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Been gone a long time ……….

By 1st March 20094 Comments

smile for the camera
I messed up, I miss my mum,…. I started writing about China and then I stopped. This is me trying to make it up, trying to get back on track, and so as you can see the opening paragraph starts way back in December 08. Deep breath….. here I go, I’ve been gone a long time ……………….

Today its December 27th, two days since I had my first Christmas without my mother. I haven’t written for weeks, and so much has happened i’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to know where to begin. Its late afternoon as I write this sitting under the covers of her old bed, the room is dark except for the trails of the burnt orange light bleeding across the cold painted walls. Its been a beautiful day, the sun has hung low and heavy in the near freezing sky, while I have kicked leaves and stared at the river…. wondering if she was with me, or sat beside my father back at the house. She sent me snow yesterday, …. It came and went on the same day, and was as heavy and white as any Christmas card. I thought about her as I pressed my hands against the glass in the back door and watched our dog run through the falling flakes, I hoped she knew I missed her, even though I could still barely say her name in front of anyone.
Its hard to know where to start when so much has happened, six weeks doesn’t sound long but in that time I have returned from the funeral in France, gone back to work, flown to Hong Kong and China on business, and then travelled with my camera through the Chinese mountains, to now be back here in my fathers house again – full circle.
But this entry is about China, and the experiences I had during my trip. There is so much to catch up on, and I need to get my memories straight before they fade, and I’m bored of editing the enormous file of photos I have waiting in my laptop.
So I returned to work and simply couldn’t deal with the faces, those hesitant stares….what do you say to someone whose mother has died? I was so far behind that I asked to go to our factories in China to catch up, and then add a few extra days to lose myself in something else…. some other place, somewhere where I could maybe take a moment and try and take this on… this thing called grief.
I flew on the Friday and arrived the next evening, slept and woke on the Sunday. I automatically packed a small bag with my camera for a days shooting and set off. I guess it was naive, to expect I could just carry on as before, I walked to my favourite places for finding characters, the markets, the down town districts, and finally the park where the old ladies danced in their sun hats for their weekly exercise…. and there I stopped, and I sat, and I cried. I didn’t take a single picture, I watched them dance in the midday sun, smiling at each other’s awkward steps, and laughing when they all lost the beat, and I felt her, and I missed her so much. It was the first time I had felt so utterly alone, and realised how completely exhausted I was. I walked from bench to bench and tried to pull myself together but it was no use. I went back to my hotel and slept outside on the roof under a hazy blue sky…. I couldn’t let it in – the memory of her, it was still too much and so terrible and raw, I thought I could…. I thought I could……………..
After my first day in Hong Kong I left for China and the bosom of my dear friend Claudine – she is 68 and is everything I want to be when I get old… a strong, well traveled, intelligent, beautiful woman who started as a work colleague and has now become family to me. I stayed nearby and worked in her factory until the end of the week. We then set out on the 8 hour drive to the mountains of Meizhou, where we were going to visit some of the last remaining Tulous – huge earthen roundhouses built by the Hakka Chinese as self contained villages… the last of a dying clan, I could hardly catch my breath I was so excited.

