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Photos not Stolen

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by , 07-30-2009 at 09:51 PM (2049 Views)
Recently I found some old negatives stuffed in a box stuffed in another box stuffed in an old suitcase. For some, these may not seem old at all- but they were my first attempts to record, in a meaningful way, what I had seen- so that my family could see it too.

In 1992, at the age of 19, I went to Germany on a stipendium. Arriving in Heidelberg, I discovered that the housing situation that had been promised me had also been promised to a few hundred other students. There was no place to stay. Notunterkunft (temporary / emergency housing) was all that was available, and it meant sleeping outside near the hostel, on the benches in the parks, or in the pews at the churches.

I was told the situation would not improve for weeks due to various bureaucratic procedures. Each foreign student would need to get various forms of Bestaetigung and Genehmigung and Erlaubnis, and only then after navigating that bureaucracy could we have a room assigned. Some of the students simply gave up and went home. This being my first time away from home, and with my family an ocean away, I decided to hit the road for two weeks on my own.

I stuffed three days' worth of clothes into a small duffel, grabbed my coat, and headed for the railway. There, on the spot, I decided to go as far north as the rails and my eurailpass could take me: to northern Norway.

Photographically, I was armed with a few panoramic throwaway cameras. At that point I had not used a "real" camera- my father had a TLR but there was no film for it where we lived, so I had played with it but not actually shot film. This was to be my first adventure on my own... and my first attempt to record my own photos as I went.

My first real stop (at that age, I was afraid to get off the trains and stay in a hostel) was in Stockholm. Ah, Stockholm in the fall! It was early October, as I recall. The leaves were turning, the weather was changing. The colours were spectacular. I found my way from the station to some park and took this photo:

Unfortunately, Stockholm's hostels were full and the hotels were an expense that I could not afford, so I found my way back to the trains and resumed my journey north. I soon crossed over the border from Sweden and found myself in Narvik, near the top of Norway. There in the train, a kind lady tolerated my attempt at norwenglish and gave me chocolates; thus my impression was formed that all Norwegians are very kind. After I found the hostel, it gave me tremendous pleasure to phone my parents and tell them that I was above the arctic circle- they thought I was still down in Germany. (I was 19, you see) I still remember them fumbling with a world atlas, trying to locate where I was, while nervously checking that I had warm boots, gloves, a scarf, a hat, money... and were there polar bears up there?

Now, up to that point, I had the firm goal to persuade a ship captain to take me aboard to Svalbard. I assumed that this would be possible and that they wouldn't mind a stowaway if I volunteered to work. (I was 19, you see) Well, I did earn a meeting with a serious seaman and he took great humour in my plans. No one, he said, is crazy enough to go up there now, and even if I did go I would be dead in a few hours on that water. Thus my teenage adventure novel was cut a few chapters short!

So, I decided to rent a car and go explore on my own- I'd never seen anything like that landscape before, except perhaps in a National Geographic. There was one little problem: the only cars for rent were manual shift, and I'd only driven automatics up to that point. The man at the rental office told me that if I could drive the 'bil' around the block then I could rent it. He gave me a quick lesson and I drove it around the block- in first and second gear... and gave me the keys with a very concerned expression. He probably thought it'd be the last he'd see of me. I do recall him warning me not to drive to Sweden.

Heading off into the unknown in the early morning -in a vehicle I could barely drive- I ventured for a full day and drove in almost every direction. I can tell you that it was a trial by fire, driving a manual transmission for the first time up and down those mountains. But I did establish a friendship with the clutch and was able to see some amazing sights. I recall a small town called Liland which was especially charming farm scenery and dramatic light. Somewhere I must have a few negatives from there as well, but I haven't found them yet.

In the late afternoon of my driving adventure, I saw some ominous clouds approaching and felt the temperature fall. Fearing that I wouldn't be able to drive the car through snow, I tried to find my way back, but that took a while. I had no map. (I was 19, you see)

On my way back to Narvik, I spotted the amazing scene of sun barely breaking through between low clouds and high mountains, with a reflection along a fjord below. The light set the water aglow like silver. In a hurry because the temperature was near freezing, I leaned out the window of the moving car and took this photo:

Now, actually, this photo is what motivated me to take up photography more seriously- I am so happy to have found the negative after all these years. The camera had recorded an effect that I hadn't anticipated (the blurred trees in the foreground versus the static looking background) and I became rather fascinated by the possibilities. It'd be another decade before I had the time to learn and the funds to get some more capable equipment, but this one photo was always in my head, and I wanted to improve my equipment and my technique.

Back in Narvik I met a German compatriot who spoke not a wink of anything but dialectal southern German, and with whom none of the locals would even attempt to communicate. Before the storm hit, I and my friend, Jochen climbed a hill beside Narvik, and he took this photo of me on my pano throwaway:

This photograph elated my family because I always hated having my picture taken. Truth be told, I do like the photo. I only wish it had been taken in Svalbard... with a polar bear in the background...

The next day, Jochen and I could barely make it to the station: there was at least a meter of snow on the ground. My eurailpass was almost finished, and I had only a few days before classes would begin down in Heidelberg, so I made a bee-line back down.

On the way back, I slept soundly on the trains, and much of my stuff was stolen out from under me. I had a hard time explaining my lack of tickets to a conductor but then he saw that almost everything was gone and took pity. If I'd had a real camera, that would have been stolen too! Fortunately for me, the only things of value I had were a few pano throways... and nobody would steal those!

Updated 07-31-2009 at 12:14 AM by keithwms



  1. Peter de Groot's Avatar
    What a cool story! I really enjoyed. Stirred up my travelers blood hehe. And nice pics as well.
  2. keithwms's Avatar
    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it I certainly enjoyed remembering the experience!
  3. jnanian's Avatar
    what a great story!
    thanks for posting this, and the images
    from your journey.

    - john
  4. keithwms's Avatar
    Thanks John!

    Now, one of these days I am going to attempt to write more succinctly, in your haiku-esque style ;
  5. FiatluX's Avatar
    Fantastic story, I laughed all the way thru it! (I´m not 19 anymore either, you see )
  6. keithwms's Avatar
    haha, thanks



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