Tuesday 31 May 2016

Ten Bloggers Sent to a Desert Island

You know, when I received the email in my inbox, before I even opened it, I actually took a screenshot ready to post some 'relatable lols' about how PR emails always look like they're inviting you somewhere, 'til you open it and it's just some let down infographic or another.

That's why tugging my suitcase across the marble floor of Birmingham International two weeks later felt more than *a little* surreal. I never ever would have dreamt it could actually be real. And for perhaps the millionth time in my life, as I flashed a nervous grin and handed over my passport at the Thomas Cook Airlines check-in desk, I wondered what on earth I was actually doing there, and why in god's name out of every single person on the internet, I'd been chosen.

From there began one of truly the most bizarre experiences of my life.

I've thought long and hard about what I want to say in this post - how honest I can be, the points I really want to emphasise, the things I am most thankful for - and I've managed to mull my sentiments into one distilled thought. Overall this trip was perfect, because of it's disastrous and calamitous imperfections. The beauty found in those aquamarine vistas and sprawling desert landscapes were just as perfect as those stolen moments between the carefully-curated photos and bullet points of the itinerary, conversations and epiphanies far more real and remarkable than I ever could have anticipated, or could be deduced from just the #content under the hashtag.

I think I already knew I'd be way out of my depth. I usually am with anything remotely blog-related, but that ain't news to anyone. Except, this time, I made a conscious choice that I wasn't going to try and change that. Instead of spending a bunch of money buying stuff to wear or use just to feel less of a sore thumb, I was just going to embrace it. Lord knows what I'm even trying to achieve with this blog, but no matter what I do, honesty, clarity and transparency always comes first. So I thought for perhaps the first time in my life, I'd apply that to myself too. I'm a mess, can't dress cute for shit, and care way more about capturing the world through analogue over digital. So that's how I'd remain. 

The thing is, as much as this description may seem like I'm this mysterious outsider who plays by nobody's rules but her own, it's never that at all. Perhaps my paranoia speaking here, but it's the faaaaar other end of the spectrum, the two-foot-taller-than-everyone-else-and-twice-as-built shadow lurking at the edge of a group, causing unamused mutters of 'what is she doing?'. But, hey, that's just me. And to pretend to be anything else would only make me more awkward. Although I must say, rocking up with a notebook and a 1970's film camera to a crowd toting seperate vlogging cameras from everyday DSLR's with a variety of interchangeable lenses, kinda shook even the most solid foundations of my confidence in what I'm about.

Boy they've made a mistake with me, I sighed, hearing the others in front of me excitedly babble comparing tips and techniques, as we cruised above the delicate pearlescent blanket shrouding planet earth. Then I craned my head in the way I've always done as a kid, seeing if I can just about get the right angle enough to glimpse the first twinkling darkness of space, and with a smile I thought, Wow, Katie. Who really fucking cares? 

I heard Hannah in the seat in front of me joke to someone 'You know what, you do you', and I savoured it's unintentional poignancy. That phrase became my talisman of the entire trip, and by the time we touched down in Arrecife, I felt finally sure of my purpose; to do the truth, justice.   

I'd be liar to say it wasn't absolutely fascinating to witness first hand reality, and the 'reality' which made it to onto social media. Although I'll hands up admit right here, I'm as big a culprit as any. I was initially cynical, but I soon found myself quite dumbfounded in admiration at how someone with a keen eye for a photo can so effectively sift golddust from ash. 
The landscapes were mind-bendingly surreal - long, seemingly endless stretches of volcano, dusted in pallettes of muted browns and reds, uncanny of some futuristic rendering of Mars.

How bizarre it was then to gaze over stark, barren lava fields void nearly of even the smallest green spring of life or sign of human habitation, to turn and see someone perched on a rock with their macbook open, photoshopping a fake sunset into the snap they'd just taken. Later in the trip I was actually speaking with that same person, who was possibly one of the friendliest and nicest people I met, and they told me with a laugh how last year they'd spent two weeks clinging on to dear life in a dingy Vietnamese hospital, passing the time by editing and uploading a series of carefully updated photos from an old adventure they'd had, which elicited hundreds of comments praising their amazing life. There was no trace of malice or menace in their voice when they told me this, and I realised it was all just a game to them. Conscious deception was just a clever play.

I thought about that a lot.

 Now this isn't to say that everyone was so intentional or deliberate in their doctoring of reality, some, like Megs or Hannah, just had to appear in the frame of a photo to instantly add magic to it. It was truly remarkable the grace and elegance which radiated from them before a camera, a charm which was not something fabricated or switched on, but a natural confidence of which I could only dream of one day possessing. I found myself warming to them greatly, names I'd only ever known online but who were genuine, gracious and so fun to be around in real life too, and soon to become friends.

