To Paris...In a cold sweat.

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Liberté. Anxiété. Créativité.

How an impromptu photo essay got me through the mayhem of anxiety on a trip to meet with gallery partners in Paris…

Anxiety, real Anxiety, the perpetual sense of fear of anything is absolutely debilitating. If you’ve been there you know. If you haven’t, be thankful. If you get there one day, reach out, breathe and take the medication !

And so it was, 1 week into a chest clutching, sleep depriving, paranoid Anxiety spiral that I found myself due to meet with a gallery partner in Paris. I’ve travelled to Paris many times for work. My background of shooting for the couture houses rendered the city like a home from home so I knew that a trip there was well within my abilities and would be a useful exercise in facing down the illogical fears i’d been facing since the start of July.

When the day came, the reality of rising, dressing, washing, driving, taking an international train, crossing the city, talking sense to calm people, then returning home in one piece seemed like the most ludicrous thing i’d ever undertaken in my life. 12 hours prior to departure i’d been staring warily at a block of cheese on my kitchen work surface, marvelling at the courage required to prepare a macaroni cheese. Here I was trying to breathe through the question of “Where the f*** is my passport???”

But I went. Well, I got to Paris. Crawling through the suburbs on the Eurostar, the sense of achievement made it feel like a really good idea to just get off at Gar Du Nord, drink a gallon of decaf coffee and chain smoke a packet of cigarettes before re-embarking straight back to London and home!

But then something happened. My eyes opened. As in my photographic eyes opened. The view from the train window was no longer the predictable transition from countryside to suburb, to urban clamour. The view from my train window became my fellow traveller; a young boy, bored but accepting of this train journey imposed on him by his parents.

The arrival…

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His eyes and demeanour were hypnotising. When he broke into a yawn (image at top) I could see a physical rendition of how my head and heart felt. But as I watched him, I realised that we were both on a journey. I couldn’t know his purpose in Paris (or beyond) but I could see that there was a stoicism, an acceptance. The time ahead for him may be interminably boring, it may be an adventure…

And so I decided, I too would walk through the hours ahead like that child. There were things I had to do…and I would do them. And to add interest, I had my camera. This Paris trip would be a photo essay! I had a plan with a camera. And my Anxiety? Disappeared.

The waiting…

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On disembarking my train, I made my way through the motorcycle taxi drivers and the hustling homeless who hang round GDN and settled at one of those oversized pavement cafes on the corner of Rue de Saint-Quentin. My caffeine/Nicotine addiction seems unencumbered by my recent Anxiety. Small blessings. It was one of those summer city days that burn shadows onto the pavements like ink blots on grey parchment. Perfect for high contrast B&W. Still feeling visually awakened I saw the young Muslim woman above. She seemed to be…waiting. Albeit in the middle of a busy road, our circumstances were similar. Here was I with a few hours to kill, ‘waiting’ for my meeting. And here she was, mirroring me in a different world with different circumstances.

SNAP!

And here was my essay. I quickly finished my coffee and strode on. Eyes in 360 degrees mode. Not trying to see, just knowing I would see! Knowing the parallels between my visit, and the world I saw around me would manifest themselves, and I would see them…

Some sightseeing…

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My destination was the elegant Marais district. An area of Paris that irks me with it’s nouveaux riche faux elegance. To get there I chose a route via Boulevard de Strasbourg. A sensational vivacious, alive area of Paris that is home to wig shops with names like AFRO-KING. A street where young Franco-African men hang out in packs and mums and daughters take the air outside their beauty salons. The place is so alive that for an anxiety drenched photographer who’s photo radar was in high alert, I thought my head would explode :) But I pressed on. As three white tourists passed a black woman and child, I saw the echo in their body shapes and here was the “Sightseeing” picture for my essay.

Some window shopping…

A few doors along a an elderly Muslim woman selling cheap shampoos on a street corner gave me the “Window Shopping” page of my essay. This street vendor culture no doubt a throw back to earning a living in her home country.

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The coffee stop

Having got clear of Boulevard de Strasbourg (I really want to go back there and shoot a project) I sought sanctuary in another cafe. That caffeine/nicotine thing again. Even here my eyes just wouldn’t stop seeing everything! Leaving the loo and returning to my outside table my perception saw a mirror of myself. A solitary man, seemingly weighed down, standing over his espresso…SNAP!

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My Anxiety had completely disappeared. Yes I was a little concerned that I may actually arrive late at the gallery but believe me, a passing concern for punctuality is a breeze compared to the chest clutching fear of what might happen if…say you tried something really tough like…putting your shoes on. Here was a lesson! I don’t know if it’s simply distraction from fear that makes fear disperse, or if a creative endeavour can actually proactively dispel mental anguish and emotional turmoil. But by focusing on this little parallel fictional story involving setting my day to pictures, I was the least anxious guy in Paris!

Oh, and to finish, it’s back to a shot I took earlier on the Boulevard De Strasbourg. Three young men convened in front of me outside an African hairdressers. They embraced, welcomed one another and started just hanging out. Here it was, “The Meeting” to finish my essay. Fear? The guy in the centre was not happy about being photographed, was I scared as he approached me? Not at all! A GLASGOW shrug and a smile, and we had an understanding. I nodded and walked on :)

The meeting…

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To close…

I have been amazed and intrigued by the rise in instances of ‘mental health’ issues in the last 5 years. I personally have a history of depression dating back to my 30s, something I felt I’d beaten around two years ago through a change in attitudes and practices. I felt I’d survived my share of emotional turmoil and confusion and that the years ahead were going to be lighter and calmer and more balanced thanks to a mixture of Buddhist and Taoist methodology and a general ability to distance myself from my mind.

Gosh I was wrong :) This last month has seen Anxiety descend on me like the first days of a Delhi Monsoon.

To any of you who are feeling like anxiety may be descending upon you, I implore you, don’t take your fears seriously. Your body has built a habit of flooding you with Adrenalin to get you through stressful situations. This ‘habit’ becomes locked in and the body starts to do it when it really isn’t appropriate. When that happens, our brains search for something to justify the threat and will quite happily pin it on anything at all. That’s why a trip to the supermarket simply becomes mission impossible. For the past weeks I’ve felt like i was losing the ability to function. I’m a successful, healthy, blessed individual with family around me yet only days ago nothing would convince me I wasn’t gonna end up alone, penniless in a trailer park. Only when I accepted medical help did I turn the corner, only when I reached out again to say that medication wasn’t quite working and accepted an alternative did I REALLY turn the corner. I’m working with a wonderful counsellor and have reached out to all my friends and family. Everyone of them have accepted where I’m at, cared and helped. You are not alone, thousands of us are experiencing Anxiety and depression and thousands of us are waiting to help. Reach out! Keep going! You are not alone and you will get better. The darkness is always deepest, just before the dawn.

John

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