“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
– Earnest Hemmingway
My father very recently passed away.
I’ve been staring at this last sentence for the past hour not knowing how to express in writing what it is that I want to tell you. And that’s just it. I’m not a writer, I’m a photographer.
When I lost my father I instinctively tried to retrace the details of his life and my life with him, but for some reason I couldn’t remember anything. I still can’t. It terrifies me to think that I’ll never get those memories back and my biggest regret is not having photographed those precious moments with him. Not having a visual testament of his life. Not having my wordless stories to remember him by.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, not a week after my father’s death, and purely by chance, I stumbled across@my_dad_for_a_whileon Instagram. This is where the inspiring story begins.
Ginebra Peña, author of @my_dad_for_a_while created the account with the aim of sharing her father’s battle with cancer. I remember sitting on the couch for over an hour looking at each photo, reading every caption and tearing-up many more times than I care to admit. Needless to say, her story touched me profoundly.
On Feb 1st 2017, Ginebra’s father, Roberto, died surrounded by his loved ones. And while it’s been over a year that he has been gone, his memory lives on in the hearts of his loved ones, though the photographs that Ginebra took that touched many strangers like myself and through the 74cm project for which I interviewed Ginebra and her mother last week.
Christelle Enquist: Before we get into the Project, tell us a little bit about Roberto.
Ginebra: My father was a very vital person, with a great sense of humor that boarded on, actually no, transcended black humor. Up until the day of his death he joked about himself and his situation, he made fun of cancer and of just about everything.
He was also one of the most tolerant people I have ever met in my life: you could tell him absolutely and he would never judge you. He always confronted life with pinch of salt…and he was always there for you.
Gemma: I would emphasise extremely tolerant, a good friend to his friends; they could always count on him, no matter the time of day and with an exceptional sense of humor …very real, he was a very real person.
CE: Roberto had a dream, what was it?
Ginebra: My father had many dreams but one of them was to do the trip that we are going to do.
He too was a photographer and he would spend hours on end on battling with Photoshop because he always had very bad computers that would freeze up constantly. He would work with a map in front of him, a present my mother gave him, and during one of these endless editing sessions, he had the idea of connecting the 3 cities that he had fallen in love with as a young man: Istanbul, Jerusalem and Cairo, on foot.
CE: Tell us about the moment in which you decided to be the ‘eyes and legs’ that would make his dream come true.
Ginebra: Well actually, I was volunteering in Cameroon and he came to see me. One night we were talking about our dreams and fantasising about the trips we wanted to do which is when he told me about his idea. I remember thinking: Wow, this is the best route ever! And I asked him “will I be able to come with you?” and he said “of course!” It was an idea that stuck with me and when he got sick I told him that if we were not going to be able to make the trip together, I would do it for him and I would distribute his ashes along the way, to which he replied “do whatever you want with my mortal remains my dear”.
One day, coming back from my grandfather’s house, I told my mother, who already knew about the idea, that I was serious about doing the trip and my intention was to do it soon, and as I told her this I noticed the expression on her face changing so I asked her, “Do you want come? “and almost unable to finish the question she answered” yes!
Gemma: And that was it! It was an easy decision and I would not make this trip with anyone but her.
Gemma: Well, it has more components. Roberto’s dream is at the core and it’s what has put this project in motion, but for us it is also a project with added meaning. It means spending time with my daughter and it also occurs in a special moment in our lives in which motherhood is over for me, so to speak, and Ginebra is at a point where motherhood is in her future. It’s like a handing over of the baton.
CE: Apart from fulfilling Roberto’s dream, your goal is to unite people through everyday stories. Tell us a little more about it.
Gemma: In my opinion there is something powerful in two women traveling in that area and getting there on foot. Contacting and talking to women and hearing about their stories to get an idea of what the situation really is like beyond what the news tells us, to me is very meaningful.
Ginebra: I work with NGO’s and am in constant contact with the political consequences that our rhythm of life has on other countries. I cannot digest the fact that we see the news and do nothing, but perhaps it’s because all the terrible news that reaches us is so dehumanised: It’s all about statistics and numbers of deaths, number of refugees etc. I think that two women, mother and daughter, travelling to places like the ones on our itinerary, getting close to the people and showing them that we care, that we want to know how they live and hear their stories, and finding those stories that we have in common…that can be a powerful tool for change.
When I decided to share my dad’s illness on social media, something that was premeditated, I began to receive hundreds of messages from Iran, US, UK, Sweden and from all over Spain…It made me realise that many people felt identified with my story despite being from very different cultures. There existed human passions, very basic things that could unite us as people. It also made me wonder If by going out to document stories of everyday life I could provoke a feeling of solidarity and mutual understanding.
CE: Christelle What have been the biggest challenges that you have had to face with regards this project?
Ginebra: Everything we have done up until now are things that are completely new to my mother and. The project in itself, the organisation, finding funding, divulging the message. At one point we had to sit down and say, okay, of all this hodgepodge of ideas, how do we create something that is more or less intelligible. It has all been very challenging.
Gemma: It’s also a surprisingly big task making sure you leave everything at home in order. There is a lot to organise when you’re about to embark on a 6-month journey
CE: And what are the challenges that you foresee during the trip? (we’re going to want to interview you when you get back to compare notes 😉
Gemma: The physical aspect is what worries me the least, although at some point in the 6 months we will get sick. But I’m not worried. I do worry about the difficulty of carrying such a big load. We have so much material.
Ginebra: What worries me the most are the most basic things, like being constipated or the opposite, from experience that often screws you up more than anything else. It is common, but it weakens you a lot. Also, being with my mother 6 months, 24 hours a day (laughing).
CE: Question for Ginebra, what is photography for you?
Ginebra: For me it is an instinct, a reflex, a need and a way of channeling things. In difficult times it helps me understand the situation and in Cameroon my father, it has helped me manage impotence that I often felt.
I am also a person that is very detached from material things, but when it comes to relationships and memories I have Diogenes syndrome (laughing). I am very aware of the passage of time and of the fact that moments disappear and having the ability to capture those moments and be able to save them brings me a lot of peace.
CE: And finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own photographic project?
Gemma: They have to believe in it. But believe in it for real. I think that if you really believe in what you want to do, things work out.
Ginebra: Above all, be clear about the reasons why you do it, not so much what you want to explain and what not, because that is more complex. But feel what you are doing and put all your heart and all passion into it without worrying too much about what you are going to do with it later. Just do it and enjoy the process.
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