During our time, we were treated to a jam-packed itinerary of some incredible places around the island of Lanzarote. These included Cueva De Los Verdes, a sprawling underground cave system full of labyrinthine passages and optical illusions that were used as escape tunnels by local villagers to flee from pirates invading from Africa. The Cesar Manrique Foundation, a stunningly picturesque and beautifully designed home sculpted from the lava bubbles from neighbouring Timanfaya, full of tropical hanging vines, 70's decor and bright turquoise pools you just wanted to slip into. I was completely struck by how peaceful and serene the place was, a far cry from the jagged black lava which spilled in through the windows. 

And perhaps my favourite place was Mirador Del Rio, which truly took my breath away. So far, the landscape of Lanzarote had been fascinating and unique, but this was the first time I was truly struck dumb with the instant appreciation of sheer, unequivocal beauty. The weather had been a little temperamental throughout our trip but the sun burst defiantly through the clouds and melted away all traces of blemish from the sky. We stepped through the smooth white-washed walls designed by Manrique himself, and found ourselves before a panoramic view of the most breathtaking cobalt blue, as the midday sun softly faded the sky into the azure ocean, a blend near indistinguishable if not for the looming island of La Graciosa perfectly framed before us, visible in it's entirety from our viewpoint. 

Everyone snapped away on expensive cameras and I marvelled at the images they produced, but I couldn't help but feel what I had on me was so much more special. In my hands I held real treasure, the behind the scenes of it all. I had the truth captured and sealed in celluloid forever. That was my purpose, and I'd fulfilled my duty. 

Or so I thought. 

Because it wasn't until the final day that I realised the spool mechanism in my camera had actually broken. And in fact, for all the hundred or so times I'd clicked the shutter button to capture pure spontaneous magic, only 10 or so of these frames had actually landed. My heart broke. On that last evening I very moodily watched a rainstorm roll in across the mountains and fog settle above the surfing beach of La Famara. But as the sunset illuminated the clouds like cotton candy above the heads of the matchstick men at sea, I finally sighed and realised I had to let it go.  

Because in the future, when we look back on this experience, the photos will be things we'll remember. We’ll return to the hashtag, the vlogs, and the perfectly curated instas which will inevitably alter our memories, but I’ll always remember those lost frames glimpsed down the lens of my 35mm. The laughs behind the seeming seriousness of some photos, and indeed the grimaces behind some of the seeming joy. The night we skipped drunkenly through the humid darkness to McDonalds because we’d just had enough of the hotel food. The time that our coach broke down at the top of a volcano and we all had to get out and walk. One of the girls puking in the bus after a few too many all-inclusive cocktails. When we secretly shared prosecco by the bottle huddled in one bed, sunburn-cheeked and glittering-eyed, whispering well past midnight. The real, honest friendships that blossomed behind the screen of an instagram photo two people just happened to be tagged in.

Perhaps then it was somewhat symbolic that these shots were lost, fated never to reach the red light of the darkroom let alone the vibrant glow of the internet. Because an image captured on film cannot be manipulated or altered, deleted or reviewed. With a click of a button, a moment in time and space is captured, suspended and preserved in it’s purity. Whilst not always producing the most impressive or remarkable pictures, the rare thing which film captures is honesty.

And the more I began to think about it, and why I was so devastated to have lost the pictures, the parallel became more apparent than ever.

For you see, in blogging, I’m about as outdated and irrelevant as analogue photography in a digital world. I don’t have a flashy instagram theme or top notch photography skills, I’m not influential or marketable in the slightest, and I don’t like people telling me what I can and can’t write. But somehow or another there I ended up, film camera in tow, thrust in the centre of it. And for a while it really got to me that I was so clearly inadequate and purposeless with nothing to offer. But the more I saw of this world through the little viewfinder of my camera, the more I began to understand who I was, the one valuable thing I can offer, and why I have such a strong affinity with my film camera.

Because while both unconventional and unnecessary, perhaps we have a similar job to do - to produce fleeting, temporary pieces of magic that serve the purpose not to celebrate or be celebrated, but to capture and hold a moment just long enough to observe it before letting it go again. And while I so wish I had the rest of these lost photos to share with you, it seems almost right that those moments captured were seen just by us in real time, then returned to the universe once more.

Above all else, that’s what I’ll remember most from this trip; the perfection of those imperfect moments which bonded us in a sisterhood of endurance far stronger than the competitive rivalry this industry often makes us believe we are in.

Thank you so much Thomas Cook Airlines for letting me have this experience, it truly opened my eyes in more ways than expected, and gave a gift far more powerful than a goodie bag full of mini's (which I won't pretend I didn't really, really enjoy getting ha. THANK YOU) - you gave we of hyperreality, the opportunity to connect in real life, in the most surreal environment. Thank you. Thank you also to the people of this trip who made it such good fun. (BSofBS amirite?) And finally thank YOU for reading this far, and giving the time of day to my lengthy rambles that take stuff way too seriously, ha. You're the best.