In 2011, after a stressful two-day job interview in Newport News, Virginia, I finally had some time to breathe while waiting at the airport to board a plane back to Toronto. Many thoughts crossed my mind that day, but only two still remain in my memory: “This is not where I wish to grow old” and “At least there’s that independent cinema in Norfolk.” When I eventually moved here, I chose to live in Norfolk, a short commute to Newport News, knowing that my relocation would be temporary. Unknown to me at the time, Norfolk is what Montreal was to me thirteen years ago: a stepping-stone towards Toronto – Montreal led me to it and Norfolk led me back to it.
When I moved here, I was taken aback by the impact that the area’s landscape had on my eyes. In Toronto, all of my senses were stimulated equally; in Norfolk, sight superimposed itself over the other senses. My eyes were seeing different things from what they were accustomed to: battleships; a naval base; men and women in military uniforms; river channels, waterways and bridge-tunnels; ports, vessels and cargo; marine and container terminals; shipyards; industrial zones; rail tracks; and mermaid sculptures (!). Adjoining land and water affirmed their interdependence in multiple and frequent ways.
Each site revealed its role within a global economic process of international trade as well as Norfolk’s military past and strategic position in times of war and disaster. Little by little, each site reinforced Norfolk’s place as a temporary abode for its frequent visitors. Bridge-tunnels and waterways facilitate vessel passage towards ports like the doors of an open house; container cranes jutting out into Norfolk’s sky lift cargo off vessels, lightening their load like helping hands that greet us at the door and take off our heavy coats, once inside; and rail tracks carry container trains to and from inspection points, tracing the familiar and well-tread corridors of their home. Atop the Elizabeth River, the USS Wisconsin Battleship sits solemnly, like a patriarch bidding farewell to the sons and daughters departing across international waters for somebody else’s home; and the Naval base constantly reminds us of Norfolk as a guest house and transportation point for those who come and go.
Pervading the landscape, these sites told a story about a place’s history, economic status, services, daily execution, and social community. These sites determined what I was now seeing, and my eyes couldn’t help but respond to the new visual experience. On days when I missed urban density, I felt disheartened by what I saw; on days when I was fueled by curiosity, I was fascinated by it. I wanted this visual and physical presence to take me – figuratively – somewhere I had never been and to change me somehow.
Norfolk moved me to pick up a camera. The act of seeing new things reinforced my belief that the countless parts of our material world tell and want to tell us something. I felt compelled to capture the stories told by the places I saw, and to do so through sight – the sense that first drew me to them. Through a single frame or arrangement of multiple frames, I delighted in freezing and telling their stories in poignant ways. Over time, the camera eye became I. Through the lens of the camera, I began to seek ways to express my vision alongside my physical surroundings. I wanted to infuse my photographs with the emotions arising from my interactions with these spaces, and to push my presence on them, just as they have on me. Vision found me in Norfolk, and I chased it. When I am without my camera, I have noticed that I now take mental photographs. When it is on me, it is my third eye, a more engaged and daring one than my other two.
Vision and views. Norfolk has enabled me to see more clearly at all levels, clarifying also my understanding of who I am and where I see myself. When I lived in Toronto, my love for the city was blind, like two young lovers who see no faults in each other. When I left Toronto, my love for it deepened and matured thanks to Norfolk, a place that forced me to see different things from a different perspective; I began to view Toronto from a healthy distance. Toronto was still the city where I wished to return, but from Norfolk, I could see its shortcomings. My view of and from Norfolk convinced me that Toronto is where my heart is and has been since I left it, and that I wish to contribute to its growth and betterment. More specially, Norfolk is the place that graciously welcomed me into its home as yet another fleeting guest, allowing me to stay until I knew and was ready to leave.
(See photo gallery for a more complete album accompanying this post and for a visual narrative of this place.)
Text and photos by Filomena Calabrese. Text edits by Agnieszka Polakowska.