — the place is pretty easy to get around) and, hilariously, people always stop me to ask for directions. My head and heart feel wide open over there. I’m expanded. Even now my heart aches just thinking about the place.

Comparing London and NYC is like comparing apples and oranges. The’re both fruit and they both taste delicious, but they are unique unto themselves. London is big and majestic, with pockets of cool scattered all over the city. New York Manhattan is more intense, an explosion of life that pulses to it’s own distinct beat. I find both cities intoxicating, though, of course, London is now home, and with that daily familiarity comes a bit of ambivalence. It doesn’t help that I rarely get a chance to go into town, trips out limited to the supermarket and the gym.

Visiting NYC for 5 days was exactly the shot in the arm I needed after the last few months of getting back on my feet. I stayed in the East Village in a studio apartment I found through AirBnB. Have you tried the site yet? It was my first time and I found it really easy to make the booking, the flat was lovely, plus it was considerably cheaper than a hotel. I ate lunch out every day, ordered take away in the evening and cobbled together a picnic breakfast in the morning (the apartment didn’t have a kitchen, but it did have an excellent coffee maker!) I loved having a little home in the city for a few days — made my dream of living in NYC one day feel so much closer.

While there I got to spend some time with some treasured gal pals, fell madly in love with the Lower East Side and finally explored downtown, including the 9/11 memorial site. For some reason I had it in my head that the site would still be rubble, but they’re not only building four new buildings, they’ve also finished the memorial park. Just being in the area made me emotional, imagining how it must have been as the towers fell and the streets filled with dust and rubble. I was working for a national newspaper when the planes hit, and remember watching it all happen live on TV while the whole office exploded into action. It was utterly surreal. It’s always saddened me that I never made it to NYC before 2001, so it felt important to pay my respects.

I stood for half an hour beside the pool with tears streaming down my face, empathy levels off the charts. As I pulled myself together to leave I found it odd seeing other visitors taking photos of themselves beside the pool, grinning inanely into the camera. I know everyone deals with these sorts of places in their own way, but I honestly wanted to take them to one side and point out that this wasn’t a tourist attraction. It’s a memorial. And these weren’t just foreign tourists, either. But who knows what was going on for those people. I slowly made my way out and spotted the gift shop. For a millisecond I wondered if this wasn’t tasteless too, but I actually appreciated flicking through the books and reading the timeline written on the walls. And when I saw a set of model FDNY trucks I knew I had to buy them for Noah. It made me smile to have the thought of him with me in a place that had been witness to so much sadness. Suddenly the postcards and mugs made sense — we have to remember.

Last year I travelled a lot for work, so it was so nice to be able to just enjoy the city without any other pressing engagements. Walking around New York on my own with just my iPhone* and journal was my idea of heaven. I often talk about how taking photographs is like meditation for me and never was it more so than on those dirty fabulous streets. I wasn’t thinking about where else I needed to be; I wasn’t wondering if there was something better around the corner. I was absolutely 100% present, looking around me and drinking it all in. I take just as many photographs here at home, but there’s nothing like walking down unfamiliar streets to reinvigorate your creative mojo. My head was exploding the whole time. I loved it.

* On a sidenote, I’d decided not to take my SX-70 or DSLR with me, wanting instead to roam the streets without feeling like a mule carrying a ton of camera gear. THIS WAS SO THE RIGHT DECISION. I adore my cameras, don’t get me wrong, but oh how I loved carrying a small bag with just a lipstick, a journal, my iphone and my wallet. I took hundreds of photos, because that’s what I do, but I didn’t need millions of pixels, and I’d shot plenty of Polaroids in the city last year. This trip was purely for FUN, embracing lightness and simplicity and ease, three qualities I now want more of at home. It was the best birthday present I could have given myself.

And speaking of home, one of the nicest things about being away was realising that this place — this flat, this city — really does feel like home now. I needed to be far away, in a place I love just as much, to appreciate what it is I’m building here. A new life. A future. And maybe one day I’ll realise my dream of living in both cities, living the LON-NY life.


As a few people have asked, here are some of the shopping/food highlights from the trip:

Le Labo – gorgeous perfumes
Erica Tanov – accessories to die for
Blue Stockings – brill book store
Narnia – vintage goodness
Assembly – fashion chic
Maryam Nassir Zadeh – ditto
Beautiful Dreamers – great accessories
Malin + Goetz – perfume oils!
CO Bigelow – perfume!

Aurora – Brooklyn brunch
Stand – great burgers
Bare Burgers — even better burgers
Digg Inn — healthy fast food
Pastis – obviously
And there was this great pulled pork sandwich I had for lunch in the Chelsea Market but, alas, i can’t remember the name of the place. It was so good!