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Matt Willen Matt Willen | Saturday 9. Mayá2009

The First Step

Every journey begins with a single, ambiguous step: a step that is both towards something and away from something else. I suppose (actually I know) that with most writing about travels, expeditions, journeys, that ambiguity is generally resolved ahead of time. The writing is done in retrospect, reflectively, the significance of what happened attained, the messy elements of experience ordered, the subject focused. That's not the case here, which I suppose is the essence of blogging, something I have never done before, and which has the distinctive feel of placing myself naked out in front of an audience begging a look. So excuse the mess; I assume it will come together as we proceed.

My first step emerged as stage, a sort of transition I suppose, a trip to NYC to visit my good friend Sarah, who lives on the fifth floor of an apartment building on the lower east side. I mention the fifth floor because there is no elevator, which necessitated my hauling my gear up as many flights of stairs. Doing so made me realize the expeditionary nature of this whole venture. I have more stuff with me than I had cared to bring-three cameras, an assortment of lenses, a laptop, an ipod, a dictionary, a journal, a bunch of clothes, winter weather gear (I have no idea what to expect), boots, gaiters, electrical convertors, and a mandolin complete with tuner, picks and extra strings, all stuffed into two bags. I prefer light and this, I would say, is the first travel where I have a bag as large and unwieldy as those that "the other guy" in the airport always seems to have.


We walked around the lower east side last night, a Thursday night, busy, people interacting with people next to other people interacting with people next to others and so on, punctuated by those who interacted with no-one: black people, white people, Asian, European, middle eastern, Mexican, African, Irish, Scottish (classify them anyway you like) wandering about the walks and shops of St. Marks Place, 2nd avenue, Astor Place, 8th street, 9th street, 6th street, and a park where the dogs are allowed to run. We had Thai for dinner, or it could have been Vietnamese, and there was man with his head shaved to a perfect hairy point, with his skin painted white, and black clothes (was it a skirt?) and large glasses that looked like the ones that come with a fake nose and mustache, though without the fake nose and mustache. There were women, lots of women, alone and in groups, blondes, red heads, purple hair, black, with long legs, with short waists, large breasts, flat chests. There were 15 people dressed in black jeans with chains and tee-shirts standing outside of a church smoking cigarettes, drinking pints of Budweiser, making out, jostling, poking, laughing, beating chests. "Would you like to join the Human Rights Campaign?" "Can you spare a quarter?" "Take this flyer." "Take this flyer." And the streets smell of vending booths, and cafes, and the flower shop, the exhaust of cars, the street corner hats arranged by color and type, and the polka dot sunglasses which I thought would go over well in Isafjord. There was a man who walked hunched over, with a grey jacket and a week of stubble, gray stubble. All this out on the streets (and what of went on behind closed doors and open windows in apartment off the streets?), and on the streets beyond those, and in cities and towns beyond this one, countries beyond that, all adrift on this little sphere, which by chance has landed in a workable rotation around the sun, and a rotation which by chance (or what??) has made it possible for this life to emerge, this humanity which finds itself on the streets on NY, of New Delhi, of Reykjavik...


In academic circles, it is conventional at the outset to make an argument for the legitimacy of your subject, the topic you want to research; in effect answering the question, Why. "By looking at such and such, I hope to make a contribution to this branch of knowledge, that will help us solve this problem." I made those arguments in getting this project approved, getting time off to do it, getting a grant to help pay for it. I talk about some of the why on the "About this Project" page. But in the short run why the Westfjords, why not Brazil (the opportunity was there) or Alaska (it might have been easier) or any other place on the globe... I am not so certain of this at this point, not as certain as I was earlier. The Westfjords is a place, and the people there are people, which in and of itself makes them and the place no more or less worthy of attention than anyone else or any other place on the planet. Thomas Gray, in his "Elegy to a Country Churchyard," said "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air." I guess that the why of this project at this point is that I like the foliage of the Westfjords, and think that its beauty is worth documenting. It seems simple (simplistic?) but it works.


I wanted to take photos last night, because photos can help to organize. But I am loath to organize without a better of sense of what it is that I am dicing up, placing here and there, this with that. And some things are best taken as they are. I wanted to photograph Sarah, but she told me "no photos" before I told her of my desire. So I shot a drummer and a sax player, and a couple of dogs at the park. And then we slept.

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