There’s a sort of responsibility involved with being an artist, to know the history of your form. Painters, poets, dancers – they all study the past in order to build the future. For many art forms, there is the possibility of very direct contact with the ancients – a ballerina can dance the choreography from the first production of Swan Lake. An actor can speak Shakespeare’s words. An architect can run a hand and an eye along the pyramids and touch the scars that birthed them.

Photography, however, is a deeply technical craft, which can make the attempt to make historical contact quite isolating. It is, for example, still possible to take a daguerreotype in 2013, but it requires sourcing or building an unwieldy camera, mixing chemicals that are at best, fiddly and at worst, flat-out dangerous – in short, it requires money and time on a scale not readily accessible to the enthusiast. Almost every early incarnation of the modern camera is pricey, rare and difficult to find film for. The result is that the modern photographer is often left to passively observe the products of the past in the form of endlessly repeated images, usually on a computer screen. For many photographers, the connection to the past is a largely intellectual one.

The very basis of photography, its fundament, is the camera obscura. It may be observed as a natural phenomenon in caves and other dark areas into which fingers of daylight penetrate. Aristotle wrote about the effect. In the 1400s, Da Vinci sketched out plans for constructed camera obscuras, which today can be readily recreated with a sparse set of instructions: pierce a tiny hole in a dark space, shine a strong light through it, and you will create a strange inverted projection of the outside world. The concept sounds like magical realism – in today’s digitally saturated world, the simplicity of it seems almost suspicious. I’d heard about the idea over and over, seen the childlike wonder of it described in a Malthouse Helium show called ‘Pale Blue Dot’, but I’d never done it. Online tutorials usually begin with ‘black out a window with heavy plastic’, and I always decided that I didn’t have the time. (Right now, I don’t even have the window.) But I’d always wanted to see the effect, see what it was that made men begin dreaming of lenses and plates and bellows and all the others things that started a revolution in image making.

So when in August, on a sweaty Manila morning, Sarah Kaur announced that she was converting a truck into a mobile camera obscura and asked for volunteers, I was at the front of the queue. Eight or so of us packed into the truck along with Sarah and Tianyi Zhang (violin in tow), and sat crouched along the walls as Sarah taped off the entrance. There was something deeply foreboding about it – as far as history goes, whenever people are packed into a windowless truck, the outcome is rarely positive. I sat quietly and wondered whether my sporadically occurring claustrophobia would make an appearance and I’d embarrass everyone by having a panic attack. The final piece of tape went over the door. All we could see was the odd stripe of stray light, the darkness amplifying our own silence and the rattle-roar of traffic outside. Then the truck lurched into movement and Tianyi began to play.


Minutes passed. I wondered whether I wasn’t concentrating hard enough, whether my eyes weren’t adjusting fast enough. I stared so hard at the opposite wall of the truck that stars swam in my eyes. Every now and then, a shadow would flicker on the metal, but then sputter out. I could feel Sarah getting tense, as she muttered about not being able to block out enough of the light from the doors. Sweat meandered down my back. Tianyi fiddled the soundtrack to ‘Amelie.’ My attention drifted from anticipation through tolerance into a dazed sort of contentment. And then the truck rounded a corner and, so suddenly it seemed almost matter of fact, I could see the street outside. Not perfectly, but impressionistically, as though drawn with ink on dirty paper. Trees, street signs, trucks skittered across the walls and onto the ceiling, spilling shadows and life into our little dark refuge.

The moment was full of childlike, unexpected magic. I had my mouth open, grinning, making half-formed noises every time something new came into sight. Sarah breathed a sigh of relief, and we sat, bathed in borrowed violin music as a strange old picture theatre of Manila raced overhead. And I sat there, feeling the same thread of wonder that tugged the first person who sat in a cave at the right time, the same awe that built cameras and film and started the conveyer belt of ideas that brought me a fancy digital camera in 2008. In that hot, stuffy truck half a world away, I touched the past.

S x

A little ironically, the only image that exists from the experience is this one of me, shot by Jessica Bellamy on her iPhone as Sarah finished taping up the door.

Header image by Abelardo Morrel.


  1. Pingback: Responses to the Manila Road Movie | Sarah Kaur - Artist

Leave a Reply