The Presence of Photography

I miss my son. College is a brutal separation and makes me more sentimental than I have ever been. Scrolling through photos taken during our summer vacation, feeling a bit weepy over the ones with him and me, I am full of gratitude. Beyond the memories of the adventure, I marvel at the textures, the colors, the landscape, the history. Ours was an epic trip.

As a photographer, I am aware of composition, exposure, and depth of field. I frame pictures well, always imaging where they belong: Instagram, scrapbook, or enlarged above the fireplace? Very few feel like snapshots. None are out of focus. Over the years, I have tried to capture more candid shots. I have intentionally documented details and moments and people for the sake of memory, not to showcase. To take a photo for my eyes only, for my heart only, has been a practice in presence.

To embrace presence over perfection has taken conscious effort on my part.

And I am always delighted when I practice this and later discover a surprise gem. Such is the image I come across while scrolling through vacation shots, wiping my teary eyes.

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The intended object in focus was an ancient sarcophagus – a massive rock tomb used in Greek civilization. Over the years, as the Mediterranean coast has changed, these tombs have succumbed to erosion, seawater, and destruction. Now, they dot the landscape, often appearing out of nowhere in the middle of a village or port. This one sits atop a steep hilly cobblestone street, lined with boutiques and coffeeshops that descend to the water.

I had paused to try to photograph it with the shops in view, but several men were sitting around it. My family kept walking while I circled the tomb, trying to figure out how to crop them out of the frame. Giving up, I snapped the shot and jogged to catch up to my kids. Besides, the men gave it flavor, personality. They were a part of the scene and I had been trying to capture more of the locals in a discreet, respectful way. This would work.

At the time, I did not really pay attention to what they were doing. They were just Turkish men, lounging around the tomb drinking tea; a scene so familiar I barely noticed. Only now, as I scroll through memory lane, do I see them. Two are at the base of the tomb, in its shade, playing chess. They are in shorts and flip flops, probably in their twenties. The third sits on the trunk of a nearby tree on an old Turkish kilim cushion, also in shorts and running shoes, leaning in to watch the game. He is perhaps their uncle? A Turkish coffee cup sits between them.

It is a scene of contrasts. An ancient, 2000-year old Greek tomb with an equally ancient game board and woven carpeted cushion being enjoyed by modern Turks. Turks who have taken a moment in mid-day to drink coffee and play chess is not unusual. It is the young, modern Turk doing the same that is entirely unique. It is a scene rich in culture, both foreign and familiar to me. And entirely endearing.

I smile as I realize what I have captured.

By letting go of the perfectly composed monument, I captured the sort of historical moment old stones never tell. Who knows if modern Greek men sat beneath the shade in this necropolis playing games while their uncle looked
on, but the heirs of this land have found solace here. In one frame, I see a 21st century coastal Turkish town surrounding the ancient remnants of a previous civilization. I see the texture and color of Turkish rugs and ceramics alongside the national game of choice, which is universal, no? Though steeped in cultural clues, I see other evidence of a global flattening: shorts, flip flops, and running shoes were not common when this land was my home 10 years prior.

Above all, I see delight and play in these dear, dear people. The ones our friends and family once cautioned us about. The ones people still say they can’t visit right now because of all the things, all the fear. And now I see, it is true: You only love what you know and you only know what you’ve experienced and you only experience that which you are present to.

In an accidental moment of presence, I captured love.


Beth Bruno is passionate about issues of injustice and a global sisterhood. Often, this looks like curating the stories and work of incredible women and calling her two teen daughters at least once a day to “come watch this.” Married for 23 years, she and her husband share a love for dark chocolate, dark coffee, and bold wine, among other passions. Their son is headed to college so Beth is not thinking about it by nursing an obsession with Turkish hot air balloons and European villages on her Instagram feed.