Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who likes to think of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.
A happy new year to one and all at the Displaced Nation. My guest today is 38-year-old Irish expat, blogger, traveller and photographer Aisha Ashraf. She is currently based in Canada with her husband and three children. A freelance features writer, Aisha has published articles in newspapers, magazines and a range of expat and mental health websites. She says she has been a cultural chameleon since she first emigrated from Ireland to England at the age of eight. She is also a friend to the Displaced Nation and a recent recipient of one of its “Alice Awards” for a post on her Expatlog blog, provocatively entitled “My mother was a nun.”
Today I’ve asked Aisha to shares with us her experiences and view of the world via a selection of photos from her peripatetic life. I have followed Aisha on Expatlog for a short while and am so impressed by her pictures and the stories behind them.
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From the glamor of Europe (Paris, France)…
Hi, Aisha. It’s good to meet you here at the Displaced Nation. I understand you now live in Canada. But where were you born, and when did you spread your wings and start traveling?
I was born in the same Dublin hospital as Bono from U2 and spent my early childhood roaming the family farm on the broad plains and bogs of Co Kildare, Ireland. Following my father’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder (“manic depression” in those days), we emigrated to England so that my mother could be nearer her family, swapping the farm for suburban living. I was eight when we left and it was many years before the night-time tears of homesickness subsided.
I have seen U2 twice. A great experience and I wonder if Bono knows he was born in the same hospital as you!! I trust those difficult times are now a distant memory, and I know travel has featured quite a lot in your adult life.
Aside from travelling all over the British Isles (we moved house almost annually after leaving Ireland), I didn’t travel abroad again until I met my husband. Together we explored Europe—we drove all over Malta in a yellow convertible. We also loved Paris so much we kept returning. He proposed to me in the bar of the Metropole Hotel in Brussels—a gorgeous historical landmark in the centre of Belgium’s capital, the setting for numerous films and host to royalty, foreign dignitaries, presidents and film stars.
That gives us quite a lot in common. In 1995 I had a great holiday in Malta, and Paris is a favourite of mine, too. And now I would love to know how you and your husband finally ended up in Canada.
Just before our second child turned one, my husband took a post in Libya while I held the fort at home in the UK. He travelled around the country seeing the sights and even sleeping under the stars in the Sahara, but the long absences were tough on all of us. After six months we were certain we didn’t want to continue living apart and considered moving our family to Tripoli. Luckily for us a post in Canada was offered because in the following months expats were evacuated when the revolutionary spirit that had taken Tunisia by storm spread to Libya, and the Gaddafi regime crumbled. We began the Canadian chapter of our life in 2010 and have been here since.
…to the rugged beauty of North America (Paris, Ontario)
Paris, Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf
Canada is a big country. Where exactly do you live, and what is life like in those parts?
We live in Ontario, just outside Toronto. Initially my husband was slotted for a Toronto office but when Canadian HR learned he had a family they felt we’d be happier in Whitby, a once-bustling port on the banks of Lake Ontario, now a haven for families. It’s a great base from which to explore natural wonders like Niagara Falls and Algonquin Provincial Park, along with historic settlements like Kingston, Stratford, Bracebridge and Paris—Ontario!—which you can see in this first photo. I took it from the bridge spanning the Grand River.
A moment in the Distillery District, Toronto. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf
The local ribfest. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf
Thank you for sharing some of the photos that capture a few of your favourite memories of Canada thus far. I’ve never been there, but I can see it is an amazing place. Can you tell us a bit more about these next two photos, which I believe are of your children?
This first one, of my son standing awestruck before a monstrous sculpture with an exploded head, brings to mind a bitterly cold winter’s day spent exploring Toronto’s Distillery District, where the kids got to meet Santa and the Victorian architecture and cobbled streets made us nostalgic for home. Back then we still felt like tourists. The second one is of my youngest child taking a deep draught from a tin mug at the local ribfest. I’m recalling a day of competitive rib-eating and blazing sunshine that melted into a night of flashing lights and fairground rides. Children are always such rewarding subjects—their innocence and unselfconsciousness makes them great fun to photograph—and the photos I take of my own children of course have special meaning.
Soaring turkey vulture. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf
And this next must be a New World bird of prey?
Yes, it’s called a turkey vulture. I got lucky after several attempts of zooming in and losing it to the vastness of a magnified sky. The photo always reminds me of an afternoon spent at the slipway, watching people get their boats in and out of the lake whilst navigating some particularly plentiful algae—it was more entertaining than TV.
