Unlike the piece of advice forever handed down to would-be authors, I almost never write what I know. I’d much rather learn something new, considering how much research and discipline is required to finish a novel anyway. So I approach subjects that I haven’t the faintest idea about and read everything I can (non-fiction, fiction, archival newspapers, theses); and when I’ve done that I sit down with people who have an intimate knowledge of these fields and pick their brains, recording and transcribing my interviews. But sometimes even that isn’t enough. Sometimes I have to get my hands dirty.
In my new novel, Serafim and Claire, I delve into the vaudeville/musical-theatre scene of 1920s Montreal with one of my protagonists (Claire), and street photography with the other (Serafim). But with the photography aspect, I soon realized there was something beyond what could be found in books, archives, and conversations. Street photography—the precursor to modern-day photojournalism—is the act of taking photos of strangers in public spaces, bystanders who are unposed and unaware that they’re being recorded for the sake of someone else’s art. Regardless of the age you’re living in, there are serious questions concerning rights and privacy. At its most extreme, street photography could be seen as stealing other people’s intimate moments, which they happen to be sharing in a public space, and calling it “art.” There were so many unwieldy aspects about this, from all perspectives, that, in order to truly understand Serafim’s motivations and struggles, I had to grab a camera and head into the streets myself.
What I found there was immensely gratifying. And for about a year it was a new passion that even replaced my writing. I have never felt such a deep empathy, an almost overwhelming love, for what is contradictory and graceless and human. I discovered that watching people and waiting to catch them in an evocative moment was the most I had ever thought of other individuals’ stories, of their trials, their day-to-day routines and rituals. It was the greatest and most empathetic journey my research has ever taken me on.
But I also discovered that it really was stealing; or at least was perceived as stealing. So, accordingly, I had to learn the craft of a thief, the art of not looking guilty for doing what I was actually guilty of doing. I had to develop a bag of tricks to remain disregarded, to blend into the backdrop, and to disarm people in case I was ever discovered. Needless to say, these tricks didn’t always work. I once had a furious gentleman screaming in my face, gesturing that he was going to cut my throat. Another time I was disgustedly spat upon. And once, while trying to capture a young couple giving a bit of surreptitious money to a homeless man, I realized (a bit too late) that I was actually documenting a drug deal, which none of us were very happy about. In all these instances, I quickly showed the people the pictures I had of them and deleted them all right then and there, apologizing profusely. Only to walk sheepishly to the next corner, and lift my camera to my eye again.
This year of researching street photography became a body of work in and of itself, and was recently shown in an exhibit in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Like that exhibit, I’ve chosen some photos for this blog post that I think capture the “stolen, private moment” I’ve been talking about (more can be seen on the trailer for the novel, as well as at my site). My hope is that you see the subjects of the photos with the same humanity I felt for them while shooting. But more than that, I hope it will add a few layers to the way you see one of the protagonists in my third novel, Serafim & Claire.