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Learning in Lisbon—from the far side of the world

Hard lessons can slap anyone in the face, even the most wild-eyed roughneck who’s been around every block.
I botched up removing the film from the camera, and exposed the entire roll to sunlight.
I botched up removing the film from the camera, and exposed the entire roll to sunlight.

It doesnt matter how experienced you are, how many places you’ve been, or how many situations you’ve handled in the past. Hard lessons can slap anyone in the face, even the most wild-eyed roughneck who’s been around every block.  

Without trying to be too dramatic, I’ll say that I lost everything in Lisbon. Ok, I still have a sweaty bag of clothes and a rotten old pair of flip flops, but all the expensive stuff dissappeared in an instant. A funny thing happened, I accepted it almost immediately, and somehow, against all odds, I was able to have an amazing time in Lisbon! My regret is not that I lost my expensive items, but rather that I could not use my expensive camera to photograph this exceptional city. 

Lisbon is a photographers dream. So many interesting subjects, such rich history. I was desperate, so I did the only thing I could do, take 50 euros out of the money my life-saver of a mother wired to me, and buy a vintage, 1978 Canon film camera, and proceed to get on with taking sexy black and white images, on a roll of Kodak, 36 at a time. 

I instantly loved the shift. Digital photography makes you lazy, you can take one photo a thousand times. When you have only one shot, you agonize over the composition, wait painstakingly for the perfect light, the perfect expression on your subjects face, and try to balance your settings for depth of field. Then, when you finally have it right, when everything comes together, hold your breath and ‘SNAP’ the shutter closes hard, case-closed, no instant replay. I am not a hunter, but I imagine the feeling is similar. Waiting, waiting, waiting, for what seems like ages. 

There is something so tactile about shooting on film, the heavyness of the camera, the hard snap of the shutter, the grains of dust caught in the optical viewfinder. I fell in love with it instantly and threw myself into the streets to capture the vibrant life of Lisboa!

Tall tale signs of its arrival are all around. I swear that I can feel the shudder of its footsteps as it rounds the corner, a bit like dinner plates rocking in the dishwasher. A young trainee is at the helm, nervously navigating under the watchful eye of her mentor. It pauses briefly to spit out its passengers, then continues hustling to its next stop, somewhere down the line. I snap the photo and reload fast for another composition. I can’t wait to see the grainy black and white images. 

My album is developing, the next day I visit Sintra, which is quite possibly the most photographic place on earth. Tall palaces of bright yellow, red, and blue colors poke out of the ever green forests above the sea. Ancient Moorish castles remind you that this place was once not Europe, but rather Arabia, and Gentlemens hideaways, built by the stone masons, fascinate your sense of conspiracy. 

I spent a full day, wandering, running, walking, and waiting patiently, sometimes for almost an hour, just to get one shot, when everything seemed right. 

I was proud upon returning home, even excited that, against all odds, I had done what I came to do in Lisbon, to produce a memorable album of photos which I may be able to turn into a magazine article. 

The straw that broke the camel’s back came the next day, when I ruined the entire roll of film. Foolishly, like a total film rookie, I botched up removing the film from the camera, and exposed the entire roll to sunlight. 

I was crushed. 

The stress of losing my passport, credit card, all my camera kit, nearly everything, all came crashing down on me. The terrible dissapointment that I would leave home without, at least, that roll of film, something so simple, so worthless, almost brought me to tears. 

I raged inside my hostel dorm room (which was thankfully empty). I spoke the good lord’s name in vain, and any other diety I could latch my fury onto. I shook the steel bed frames like a moronic gorilla, as if somehow that would recover this film strip from the waste bin. 

Of course, more than anything, I just felt foolish. Foolish for being target, a stupid tourist, foolish for being a rookie, for wasting all my hard earned efforts, but mostly foolish because all of it was entirely my fault!

Triumph is not a Sunday pick plate, that easy meal you take on gentle nature walks with your lover. It is the hard, dirty pounding of nails, or the digging of ditches. It is the boxer who pulls his sweaty cheeks from the cold canvas, or the ultra-marathoner who persits stubbornly through her last miles. 

Its a set back, and like all people with a vision, a passion, a dream of what life could be, setbacks cannot be seen as ends of the road. Rather, setbacks are to be expected, life will never go perfectly, it should be hard, it should take everything from you. The ingenuity and creativity that is born out of such situations, can provide that much needed hungry edge which drives performance. 

I’ve never known anything more compelling, and perhaps that is because I am not a father yet. Either way, I know that we humans all need a purpose, some thing that curls a sly knowing smile at the edges of our mouths, and makes us think...” yeah, life is pretty wierd.”


Jase Wilson is a former Dawson Creek resident who grew up in the city filing from around the world.

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