The irresistible pull of the Great Outdoors
I think that is so interesting because, recently, I have been looking back over photos I took 35 years ago in many different countries and there isn’t a single one that doesn’t bring on a flood of memories. Photos are like that for me, a trigger, and they always have a story attached. Your two shots of the children are quite compelling—I love the girl picking her nose in the fairground photo—and the vulture is a great shot. Do you have any favorite places in Canada to take photographs?
Without a doubt, it has to be Lake Ontario—it’s where we head to chill, explore, reconnect and refocus. I actually get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t go regularly. The ever-changing light and character mean I snap lots of pictures that, once home, I usually find I have failed to capture whatever elusive quality it was I was trying for. We go for walks on trails and in conservation areas so I have countless photos of woods and water. Here are just a few that I really like:
Cliff walk near Lake Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf
Pumpkin field near Zephyr, Uxbridge, Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf
Lake Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf
The one of your daughter in the field full of pumpkins is so vital, and the naturalness of the colours brings your lovely composition to life. By complete contrast, your daughter on the rocks is positively Neolithic and, although it’s Canada, so Cornish! Nourishing stuff. And I understand that the black-and-white photo of the sea lapping the shore of the lake is a real favourite of yours. Can you explain why these places inspire you?
I love nature—perhaps it was growing up on a farm and spending most of my time outdoors. I have a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and getting outside is a big factor in alleviating its debilitating hold. I see incredible, uncomplicated beauty in the natural world that I find soothing and strengthening. I try to capture it with my camera in a way that may allow others to be moved/nourished by it, too.
Thank you for your honesty about your condition, Aisha. I feel exactly the same about photographing the natural world: it allows us to capture not just the picture but the way we feel at that particular moment. Unfortunately, unlike you I am only at a level where I am trying to move and nourish myself. If others are moved also, that’s a bonus. Now I know you enjoy photographing your kids, but do you ever go to the other extreme: ie, taking photos of people you don’t know in the places where you visit, and do you find that awkward?
Absolutely! I know my shyness has cost me many a great photo-op. I’m not sure if it’s my BPD or my peripatetic life, but I always feel like an observer, standing in the periphery looking in. This translates into a preference for my subjects to be oblivious to me and my camera. I like to capture the raw moment.
Yes, I know that feeling. You want to melt into the undergrowth and take the most natural shot possible. Do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs and how do you get around any language barriers?
I have, on occasion, screwed up my courage and asked someone if they’d mind if I took their picture—come to think of it, no one’s ever said no. I think if language were a barrier, it might make things easier. Tourists get away with a lot!
I understand. Taking people photos can be a bit personal. It’s so much easier shooting a mountain as it’s too far away to argue! Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
Capturing memories and the perfect picture are my twin obsessions. I’m in love with light and the effect it has on everything: the study, the photographer, the viewer. Is there anything else so intangible, potent and unspoken, and whose experience is unique to each individual?
When did you come to realise the importance of light?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been transported by the tone of light or the way it falls—it triggers memories for me like nothing else can. Not so much of occasions, but of feeling and being. For a few brief seconds I’m caught in a flashback. Time slows so that even the dialogue in my head is distorted, becoming deep and stretched like treacle, a voice on a tape recorder played too slow.
Such powerful analogies. Now for the technical stuff which I am not very good at. What kind of camera and lenses do you use?
I have a Fuji FinePix f750EXR—it’s just a regular compact camera, no fancy lenses or anything. If I couldn’t fit it in my pocket, I wouldn’t be able to take it everywhere with me. Photography is as much about identifying a good picture as it is about capturing it, and many great photographers have started with a basic machine. A good eye is evident whatever tool you have at your disposal.
I can’t tell you how much better that makes me feel! Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers (like me) who are traveling or living abroad?
Never leave home without your camera. Mine even comes grocery shopping with me—you just never know where that next great shot will be. Sometimes you find the sublime in the ordinary, and for me that’s the sign of a great photographer—that ability to show the beauty in the everyday.
Thank you so much, Aisha, for joining me in this interview. It really has been a pleasure talking to you.
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Readers, what do you make of Aisha’s experiences and her photography advice? And do you have any questions for her on her photos and/or travels? Please leave them in the comments!
And if you want to know more about Aisha, don’t forget to visit her excellent blog, Expatlog. You are also welcome to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org +/or follow her on social media:
Facebook: Expatlog FB Page
Linkedin: Linkedin profile
Google+: Linkedin Profile
(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to email@example.com.)
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when our fictional expat heroine, Libby, returns to the Displaced Nation to update us on her many adventures. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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