It is common in contemporary society to address the topics of international mobility, migration, travelling, displacement, or just the overall movement of people around the world. On the one hand, it can be done through activities such as "holidaying" or visiting a place for leisure. On the other hand, it can also be a last course of action as a consequence of displacement, looking for better living conditions, job opportunities, or a chance to pursue a dream. Additionally, attached to it, travelling can come with visiting those who are away, who had to leave or chose to leave (for one reason or another). Regardless of the intentions or causes of someone's movement around the world, two main things are inherent to international travelling: distance and memories.
Distance involves two measures of comparison. Firstly, it involves at least one person. To be distant is to be away from something, which can be a house, another person, a family, a pet, or, in the broad sense, a home. Memories are a product of the mind. As the name indicates, they come from "memory". They exist within our brains to represent the past, and keep it real, remembered, alive. Distance and memories are two interconnected concepts which reflect and follow each other. When you leave, you bring memories with you, while the people you leave carry your memory with them. Now, memories can exist in different shapes and forms. They can be a single thought, they can be a letter, they can also be a photograph. In a digitalised world, with so much access to technology and phones, perhaps we carry more memories than we even realise. How many of us have so often opened the gallery in our phones to remember a specific happy time in our lives? Or, on the other hand, to look back at how sad a particular moment has been? Regardless of how we approach them, photographs allow us to remember the people, the pet or the places that are far. And sometimes, they also allow us to portray the difference: what has changed in being at a distance.
Matilde Viegas (@matildeviegas) is a Portugal-based photographer. She is passionate about portraits, travelling stories, and aims to reflect on "intimate manifestations of home and belonging" through her photographic work. Matilde holds a PhD in Theoretical Chemistry, and prior to her career in photography, she worked as a scientist. Now, she runs a colour darkroom and studio in Portugal and is a full-time photographer, having worked with brands and clients such as The New York Times, The Guardian, Konfekt Magazine and Delta. In her project, Sept Jours, à Chaque Fois, Matilde aimed to document the topics of distance, memory and family bonding from afar. This project appeared in 2011 when Matilde's mother emigrated to Switzerland after the 2008 Economic Crisis.
The financial crisis of 2007-08, the collapse of the housing market and the crash of Wall Street caused the Great Recession between 2008 and 2012 [1a]. Later, with the disintegration of Iceland's banking system and the beginning of the European debt crisis, several countries went through high government debt and the collapse of financial institutions. As a result of this, there was a significant inflow in immigration in the following years from the countries most affected by the Great Recession and the debt crisis [1b]. However, just before the recession, the numbers of migrants were already at record levels, with analysts predicting the numbers to continue to increase in the coming years . As a matter of fact, numbers did increase, with the total number of international immigrants in countries such as the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom or France growing significantly between 2005 and 2020 .
While there has not been such a significant recession since the Economic Crisis of 2008, the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 brought economic struggle and unequally impacted populations worldwide in terms of health and living conditions. Additionally, the cost of living crisis - which is already being felt, especially in the United Kingdom, and will continue spreading throughout the winter in several places in Europe- is currently creating a situation of fear amongst people, where it is expected that a considerable part of the population will struggle and possibly be forced to move due to the fast rising of the cost of everyday essentials, electric and gas bills, in comparison to the fixed average household incomes .
Regardless of the reasons that make an individual leave their home country and migrate to a different one (or several), this creates an impact both on the life of those who leave and on the people or places they miss. There is often the uncertainty of the unknown and the longing for the memories they leave behind. With her project, Matilde aims to reflect on the "impact of distance in a once so physically close relationship" she had with her mother. Growing up in a solo-parent family and with her mother leaving at the age of 54, both had to get used to the changes in their lives.
"Whenever I visited my mother, I never felt at home; my mum had to adapt, learn a new language and do a job she had never done, but I was an outsider; I did not know the language, I could not communicate. At the same time, I longed not for the feeling of home, but for the moment I could see her again."
How do photographs play the role of filling in the space between two lives at a distance?
Photographs, now more than ever, allow people to stay visually close to each other. With a scroll on the phone or a search in social media, we can perhaps find the image of the ones we miss. When two people are far from each other, every letter, message, phone call, or photograph counts in remembering past memories, creating new moments and acknowledging bittersweet feelings associated with distance. It is interesting to explore the dynamics of remembering and interpreting memories. A memory of someone can be visually represented by a photograph of a tree in the woods you visited with someone; in the cactus a partner commented was big and spiky; on a flower that happens to be your parent's favourite; even in the condensation lines that two planes left in the sky and that do not touch but are close to each other. Of course, it can also work the other way around, and we can see physical exhaustion caused by a hard job, the loneliness in a Christmas dinner away from home, a single empty glass still at the table, the desire to create a "home" away from our actual homes. We give our own meanings to what we see. And we portray what makes us feel. As Matilde summarises it:
"For me, photography involves an emotional connection. The most important thing in portraying (and creating) memories ends up being the development of empathy and compassion for the person and topic we are commemorating in a photograph."
After all, photography helps us deal with the pain of being far from our people. It allows us to reflect on the topics of distance: to keep a record of the past, appreciate the present, and wonder about what the future holds. Visual memories can be emotional. They can hold the meaning of distance and the power of memory, because both have several meanings, which we then interpret on our own. Everything that makes us remember the people and places we miss is an enabler of feeling. Perhaps instead of rejecting them, we should embrace the bittersweet feelings of longing and missing people as they can hold us closer and anticipate the moment we all see each other again. Which hopefully, we will.