As a kid, one of my favorite television shows was called The Beachcombers. I don’t remember much about it, certainly not if it had any plot or who the characters were, but what I do remember is that it left me with an overwhelming desire to one day live by the ocean and spend my mornings walking the beach, hunting for what washed up on the shore. The beach is one of those Iiminal landscapes, a region of gorgeous exchange between land and water and sky. When you stand at the edge of a vast plateau, you don’t imagine all that lies beneath. It’s hard not to do that when you stand at the edge of the ocean, and know that a whole other world exists just out of sight and out of reach.
Montauk is kind of a dream beach town, and though increasingly it’s becoming infected with the wealth and aura of the Hamptons, it retains the feel of an old fishing village, especially during the off-season. I don’t have a car and walk the mile or so into town for groceries and to reach the beach. The section of road I live on was built originally as a Grand Prix track, so it has some wild twists and blind corners. I don’t believe it was ever used for Grand Prix races, which is a pity, as I’d loved to have seen F1 cars roaring along these roads. During the walk into town, there’s a final corner I turn, on Essex St, and there, at the bottom of the hill, I see my first glimpse of the ocean sandwiched between houses. It gets me every time. One of my recurring dreams as a child was walking down a street and seeing the ocean at the end of it. It was a potent dream for a child living in some of the rougher parts of London. But here I am, at least for a month or two.
I took these photos during a single walk, about two miles north along the beach from the main town, and back again. I’m showing them here in the order they were taken. I have a few rules when photographing. One: compose in the camera and never crop an image. Two: no more than three attempts at composing a shot (with almost all of these, I took a single image). Three: minimal manipulation (contrast, sharpness), the kind basic darkroom equipment would allow. The first of these rules I believed in when I used to shoot with film, and the others pay homage to that old skill. It would be useful for those brought up with digital cameras to adopt constraints. They train the eye and focus the mind when looking at the landscape, and can lead to surprising discoveries.
I spent yesterday listening to the news of the Boston Marathon bombings on the radio, because I have no TV where I’m currently staying. If I had TV, I would have been glued to it, watching obsessively. But this time, I kept turning the radio off, and walking upstairs to try and work. The work didn’t happen, and I knew it wasn’t going to. I found it hard to go back to the radio. Each time I heard someone talk about all the limbs lost, I froze inside, feeling ill. I’ve stood next to a car bomb when it exploded and know something of the terror it causes. Everything disappears, your body shifts into auto-pilot, and you start running. A feeling of pure, blind panic fills you from head to foot. I also lived through 9/11 in New York City and vividly recall walking around for a week feeling numb inside, no longer sure what day it was.
The deep sadness I felt at the news of the bombing, and the slowly mounting death toll, was infected by another kind of sadness. I kept thinking about the bombs that still regularly go off in the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, and in the provinces of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of those bombs kill as many as sixty people in a single blast and injure hundreds more, and they happen because of the instability caused by our invasions. I was never a supporter of the war in Iraq, though I did support the war in Afghanistan and believed we had a purpose in that fight. It makes me feel ill today thinking that every week in both those countries there are bombs exploding far more powerful than the two bombs that devastated the Boson Marathon. Car bombs, IEDs, mortars, mines, our own bombs.
The last thing I want to do is diminish the terror and pain and loss and grief felt by those in Boston, and by their family and friends in other parts of the country or the world. I’m grieved and shocked by it, and want the perpetrators brought to justice, be they home-grown right wing nutcases or Al Qaida-sympathsizing goons. But as I sit here thinking of the loss and grief, I cannot help but think of my own complicity in the ongoing loss and grief of families in Iraq and Afghanistan, however worthy or unworthy the cause might have been. In some parts of the world, it’s Boston every day, and though I don’t like to admit it, as an American, I helped to make that happen.
So my thoughts are with the people of Boston. They deserve our good wishes and prayers. But they are also with grieving families in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in other battlefields in this past decade of wars. Let us try and build a decade where no one has to grow up with the sound of bomb blasts ringing in their ears.