** So this is as far as I got with writing my account…. I suppose I felt like I had lost my voice. I had originally been so triumphant on return from my trip and after making it through Christmas that I felt I could write again, but I was wrong. I started editing my pictures and uploading them on Flickr, writing down fragments of my feelings, but when the task of compiling it all faced me… I just couldn’t. .
I was beginning to realise that she was really gone, and that I wouldn’t ever be able to show her where I had been. There was no one to tell… no funeral to survive, no Christmas to hold together… there was nothing… and that was the problem. All I could see was a horizon of endless months and years where she wouldn’t be waiting to hear my stories…, and I caved in and gave up. As the weeks passed, the task of writing my blog became a weight not a joy and overwhelming if I’m honest, so I stopped.
Now it is March the 1st, and I felt I had to try and catch up again, so forgive this broken account, instead I’m just going to post some of the shots and the descriptions I wrote under them on my flickr site. Maybe they are enough, but I know in my heart they aren’t the half of what I experienced, and how I felt. All I can say was that it was an awakening for me… for a year I had been convinced that the answers to all my problems lay in the distance reaches of other countries, and that to find myself I had to go there on my own. I now know I was wrong, and that actually where ever you go, these things follow you. I am haunted by the memories of people who didn’t care about me, or cared too much like my mother – they were with me with every step, and lay down beside me every night. When I eventually returned home I felt differently about so many things, I realised that we can only heal ourselves by reaching inside and learning which parts to face, and which ones to close the door on. I took some of those steps in the weeks that followed, ….I cut out the negative, the things that wouldn’t leave me alone. I concentrated on the positives, and desperately tried to remember my mother when she was well…. And it worked a little, and I felt that was a start. So here are the shots, I still have so many to edit but it was stopping me from writing this post and I’m pretty sure I have worked on my favourites already anyway…….



Today is my first photography birthday. Its been one year since I first picked up a camera and plucked up the courage to make any of my photos public……

One year since I began to find myself after feeling lost for so long ….

A year where thanks to a camera I have learnt so much and made so many new friends….. some of whom I have since met in real life and cherish dearly.

A year where I decided to start writing down the things I experienced, so I would never forget how I felt……..

The year I lost my mother……..

I am sitting in Hong Kong airport miles away from everyone one I know and love, after spending the last 3 days traveling through the Chinese mountains with my camera…. something I never dreamed I would have done this time last year. I have spent the little time I had meeting some of the last remaining Hakka people living in the ancient Tulou roundhouses in the Fujian region, and I am so moved and humbled by what I have seen.
I chose this photo because it sums up how I feel about photography, and the people I have met because of it. This man had nothing, and yet had the biggest and the best smile I have ever come across. He will always be engrained in my heart as an example of how we make our own happiness, no matter how bad life can be.
I can’t express myself over my mothers death …. I know some people are expecting an explosion of images through my grief…. Maybe that will come, but for now if I’m honest its all still too unreal. To do that, would be to close the book. to admit its over…… to admit she really has gone.
Instead I see this tiny journey as a beginning, and a way of me taking my first steps without her… or rather with her beside me. She always wanted to travel, and never got to see the world. She always taught me to grasp life by the throat and live it, never forget it, and leave it with no regrets. So this is the start of my new set, the photos are not of her or about her….. but they celebrate what she wanted me to do in life, which would be to carry on, and keep exploring the beauty that surrounds us all……

save this memory
‘Save this memory’

I can’t explain how I felt when I took this……. i’m just so very glad I did, because now I will be able to forever hold it in my heart.
It was the first time I realised i had ‘stopped’ in a very long time. The first time I could remember not worrying about my mother….. the first time I felt that if she could have ever been standing beside me, it was then…..
And so I stood, and let it wash over me, the soft afternoon light, the mercury ribbon of the river as it sliced through the distant blues and greens,….. the endless beauty that melted into the gentle darkness of the mountains…….
I almost whispered her name.




This man was actually in a small village we stopped at on the way to a Tulou – he was so gentle, and so proud to be photographed – Like all the people i met, the moment he saw the camera he froze and stood bolt upright with his best ‘formal’ face, (It seems pictures are a very serious matter) . Once i had joked a little with him (I did some bizarre kung fu moves with his grandson)…. he started laughing and smiling. He was a dream, i hope to go back some day and give him the pictures I took of him and the children together. Once again he was another person living in a tiny little broken down shed about 2.5 meters square – the kind of things we would store our garden tools in, yet he was clean and smart and so proud. He was cooking some rice on a little fire outside when I came across him ….. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his smile, I was so humbled by him….. I love his face.

