Adventures in Advenience: The Return of a Photographic Moment

cheb_water405Nine years ago this month I dropped anchor in Tunisia for a six-month contract teaching English at a school in the seaside city of Sousse, packing along with me little besides my old Canon single lens reflex, an 18mm wide-angle lens and a few dozen rolls of Ilford FP4.

I worked six days a week, so when that seventh day came round I was on a bus or a train somewhere into countryside as far as I could get. But it wasn’t till shortly before my departure that I was able to devote an entire week to a voyage into the Sahara, at least to its border towns and not-too-distant oases.

It was a hermetic experience: late May in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, the Chott el-Djerid salt flats, and beyond them the Sahara — with their mirages, siestas, scorpions and utter lack of tourists — is conducive to isolation and meditation, and I found myself subsisting on a diet of bread, water, the kindness of strangers and contemplations of photography.

Two years later, after a fleeting photo exhibition, I was commissioned by my alumni magazine to write a reflection of my own alongside some of those photographs of Tunisia. At that time I happened to be reading a gifted copy of  Camera Lucida, a reflection on photography by the French philosopher Roland Barthes.

For the magazine I penned a brief, recollected imagining of my experience behind the lens in the Tunisian desert, and in it I recalled my introduction to Barthes’ concept of advenience, a term he employed to summarize his personal experience — physical and emotional — of encountering certain moving photographs.

In my reflection on reading Barthes and photographing Tunisia as a foreigner in a studious, contemplative mood, I was inspired in a moment to define advenience as “the adventuresome adding of a new perspective to the whole” and thereby tie the experience of the photographer to that of the hypothetical viewer in a loose continuum of photographic intimacy.

The magazine published the piece, I dutifully added it to my CV, and that seemed to wrap up tidily the Tunisia chapter of my life (aside from my lasting support for the country’s and Sousse’s soccer teams).

That is, until about a month ago, when I received a phone call in the middle of a busy Friday afternoon from a certain Sarah in Kansas City. She was excited. There was something about a college, an exhibit and some students, but before I knew exactly what was hurtling through the receiver, I heard her reciting back to me my long tucked-away definition of advenience.

As it happened, the photography students at the Kansas City Art Institute were about to debut that very evening an exhibition called advenience (or, an adventursome adding of a new perspective to the whole).

Photograph courtesy Sarah Taylor, Kansas City Art Institute

The phone call was equal parts courtesy, flattery and (possibly) last-minute due diligence for my acknowledgement.

Its effect, however, was to re-awaken me to the ecology of inspiration: if a handful of photography students can unite a particular collective photographic experience behind a google search result of an obscure academicky term that years ago I employed to interpret the momentary euphoria of clicking the shutter in a certain place and time, then perhaps we can interpret inspiration as a kind of aperture that opens up between an individual and his or her world; the sudden entrance of light onto dark, a new perspective on the whole.

The adventure continues.