Tolou man
‘Mr Lam’

The man in the pictures above, he barely moved, just sat there, so sad. I only have a 50mm lens for this kind of shot, so I was very close to him when I took this (the picture isn’t cropped)… The light was beautiful, and so was he in a way I can’t really describe. All I know is that he was 93, and he had lived in the Tulou for all his life. His wife (also 93) had fallen over badly and had been in bed for over a month – I got to meet her and it was one of the most incredible moments of my life. I’ll explain further when I upload her photo. So maybe it was worry for her? To be honest I don’t think she will last much longer, i can only hope she does…….
Mrs Lam

‘Mrs Lam’

It is very hard to put the moment I took this photo into words………
This old lady is 93 and was one of the few people left living in one of the last Hakka tulou houses that I visited. She was the wife of the man in the two shots above, who had been sitting outside their doorway with his head in his hands.
She had been in bed for over a month, after falling badly outside on the stone floor. Her daughter had invited us into the cramped, dark room to see her mother, and the experience simply took my breath away. We were led through a pitch black entrance, into an even smaller freezing, damp, windowless space about 2.5 meters square. As I approached I could hear a wailing noise, of crying and excited words, and as my eyes adjusted, I finally saw her. She lay on an old raised black lacquered bed, edged with gold paint and faded flowers. There were a hundred bundled blankets in purple and red underneath her tiny frame as she sat and blinked in the half light reaching out with her long twisted hands. I could barely speak, it was like standing inside a painting from a hundred years ago…. My heart was pounding. I had never imagined I would find myself in such a personal and private family moment like this. She was shaking and obviously extremely weak, and kept touching our hands crying. She really was the last of a dying breed, the last of the original clans people, and this family allowed me to take her photograph.
I had no idea if any of the pictures would come out, the room was so small and dark I couldn’t even take a photo of the inside because my lenses could only pick out the corners of one side. It was tragic, beautiful, heart wrenching, unexplainable, moving and vivid all at once. I can safely say I will never forget meeting this woman for the rest of my life….
Below is a more ‘real’ shot which shows everything as it truly was in colour – it’s a little out of focus because the conditions were so terrible for pictures, but I wanted to add it in anyway.

Finally, I really needed to explain what the hell I was doing out there, and where all these faces came from… but its so late, and i’m so tired,…….. so here are a few quick snaps of the insides of these ancient Tulou roundhouses. The houses where basically like a defense system for villages of people to live in a contained space . A small version of English castles i guess. The Hakka clans people had not been accepted when they moved further south, and so they built these large houses for protection. Sadly after most of these have fallen apart they are only now becoming protected, the majority of the young people have left and so houses that should have contained up to 200 families now only have a handful of old and sick left. i cant express how privileged I was to see these places and meet these incredible people……. I am all too aware that very soon there will be nothing left. I learnt so much, about them and myself……. it was precious………. precious beyond words……………………..

Tulou interior 3jpg

Tulou interior jpg
Oh…. and little hello, ….. the only shot of me I took during the whole trip, i wanted a record of me being there for when i’m an old lady!

Author Kirsty

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Crush says:

    incredible work, as always. It just seems to get better and better. And, though you included the last photo for documentation purposes only, it has just as much substance and beauty as any one of the previous… 😉

  • IG says:

    Found you through Crush's vox. He was right. You are an amazing photographer. Thanks so much for sharing these.

  • A brave post, darlin'. You've been through quite a valley in life… what you are doing is what comes natural at these times, and that is taking it as it comes, processing it all bit by bit and that is a messy, but beautiful process. How you are able to post any of this is such a wonder, but nevertheless inspiring and moving to the rest of us. A celebration of life and that you are living all of it, whichever road you choose to take. Thank you for the tales and the magnificent photographs. All of this is a rich tapestry of lives within lives, lives intersecting… and being affected at some of the most fragile moments in life, both you and the people you met. Best to you.

  • Just drop by and found your photo is very amazing. Nice portrait

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